Ishira Bhattacharya hates video games, but is passionate about the mechanism of gaming—its intricate rules, internal logic and “holy shit!" moments. Which is why, on most Thursdays, you will find the 31-year-old Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B) graduate and co-founder of Koach.AI, a digital coaching platform for employee training, headed to Lahe Lahe, a cultural community space in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar area, where she can be seen hunched over a table absorbed in a board game.

On most weekends, she spends around 6-7 hours playing board games either with her husband, who is also an enthusiast, or friends who are equally passionate about the hobby. Once she played for 9 hours straight at a friend’s place. They were absorbed in a board game called Eldritch Horror—a cooperative game “of terror and adventure in which one to eight players take the roles of globetrotting investigators working to solve mysteries, gather clues, and protect the world from an Ancient One". A few months ago, Bhattacharya, whose introduction to tabletop gaming happened through a US-based cousin who got her hooked to the iconic board game Dominion, won a board game tournament during a marathon game session at a Bengaluru pub organized on the occasion of International Tabletop Day, a global one-day event dedicated to celebrating board games and the communities they help to inspire and create.

The event was organized by ReRoll: The Bangalore Board Games Collective, the largest organized board gaming group with the highest number of players and gaming events in the country. A couple of weeks ago, I made my way to Lahe Lahe, hoping to catch a few board gamers in action during ReRoll’s weekly event, Tabletop Thursdays. Over the next few hours, almost 50 people landed up at the community café, choosing the games on offer, finding partners, and settling down at the low tables spread around the large room with floor seating. Some who came in late joined groups that had already formed, while some hung around watching games in progress, waiting for them to get over, so they could get a chance. Many had come straight from work, carrying laptop bags and still wrapping up work-related calls and emails as they walked in. “Today’s an especially good turnout," said Punjit Sharma, one of the core members of ReRoll, as he fairly bounced around the room setting up games, explaining rules, and finding space for newcomers. “You must join a game too," he told me. “I’m hopeless at board games. I lose even at Ludo," I said. “We don’t judge. We have players at all levels, and it’s about having fun, not winning or losing. You’ll catch up," Punjit said confidently.

Not really sharing his confidence, I chose to sit in on a game of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, a four-player game based on the boy wizard’s adventures. It was voted one of the top board games in 2017 by American Mensa, the high IQ society, which annually awards five board games that are “original, challenging and well designed".

ReRoll founders (from left) Hiemanshu Sharma, Asma Tajuddin, Karthik Balakrishnan, Mithun Balraj, Sreechand Tavva and Punjit Sharma. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint
ReRoll founders (from left) Hiemanshu Sharma, Asma Tajuddin, Karthik Balakrishnan, Mithun Balraj, Sreechand Tavva and Punjit Sharma. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint

The Harry Potter game is one of the most popular ones during Tabletop Thursdays, with interested players “booking" it on the group’s 216-member-strong super-active WhatsApp group in the run-up to the gaming day; more than four players had shown interest, and while only the first four actually got to play, the others found other games and settled in.

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Given the amount of time they spend playing, organizing and thinking about board games, it’s surprising that none of the founders and members of the core team at ReRoll do this for a living. Karthik Balakrishnan, one of the two passionate gamers who forms the nucleus of the group, is a developer at Insider.in, an event ticketing company; while the other, Mithun Balraj, is an engineer who works as communications specialist at The Roots Collective, a video game development studio in Bengaluru. Among the other core members are Sreechand Tavva, who handles technology and data at the non-profit Arghyam; Punjit Sharma, a developer at Honeywell; Asma Tajuddin, a corporate lawyer with ITC; and Hiemanshu Sharma, a developer with a digital security network.

The group came together simply by playing together. “Initially it was just me and Mithun. Then Punjit, Asma started playing with us. Then we started organizing game nights for people who showed interest in playing. Suddenly, about six months ago, we hit the point where with absolutely no effort, 20-25 people started showing up every week," says Balakrishnan.

It is “financially catastrophic", says Balakrishnan. One of the most expensive aspects is procuring board games, which are (mostly) not available in India and attract a high customs duty when they are imported. Still, the members of the collective have managed to source over 90 board games between them, around 30 of which are lugged by them to the venue every week.

“The biggest hurdle is and continues to be customs duties and clearance in India. Getting the games into India and getting them cleared is tough. We know this first hand," says Gautam Goenka, Dubai-based founder of The Bored Yogi, an e-commerce website that stocks board games. Goenka and his former partner, Nihit Goyal from Surat, started the company only in November 2017—but despite the encouraging response from serious gamers in India and groups like ReRoll, running the business has its challenges. Before starting the company, the two travelled to SPIEL in 2017, the biggest international board games convention held in Essen, Germany, every October. They tracked down distributors who were willing to ship to India, and then ordered English-language versions of games they wanted. Then they set up a stall with a few games at the Delhi Comic Con—and felt they were in business.

But after a recent hike in customs duties for all imported toys and entertainment products from 10-20%, the price of board games went up considerably—with most priced well over 2,000. For instance, Star Wars: Rebellion retails for a neat 8,029. “These duties and charges make it hard to sell games at reasonable prices, which is why bigger companies don’t want to enter the market despite its potential," Goenka says. “Officials sometimes open games to inspect them and leave them severely damaged. Even taking the plastic off the cover of the game makes it unsellable." The other challenge is to explain to potential customers why these games are so much more expensive than the traditional Monopoly, Ludo, Cluedo, or Risk (either manufactured under licence in India by companies like Funskool or without a licence, as in the case of Ludo). “Yet another challenge is of aware players constantly comparing prices of games in the US to those in India. People expect to get American board games in India at American prices after all taxes and GST payments. It’s an unrealistic expectation and one that makes doing business in India as a start-up more difficult," says Goenka.

A game of Parade in progress. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint
A game of Parade in progress. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint

Most serious gamers ask friends and family travelling to the US to bring back board games for them. This is mainly how ReRoll has managed to build up its enviable collection of nearly 100 board games.

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Once in a few weeks, ReRoll organizes marathon gaming sessions at a pub—a “Seriously Fun Game Day" that lasts hours. “They are just longer versions of our Thursday events but with beer," says Balakrishnan. Of the ticket price of 499, 300 is redeemable on F&B. It’s not just the promise of beer that draws over 100 people to each of these events, though; since they are held over a weekend, more people are able to turn up and play goes on longer, so it’s a chance to play games that take time to set up and finish, such as Dead Of Winter, a cooperative game that tests a group of survivors’ ability to work together and stay alive while facing crises and challenges; or Arkham Horror, like Eldritch Horror, a cooperative adventure game themed around author H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional universe, aka the Cthulhu Mythos (yes, there is a lot of crossover between popular culture and board games). Some of the oldest and most popular board games, such as Dominion (a world-building game), or Catan (a seminal civilization-building game known for popularizing Eurogames), are also long-playing ones that take hours to set up and complete. Then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, the legendary role-playing game popularized by TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things, which has gone through so many evolutions that it is difficult to tell today which version players are talking about when they mention playing “D&D".

While it’s still nascent in India, in the US and Europe, tabletop games have their own conventions and industry reports. Several Kickstarter campaigns to fund original board games have attracted thousands of dollars in investment. Hellboy: The Board Game, based on the eponymous comic book, earned over $1 million (around 6.8 crore) in two days earlier this year. Then there’s Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop wargame set in a dystopian future that has spawned a best-selling video game, as well as a series of novels based on the extended universe of the game. Reports peg the global industry at over a billion dollars, even as the trend of developing smartphone apps based on board games—a move trashed by many dedicated gamers—takes hold.

Breaking the stereotype of dorky, pimply young men hunched over D&D for hours, ReRoll sees gamers of every kind, from students to senior executives. Almost 50% of the participants at the weekly and monthly events are women. And unlike most Hollywood portrayals of gamers as awkward, anti-social guys who can’t get dates, most of the people who turn up are drawn, at least in part, to the community and social aspect of the activity. Playing board games, unlike playing video games, is fortunately not a solitary activity.

Asma Tajuddin says, “The social factor is crucial, as is the feeling of euphoria and immersion players experience. You come away with a high after an evening playing board games. There really is a surge of energy." She started playing board games several years ago with friends and graduated to hosting game-nights at her house. Eventually, she crossed paths with Balakrishnan and Balraj, who were organizing ReRoll events at the now-defunct Games Khopcha in Bengaluru—a board game café in Koramangala.

“Being inclusive is part of the ethos here. I was made to feel welcome when I joined, and I think many women have started coming regularly because they see I’m a part of the organizers," says Tajuddin. The collective has a strict code of conduct, and anyone joining the Facebook group, through which most of the communication happens, has to read it and agree to it. “It’s a safe space. There’s no ‘boys will be boys attitude’," she adds.

While there are active gaming communities in most cities—in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and even smaller towns like Surat—the male-female ratio isn’t always so robust.

Sanjay Gianchandani, a senior database engineer and one of the core members of the Facebook group Board Gamers of Delhi, says around 95% of regulars at the Delhi gaming sessions—usually held over weekends—are men. Gianchandani, 34, says he is “among the oldies in the Delhi group" but is just as passionate about board games as the youngest member—perhaps more, since he can afford to buy more games. He currently owns 55. “Recently, during a trip to the US, I got back two suitcases full of games," he says over the phone from Hyderabad, where he was travelling on work. In the evening, he was planning to meet up with a bunch of board gamers there to play three games: Modern Art, an auction game; Rococo, a deck-building game set in the lavish court of France’s Louis XV in the 18th century; and Decrypto, a code-breaking game styled after Codenames, one of the most popular “party games".

“I used to be a video gamer before and would spend up to 8 hours a day playing. Now I’m trying to convert my family to playing board games. Most of my US haul was beginner-level party games which my wife and I now play," says Gianchandani.

Cthulhu (bless his noodly appendages) is happy.

Popular board game types

Cooperative

Players unite against the board and win/lose as a team. Pandemic, Lord of the Rings

Eurogame

All about strategy and less about luck, usually have economic themes and are low on conflict and player elimination (as opposed to the so-called “Ameritrash" games, which are generally more about luck, conflict and drama). Settlers of Catan, Terra Mystica

Party

Convenient for big groups with easily learnt rules. Codenames, Telestrations

Role-playing

One player is the narrator or “dungeon master", while other characters play roles while combating challenges. Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu

Legacy

The players change the board and rules as they play. Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy

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