It is a weeknight. It is also game night for Akhila Phadnis. The 29-year-old board game devotee from north Bengaluru has just spent nearly one-and-a-half hours braving the city’s infamous traffic snarl to reach the eastern suburb of Kodihalli. But her enthusiasm remains unaffected, for Cheating Moth and Codenames await.
Her indifference to put herself through a long commute just to play board games upends two popular notions: One, board games are played at home with family, usually on Sundays. Second, playing board games is a childhood hobby.
These notions do not hold true for Phadnis and 70 others, who have converged this Thursday at the weekly meetup organised by ReRoll, a board games collective.
What has brought them together are hundreds of complex new-age games that were not around when they were growing up playing Snakes & Ladders and Ludo. Meeting strangers equally addicted to board games also helps them ward off urban isolation, a constant feature of modern lives.
“When we started in 2016, only six to eight people would show up every week,” says Karthik Balakrishnan (26), cofounder of ReRoll. “Now, a bad week means 50 people.” Last Thursday was ReRoll’s 146th meetup.
The gamers gather at Lahe Lahe, a hub for cultural events in Kodihalli. For an entry fee of Rs 150, one can play board games for 3.5 hours.
This evening, many pairs of footwear are lined up at the entrance, as if out of respect for the holy place inside. No wonder Phadnis, who works as French to English translator, attends these meetups religiously. “I get to meet new people since I recently shifted here from Chennai. It’s better than loud pubs,” she tells ET Magazine.
On either side of her table, four players are engrossed in Alhambra and Puerto Rico where they are building cities from scratch. These strategy games, known as Eurogames, leave little to no room for luck.
“Do you have Secret Hitler?” a fellow player asks Balakrishnan. Secret Hitler is a popular social deduction game, we are told. Clearly, this lot has graduated from Monopoly and Mafia to more complex stuff. Another strategy game — Settlers of Catan — is considered apt for beginners in the post-Monopoly era. Germany, the players tell us, led the modern wave of board gaming in the late 1990s. It eventually spread to the rest of Europe and countries like the US, Canada, and Australia, giving birth to an internet subculture of sorts comprising of IMDB-equivalent sites like BoardGameGeek.com and YouTube channels like Geek & Sundry fetching millions of subscribers and views.
In the last five years, this wave has reached Indian metros, and diehard enthusiasts have created a strong ecosystem of cafes, communities and conventions.
Today, Bengaluru has three major board game communities — Victory Point, Meeples of Bangalore and ReRoll. In Mumbai, three broad game cafes — Creeda, Pair A Dice and Chai & Games — have come up in the last three years. Doolally — a chain of brewpubs in Mumbai and Pune — has also added board games to attract more customers. “The brewpub keeps updating its collection, invites designers to play-test their games and hosts regular contests,” says Tresha Guha, Doolally’s brand manager.
In addition to these, there are sellers and creators of board games trying to grab a share of the global market, valued at $4.6 billion, according to Value Market Research. Bored Game Company, an online marketplace for board games, has seen its business boom, while visual artist Amit Ghadge, 34, has designed more than 20 games for companies in the UK and the US.
Based upon the number of components and stylisation, Mumbai-based Ghadge charges between Rs 40,000 and Rs 3 lakh per project.
The emergence of this new board game ecosystem in India is largely attributed to the exposure of urban Indians to a similar culture in the West.
Take Vikas Munipalle, for instance. The 34-year-old professional photographer from Mumbai discovered high-end board games during a work trip to Canada eight years ago. Locals asked him to check out Snakes & Lattes, Toronto’s board game café chain. “The walls were stacked with more than 300 board games. These were far more cerebral than what we had been playing,” he says.
Four years ago, Munipalle attended a board game meet in Mumbai and started buying these games to play with friends. “I used to be a video gamer but that’s a solitary activity in many cases,” he says. He now owns 55 games. But this is nothing compared to some people in the circuit, he says. They own more than 300. He says he likes board games because it enables social interaction and one can play with components. But the craze isn’t limited to millennials.
At the last edition of India’s only board game trade fair called MeepleCon, the oldest visitor was a 70-year-old Parsi woman. “She was thrilled to see the variety,” says Prashant Maheshwari, the 34-year-old who has organised the event in Mumbai every December since 2017.
“Last year, 3,000 people attended MeepleCon. Of those, 2,600 were playing high-end board games for the first time,” he says. He had also found a sponsor for the event — US-based toy & games company Hasbro. For this year’s edition, MeepleCon is expecting 5,000 visitors.
Last October, Spiel, the world’s biggest board game fair held in Essen, Germany, saw more than 190,000 visitors, and 1,150 exhibitors.
“We are just 1% of the 1%,” says Maheshwari, adding that his focus is on pulling more people into the Indian board gaming community. He is active on 38 WhatsApp groups where gamers from Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad discuss latest games and meetups.
One of them is a pan-India group for buying and selling high-end games with 250 members. A year ago, siblings Aziz and Moiz Bookwala from Pune set up Bored Game Company that now sells over 1,000 board games online. Most are priced at Rs 3,500-4,500. “Initially we received one or two orders a week. Now it is 15 a week,” says 25-year-old Moiz.
Kushal Shah, founder of Tabletop Nerds, a board game community in Mulund, Mumbai, has organised gaming activities for employees of L&T and Johnson & Johnson.
“They love role-playing games like Secret Hitler and resource management games like Power Grid.”
In 2017, market research firm Euromonitor had pegged the size of India’s board games and puzzles market at Rs 330 crore.
Bhavesh Somaya, Hasbro’s country manager for India & Middle East, is positive that the Indian board game market will touch the Rs 400-crore mark soon. The category’s growth on ecommerce sites is in line with his optimism.
Amazon India told ET Magazine it recorded a 100% rise in search and sales of board games and puzzles in the last two to three years. Flipkart too has seen search traffic for the category go up by more than 50% year-on-year, says Nishit Garg, head of books, general merchandise and home at the online retailer.
Funskool India, the toy manufacturer based in Chennai, says board games category has grown by double digits in the last five years. “We expect it will maintain this growth rate for the next five years,” says John Baby, the CEO.
He says while Monopoly and Jenga blocks still rack up volume sales, high-end games like Catan, Splendor and Dixit are also in demand. Dixit, a card game introduced just 10 years ago, tops the charts among the list of more than 450 games at Creeda in Mumbai.
“People often think it has something to do with Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit until they figure out it is a card game of European origin!” says Riddhi Dalal, the cafe owner.
Dixit may not have Indian roots but the made-in-India board game scene is becoming active too.
Fletter, a word-building card game created by former advertising copywriter Rubianca Wadhwa, did a trial run in Doolally some years ago. It now sells 300-400 decks of Rs 199 each on a weekly basis. The game recently entered the UK market via Amazon and is selling well, says Wadhwa.
Social Humour and Cards Against Sanskaar — Indian versions of the famous American party game Cards Against Humanity — are popular on Amazon too.
Come July 16 and Shasn — a high-end political strategy game from Memesys Culture Lab — will be launched on Kickstarter, a US-based crowdfunding platform. “We have received the coveted ‘Projects We Love’ badge from the platform,” says Zain Memon, cofounder of Memesys based in Mumbai. Filmmaker Anand Gandhi is also among the cofounders.
In the last 10 years, Kickstarter has received $1 billion in pledges for games and 70% of it has been for developing board games.
Local crowdfunding platforms have also swung into action. In the last six months, Wishberry has taken up three board game funding campaigns. Cards Against Sanskaar is one of them. The game raised Rs 5.5 lakh in a month of going live when the target was only Rs 3.5 lakh.
Campaign for Mantri Cards — a game of trump cards — is live on Wishberry and had raised Rs 1.52 lakh from 100 backers as of June 27.
Designed by Pune-based data visualiser Anuja Pitre, the game contains information such as net worth, declared assets and criminal cases of 100 Members of Parliament.
To help more designers publish their games, Phalgun Polepalli, CEO of Bengaluru-based Dice Toy Labs, has collaborated with Wishberry.
“We help with the manufacturing part of putting a game out in the market,” he says.
Most ventures, however, are passion projects, with little signs of profitability. “These designers should also target kids and senior citizens for better prospects,” says Anshulika Dubey, cofounder of Wishberry. A few designers are already following her advice.
Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Vaidehi Krishnan, 26, and Ishan Mahapatra, 35, are planning their honeymoon around their favourite games. The couple first met at a board game meetup in 2016 and got married six months ago. “We will visit 10 places in France to play the board games named after them, like Carcassonne and Versailles,” says Krishnan. If the makers of the Jumanji movie franchise ever decide to shoot a romantic film, they know where to look for inspiration.