Every Saturday night, a coffee shop in central Moscow turns into a battlefield. Empires are forged and destroyed, terrorists hijack continents, scheming goblins and other vermin roam the streets while billion-dollar business deals are struck under the table. And although these transactions are fake, the passions that rage here are very real.
Over the past three years, board games have been experiencing a sort of Renaissance in Russia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many original games were produced in the country, but the market shrunk under the onslaught of computer games and stayed dormant for more than ten years. Today, with thousands of people searching for ways to escape the increased isolation of the cyber era and with growing disposable incomes to be spent on entertainment, the market is coming out of hibernation. The popularity of board games and public gaming sessions is skyrocketing.
Stepan Chizhov, the owner of the Triominos board gaming store and an industry pioneer, thinks that the popularization of board games in Russia is a clear trend. The reasons for this are the same reasons that were behind the growth in the European market in the 1990s: board games are a great way to spend time with family, for friends and for parties. “Board games are very versatile and everyone can find a fitting game. On the other hand, computer games are no longer the only types of games to spend time playing. Board games have ‘taken a bite’ out of that audience,” Chizhov said.
Let me play!
Today, board gaming sessions are organized and attended by everyone and his sister. Cafes, bars, restaurants, libraries and even nightclubs host gaming sessions. Everyone is welcome to come and play free of charge. Triominos organizes three such sessions in Moscow every week, each one easily drawing over 50 people despite the absence of advertising in mainstream media or on television. Even more sessions are held in Russia’s cities of St. Petersburg, Samara, Arkhangelsk, Yekaterinburg, as well as in other cities in Ukraine and Belarus.
Board game mania is spreading like wildfire in Russia, and the business behind it is ramping up. The Alegris company has been holding a “Gaming Day” during the last weekend of June at Moscow’s World Exhibition Center for the past ten years. For many, board games are a way to escape the usual “home-work-home” routine. “To spend a few hours in pleasant company and think about political and economic strategies, to tear the enemy to shreds, to save the world – it’s wonderful!” said Chizhov.
The variety of games available for one’s choosing at one of the gaming sessions is staggering: from your childhood Monopoly and Scrabble (or its Russian version, Erudite), Uno and dominoes, to the latest tests of your analytical abilities (Dixit) and magic skills (Munchkin). The most popular games are Pandemia, Solo, Expansion, Sold! and Private Collection. Games where one has to show or draw something for others to guess, such as Activity, Alias: Party, and Crocodile, and board games such as Colonizers and Karkasson, are also in high demand. Some of these games are foreign-made and many haven’t yet been translated into Russian, but there are always players on hand to help the novices figure out the rules.
Despite their popularity, board gaming sessions don’t generate any profit for the organizers. Donating new games, delivering them, paying the staff and booking the venue all require expenditures. Just like movie theaters that make the bulk of their profits from selling popcorn rather than tickets, the organizers recover the costs by selling games, while the gaming sessions allow them to broaden their audience and attract new players. “We are brining up a generation that doesn’t think board games are just for kids,” said Chizhov.
The venues have their own stake in these sessions, from table booking fees to getting a hefty turnout of customers. Passers-by are also more likely to go into a cafe if it’s bursting with an animated crowd. So finding these venues is no longer problematic. If three years ago the group had to beg cafe owners to let them play, cafe managers now actively approach organizers to hold a session or two to entertain their patrons.
The best kind of promotion the board gaming sessions get is still by word of mouth. The original small group of players typically forms when friends bring friends. Increasingly, the organizers also resort to more sophisticated promotion strategies. Gaming sessions are now announced on the Internet and in social networks, and e-mail newsletters are sent out with a schedule of upcoming thematic events.
As the community of active gamers grows, it is served by an ever increasing list of specialized sites and blogs that have sprung up over the past few years. Thus blogs and social networks have become instrumental in bringing these people together. There are people who make video overviews and podcasts, but industry players say that these people play a significant role inside the community while they don’t really help to attract new players. As of now, if a new person wants to learn something about board games, they are more likely to go to the store and buy another Monopoly or Manager clone, and not do research on the Internet.
How it started
Chizhov turned his long-time hobby into a business in 2007. Although he had no idea how to start or run a business, he had by then established the Triominos Club – a small group of friends who occasionally got together to play a board game or two. The first board gaming session took place in August of 2004, and over the next three years, even before the store first opened its doors, over 120 such meetings took place. “Back then it seemed like an astronomical number of gaming sessions,” Chizhov said. He is now turning his store into an actual publishing house, and there is much room to grow in this field. “Even if you say that the Moscow market has been divvied up, which isn’t true, there is an enormous opportunity in the regions. But while three years ago I started my business with 10,000 rubles, you need at least a couple million rubles to get started in this market now.”
There are gaming oases in Russia, such as the Krasnoyarsk Territory, where these activities are supported by the government, and there is a local association that holds gaming sessions and competitions at schools and orphanages, culminating in the annual MIPL road show. But these anomalies only confirm the rule. When it comes to popularity and penetration of board game culture, Russia still lags far behind Western Europe and the United States. If in Germany, a game is considered successful if it sells 250,000 copies per year, in Russia a successful game sells tens of thousands of copies over a few years.
At the moment, Western countries boast over 50,000 different board games, while in Russia, “board games are still something new, that needs an explanation and getting accustomed to the thought that they can be played,” said Ivan Tulovsky, director of the Right Games project, a Russian company that creates, develops, and produces board games. In 2005, Tulovsky’s company produced the first family-oriented board game Zelyevarenie (Potion-brewing), which is the most popular Russian-made board game at the moment. The game was created by Sergei Machin – the leading game designer in Russia.
Despite the emergence of publishing houses such as Tulovsky’s, the markets remain largely underserved by local game designers, producers and manufacturers. Most board games are made in Germany and China, while locally-produced games fall behind in terms of quality and price. Setting up local production does seem like the logical next step for Russians who make up board games, but it can be a prolonged and difficult process: printing games locally is very expensive, while importing the necessary equipment from abroad takes time and money.
About 20 foreign games are translated and localized annually. The games get “russified” in two ways: for those games that companies distribute, they translate the rules and pass them on to customers in print or electronic form. Some publishers also choose to fully localize the games, so the entire game gets translated, from the playing field to the box. Often some elements of the layout have to be adapted to account for the Russian market – thus in Pandemia, for example, the starting point of the game was moved from Atlanta to Moscow. “Over many years the West has accumulated a large number of great board games, and we are now getting them in a concentrated dose. Essentially, over a couple of years we got access to more than half a century worth of games. This is fascinating. It’s intriguing. It’s interesting,” said Tulovsky.
Even though a lot of effort and creatively goes into designing and producing board games, they are still an affordable hobby for an average Russian. An average game costs 800 to 1,000 rubles ($27 to $35), while cards and other small games cost 250 to 600 rubles ($9 to $20). More sophisticated board games cost up to 2,000 rubles ($70), and then there is the most expensive kind for 5,000 rubles ($172). The latter category is often collectors’ items with hundreds of expensive miniatures.
In the meantime, the young industry’s veterans are not about to rest on their laurels. Although there are already more than enough board gaming sessions being held in Moscow, more thematic events and championships are in the works. An annual board gaming road show in Moscow or St. Petersburg is also under consideration. “It’s great to watch more people become interested in board games, especially when you know that you were one of the few who created this market nearly from scratch. To us, a board game is not just a product; it’s a way of life,” said Chizhov.