Back to the board game

What makes a board game happy? Perhaps the fact that just like a well-loved toy, it too looks worn and well-used, with the box coming apart at its cardboard seams. The ones that lie in the trunk or the backseat of Manoj Rathi’s car would probably be ecstatic if this were the case. Rathi, the 32 year-old founder of a direct marketing agency, drives them around, flipping them open at cafés, restaurants or his friends’ homes at every opportunity he gets.

Brijal Parekh (centre) plays a game of pictionary; (facing page) Parekh gathers her family and friends for a round of the card game Phase 10 at her Sion residence

He carries Rummikub and Chess, Monopoly and Sequence, preferring strategy games over others. “When you are playing against a person as opposed to your computer, you can analyse them and their tactics much better, and crack their style of playing,” he says. “It’s a healthy way of maintaining relations rather than sipping on a coffee and talking about random things. Plus, they act as a de-stresser.”

Agreeing with him is Rati Shroff, who works with a travel agency. “People think board games are for kids,” the 35 year-old tells us. “But I’d rather play Taboo or Pictionary than sit around with friends and gossip. We have started substituting eating out or going for movies with board game nights. They are not only super fun but also don’t cost too much.”

Strangers no more
In a time when we rely heavily on technology to help us communicate and even wake us up, it is almost heartening to see that, for many people, that battered box containing a game of Scrabble still holds meaning. But like in the case of gramophones and silent movies, is the ‘revival’ of the board game culture a product of mere nostalgia that is almost irrelevant to our age?

“I don’t think so,” says Arpana Gvalani, owner of Bandra-based burger café, Gostana, that stocks board and card games including UNO, Snakes and Ladders, Karo, Six, Taboo and Scrabble for its patrons. “A lot of people connect over these games. When you have a game that gets strangers together, it creates a sense of comfort, and is not intimidating.” She has a point. You might think it’s creepy when a stranger offers to buy you a drink, but probably won’t if he/she suggests a game of Cluedo. “This kind of entertainment is healthy, relaxing and interactive. We desperately need that in a city like Mumbai, especially today.”

At our fingertips
There was a time when we patiently waited for a relative or a friend returning from overseas to bring us a new game, because the store round the corner only stocked classic games like Snakes and Ladders, and rarely ever added new ones to its collection. But with e-commerce websites bringing the latest and the craziest games right to our doorsteps, often with the comfortable option of cash-on-delivery, we now have a plethora of options to choose from. “Not relying on the store owner to get you a game that you want is a huge relief,” says Shroff, who remembers her friends coming over from school only to check out the game of Candy Land that her uncle had got her from the USA in the early 1990s.

And though the tabletop board game faces competition from its digital, technology-driven counterparts, the board game industry in India has never gone through a lull, and will continue to flourish in the near future, anticipates Philip Royappan, marketing manager at Funskool that creates, markets and sells toys and games. “Earlier, in stores, board games had no visibility,” he tells us over a phone interview. “You would have to tell the shopkeeper what you wanted and wait for him to get it. Today, you can buy a game either at a retail store or on the web. A lot of Indians who still haven’t played board games are now discovering them. The only way from here is up.”

Funskool has seen a rise in the sales of board games by 15 per cent this year as compared to 2011. Though classic games remain chart-toppers, newer editions are also accepted enthusiastically. “People are now even going for a high-end version of Monopoly that replaces cash in paper format, with electronic banking that gets you to swipe your card,” says Royappan.

You would believe that this increased visibility of board games has led to us experimenting with newer games but, Vishal Mehta, owner of e-commerce website Infibeam, holds that it is still the classic ones that are driving their sales. “We have found that the adoption of these board games is now very high even in smaller cities and towns,” he says. “Traditional favourites like Monopoly, Chess, Snakes and Ladders and Jenga still sell in large numbers since people are already familiar with them.”

Bonding sessions
For CA student Brijal Parekh, it was the humble board game that saved the day when she found herself in a class of 52 strangers, during a course on management and communication skills. “Somebody brought out a pack of Taboo cards, and soon, people who didn’t even know each other’s names, were bonding,” says the 25 year-old.

Though she insists that board games are not a replacement for movies and clubbing, Parekh feels that they have the benefit of cutting across age groups. “There are games in which we even include our parents, without making anyone in the group feel uncomfortable. We are always looking for new games to help break the monotony.” Her current favourite is Phase 10, a variant of rummy, and the second best-selling card game of the worlds largest toy company, Mattel.

Realising the potential of board games, Rathi is introducing them to his employees by stacking them in his office boardroom. “They can help employees converse with people they wouldn’t talk to otherwise,” he says. “They can work as a great team-building exercise as well as a stress-buster.” For Shroff, who sometimes attends the popular ‘Board Game Nite’ organised by café chain Mocha, board games are no longer child’s play. “You come to know a lot about people, especially strangers, from the way they play,” she says. “And that’s always better than conversing with them when they are at their nicest.” 

Riding the digital wave
In 2010, when the iPad was launched, board game geeks everywhere rejoiced. No longer did they have to run to the store to buy the game; the large touchscreen presented a fantastic way of playing board games, complete with the feeling of a full-size board that you could interact with in a tactile way, while automating the boring parts, such as rolling dice, shuffling cards, and of course, picking up all the pieces afterwards. “Add to that the benefit of playing at your own pace, downloading free apps, or playing with friends in different countries,” says Brijal Parekh.

The sales of games, both digital and physical, for e-commerce company, Infibeam (.com), have shot up by a staggering 300 per cent this year, compared to 2011, out of which a sizeable chunk is that of digital games. “This has to do with the fact that a huge audience is adopting smartphones,” says Vishal Mehta, who nevertheless insists that it’s the table-top educational board games that still retain their popularity.

“The sheer number of people with data connections is increasing rapidly. But that said, I would say that digital game sales also drive the sales of physical board games. Often, when people get comfortable with a digital game, they want to buy the physical counterpart to share it with friends
and family.”

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