Board games are back in Saudi Arabia, the UAE

Board games are back in Saudi Arabia, the UAE
The Middle East, particularly the GCC, has caught the tabletop gaming bug. (Photo courtesy: Adam Grundey)
Updated 25 July 2017

Board games are back in Saudi Arabia, the UAE

Board games are back in Saudi Arabia, the UAE

DUBAI: When video games began to dominate mainstream home entertainment in the mid-1980s, they decimated their predecessor, the board game industry. While Monopoly, Risk and a few other classics continued to sell — thanks mainly to behemoth Hasbro’s smart franchising efforts (Harry Potter or Star Wars Monopoly, for example) — new games were few and far between. How could old-fashioned dice and counters expect to compete against the adrenaline rush of, say, a first-person shoot-em-up like Doom?
But in 1995, German university professor Klaus Teuber released a strategic board game called Settlers of Catan, kick-starting a slow but steady revival of tabletop gaming which — even as video games became increasingly sophisticated and immersive — has continued ever since. Indeed, over the past decade the tabletop gaming resurgence has gathered pace to the point where, now, avid gamer and owner of Back to Games — a tabletop gaming store with outlets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai — Mark Azzam can claim “it’s the Golden Age again.”
Azzam said the Middle East, particularly the GCC, has definitely caught the tabletop gaming bug.
His friend Rami Sunnari, who owns Challenge Round Board Games in Jeddah, where people pay between 25 and 35 riyals per day to play tabletop games, agreed.
“We started slow, but the first Saudi Comic-Con in Jeddah was pivotal,” Sunnari said. “Today, we have an average of 30 visitors a day and we’re growing every month.”
Sunnari added that, in Saudi Arabia, it is becoming “a trend” for people to buy board games for family gatherings or parties. “Maybe young people are getting tired of video games because they’re mostly not social and you can’t involve your family in them,” he suggested.
Tabletop gaming includes board games; role-playing games (RPGs), the most famous of which is Dungeons and Dragons; card games, which can include one-to-one combat games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon; and miniature games — war games in which the players are represented by miniature figures (Warhammer is perhaps the best-known mini game).
Azzam said “modern” (i.e. post-1995) board games differ from the classics in several distinct ways: “They’re generally shorter — not three or four hours like Risk or Monopoly — you can finish many of them in about 90 minutes. And they have modular boards, not fixed, so the board will change every time you play.”
The gameplay, too, is more involving.
“They’re not like Monopoly, where you just roll a dice and move. That’s chance. Instead, you choose where and how you build in a very, very different way. They give you different forms of strategy, there are many paths you can take to win.”
A quick look inside Back to Games’ Dubai branch shows a dizzying array of titles available. Many are linked to famous pop-culture franchises such as Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Adventure Time, but many more are entirely new inventions — Azzam said that, worldwide, 60 to 70 new games are currently released every month — offering new worlds for gamers to explore and imagine.
Imagination is one of the key elements of tabletop gaming’s popularity, Azzam believes.
“A video game — as incredible as some of them are — is just giving you one channel of information,” he said. “The (game’s creator) will show you exactly what’s happening. There’s no room for imagining anything else. Whereas, when you’re playing a role-playing game, for example, it’s the antithesis of that — you imagine everything. All you have are words on a page.”
Board games, he added, fall somewhere between the two. “You do see images,” he said. “You have a board. But because you’re interacting directly with it, instead of staring into a screen, and interacting with other players too, as you’re building up your little empire, you can kind of imagine that world in front of you. And that brings a really beautiful element to tabletop gaming which I find really lacking in computer games.”
For Azzam, another crucial factor of tabletop gaming is the social aspect that Sunnari mentioned. “I think that’s the most beautiful part of our business,” he said. “You can build friendships around these games. A lot of people actually come to us after buying a game and thank us for this; for letting them be with people again. Because they can’t remember the last time they did it.
“People remember these games,” he continued. “Six months down the line, they’ll talk about (a particular gaming session). They’re something to be shared and I think that’s something really special.”
Azzam believes that this social aspect is something that will contribute heavily to the growth of tabletop gaming in the Middle East. “Arabic culture is very much about family,” the Lebanese entrepreneur said. These games can bring people together, he added.
“A lot of people are very disconnected from their families nowadays, all on their own screens. That’s the norm now. I definitely want to keep pushing (tabletop gaming) for families and their kids. I shared a lot of that with my mom, so it’s a very personal quest for me. I think there’s (potential for) a very big development for tabletop gaming here. More so than in other cultures.”
A few hours before we met, he said, four families had been playing games in the store. “The energy and the emotion and the back and forth between them — those who were winning and losing — was all over the place. And you don’t get that when you see a person playing a video game. That’s very insular.”
He believes that tabletop gaming can also teach valuable life lessons to kids. “Games do so many things. Aside from how to form social relationships, they teach you how to lose and accept loss. They teach you to win humbly.” He paused, reconsidered and laughed. “Or not. But I think when you play enough times you can learn to win humbly. They teach you how to wait your turn, so they give you patience. And that comes into the rest of their lives too. Like not interrupting when someone’s talking. There’s a lot of things that tabletop gaming brings that computer gaming, again, fails to do.”
Both Azzam and Sunnari are immensely passionate about tabletop gaming. Both said they want to introduce it to “every household” in their respective countries of residence. “It’s something new and interesting to people,” Sunnari said. “Even the artwork and packaging is fabulous. I believe every family in Saudi Arabia is looking for tabletop games to be part of their gatherings with family and friends.”
There are now several thriving gaming communities around the GCC, according to both men. Most meet in private homes or in the stores, but Azzam cited a Dubai-based group in which up to 70 people meet twice a week at the Gloria Hotel and a group that meets at New York University in Abu Dhabi as good examples of successful public gatherings.
“It’s not the easiest business to run,” Azzam admitted. “It’s very niche, very particular and my family thought I was insane. But it’s working out, business-wise. We are building a gaming community.
“I don’t regret it at all. It’s been an incredible journey,” he continued. “When you see people playing board games… that emotion? If I could grab that and put it in a bottle? That feeling is incredible.”