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How pandemic gave a boost to the Indian board game industry

Covid-19 and government’s interest in creating India-centric games and toys has boosted the awareness and interest in the space

Phalgun Polepalli and Shwetha Badarinath of DICE Toy Labs playing Chariots of Chandragupta, one the board games they created. (Phalgun Polepalli)

Till a year ago, Nikita Mathur didn’t consider herself a game designer. The diving enthusiast had a vague idea for a card game but it was the lockdown period that pushed her to actually work on it. Launched in July last year, Dive Master, inspired by scuba diving, can be played by two-five people. They have to dive 30m and then surface, tackling challenges that expose them to the nuances of diving, like air pressure or oxygen level.

Even people who don’t dive will like the game, says Mathur, founder, NMZ Games. It has sold 250 units so far and is into its second production run. Available on Amazon and her website, and at a few retail stores, the board game has found more takers in the southern states, though one order came in from a small town in Uttar Pradesh.

Mathur is part of an emerging set of Indian designers who are creating offline board games, set in an Indian context and specifically targeted at Indian players. While this is still at a nascent stage, the lockdowns and restrictions, and the Union government’s push for “Made in India” toys and games, have made people more willing to try new games.

Quality and funding, and the lingering perception that Indian games are not up to scratch, remain major challenges—the cost of developing a game can range from 2-33 lakh, and developers generally have to dip into their own savings to meet artwork, manufacturing, sales, marketing and customer acquisition costs. Nevertheless, game developers are excited by the possibilities.

“We have noticed a lot of growth in Indian-centric board games for the last two years as many board-game cafes have come up in various cities, and communities of players are getting formed. In the last year (2020), we saw about 30% increase in sales of board games, which is quite a lot,” says Moiz Bookwala, co-founder of Bored Game Company, a Pune-based platform that promotes and sells board games. Yet Indian-made games still comprise just 3% of the platform’s total board-game catalogue.

In January, a Union government inter-ministerial team launched Toycathon to promote local ideas and themes—the Indian toy market, valued at about $1.5 billion (around 10,950 crore), relies heavily on imported toys. The competition invited designers to submit ideas based on 68 challenges in the areas of Indian civilisation, heritage, culture, mythology, history, ethos, technology, ethnicity, national heroes, important events, even Vedic maths. The end-user categories are defined as schoolchildren, youth in college and higher education, and adults. About 120,000 people submitted 17,747 ideas, vying for prizes worth 50 lakh.

“Once we shortlist the ideas, the finals will be physically held in 50 centres across India, where, in a three-day workshop, they will have to create the prototype of their game or toy. The best of them will be then pitched to private investors and manufacturers. We are also training a large number of professors and assistant professors from technical and management colleges, which/who will evaluate these ideas,” explains Abhay Jere, chief innovation officer, ministry of Education (earlier Ministry of Human Resource Development).

History on the board

Most of the themes explored by Indian game developers are based on Indian history. Take, for instance, Indus 2500 BCE, based on the Indus valley civilisation, which was also launched during the pandemic. The game, created by Bengaluru-based DICE Toy Labs, is age neutral, and can be played either solo or with multiple people. It’s a strategy game that aims to build a civilisation from scratch. In fact, the game was the only one from India to be launched at the 2020 virtual Essen Spiel, the world’s largest board-game convention, held in Germany, and the “mecca of board games”, as DICE Toy Labs co-founder Phalgun Polepalli describes it. The game, into its third production run, has sold 800 units so far.

Bengaluru-based designers Sindhu and Kiran Kulkarni of Tacit Games are coming out with their first board game based on Unesco World Heritage Hampi.
Bengaluru-based designers Sindhu and Kiran Kulkarni of Tacit Games are coming out with their first board game based on Unesco World Heritage Hampi. (Kiran Kulkarni)

Another game that has become popular in a short period is Bharata 600 BC, which was launched in November. A strategy game like Indus 2500 BCE, it has 16 kingdoms, with each player acting as a ruler. The aim is to juggle resources and expand kingdoms. In December, the board game, priced at 5,200 but being sold at a discount price of 3,860, was sold out. In fact, Cristina Maiorescu, an Indian citizen of Romanian origin who conceptualised and produced the game, no loner has even the prototype—it too got a buyer. “I am facing a unique problem of over-demand. I am unable to fulfil orders as making one box is time-consuming. I can only get out about 500 units a month. I never thought we would run out of stock within two months of the launch. It’s a good problem to have,” says Maiorescu, adding that she is getting orders from Europe and the US too. Each box, weighing 2.5kg, contains over 550 components, including 64 handmade wooden components made by Channapatna artisans.

A serial entrepreneur, the Bengaluru-based Maiorescu had taken a break after her last venture in the food tech space was acquired in 2018. She got into the habit of playing board games when a friend gifted her Sequence, a multiplayer card-cum-board game. She wanted an Indian-themed board game but couldn’t find one even for older children, let alone adults. Maiorescu’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. “People told me it was a suicidal business idea and that it wouldn’t work. But for me, it has been a passion project, and completely made in India, for India,” she says. Maiorescu narrowed in on a historical theme for the game based on a consumer research survey of 10,000 people across the country.

Kolkata-based Aman Gopal Sureka who founded Khol Khel, which makes dual- medium—tactile and virtual—board games, believes the new education policy will give a boost to Indian games, with an opportunity to create “play labs”. Khol Khel, a “hobby” project of Sureka, has created games like Bodhiyog, somewhat like Snakes And Ladders in concept; Qboid, a three-layer cube that allows you to play 30 different games; and is about to launch Riwayat-e-Dilli, conceptualised by Aditi Chaudhary. There is quite a buzz about this dice and card game, which nudges players to introspect based on the philosophy of various monuments and places in Delhi.

Game developers say they have observed that consumers generally fall in the 18-40 age group. And now that house parties have become more popular, they expect the interest in board games to increase. Polepalli’s company, which has developed 10 board games based on historical, current interest and post-apocalyptic themes, saw a 600% spike in sales in the second half of 2020, compared to the first half.

The Challenges

It’s one thing to think up an idea, quite another to execute it. Indian game developers are becoming sophisticated, and there is no dearth of Indian-centric themes. “However, it’s painful to get a board game made here. The infrastructure to make board games is not there. Nine out of 10 times, manufacturers don’t know what a board game is, the quality is cheap and a lot of them are aimed at small children. In China, the full system is in place, you can produce large-scale products with good quality in a month’s time,” says Bengaluru-based Kiran Kulkarni, co founder of Tacit Games.

Each box of Bharata 600BC, created by Cristina Maiorescu, weighing 2.5kg, contains over 550 components, including 64 handmade wooden components made by Channapatna artisans.
Each box of Bharata 600BC, created by Cristina Maiorescu, weighing 2.5kg, contains over 550 components, including 64 handmade wooden components made by Channapatna artisans. (Cristina Maiorescu)

Kulkarni and his wife Sindhu are launching a board game called Hampi, which is based on the Unesco World Heritage site in north Karnataka, in March. Designers by profession, Kulkarni says they were motivated by the “amazing” response they got for designing a series of 10 puzzles that are inspired by traditional painting styles in India. The strategy game has 104 hexagon tiles and 44 wooden meeples (small figures used as playing pieces on board games), and cards with characters. The players need to gather support and build Hampi in order to acquire a jewel.

However, high manufacturing costs have made pricing the game an issue. There is a perception among buyers that Indian games are of inferior quality and, therefore, should be cheap, says Kulkarni. For Hampi, he is looking at a price of 2,499, with discounts for first buyers.

Funding remains a major challenge for independent game developers, especially when demand increases. Maiorescu, in fact, believes it’s not a business that can meet the expectations of scale of present-day venture capitalists. Fortunately, the board-game developer community is both supportive and collaborative. Many are part of an informal Whatsapp group that has over 100 people. For instance, when Mathur was struggling to get a manufacturer to make her cards within budget, Polepalli connected her to his manufacturer.

“Print and play is another model we are looking at this year. Customers can print a portion of the game free of cost from the website and get a taste of the game. We are also bringing out pocket-size games that will hopefully convert non-gamers to slowly become board gamers,” he says.

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