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Play, for game's sake!

Abhilasha Ojha  |  New Delhi 

The interest in board games is growing and dedicated communities arrange their evenings around the latest heist or mind sport.

Aparna Keswani looks around nervously, twists the edges of her handkerchief, bites her lips in anticipation, and finally buries her head in her hands. She’s confused, but she needs to think fast and hard. Having acquired several acres of land and developed a car company from scratch, Keswani is learning about intellectual property rights. Rivals are trying to grab the unique wiper system for which she’s acquired a patent. Others are playing songs on their car stereos without her permission — even though she holds the copyright for which the singers need to be paid royalty. Can she sue such people? Better still, can she send them to jail for a long, long time?

“Think quickly,” says her partner — like Keswani, a 17-year-old student at New Delhi’s Salwan Public School — and dressed, like her, in the school uniform. “I am thinking,” Keswani says impatiently, then allows a smile to escape, “Okay, I’m a ‘patent troll’ and I’m going to send you to jail.” A few minutes later she’s financially secured the company’s wiper system. The court has declared that it cannot be replicated by any other company, and all because Keswani was aware of her 15 intellectual property rights.

Keswani, on the edge of losing crores of rupees, is elated. If she hadn’t been aware of trademarks, patents and design copyrights, she might have gone under. “I’ve won,” she exults, almost as if it’s a real life victory. One of many participants of a unique competition, a board game contest where children learn about intellectual property rights on tangible and intangible properties, Keswani is part of a growing breed of Indians — grown-up youngsters and middle-aged adults — who are succumbing to the lure of board games. And no, these aren’t online encounters; they are played in real time, in real life, with counters and dice and things you can hold in your hands and people who sit across you.

The brainchild of this game, Anaryst, is well-known lawyer Pravin Anand who is now planning a comic book series to make children aware of intellectual property rights. A self-confessed board game enthusiast, Anand remembers playing Lie Detector as a child. “I thought,” reflects Anand, “there was nothing better than an entertaining board game to teach kids — and adults — intellectual property rights.” He believes that board games are a fantastic way to ensure that students not just learn but also remember their rights as individuals.

What Anand does by way of spreading information, thousands now do for entertainment at parties. The next time you visit a friend, don’t be surprised if your host asks you what you’d like with your glass of wine — not cheese and olives, but from a collection of board games! Despite stiff competition from the numerous online games and Playstation and Xbox 360, newer, more exciting variants of the good old Ludo and Snakes and Ladders are here. Businesswise, says Satish Sundra, owner, Ram Chander & Sons, India’s oldest toy shop, board games are doing so well that customers are walking into the store with a list of games that they have surfed for on the net. “Families walk into the store and want at least three different versions of Scrabble,” he says. R Jeswant, Funskool’s vice president (sales and marketing), asks, “How can board games make a comeback? They never left us,” he says, adding that the company has recorded a 40 per cent growth in 2008-09 in the board games category alone. It tied up recently with IIT Mumbai to develop a host of homegrown games for Indian consumers. “As part of the industrial design course, students prepared board games and we decided to distribute them,” says Jeswant, explaining that all that these family games require are skill and aptitude.

He’s yet to learn about Funskool’s latest offering but Ajesh Shah, an investment banker in the US, who came back to India two years ago to start “game clubs” for likeminded enthusiasts, is busy firming up plans for the next “board game night” in Mumbai. “I don’t earn the way I used to in the US, but I was burning out and had to do something about it,” he says. Still in his early twenties, Shah started Peacock Projects, a forum for organising cultural festivals while also promoting newer names in the field of music, dance and visual arts. Since he is a board game “freak”, he also started Board Game Bash, a club where members register and meet to play — what else? — board games. The response, says Shah, who owns around 20 board games, has been overwhelming, and there are already 150-160 registered members. The club has already held Poker nights, UNO-card bashes, Scrabble club nights and what have you in members’ residences, but now hopes to host board game parties at pubs too. “We are getting feelers from some pubs and should be able to host board game nights in Mumbai,” says Shah, who began the initiative with partner Tarun Durga of Zapak games. The partners are now in the process of developing a host of board games for the discerning market. But what prompted Shah to start board game nights? “We had stopped thinking as children. Caught in the stressful professional and personal spheres of our lives, we were drinking and cribbing and going back home,” he says.

Aparna Jain of Nine Months, a Delhi-based store for moms-to-be, agrees with Shah. Jain moved to Delhi some years ago and found — to her utter dismay — that people wanted to come to a party to drink, eat and gossip. So, three months ago, Jain sent out messages to six of her friends to join her for a Cranium night. “I got a fantastic response,” she says. Some weeks later, she tried it again and was surprised to find that three-four new members wanted to join in too. “Ours is a closely-knit club but it’s nice that the number of members is growing,” laughs Jain, who admits that she’s fiercely protective about her board games. She would be. After all, she surfs the Internet diligently to add to her collection that includes Cranium, Buzzword, The Big Taboo, Jungle Speed, Balderdash and Scrabble. She’s all set to bring home the Cranium booster pack, a deluxe edition of Scrabble and another game called Quiddler. Her friend Seema says that members of the club contribute money to bring home the latest board games — but only after checking the net thoroughly.

The club (which gets four new members every time a game night happens) met last Friday in Delhi’s Greater Kailash area over “incredible Mexican gourmet cuisine to play some more Cranium”, Jain explains. But why is it so important for Jain to bring out board games at parties? “Instead of sitting around with a drink and gossiping, it’s so much better to use your brains effectively,” she says.

Jain, who plays as seriously as any other enthusiast, and hates the idea of losing, says that an evening will see members scream, argue and shout because “board games bring out the child in you”. The group meets on alternate Friday nights. Well-known Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanium, who has a blog dedicated to the games he plays, and has registered himself on for the latest reviews and news on board games, says, “My travelling schedule is hectic, but along with my instruments I also carry my board games. I marvel at my staff who never say a word even when I insist on carrying the games with me on a trip.”

It’s not just in India but around the world that board games are finding their way back into the party circuit and in newspaper headlines. Research has revealed that fathers who played board games at least once a week with their children bond better with them than those who didn’t. Even Hollywood is waking to the potential of scripting stories around such games. Ridley Scott will helm a film along the lines of Monopoly, whereas Universal, according to rumours, is keen on making a saga around Battleship.

Global games publisher Ystari Games has now launched a strategy game called Bombay, priced at Rs 1,750, for which he’s already getting orders. Based in Mumbai, the game involves players moving around different parts of the city in order to sell goods with the help of elephants. Cyril Demaegd, the designer of the game, may not have been familiar with the city — where’s the space for elephants to move in the real Mumbai, after all? — but Ashish Kothari, who suffers from a debilitating condition and retains only 10 per cent of his vision, has also designed unique strategy board games around Mumbai. From Picnic, a game inspired by amusement park Esselworld, to CID, a desi version of Scotland Yard, to other affordable games (for tier II and tier III Indian cities) inspired by television shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati? and films like Titanic and Spiderman, the appetite for board games among Indians, says Kothari, who is himself crazy about Scrabble and Scotland Yard, is enormous.

No wonder the party has just begun.

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First Published: Sat, May 30 2009. 00:44 IST