Sindhu and Kiran Kulkarni, founders of Tacit Games (www.tacitgames.in), launched PuzzleDesh in 2015 with their partner Srinivas Bhylahalli to create 10 puzzles based on Indian classics. Five years later they have designed four board games based on Indian themes, using Indian artists and art. While the Indian board game industry is not as evolved as that of Europe or China, India has much to offer in terms of attractiveness in themes and creativity, say the young board game designers.
What is the status and interest in board games in India today?
When we founded Tacit Games, we started off with puzzles around three to four years ago. We collected traditional paintings like Madhubani or Mysore paintings and digitized them. Next we looked at the stories in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other texts. People loved them and they sold well.
People started sending us photographs showing them playing these puzzles. There was a lady who was pregnant who bought all our 10 puzzles and did one per month as a gift to her unborn child. And then, there are elders who are around 80 - 85 years old who have bought all our 10 puzzles and they call us home for festivals to celebrate with them. This gave us the encouragement that there is a market for puzzles and games based on Indian themes.
People love to engage themselves either solo or as family for more than 40 minutes or one hour. Our games are based on strategies beyond those used in Ludo or snakes and ladders.
Why did you choose Hampi as a theme for your first board game - Mantri of Hampi?
We realized that there are no new games in the market. Even the ones that are there are copied versions of some games from the US - mainly Monopoly which not many of our segment would like to play.
There were no India based games. The only games that were invented in India were Chess, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, etc. The US kept on playing Monopoly for even around 60 years after the Depression new things did not come up.
A huge movement is happening in Europe in Euro-style games and they are selling well in the American market which is a 4 - 5 billion dollar market globally. German board games which were created post 80s and after the 90s onwards, like the Settlers of Catan, had a huge market in America during the end of 2000 and starting of 2000. That's when the whole renaissance of board games happened. It is a huge industry in Europe. Earlier, they used to publish probably 10 - 15 board games a year. Now, it is over 3000 - 4000 a year.
We traveled around the world and understood what kind of a culture is being set up and why Germans play board games and how it is embedded in their cultural systems with communities meeting over weekends, families playing together. Not only the family, they bring friends to play as well.
When we were young, the relatives who introduced us to board games were aunts, during our vacations. So, they wanted us to engage us and they bought us cards and Ludo and that has stayed with us. Our main customer base is ladies (around 90 per cent). They are the ones who buy effectively not just to engage the children but they are also truly interested and understand the value of it.
We realized that if we create new games around Indian themes, around Indian topography, our geography, our way of thinking, our historical references, people would relate to the games.
Overseas, most of the game creators seem to be men...
Most of the games are created by men. Even in Europe it is a bit of male dominated.
Our challenge was how to create games that would appeal to women. We always test our games, They are not war based or about wars. We test with our target segment and obtain a lot of feedback while making the games.
People have shown a lot of interest in games that are not Monopoly, Ludo etc. But they are not available in the Indian market. Even if they are available, they are in very niche places and all European games incur very high Custom duty and so are expensive, difficult to get and not less than Re 4000.
What about board game designers in India? How do you plan the production?
There are no board game designers or makers or setups in India. Everything has to be done from scratch. Even to make a small puzzle, there are no punches in India. The Chinese have very good systems and their harbors are near the Pacific Ocean and they ship it to the US a lot faster than India.
How do you keep alive interest every time?
We are working on four games of which one is Mantri of Hampi. It is a game based on building Hampi and winning people's votes in the form of elections. All our games are based on a Central Indian idea. The symmetry of Hampi is a very hexagonal type based caucus game where you keep adding roads, boulders and temples. The idea is you develop Hampi into a prosperous land and you get to know more about Hampi. It is an interesting take and very similar to how a democratic setup looked like in the 13th century.
Each time you play, you create a new Hampi and there are new strategies. People have not played it, they have done so for four straight hours! The rules are simple and not complicated ones running to six or eight pages like with the Euro style games where the setups are huge.
We use Indian terminologies and people start relating to the land around them and all the people around them.
Why did you choose Hampi?
We are from Karnataka and we travel often to Hampi which has a beautiful landscape. If I were to take a topography of a place like Kulu, it won’t fit my game. Hampi is flexible. The only linear thing is the river and if I replace it with ponds, then every time I create something, it becomes Hampi.
Hampi has so many potential stories - the Virupaksha temple, local people, priests, farmers. There is a social life around it. Hampi was a prototype. In the future we could look at the Mantri of Maandu.
Do you think if people do not have access to the kind of research you had, can they recreate Hampi? Is there any information that you share of the research you have done?
We had done research with the aid of NIAS and other research institutes. I saw a game called Dixit which is a French game. It has a beautiful story telling game. When you study it, it includes some good institutes and you can see the game as a cultural artefact.
We have put all the references in the rule book. People can read it and they will have a weblink that they can go and refer to. I did not want to make a game without a reference of research. We are actually using the research papers to paint how people used to look in the 13th century to make them look very authentic.
I am working with an artist to make it look exactly how it was in the past. It is not just connecting to history but also an imagination of history which I think is richer. It is like fiction of the past.
Which are the other games?
Kalpavriksha is a dexterity based fast paced game. It requires one to build a tree so that it should not fall. There are eight aranyas which are the aranyas of the Ramayana. The player is an Aranyaka, a forest monk. The game is that you have to save all the eight forests. If you build a tree and if it is the tallest, you win and there are eight game plays for it. Right now we are working with manufacturers and artists for the production.
Another one we are working on is Aroopa. We got paintings from Mr Narayan Murthy who does ink blots. He has done around 6 - 7 lakh painting some of which have been displayed in Germany and they are study based paintings. Most of his paintings are archived in libraries and research centers around the world and some of them have been used for para-psycho analysis.
The game goes to the roots of Rorschach paintings.
We have made 80 cards of such paintings. There are seven kinds of dice which create words and you match the words with the painting. People start appreciating art and they start seeing images in those paintings. There are different versions of it. One for kids, one for elders and one can see how the use of words matures over time.
How long did it take to build these games from conceptualization to execution?
We started most of these games around Feb - Mar of this year. These four games have taken four to five months to develop from paper prototype to complete play testing. Now they are into production.
Have you entered international competitions?
We want to go and participate with a strong cultural point of view rather than just gaming and winning. We could have done that maybe when we were young, but now we are not interested in that alone.
There are two aspects to it - working with the artist in creation and manufacturing. Indian manufacturers have very small setups whereas Chinese manufacturers have heavy setups and German manufacturers have engineering strong setups. Chinese setups can produce two lakh pieces in 10 days. Indian setups may give around 20.
There is no one setup that is designed in India for board games. Most of them are print based. Most of the toy based companies are usually the ones that have gone to China and bought their second hand jigs. Their markets are extremely local and they will not export and quality is not that great. We are working with manufacturers to upgrade their systems. That is our responsibility.
Chinese manufacturers have heavy electronic and vacuum based machinery. Indian setups are mechanical based, small setups and can only make 20 - 30 per games per day or even less than that. German setups are extremely polished and designed for board games.
We are very strong in art work and game mechanics. Manufacturing is something different. There are very large printers for regular printing but there is nothing specific for board games. You need a one point place to make quality board games.
(with assistance from Hemamalini S)