When Portland-based software engineer Rael Dornfest visited Mumbai to meet his wife’s family, he was introduced to an ubiquitous sight—the Mumbai dabbawalas. And like other people before him, including Prince Charles and academics at the Indian Institute of Management and Harvard, Dornfest was fascinated by the efficiency of these white-clad men in their Gandhi caps, pedalling furiously across the city.
“When I first learnt about the amazing work of the Mumbai dabbawalas, I was enthralled,” Dornfest, who has created a game based on the dabbawalas, said by email. “Given the complicated transportation routes, urban chaos and sheer number of daily tiffins, I understood what a feat it is that these people are able to deliver lunches so accurately, so consistently every day.”
He researched extensively about them, reading up online, watching Ritesh Batra’s 2013 film The Lunchbox , listening to Pawan Agarwal, chief executive of Mumbai Dabbawala, an organization of dabbawalas. But his best learning came from actually spending a day with the dabbawalas. He recalls the bustle of the streets of Mumbai, the speed and accuracy of the men in sorting and carrying the tiffin boxes and his conversations with them.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said.
With the help of his friend and co-designer Jonathan Hager—a software engineer who has previously published another game, titled Captain’s Wager—Dornfest wove together the theme, mechanics and mathematics to make a game “that is both fun to play and a representation of the work of the dabbawalas”. They then play-tested the game with friends at their weekly game nights and then at board game conventions, he added.
In the game, players who represent dabbawalas delivering tiffin lunches to their customers can earn points in two ways—either by delivering their own tiffins or by contributing to the delivery of the tiffins on a given route. “The game play is competitive and leads to plenty of laughter and gasps of surprise around the table,” said Dornfest. “Perfect for families and groups of friends.”
In 2014, Hager pitched the game to Jay Tummelson, CEO of Rio Grande Games, at Gen Con. “He agreed to publish it,” said Dornfest, adding that game developer Ken Hill fine-tuned the game, Kurt Miller designed the artwork and the layout was developed by Mirko Suzuki. Tiffin was launched at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2016 and is now available at board game retailers.
Dornfest is now working on several new games, with themes ranging from zombies and princesses to continental exploration and chocolate-making. Of Tiffin, he said: “The game both honours the dabbawalas and teaches players about the remarkable nature of their work in a fun, participatory way.”