Behind the scenes with India’s boardgame creators

India’s independent boardgame makers are subverting expectations through lockdown, constantly creating for a clientele that is hard-pressed for some fun

In 2018, Phalgun Polepalli and Shwetha Badarinath could not find a single person to make dice, much to their dismay. “Dice were practically invented in India; but all major boardgame manufacturing these days is in China. It took us a long time to find a woodworker who could make what we needed,” recalls Phalgun over a phone call from Bengaluru.

In May that year, the duo formally launched Dice Toy Labs, to publish games by Indians, set in an Indian context. Today, Dice boasts over 10 boardgames dreamt up by various creative minds for different age groups (“Boardgames are not just for children,” emphasises Phalgun), and has more in the pipeline. It is one of many brands that have cropped up across India, reclaiming the country’s boardgaming traditions with a little help from families resigned to staying at home during lockdown.

“Board games have a long shelf life because of their replayability,” explains Phalgun, “You can have the same starting point and roll the same dice, and yet have a different outcome each time.” Brands like Dice Toy Labs and Go India Games are creating fresh games set in familiar contexts, thus filling a gaping hole in the market.

Shwetha and Phalgun, co-founders of Dice Toy Labs | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

As Phalgun points out, “Wherever Shwetha and I travelled, any toy store we would visit for our son would have Monopoly or other old games, nothing an Indian could relate to.” The duo also realised that though game ideas were many, often they would not reach the retail stage, or stay long in the market.

For, it is not enough to have a brilliant idea. A good board game today needs a designer to come up with the core concept and gameplay, an artist to give a definite visual style, a graphic designer for typography, manufacturers and artisans to give shape to boards and pieces, and a publisher to bring all this together with a focus on investment and sales.

In India currently, game designers have a couple of choices — to pitch their games to a brand like Funskool, or work with independent publishers like Dice, often run by passionate boardgamers.

Chennai-based designer Santhosh Kumar does both. Santhosh, who runs Bambaram Toys and Games with a focus on creating fun, educational tools for children, recently had one of his boardgames released by Funskool.

Called Big Bull Junior, the game teaches children above the age of eight, the intricacies of the stock market without any jargon.

Ask him to explain the game, and he gushes: “Players try to build a high value set of companies (portfolio). But unlike the real stock market, here players themselves can manipulate the price. The catch: one’s portfolio is not known to others. So when you are changing the price of a company, you may end up helping other players!”

Honey Scouts by Dice Toy Lab | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The brass tacks

So, just how does one go about constructing a game? How do they decide if it should have four players or more; last for two hours or six; stick to a linear flow based on a single objective or pack in multiple layers and side-quests; involve dice or cards or tokens, or all three, or none? Some of these decisions are based on the creators’ basic objective: the story they are trying to tell, the adventure they want to create. Other decisions, are less organic.

Take, for instance, Cristina Maiorescu, the creator of popular boardgame Bharata 600 and the woman behind publishing company GoIndia Games.

Cristina sees herself as both publisher and designer. She states over a phone call from Bengaluru: “From the ideation stage, I do thorough consumer research with different research and database companies. For Bharata 600 BC, we had to find out what consumers were looking for in terms of game mechanics, duration and complexity. India is still a very nascent market; it’s quite young compared to the market in Western countries, where players have a more advanced appetite. Only after players get over simple gateway games, do they look for complex ones.”

A complex boardgame in India would invariably become a niche one, but Cristina wanted her game to appeal to a larger market. She surveyed more than 10,000 potential consumers before locking in on an algorithm — what makes Bharata 600 BC stand out, is its inclusion of multiple play styles in a single game, like exploration, combat, collaboration. It lets players choose a complexity level. It is set in the post-Vedic period, described by the brand as “ the era of the 16 Mahajanapadas (Great Kingdoms)”, it lets players build armies, wage wars, rule civilisations.

Yudhbhoomi boardgame by Dice Toy Labs | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

What sets indie games apart, is the art. Each game takes pride in its aesthetic, like Dice’s wargame Yudhbhoomi that features stark white Harappa-esque warrior figurines, 64 in total, comprising various armies set to face each other off on the board.

In contrast, Bharata 600 BC’s coloured wooden counters are made by the famed Channapatna artists of Karnataka, who for decades have been crafting traditional toys.

According to B Venkatesh, one of the Channapatna artists creating Cristina’s pieces, orders from “modern” boardgame makers have increased in the past few years.

Over a phone call from Channapatna, he says, “It is not like we work on only boardgame parts throughout the month, but we fulfill orders as and when they come. These days, a lot of companies have come up, selling traditional-based games on the Internet; old games like chauka bara are also getting popular, as are games based on The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Most of the brands we get our orders from, are based in Hyderabad and Bengaluru.”

Small blessings

The prices vary depending on the level of finishing demanded, and the time it takes to craft each piece. Some things, however, are common throughout — Venkatesh insists that they do not chop down any wood, but source it buy it from nearby farmlands instead. “Wrightia tinctoria is the wood we use. We sit it out to dry before working on it — it’s very important that the wood be completely dry, to prevent breakage and fungus, and also to help it better retain colours of the dyes we use. Once it is dry, we cut and shape it using a small machine, and then work out its features by hand. We only use lac and natural dyes — red, green, brown, yellow — on the wood, nothing else,” explains Venkatesh.

The machine that the craftsmen use is small enough to be kept in their homes or courtyards; which means that these are among the few artisan communities that have managed to persist with their livelihoods despite COVID-19 lockdowns since last March.

As their client, Cristina testifies to this: “Our production was sometimes held up because of the printing units being closed, but never because of the Channapatna artists.”

Despite lockdown hiccups, the market for locally made board games has remained steady through the past couple of years. A part of this popularity can be chalked down to the continuous efforts of publishers to keep players engaged. Phalgun and Shwetha have kept game-lovers involved on their website, where they test out new game ideas for feedback, besides holding challenges and game design contests.

“As long as you have access to the printer, you can print out a game, play it with friends or family, and give us feedback,” says Phalgun.

Cristina has produced 500 units of Bharata 600 BC every month since November 2020, and even had to scale up in January and February. “Now, we have the good kind of problem — we can only make 500 but the demand is higher. In fact, the demand rises every time there is a lockdown announcement,” she says.

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