When Mark Azzam was growing up in Canada, he regularly played cards and board games with his mother.
From there he developed a passion for tabletop games, spending hours playing favourites such as Dungeons and Dragons with friends in his teens and then other gaming enthusiasts when he relocated to Abu Dhabi in 2008 to work as a commercial pilot.
It was this hobby that inspired the Lebanese-Canadian to set up his own retail store, Back to Games, in 2015, catering to enthusiasts just like him.
“I was buying all these games from Kinokuniya or shipping them in and realised there are no game stores here,” says Mr Azzam, 39. “Canada is literally littered with them but in the GCC there was almost nothing, just one store in Kuwait, so I thought 'why not start a business'.”
The global market value of the board games industry was estimated to be around $7.2 billion (Dh26.44bn) in 2017 and is forecast to reach a value of $12bn by 2023, according to market intelligence firm Statista.
Mr Azzam's speciality stores in Abu Dhabi and Dubai stock 7,000 products including board games, cards games, miniature games and role-playing games. It has tables for shoppers to try before they buy by playing with staff.
“We’re not just a retail shop, we are an experience and we are trying to proliferate the board game hobby in the region, not just in Abu Dhabi and Dubai," says Mr Azzam.
Working full-time as a pilot, the entrepreneur waited until he has passed his captaincy exams before embarking on his plan in April 2015 opening a small kiosk in Dubai Mall, stocked with 300 of what he considered “ the best games in the world”. Six months later, after shutting the kiosk, he took the plunge and migrated to a full store in Al Reem Island, investing more of his savings in the fit-out, stock and the business set-up costs, which later relocated to Al Wahda Mall.
“I first decided to do this in around 2012 and although I had money saved, I started saving even more and stopped investing my money anywhere else,” he says. “It was a big, big risk. I just took this passion of mine and thought ‘I just want to do it. I have no competition. I'm going ahead. I don’t care'.”
The Dubai branch in Times Square opened in March 2017, taking Mr Azzam's total investment in the venture to about Dh1.3 million.
Since the initial launch of the kiosk in 2015, Mr Azzam says Back to Games has helped to grow the tabletop gaming community in the UAE and wider region by raising the profile of the hobby.
“We are the biggest location of games of any place in the region,” the retailer says, adding that the store went from 300 products to 7,000 in less than five years.
“We have a selection of 2,200 individual games and 7,000 items in the store in total, which includes hobby items such as sleeves, extra dice or tokens for your games. If it's an economy game, for example, we have the metal coins that go with that game.”
With gaming enthusiasts either buying online or travelling from across the region to buy specialist items, the company has grown 8-10 per cent year-on-year on average, he says.
But Mr Azzam’s ambitions are not limited to a retail experience. In June 2017 he invested a further Dh250,000 in a 50-50 partnership in Boardgame Space, a gaming wholesale and distribution company for locations across the Middle East. The other partner, Emirati Feras Al Bastaki, set up the company in 2015, with another co-founder, who later sold his share to Mr Azzam.
“I am looking at this whole thing much more as an industry," says Mr Azzam. "To me it's not a shop any more or the experience that you receive as a customer. I look at this more as an empire … or more of an industry that I am tackling now."
Rather than buy products from multiple sources in small quantities, a business can now ship in bulk through purchasing Boardgame Space, which supplies Back to Games as well as other retailers across the region.
“When I joined Boardgame Space it had about 27 to 34 games and we grew that to 3,500 in two-and-a-half years,” he says, adding that his companies have helped to spread the craze with 12 hobby stores dotted around the region today and larger retailers such as Virgin Megastore, Amazon and Noon.com stocking items supplied by Boardgame Space
“I fed my competition, basically,” says Mr Azzam. “I've also made an increase of profit of about 4 per cent [on the stores] because now I'm doing it all internally from my own board game company. I’ve cut my costs because I’m not just shipping for Back to Games, I'm also shipping for the competition.”
The entrepreneur has also increased his staffing levels from two to 16 with eight devoted to the retail outlets and another eight focused on Boardgame Space. Finding gamers for his stores, however, has not always been easy with Mr Azzam training recruits in the early days.
“They're becoming easier to find," he says. "Now we have actual gamers that play; they finished university and want to join us,” he says.
As the industry gains traction in the region, Mr Azzam says there is more to come. Next November he plans to host the region’s first tabletop convention in Dubai, where enthusiasts can play the games they enjoy, mix with other hobbyists and buy games at a discount.
“Conventions are huge around the world with some of the biggest ones attracting 200,000 gamers in a weekend,” he says, adding that they plan to invite 60 publishers — companies which design the themes or mechanics behind new tabletop games — to the event.
Another of Mr Azzam’s big goals is to expand the amount of Arabic games available. Boardgames Space is a publisher itself, creating Arabic versions of 10 games to date.
“We’re going to start publishing one game a month in Arabic as of next year, so the UAE is now the hub for the board gaming industry in the region,” he says.
Eventually, the company also wants to publish its own games, using Emirati designers or those based here with great ideas.
“The board game industry is growing here and I know some great designers that already exist but they don't have the money. So we will be investing and publishing games out of this region," he adds. "Not just localising where we take it from someone else and make it Arabic.”
Q&A: Mark Azzam, founder of Back to Games
What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs starting out?
Get a very good PRO (public relations officer) from the start. I wish I did, I would've saved myself a lot of headaches. I did not even know what a PRO meant. You might want to save money at the beginning of the business, but let them deal with everything. You need to build your brand.
What frightened you at the beginning?
The risk. I barely did any market research because there was nothing in that field. It's as if I came here loving aviation and there was not a single aircraft here, so I thought 'I'm going to build an airline'. It's the same concept for gaming. It was missing and it just hit me 'why not do it?" Besides that, I just love the hobby for what it brings. I've built a lot of incredible relationships with incredibly intelligent and amazing people because they are gamers like me.
Which entrepreneur do you aspire to be like?
Elon Musk. He is completely innovative and while the board gaming is not innovative per se, it is innovative in the Middle East in the way we're bringing in the brands, the localisations and hopefully having our own games in the future. I definitely aspire to be like him. He takes intelligent risks and he just goes for it. I think he's very passionate about changing the world. I'm very passionate about changing the Middle East in terms of tabletop gaming. So I do see parallels there.
Where do your ideas come from?
When I fly over an ocean and it's pure black going to Hong Kong, there's nothing else to do but monitor for weather, the aircraft systems and making sure the cabin crew are OK. I cannot sleep because I have to be flying, so I think and I concoct and I imagine. The whole idea for Back to Games came from the air.
Would you ever focus full-time on your business?
I love flying too much. I don't see it happening yet. Right now I'm able to somehow juggle three lives, flying and two companies. For sure I could not do it with a family, but I am single and that makes life easy. I also have incredible teams in both companies. They've converted all this into what it is.
Do you still play board games yourself?
I used to a lot. Now it's about two eight to 10-hour sessions a month. Whenever I do play, it's all the way. I turn everything off, no phones, and my friends come round and we play.