Can Board Games Help Young Indians Engage With Politics?

Can a new set of political board games help people engage with Indian politics at a time when it’s difficult to distinguish between news and propaganda?

BENGALURU, Karnataka—Indians have just about finished processing the results of the mammoth general elections that concluded a couple of months ago. But election or no election, politics is never far from our mind.

At least, that’s what the makers of a number of board games centred around the elections, that have launched recently or are set to launch, are counting on.

Leading the charge is the Kickstarter-funded Shasn, which opened for pre-orders a couple of weeks ago. In less than a day, it had hit its funding goal of $25,000 (around Rs 17 lakh) and at the time of writing, was at almost $115,000 (almost Rs Rs 80 lakh), with the campaign set to continue until August 17.

The team behind Shasn, Memesys, also made the documentary An Insignificant Man, about Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Speaking to The Hindu, Anand Gandhi—who co-produced the documentary—said the game is meant to get people to think about how the elections work.

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“It is a policy-thinking game, and focuses on the larger political framework and democratic procedure,” he said.

While many older Indians may still associate board games with children’s toys, there is now a burgeoning market for games aimed at adults, especially those who want to relax away from screens with their friends and family. There is also a growing number of people who are tired of the nightly shouting matches on news channels, and yet want to think about and engage with politics.

Learning about politics from games

While Shasn and its Kickstarter are getting a lot of attention now, it’s not the first election-related board game to try and woo users. A few months before the Lok Sabha elections, The Poll, a board game designed by journalist Abeer Kapoor was launched in India.

At one level, both games seem similar. You’re competing for votes and you start off trying to stay true to the political ideals you’re standing for in the game. But then you quickly descend into realpolitik, unleashing booth-capturing and fake news, gerrymandering and managing the media while spending money to influence the results.

The Poll, however, is meant to be more educational. HuffPost India caught up with Kapoor briefly in Delhi, and we played the game to understand how it works. The goal of creating The Poll, he explained, was not just to make a game around the elections, but to make young people talk about the way politics operates in India, and to help people develop a framework in which to think about politics.

The resulting game can sometimes feel overwhelming—despite having carefully read through the instructions, it was very helpful to have Kapoor walk us through the game. The good news is that the team has also put together a YouTube channel, which includes a tutorial on how to play it.

In The Poll, you're competing for constituencies based on the issues people face there.
In The Poll, you're competing for constituencies based on the issues people face there.

In the game, each player takes control of a fictional political party. You have to manage its finances, policy decisions and design a manifesto with which to contest the elections. You’ll be playing against up to three other players, and will have to make arguments to convince them that your manifesto is most aligned with the issues of the different constituencies, which could range from delays in trains to communal violence.

As the game progresses, you’ll find yourself running short on funds, and having to trade your policies for some corporate backing, which can be used to control the media, or launch a booth-capturing campaign.

Since the goal is to teach young people about politics, Kapoor has been touring the country, visiting small towns and hosting sessions for students. He said that he observed trends in the way people in different parts of the country were playing.

“In UP and Bihar, the voting [in the game] is completely transactional,” he said. “In Maharashtra the game was played in a much more deliberative and argumentative manner, whereas in Trichy, the boys weren’t so much into it, but the women really got into the game, and were holding serious talks.

“The idea is to help people build a vocabulary of policy, and it emerged from my work as a journalist. I wanted to make this as a board game because games have retention,” he added.

Your manifesto is made up from different cards that speak to specific issues, and these are how you win votes in constituencies.
Your manifesto is made up from different cards that speak to specific issues, and these are how you win votes in constituencies.

Kapoor and his team did a lot of research and testing to develop the interlinking systems, and then did a limited print run.

“The next step is to print it in Hindi, and then we’ll take it to small towns to play the game with grassroots activists,” he said.

One of the reasons why The Poll is touring the country is because, at a selling price of Rs 2,000, the game is out of the price range for many people. Although that price is low compared with most new popular board games, it’s still high for a country used to Scrabble and Monopoly.

Kapoor admitted that this is a limiting factor, and said that he’s looking at different ways in which the price can be brought down. One possibility could be a print-and-play version, where you download the cards as PDFs and print them out; or a freemium model that includes a stripped-down version of the game at a lower price.

Turning politics into a game

Shasn, which has already raised four times more than what the creators asked for on Kickstarter, is an even more expensive game. The game will be sold for $80 (approximately Rs 5,500), and while the Kickstarter edition offers a slight discount, it will also set you back $59 (approximately Rs 4,000).

Although many people have backed this edition, which includes a single campaign (India or US elections), the biggest number of supporters is for the ‘Presidential Edition’ which, at $120 (approximately Rs 8,200) gets you all four campaigns—USA, India, Earth 2040 and Rome 40BCE.

Although the city with the most backers is Mumbai (68), followed by Bengaluru (28), overall, orders from the US hugely eclipse India, perhaps a result of Shasn’s pricing. The US has 650 orders, while India has 185, and then Canada and the UK both have 73 each. So it’s not surprising that Shasn’s makers are taking it to Gen Con, the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the US, from August 1 to August 4.

Shasn is much more ‘gamelike’ effort — although the game is thematically about politics, it is defined by the various systems of play. You might choose to develop your character as a capitalist or a strongman, but that’s driven by strategic choices in the game.

At the start of each turn, you answer a question related to politics, and your answer determines your ideology, and which resources you get that turn. You can then use those resources to buy votes, or conspiracy cards that can influence seats.

Along the way, you see how trying to win certain resources — from money to the media support — will require giving up your ideology, and you’ll also learn to make compromises and trade your ideology for votes, but unlike The Poll, where the experience is more focused on making players talk about real issues, here the idea is to get them to scheme.

You can spend money, build up trust and influence the media in order to win over voters, and capture areas on the board. It’s also possible to gerrymander in order to win a majority despite not having the votes.

The game-like aspects of Shasn are much more straightforward than The Poll, resulting in a fun and fast-paced game.
The game-like aspects of Shasn are much more straightforward than The Poll, resulting in a fun and fast-paced game.

There’s scope for cooperating with other players, backstabbing them, and scheming your way to the top—the ‘game’ focus is clearer here than with The Poll. Across ten rounds, you’ll gain control of territory, and whichever player has the most majority votes at the end wins. The result is a fast paced, strategic game that’s a lot of fun, but because of its pricing, might not reach too many players.

’Trump’ing everything

Apart from The Poll and Shasn, another interesting new game is Mantri Cards, which is also being crowdfunded on Wishberry. At the time of writing, there are two weeks left for the campaign—which has raised Rs 2.2 lakh out of its target of Rs 4 lakh—to end.

Mantri Cards are like the trump cards that we’ve all played with as kids — the classics featured everything from race cars to wrestlers, and Mantri Cards also has a number of details on each card, featuring different politicians.

Mantri Cards takes its data from PRS Legislative Research, which is based on candidate affidavits. The team behind Mantri Cards——says that the goal is to help people familiarise themselves with the leaders we have and what they stand for.

Mantri Cards is a simple trading card game that even kids can play, which teaches you about Indian politicians.
Mantri Cards is a simple trading card game that even kids can play, which teaches you about Indian politicians.

So you have cards like Narendra Modi, and Rahul Gandhi, based on the data they have submitted, to familiarise people with Indian politicians.

They say: “Besides stands for transparent and participatory governance, positive civic behaviour, and generally being informed as citizens of a country. With Mantri Cards, we hope to cultivate an interest in the Indian political landscape, especially in the wake of a new parliament coming into power.”

The cards list the candidate’s age, highest educational qualification, criminal cases, declared assets, terms served in Parliament and vote share, along with an illustration of the candidate. The idea is that by playing with these cards, people will become more familiar with the background of the people they’re voting for.

Priced at Rs 500, this is definitely the most accessible, but also the most basic game we came across that engages with politics. However, all three represent something in common—the need to connect with other people in the real world, letting people engage with politics away from the shouting matches on TV, or the endless anxiety of social media.