When Christina Maiorescu went to a toy store to buy some India-centric games for her family three years ago, she found nothing but Scrabble and Monopoly.
“I thought it was important to have access to games Indians could relate to and that represented their culture,” she says.
And that's why she made Bharata 600 BC. The immersive strategy board game, set in ancient India at the time of the 16 Mahajanapadas (great realms), allows players to choose personality traits, build kingdoms, manage resources such as iron and wood, wage wars, and protect their territories from rivals and natural disasters.
The game has 554 components, including exquisitely handcrafted wooden pieces, made by craftsmen from Channapatna, the city in Karnataka famous for its wooden toys.
India’s toy market, which is worth about $1.5 billion, is dominated by imported toys and games, according to Invest India, the National Investment Promotion and Facilitation Agency.
But there are initiatives afoot to address this. The Indian government this year launched Toycathon, in a push to encourage the production of games in India. Designers were asked to submit ideas drawing from Indian mythology, stories, history and national heroes, as part of a countrywide competition, with cash prizes.
The most recent Indian board game to catch everyone’s attention is Shasn, which has a focus on political strategy. It raised more than $500,000 through crowdfunding alone. Created by Zain Memon and published by Memesys Culture Lab, Shasn,which means governance, is about each player taking on the role of a politician contesting an election. It allows players to explore different political ideologies and policy decisions, and compete for power, as well as experience the politics of India, the US, the UK, the Roman Empire and even "The Future".
Maiorescu is also part of a growing breed of game designers in India who are trying to change the status quo, drawing from the country's rich geopolitical and cultural resources. And the good news is, such games are in demand.
Board games have always been popular in India, which is home to several games nights at cafes and bars, and which even hosts a trade fair called Meeplecon, which attracts thousands of people each year. And, owing to the pandemic, many started playing board games at home with their family and friends. This has led to a spurt in demand.
“Many thought I was getting into something that had no potential or money," says Maiorescu. "But I was determined to make a game that was 100 per cent Indian from its design to theme and manufacture. We did an extensive survey of more than 10,000 people, researched Indian history, tried to understand the market and the various aspects of making a game, and then made a prototype and tested it before finally launching it.
“The game has found a great response, and we are looking to expand our capacity as presently we are only able to make 500 pieces per month.” Maiorescu is now collaborating with designers and websites to launch more Indian-themed games.
Dice Toy Labs in Bengaluru, founded by Phalgun Polepalli and his wife, Shwetha Badarinath, makes age-neutral games. The company has launched more than 18 in the past few years, such as Chariots of Chandragupta and Yudhbhoomi.
Indus 2500 BCE, based on the Indus valley civilisation, was launched during the pandemic. The aim of the game is to build a civilisation from scratch. “In the past six months, we had an 800 per cent spike in sales, boosted by the pandemic, no doubt," says Polepalli, who worked in IT before becoming a games designer.
"The main reason for the upsurge in the popularity of board games is the urban Indian, especially millennials who travelled abroad or lived abroad, and found a huge offline gaming culture and wanted to do the same in India.
“When we started three years ago, there was not even one Indian publisher of board games. Even to make a pair of dice was a challenge. Now we have a rich community of people working with and playing board games. We work with designers who create games, which are then marketed by us; we also design our own, and test them with the gaming community before launching.”
At the annual trade fair held in Essen, Germany, a haven for board games, Polepalli says more than 5,000 are launched each year, and not a single one has been Indian. "There is a lot of scope for creating Indian games that can tell stories, educate and entertain, and make use of the country's aesthetics and art. Board games can teach cognitive skills like problem-solving and strategic thinking, and also help people to bond with family and friends."
Tacit games, headed by Sindhu Murthy Kulkarni and her husband, Kiran Kulkarni, recently launched a board game called Hampi and the Sun Jewel, based on the Unesco World Heritage Site of Hampi in Karnataka, "once, one of the richest cities in India", says Kulkarni, who left the corporate design world to initially make puzzles based on Indian cultural themes for children.
“It is an extremely intensive process to design and publish a board game, from arriving at the theme to the artwork and design. It involves the efforts of many people, from mathematical modellers to graphic designers and artists. The problem in India is that we don’t have an organised infrastructure for making games like in the West, or an established supply chain. But every person we worked with was eager to learn and curious.”
Polepalli says: "Indian board games are the future, with their long shelf life, and ability to weave in the rich tapestry of Indian history, culture and art into an awe-inspiring story that can engage young and old.”
But it'll be a waiting game until we see how popular they all become.