I am Django for the night and I am part of one of the most ragtag bunch of bandits you’ll ever see. There is Dr. Nisha, a dentist by profession, who is playing the beautiful Belle; Aniceto, a teacher, plays the intelligent Doc; Pooja, who handles communications for an MNC, is tough-as-nails Tuco; and finally Apar, a professional game-designer, has chosen to play as the pickpocket Chayenne. We plan to rob a train. Sitting around a table in Colaba.
Welcome to the immersive world of tabletop Gaming - an umbrella term used to represent board games, card games, role playing games, and any other game that can be played on a table, or a flat surface. Tonight, I am playing with the folks from TableTop India - a Mumbai based gamer group dedicated to promoting the hobby nationwide. Now just to be clear, if you think games like Ludo and Monopoly rule the roost here, then you need to vacate that cave of yours ASAP. Calling these games an example of tabletop gaming is like calling the Model T a car. Technically correct, but way behind the times. Modern day tabletop games have come a long way since 1934 when the Parker brothers bought the rights to 'The Landlord’s Game' and named it 'Monopoly'.
For example, the board game we are playing tonight - Colt Express - is a unique one in that it doesn’t really have a board to play on. Instead, there is a cardboard 3-D train on which the game is played. To complete the look of a western-themed train robbery, there is cacti and shrubbery to place around the train as well.
(From left to right) Nisha, Apar and Aniceto having a good time beating me at Colt Express
Colt Express is an excellent example of what is called the Euro game genre. These games tend to downplay luck and emphasize strategy, while making sure that participants last all the way till the end of the game. The continental moniker owes its origins to the genre’s roots in Europe; particularly Germany. The genre became a global phenomenon in 1995 when a resource management game called Settlers of Catan became a worldwide hit. Today, Euro games have become synonymous with the term board games, so much so that the annually presented Euro game award called Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the year) is widely regarded as the Oscar of board gaming. In fact, Colt Express was the recipient of the the Spiel De Jahres in 2015. Apar Maniar, my fellow bandit on the train, swears by the watertight mechanics of Euro games. His favourite board game of all time happens to be a Euro game called Terra Mystica, and he loves it because ‘there is no element of luck here, no rolling of a die, no chances – if something went wrong you made a mistake. It’s all on you.’
Apar would know what he is talking about. He is a professional game-designer who has been developing both digital and analog games for 17 years. After coming back from the US in 2014, he yearned for the ‘gaming nights’ he used to be a part of back in Michigan. He, and nine other kindred spirits, decided to do something for the promotion of their shared love and launched TableTop India in March 2015. With its name inspired by the smash hit Youtube show called TableTop, the group held India’s first Tabletop Day on April 11 and was overwhelmed by the response. 'With the kind of crowd we pulled in, a lot of toy companies in India woke up to the potential of tabletop gaming and hopefully within a year or two we might have all the popular Euro games available in India’, says Aniceto Pereira, co-founder of the group and our host for the night. The unavailability of these games is the biggest grouse that the Indian gamers have. They either have to dish out exorbitant shipping costs, or convince loved ones travelling abroad to get them a game. This has prompted the group to introduce the concept of co-owned games. ‘We plan to pour all the money that we get from our events into buying new games for the group,’ says Aniceto, who is in the process of getting the group registered as a not-for-profit company.
Other than board gaming, the group also organises sessions of role-playing games that involves participants donning roles of imaginary characters in a fictional setting. The game organiser, called the Dungeon Master, then on-the-fly decides the story pattern and campaigns on which these characters would embark upon. The emphasis here, unlike board games, is not on the final goal to win but to actually take part in fantastical journeys with fellow enthusiasts. Consequently, a single game might last days, sometimes even years, to complete. Apar tells me of one such time - ‘The last role-playing game that we played, lasted 17 sessions played over a year. The imminent departure of a player to Delhi, forced me, as the Dungeon Master, to end the campaign sooner than I had originally planned’.
RPG components add a visual layer to the narrative of the game
The golden age of tabletop gaming is finally upon us. It’s been a long time coming, considering the oldest board game - The Royal Game of Urs – is older than all of the world’s major religions. It’s not just the playing of tabletop games that is experiencing a surge in the country; a handful of individuals and gaming studios, buoyed by the fantastic reception on Kickstarter, are designing and creating their own games. One of these successful Kickstarter stories is that of Chandan Mohanty . A former financial consultant, he and his friend, Sagar Shankar, got bit by the tabletop game bug and decided to design a card game of their own in 2012. After a couple of years of planning, test playing the game, and getting feedback, they launched the Maha Yodha project on Kickstarter in 2014 and within a month had the required funding.
The game is a strategic card game that pits two factions – The Devas and Asuras – against each other and features mythical warriors from across epics and ages. Its strongpoints are its game mechanics and the artwork that has been a result of collaborations between artists from 15 different countries. The game currently has a rating of 9 out of 10 on IGN and enjoys similar high praise across several other game-review websites. Leprechaun Games, the game studio founded by Chandan and Sagar, already has its next game lined up – a city-discovery game set in Delhi. Chandan believes that the Indian market is ripe and we would be seeing a lot more Indian games soon. He makes a valid point when he asks ‘Germany has its Die Macher which is a game about politics. Where is our Lok Sabha?’
A Maha Yodha game in progress
As the world moves more and more towards a digital future where the solitary and passive consumption of media is becoming a norm, analog board games are a breath of fresh air. ‘You get the equivalent of 100 movies out of a single game. This active experience trumps the passivity of couch warming by a mile’, argues Apar in favour of the hobby. Even love can blossom over board games. ‘Two of our members who are now dating, met over a session of Settlers of Catan. In a way you actually get to see the best and the worst of a person through a round of gaming’, says Nisha whose architect, work-from-home husband loves her passion for gaming, and dutifully arrives at whatever time she asks to pick her up from a meetup venue.
When even newcomers to the tabletop community, like Pooja (aka Tuco for the night), are joining gaming groups in three different cities, just so that they can play wherever they go, it does seem like the future is bright for tabletop gaming in India. The same can’t be said for my prospects on the Colt Express train as I compete with bandits more vicious and prepared than me. And predictably enough, I lose this round. Django gets shot by the sheriff and ends up being the poorest bandit on the train as it pulls into the last station. So much for beginner’s luck!
Words and Photography : Avijit Pathak