Your turn...: New Indian board games are playing on climate, ecology, politics - Hindustan Times

Your turn...: New Indian board games are playing on climate, ecology, politics

BySukanya Datta
Jan 05, 2024 07:01 PM IST

In Lakshadweep, islands are at risk from construction. In Birds in the City, players must keep avian populations from fleeing Bengaluru. Go on, roll the dice.

It takes a certain ruthlessness to be good at Monopoly, and that’s part of the reason the game was created.

Two players juggle development and ecology while running an archipelago represented by colourful printed tiles, in the game Lakshadweep by Luma World. (Photos: Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons; Shutterstock; Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
Two players juggle development and ecology while running an archipelago represented by colourful printed tiles, in the game Lakshadweep by Luma World. (Photos: Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons; Shutterstock; Adobe Stock)

Patented in the US in 1935, it was born amid the Great Depression, to highlight the exploitative greed of landlords (with roots in something similar called Landlord’s Game, created in 1904).

Going back to the ancient world, board games have been used to explore complex realities. The Indian game Moksha Patam, a precursor to Snakes and Ladders, for instance, was designed as a way to explore ideas of dharma and karma.

Newer games are now reflecting the realities of our time, in interesting and unusual ways. Amid a spurt of growth in this segment that began in the pandemic, Indian publishers are releasing board games that challenge players to: juggle development and ecology in Lakshadweep; keep birds from fleeing an overdeveloped metropolis; run a busy chai stall; navigate shifting political landscapes in a troubled democracy. Others are offering new takes on hyperlocal histories: Help build villages and temples in Hampi during the Vijayanagara empire; erect the Taj Mahal; run a business in pre-liberalisation India.

In Lakshadweep the game, as in the real world, construction endangers each small island. In a simplified exploration of the dilemmas involved, players forfeit a few resources with each new hotel, fishery or other such development. The more corals and forests an island retains, the more points the player earns. In Birds in the City, set in Bengaluru, players’ careful efforts to nurture bird populations (via measures such as feeders and composting) may be foiled by announcements of a new airport or quarry in their area of the board.

“The blend of strategy and luck required to keep one’s island stable in Lakshadweep is reflective of what happens in reality, where you could try your best to conserve natural resources, but changes in policy, infrastructure and climate can wreck your plans. Or greed can take over,” says Venkat Iyer, co-founder of Luma World, makers of that game.

How much of a market is there for niche narratives of this kind? Game-makers and publishers say they are encouraged by growing interest in events such as Meeplecon, India’s first board-game convention. It was launched in Mumbai in 2017, with about 350 people attending to try out about 30 games. The 2023 edition saw over 10,000 participants and more than 200 board games. In 2024, there are plans to expand, with editions in Pune, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad too, says co-founder Prashant Maheshwari.

Meeplecon is a rare space, however, and the lack of platforms on which people can take new games for a spin, is holding the sector back, publishers say. Some are getting around this independently.

Mozaic Games, makers of Chai Garam and Karigar-e-Taj, are currently hosting a two-day event in Bengaluru (on January 6 and 7). The company also runs Board Games Bazaar, a store and experience space launched last year. Stores such as Bored Game Company in Pune are offering more Indian games (of their 400-odd offerings, about 100 are now made-in-India products, says co-founder Moiz Bookwala), and space where people can try out a few before making a purchase.

It matters what games we play, says applied game designer Prasad Sandbhor, co-creator of Birds in the City. “Certain ones represent the gameful structures that abound in the real world,” he says. “On the board, the line that separates you from those structures in the real world fades away.” War-time strategy becomes chess; an island boils down to little blue tiles; a new airport suddenly feels much closer, when it endangers the paper birds you worked so hard to protect. Birds whose survival determines whether you win this round, or lose and exit the game.


Soar and save Bengaluru’s birds

Players must work together to boost the number of birds and diversity of species.
Players must work together to boost the number of birds and diversity of species.

Birds in the City plays out on a map of Bengaluru marked out as habitats with a set number of resources such as insects, fruits and flowers. The game’s three to five players must work together to protect and nurture these resources in ways that increase the number and diversity of birds on the board.

There are three levels of bird diversity to achieve; conversely, if natural resources dwindle too far, birds may begin to leave.

There are 10 species to woo and protect, in the board game, including the white-cheeked barbet, black kite, spot-billed pelican, red-whiskered bulbul, and purple-rumped sunbird. The 10 species represent a mix of fruit-eating, carnivorous and water birds, among others.

All still live in the real Bengaluru. As in the real world, some move across the map, while others depend on specific micro-habitats.

Dice are rolled to determine positive actions, such as gardening, composting and the placing of bird feeders. Cards represent external factors: the construction of an airport, a new quarry, or toxic foam on a lake (all based in recent events from the city’s history).

Depending on the severity of the change dictated by a card, one or all bird species in the zone may be lost.

The disappointment that test players have exhibited when this happens tells creators Priti Bangal and Prasad Sandbhor that they’re on the right track, they say.

Bangal is an ecologist working with the NGO Nature Conservation Foundation; Sandbhor is an applied games designer pursuing a PhD in Intelligent Games and Games Intelligence (IGGI) at University of York. Their game, due for launch in April, has been developed under the Small Grants Programme of the Bengaluru Sustainability Forum, which funds engaging cross-disciplinary projects that promote long-term sustainability.

The hope is that the game will encourage its players to pay a little more attention to the natural habitats around them in the real world, Bangal says.

There are plans for more such story-based, sense-making games, around themes such as climate action and conservation, Sandbhor adds.

To reduce their own carbon footprint, since board games are still largely paper and cardboard-based, Bangal and Sandbhor plan to launch the game in a limited run, and distribute most sets among schools, NGOs and board game cafes, for wider reach.


Protect the corals and forests of Lakshadweep

In Lord of the Bins (2018), the first game released by Luma World in a new eco-focused series, players win points for collecting, segregating and disposing of trash. It’s an attempt to expand the company’s offerings (they largely make play-and-learn products for children) to resonate with adults too.

The five-year-old Luma World’s newest game, Lakshadweep ( 999), is several steps up in complexity.

Here, two players juggle development and ecology while running an archipelago, represented by colourful printed tiles. They can build islands with ports and fisheries, hotels and homes, in the ecological hotspot, but each comes at a cost.

For every colourful tile a player places, representing a new development, they forfeit a few resources to their opponent. The more corals and forests an island retains, the more points the player earns. “As in the real world, changes in policy, infrastructure and climate can wreck your plans too,” says Luma World co-founder Venkat Iyer, 35.

Released in March, the game was conceptualised by independent board-game designer Sidhant Chand. The details were a collaborative effort, inspired partly by Iyer’s own experience.

“I holidayed in Lakshadweep in 2016-17, and visited an uninhabited island there called Parali 1. Soon after, I read in the news that the island had vanished; it had sunk due to coastal erosion. It was gone, just like that,” says Iyer, 35.

This is an ecosystem unique to India, he adds, yet its destruction barely makes it to dinner-table conversation. “So when Chand approached us with the idea of an island society game, in 2021, it resonated. With Lakshadweep, the idea is to get people to acknowledge the domino effect human actions can have on the natural world.”


Piece together the Taj; be a chaiwallah for a day


In Karigar-e-Taj, each of the one to four players is an artisan working on the Taj Mahal in Agra. They must each strategise to buy resources from a bazaar, which is an ever-changing place.

As they build, they must aim to outdo each other and win “bakshish” or gifts from the Emperor, as well as “Taj” points; manage tiny wooden meeple workers; collect precious stones, ebony, red sandstone, marble and elephants for construction.

A large blueprint acts as the guide. Once a player has acquired the materials and workers, they may put coloured tiles in place, to show that they have completed that section. The faster and higher one builds, the more points one collects. When the last section is done, the player with the most points wins.

The board game (priced at 3,299) was conceived by game designer Amit Ghadge and launched by Mozaic Games in 2023. “At a time when the Taj is threatened by pollution, this is an engaging, direct way to unpack what went into creating this wonder of the world, and what is at stake,” says Mozaic co-founder Phalgun Polepalli, 42.

Such aspects of the Indian experience sit at the heart of the seven games released by this company so far. They include Yudhbhoomi, in which meeples of male and female warriors fight in epic battles; Indus 2500 BCE, a civilisation-building game; Vallamkali, which recreates the snake-boat race of Kerala; and Chai Garam, in which two to four players compete to run busy tea stalls at a bustling mela.

Vallamkali plays out on a long strip of a board, fashioned to represent the channels of the Kerala backwaters.
Vallamkali plays out on a long strip of a board, fashioned to represent the channels of the Kerala backwaters.

The unusual themes have led to innovations with format too. Vallamkali, designed by Polepalli, for instance, plays out on a long strip of a board, fashioned to represent the channels of the Kerala backwaters. Players bid for oarsmen; and must end the game as the wealthiest player, to win. “The wealth comes from winning the race and betting on boats the player thinks will win. The betting on boats aspect was added so a player who is lagging behind in the race still has a chance of winning,” says Polepalli, laughing.

Chai Garam is a different kind of hustle. Players shop for ingredients at a bazaar. Use recipe cards and a kitchen section, with illustrated burners and saucepans. Earn money from orders, upgrade the stall, and win stars from influencers or repeat customers, to rise up a favour track.

The game was conceptualised by game designer Sidhant Chand (see the story alongside for more on his journey). It has since travelled to conventions around the world, including to Essen Spiel in Germany, the Board Game Geek Convention in Dallas, and Meeplecon Mumbai. “We sold about 45 copies on the first day of the Dallas convention,” Polepalli says. “Players pre-booked slots to play it, and we ended up losing a couple of copies of the game amid the happy chaos.”


Overthrow the empire, in style

(Photo: Shasn Azadi / Kickstarter)
(Photo: Shasn Azadi / Kickstarter)

What does it take to organise a revolution? What are the new risks that emerge once it succeeds? These are questions posed by Shasn: Azadi, a semi-cooperative board game due for launch soon.

Developed by Abhishek Lamba and Zain Memon of Goa-based cinema and new media studio Memesys Lab, it is a sequel to the political strategy board game Shasn, released in 2019.

In the first game, the player was a politician, across different countries, including India, the US and Ancient Rome. The aim was to contest elections, explore ethical dilemmas, expand influence, use assets such as campaign funds, media buzz and clout, and eventually head a democracy (or, win).

With Shasn: Azadi, the aim of the first level is revolution. Five versions of the game represent as many revolts. The board stays the same, but different decks, purchasable separately, represent South Asia, Russia, Egypt, the US, and a Mars settlement. The aim with each is to win freedom from an oppressive regime, then win the first election in the newly independent democracy.

The game can be played by two to five people. Each player must align with one of four ideologies: capitalist, showstopper, idealist or supremo. What they choose will determine the assets they set out with, including funds, trust, media attention and clout.

Azadi Cards, representing turning-point events, trigger further action and shape each player’s path.

As they play, through cards and tokens, they unlock resistance and build majorities. The game is meant to make players question the state of fundamental rights and public welfare schemes in their own country; examine the personal motivations of leaders in the real world.


Give Hampi a makeover


Temples dating to the early 14th century, farms along the Tungabhadra river, and houses dotting the banks of ponds come alive in the board game Hampi and the Sun Jewel, launched in 2023, as two to five players work to build the Unesco World Heritage Site.

The cooperative strategy adventure was developed by Tacit Games, founded by husband-wife duo Kiran Kulkarni, 46, and Sindhu Murthy Kulkarni, 45, amid the pandemic.

The couple began by making jigsaw puzzles featuring Indian folk-art forms such as Madhubani and Pattachitra. “Board games bring together the things I love most: mathematical models, Indian culture, and play,” says Kiran, formerly an industrial designer and architect.

Long before Tacit, Kiran had studied game theory and design, and scribbled notes for games that he might one day build. Then, in the pandemic, he saw the industry expand, and he and his wife decided to chase this dream.

He dug out his game notes, and married them with his observations of Hampi, which he visits about once a year (a practice the Bangalorean began in architecture school). He and Sindhu consulted with academicians on what people wore in the Vijayanagara era, how land developed, what kinds of conflicts likely arose. They worked with artist Smita Kaushik on the visual design.

The game, which costs 2,499, unfolds across a grid of golden hexagonal tiles. Each tile holds a temple, village, road, river, pond, trees or farms. They must be pieced together to build a landscape or zone to certain specifications (farms, water body, roads connecting villages). Each goal achieved earns the favour of a hypothetical resident group, which adds to the player’s points. Completed roads earn the favour of merchants; temples yield the support of priests.

The idea is to get people to think about what it took to build India’s ancient cities, Kiran says. The sun jewel adds a touch of intrigue and myth. This tile is awarded to the player who garners the most public support.

The couple is considering a series of games set in Hampi, next. Each will focus on a different aspect of the place, such as architecture and historical events, Kiran says.

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