Games people play

Games people play

The role of board games in bringing people together in this tech-driven world is indeed heartening, writes Sudarshan Purohit

Games people play

Every Thursday evening, about two dozen enthusiasts gather at a cafe on Jyothi Nivas College Road, Bengaluru. They will be there from 7 to past-11.

Ask them what they’re doing there, and they’ll say, “Games!” But you’ll see no mobile phones, no XBoxes, and no laptops there. Instead, there are arrangements of strange-looking modular boards on tables, cards in hands, little pieces representing players here and there on the boards.

These folks are here to play board games. Not the well-known Scrabble, Cluedo, or Monopoly either, but a fresh set of games that stretch the mind in delightful new ways. Welcome to the brave new wave of games that are taking the world by storm.

No electronic equipment required here — just your imagination, a set of rules, and game partners who will quickly become friends. This event is called ReRoll, and it’s all organised by a couple of techies with an interest in the growing field.

A couple of hours away in Mysuru, Ramsons Kala Pratisthana, opposite the famous zoo, is open for business — and their big business is the traditional board games of India. They sell games boards and sets, along with the rules — games that were once played by everyone in India, and are now forgotten in the rush of busy city life.

An appeal on their website asks for details about any games that visitors may have grown up with, or old dice and boards that they no longer want. About 37 games from their collection were on display in a recent exhibition, eliciting interested responses from their visitors who happened to walk in.

The magnetic factor

Something is happening here. A generation ago, board games were on the decline — not just in India, but worldwide. The standard games of Snakes and Ladders or Chess were either deemed too childish, or too niche. It felt like technology was taking over the world of entertainment.

Facebook, Whatsapp and Angry Birds were the new ways to pass your time. Why did one need to meet up others face to face, the reasoning went, when one was connected perpetually to the whole world on the phone, tablet or laptop?

But more and more people have been realising that they were missing something — the real comfort and joy experienced from meeting up friends and family and spending time with them. Hobby clubs of various types are becoming popular, from running to trekking, to storytelling, and, in a revival of an age-old practice, board games.

Helping this along is a renewed industry of creating new games for new times. But it’s the people that count.

Two years ago, Karthik Balakrishnan completed his engineering degree and returned to his town, Bengaluru. As an experiment, he started exploring board games. It quickly turned into a passion, and he, along with two friends, began to explore ways to bring the hobby to more people. It eventually turned into ReRoll.

“There’s a very social aspect to board games,” he says. “Sitting together, focusing on what’s going on in front of you, discussing strategies as you go ­— it makes for a very different experience. That’s what draws all the regulars back.”

In terms of modern games, India is just beginning to catch up with the rest of the world. The so-called Euro-games have been at the centre of a revival over the past two decades. These games are different in that they focus on co-operative play rather than competition, and involve all the players till the end of the game.

Settlers of Catan is a good example. It’s been the symbol of this renaissance, and has sold more than 22 million copies, besides multiple variations and expansions. To play, you arrange hexagonal tiles representing different terrains into an island. Each player is a settler on this island, trying to take over resources like wheat, coal, wood, and so on.

To win, you must accumulate points ­— but to do that, you must co-operate with other players on getting the best combination of resources. The game lasts from 1 to 4 hours, and while the basic rules are easy to follow, players get more out of it as they get more advanced. The board is about the size of a Monopoly board, with game pieces and cards representing the players and resources.

On the other hand, you have the “carry-in-your-pocket” games like Sushi Go and Love Letters. Sushi Go is composed of a pack of cards with different types of cartoon sushi and sauces depicted. Players must pick up and drop cards in sequence, trying to assemble high-scoring combinations of sushi as you go.

In Love Letters — which has a bare 16 cards — players try to get their letter to the princess through a maze of palace officials and courtiers. Both these games take about 10 to 20 minutes to play, and are often used as warm-ups before going on to more complex games.

What’s your pick?

Karthik usually recommends the games Love Letters, Coup, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride for beginners. “We don’t expect you to know about these games when you walk in —we’re more than happy to teach you, and other players are always willing to give helpful hints. We get a lot of young people who don’t like the usual clubbing and pubbing scene, or couples who want to do something fun together. Board games give you that thrill of new situations, along with face-to-face conversations.”

Indeed, board game exhibitions are a growing trend across Europe. In these exhibitions, successful and upcoming game designers show off their newest creations, set in wildly diverse settings.

Recent games featured farmers trying to grow crops, medieval kings trying to annex kingdoms, secret agents in post-apocalyptic settings, and adventurers facing down Lovecraftian monsters.

There’s even an annual award, the Spieles des Jahres, given in Germany to the best board games released in the past year. Among game enthusiasts, it’s as eagerly awaited as the Oscars.

A successful game could make its designer rich and famous — Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride have both been winners.

And because the more complex games are expensive and large, game cafes — similar to what ReRoll has set up — are springing up in England, Germany, and the US.

The game cafe used to be focused on role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragon’s, or Warhammer, in the past decades. These were highly involved freewheeling games that went on for days at a time, required huge amounts of equipment, models, and insider knowledge.

Naturally, they were extremely niche and the stereotypical RPG players were geeky, socially awkward young men.

Playing space

Now, however, game cafes have remodelled themselves to become welcoming spaces for all age groups and genders. Hosts help you select games to play, guide you through the mechanisms, even pair you up with co-players.

Refreshments are usually available. Regular players move on to more advanced games, if they want, or stick with their favorites.

“My all-time top games are Love Letter, Coup, Captain Sonar, and Codenames,” Karthik says. “All these involve a lot of interaction between the players, and there’s a lot of strategy and thinking that goes into them. And they’re all over in half an hour or less. In Captain Sonar, for example, you play a submarine team that’s trying to sink the opposing players’ sub - something like Battleship. But it’s played in real time, with everyone trying to get their moves in quickly while absorbing what the other team is doing. Fun!”

A similar trajectory is being charted by the enthusiasts of traditional India board games. These were popularly played during evenings with the family and social gatherings in older days, but are slowly fading away amidst city life. Everyone who’s old enough has a personal story to tell about these games.

My own story is about Ang Bang Chowk Chang — a traditional Rajasthani game that got played on a 5x5 board (which my grandmother drew in chalk on the kitchen floor), “dice” made from two tamarind seeds split into four (which was done using the pestle from the kitchen, by one of us younger cousins), and player tokens (cribbed from the kids’ monopoly boards, or maybe an onion or potato).

It’s rather similar to Ludo, with players allowed to “attack” others and send them back to the starting square, and at our childhood summer vacation gatherings, the loser was often asked to do something as a punishment — Dad was asked to make tea for everyone when he lost, and my aunt had to walk all around the house on her knees.

Every move was scrutinised with interest by everyone huddled in the kitchen, under the weak incandescent bulb. The games would go on till midnight, and would end only when someone noticed how several of the children — me among them — were dozing in sitting positions!

As is quite evident from the above account, it wasn’t the game that mattered - but the gathering of the extended family, and all the cheering and yelling from the audience as the players made their moves.

Board games such an ‘Ang Bang Chowk Chang’ were the original social forums - used by families as well as villages to come together. Now they may not be as well known, but their appeal lies undimmed. The same game is called ‘Chauka Bara’ in Karnataka, and no doubt has more names in other states.

In the recent Bangalore Literature Festival, a section of the hall was set aside to demonstrate and play some of these games. Through the day, parents and children could be seen playing them, the parents often talking enthusiastically about their own experiences.

Shalini, mother of a five-year-old, talked about her experience here: “This reminds me of playing Adu Huli Ata — Goats and Tigers — in my childhood with my friends. It doesn’t need anything — just chalk marks on the ground and a few stones. We had a usual place under a tree, and we friends used to play there. Now I’m seeing interest in these games here again, and it makes me really nostalgic.”

While many of the traditional games can be traced back to India — the stories of chess and Ludo are well known — such games are not specific to India. In fact, some have been traced all the way back to ancient civilisations.

The game of Senet, for example, is an Egyptian board game using a board of 30 squares and player pieces. There are many variations of the rules (it is somewhat similar to backgammon), and it is thought that the original rules were lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria —the game dates back to 3100 BC. But even that isn’t the oldest evidence of games — dice from 5000 BC have been unearthed in tombs in Turkey.

Board games haven’t always been taken as pure entertainment. Chess, for example, was considered a sort of war simulation. The ever-popular Snakes and Ladders’evolved from an old Indian game, called either Moksha Patam or Gyan Chauper, which was used to teach good behaviour to younger ones.

The “ladders” were virtues and good deeds that got you closer to Moksha, while the “snakes” were vices that took you further away. Other games were considered royal pastimes — Ur, a game in ancient Egypt, was for kings, and then of course, have a version of ‘pacheesi’ (Ludo) being played by the Pandavas and Kauravas in the Mahabharata.

Carvings of game boards are seen in temple complex floors and old buildings, if you know where to look. Possibly the artisans working on the buildings carved these as a pastime, or maybe they were played by pilgrims — who knows?

What is clear is that these games have an appeal to everyone, are easy to pick up, and provide a much-needed outlet to chat and socialise. As a result, even the games intended for a higher purpose now become an end in themselves.

There are further hidden benefits to gameplay that aren’t always obvious. Any parent of a toddler can tell you what happens as kids pick up these games. They learn things like the patience of waiting for your turn, coming to terms with winning and losing, following the rules — all essential life skills.

Doctors and NGOs are using them for child development at a fundamental level. In Jaipur, there’s an NGO named Bhavani Child Development Centre, which works with children with learning disabilities. They found that introducing children to traditional board games helps them focus, improves their neural, motor, as well as life skills.

For all of the technology and its conveniences, human needs remain the same - the comfort of company, the joy of conversation, the safety of rules, along with the thrill of the day-to-day.

Board games are a real way to access all of these. Whether you’d like to go the traditional route and connect to our roots, or out to the new frontiers and pick up something new, there’s something that matches your interests.

Now, please excuse me. My son would like to do a round of Snakes and Ladders with me. I won the last time, so he’s keen on his revenge. I’ll probably let him win.

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