Game Changers The Norm Breakers Issue

It’s official: Board games are back

The Saudi duo on a mission to bring old school entertainment back to the popular list.

When was the last time you gathered with your friends for a board game night?

My cousins crowned me queen of the Snakes and Ladders board game when I was a kid. Every summer my cousins and I would spend the night trying to beat each other’s scores, and I remained on top of my game. That game, UNO, chess, and Monopoly were our childhood past times.

Nowadays, when we get bored, we will still sit in the same living room, but each of us will skim through our social media feeds. That is not a strange thing anymore, as social media usage in the GCC is one of the highest in the world. Saudis, for instance, are the world’s top YouTube users.

It had been years since I played Snakes and Ladders or any board game for that matter. A while back I went to Jarir bookstore in Abu Dhabi, a famous Saudi bookstore and stationery shop, to grab some stationery supplies. As I headed to the cashier, a colourful aisle grabbed my attention.

Three shelves were stacked with board games with Arabic text on the boxes, which I found to be strange, as most of the board games we were familiar with and had grown up with were foreign.

When I got closer there were different innovative, new games I had never heard of, mainly made by Saudi manufacturers. I could not resist the packaging of one of the games, Hakawi, a product by Rock Paper Scissors, a game-manufacturing studio based in Jeddah, Saudi.

Inside the cardboard box, which was covered with numerous questions, were stacked 150 cards, each containing different questions to ask your family and friends at a gathering or over dinner which would cultivate an interesting conversation. There were questions such as “What is your most cherished memory with your parents?” and “What is a talent that not many know you possess?”

That night my mom, dad, sister and I played that game. It has been more than 15 years since we gathered around such an activity, and boy did it feel joyful! I had to find out more about the founders; because of their game, none of us had looked at our mobile phones for over an hour.

A conversation here and research there has revealed how over the past couple of years there has been an increase in the number of innovative Arabic board games, and they are not only becoming quite popular in Saudi but have found new homes across the MENA region.

Personally I felt like it was about time we had some local game and toy manufacturers, especially since a report by Euromonitor International has revealed that spending on games and toys in the UAE will increase by 6.2 per cent annually and reach USD 1.1 billion by 2020.

Rola Badkook, and Rafah Sahab. Courtesy.

Saudis Rola Badkook, an entrepreneur with ample experience in edutainment, and Rafah Sahab, a play therapist, were among only three toy and game manufactures in Saudi when they founded Rock Paper Scissors in 2015.

Today, with a team of six Saudi women and eight products, they cannot keep up with the demand from customers across the Middle East, who place their orders via their website or purchase from certain distributors in the GCC.

These ladies are on a mission to detach family members from their phones for a while and bring them closer over a board game – the way we used to play and connect a long time ago.

Rola, the chief joy officer at Rock Paper Scissors, talks us through their company’s philosophy and discusses why not many GCC entrepreneurs have looked at this industry up until recently.

Why did you start Rock Paper Scissors?

We knew that we wanted people to connect more, but we did not know how. It was not until we attended a conference organized by the LEGO foundation in Denmark in April 2015 that we knew we had to create a game. Six weeks later our first game, Eid Carnival, was born. After its success, we knew that we would be game/toy makers and create experiences that each family member will enjoy.

Our games fall into three categories: family and party games that help people connect with each other, like our Eid Carnival and Bedon Kalam; creative games that help children engage with the world around them by using and sharing their creativity; and transformation tools that help individuals de-stress and connect with themselves.

Is there a study to back up each game produced and the positive impact it will have?

We follow a human-centred design thinking approach when designing our games. Before introducing them to the market we create a prototype for the game, invite people to test it in schools, in our place, their place, basically in different environments. In that way, we minimize failure when introduced to the public and allow ourselves to fail fast while testing in order to learn from these mistakes. For our geography game that will soon be released, we tested it 40 times with prospective customers.

What channels do you use to market your products?

We use different ways, such as participating in events where people test our products first-hand, work with social media influencers to promote our games and advertise in local magazines.

Tell us more about your products that are inspired by traditional Saudi games passed down through the ages.

Bedon Kalam Amthal is one of our products, a game inspired by Saudi local proverbs. Even the design itself is traditional.

Board games by RPS. Courtesy.

What about your international goals?

We are currently developing a geography game that will encourage children to engage with the world around them and turn them into global citizens. It will be available in both English and Arabic and will help us break into the international market.

How do you seek inspiration?

We seek inspiration by trying different games in our weekly Playful Thursday hour with our team. We also continuously monitor trends in the toy industry.

Will you be moving your manufacturing to Saudi instead of China?

We wish to do so once the local factories are capable of producing high volumes as per our design directive, especially because the design is a very important aspect.

Tell us about your social responsibility work.

With every product purchased, a percentage goes to educate children in less fortunate communities, and we have partnered with International Human Relief. We believe that education is a right of children regardless of their socio-economic background.

Why do you think not many GCC entrepreneurs have penetrated this field when there is high spending on games and toys in the region?

I believe times have changed; that’s all. When we started two years ago there were only three in our field, and now we have seen more than 20 emerge within the last year.

What is your advice for those who would like to enter this field?

Test your idea with a prototype, observe, repeat your test before your launch.

What products will you be introducing within the next 6 months?

We are focusing now on our geography game, and we will introduce a new game called Story Land, which will encourage creative writers to write and tell stories.

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.