Discovering Dungeons and Dragons was a game-changer for imaginative Etihad pilot

Mark Azzam has taken his hobby, which he believes brings people together, to another level by opening a fantasy game shop in Abu Dhabi.

Back To Games owner Mark Azzam has been an avid gamer since he was 12 years old. Antonie Robertson / The National
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ABU DHABI // Mark Azzam was 12 and living in Montreal when he first sat at a table on the ground floor of his building and organised an intense campaign into the heart of Arabia to help appease an angry caliph.

The man who has just opened Abu Dhabi's first tabletop gaming shop and six of his friends embarked on the journey traversing Arabian deserts, fending off nomads and trading fingers for scrolls of spells in a successful mission without ever leaving that table.

It was the first time he organised an adventurous three-month session immersed in the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

The game required that they combine storytelling, adventure, strategy and dice-rolling in an Arabian-themed fantasy world called Al Qadim, a world that relentlessly challenged them but also brought them closer together.

“Those six guys, they’re still my best friends,” said the Etihad Airlines captain, “that’s the power of gaming.”

Flying to Bangladesh, Shanghai and Rome in the last week alone, somehow Mark has managed to find time to set up the store in Reem Island’s Boutik Mall, fix the broken water pipe found inside it and order new games.

“Basically, I don’t sleep,” he said. “Look, if I didn’t love both these things, both aviation and gaming, I wouldn’t be able to do it, I run purely on passion.”

Back To Games is a 54 square metre store that sells more than 400 tabletop games and is also believed to be the first in the UAE to focus specifically on board games.

Mark, having left the UAE at age seven to move to Canada, said that not only did playing games afford him a chance to make friends in a foreign place but that time gave his imagination a way to develop in a healthy way.

He said that as long as he remembers he’s played games and that his mother also sees the value in gaming’s ability to bring people together.

“I remember playing games, the traditional ones, snakes and ladders, with my mom; she’s a huge believer in connecting family through board games, so I think that’s where it started for me,” he said.

“I think gaming, for me, really comes out of imagination, the elements of fantasy, science fiction or whatever you like, I’ve always been into this, ever since four or five years old I’ve always been in another place but gaming made that place healthy,” he said.

Almost 30 years later, he has rediscovered the power of gaming through opening his store, and he believes it won’t only be a business success but will also help bring people together, as it did with him and his friends.

So involved is he in gaming that the Lebanese-Canadian downloads rule books of games and reads them to see whether they would be a hit in the community he is trying to build.

He said that people have a tendency of walking into his store with no prior knowledge of gaming outside their experiences of what he refers to as the traditional games — Monopoly, Scrabble or Risk, which he considers to be boring.

“I have a lot of respect for Risk, but I ask people what they like and I try to develop that. I see if they liked those experiences and, if they did, I can suggest to play games that are in that genre or feel, otherwise, I can introduce them to games that don’t rely so much on luck,” he said.

In his store, he has dozens of opened games where people can come and try them out for free. Some of the games, which can take hours to complete, require a lot of reading and experimenting. Mark’s encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the games themselves but of their specific rules helps.

He maintains that his dream for the store would be to have games running all the time, as he welcomes anyone to walk through the doors.

“I want people to find an escape here, I want to feel like they are entering another world and whatever you pick up be will be an experience, be it a time warp through space, or a trip back to ancient Rome; whatever it is, I want this to be a haven to let your imagination loose,” he said.