October 23, 2017

Nostalgia for the Past: Saudis Lead Revival in Board Games

Game cards for "The Way"
Game cards for "The Way" (Mahmoud Zaini)
by Saffanah Zaini

In an age when the virtual world is becoming increasingly dominant, a culture of board games and nonvirtual games is flourishing in Saudi Arabia. Young Saudis are filling specialized coffee houses that provide games for customers, including ones designed by Saudis and other Arabs that draw upon Arab and Islamic culture and history. Companies producing the games are part of a new and growing native gaming industry.

Mahmoud Zaini, animation director and an artist at Inov8, a game company in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is contributing to this revival. He is working toward the release of the Arabic board game “Almeshwar” (“The Way”) and has designed the characters for a card game currently on the market, “Wjh Alnhs,” (“Face of Misfortune”).

AGSIW spoke with Mahmoud to learn more about his work in game design and his views on the emerging gaming culture in the kingdom.

Illustration of people playing “Face of Misfortune”

AGSIW: How did you get interested in gaming?

Mahmoud: My introduction into the gaming world happened through a class at the California College of the Arts. Before I even took the class I was working on a cartoon short that revolved around a Saudi superhero and his sidekick camel. I really wanted to turn that story into a game that reflects our culture, history, and future hopes. At the time, I was also in to a lot of mystical and Islamic poetry, especially that of Rumi, Hallaj, Attar, and Ibn Arabi. The influence of Islam’s theoretical frameworks had an impact on the way in which I conceptually organized this game, and make the game deeply meaningful.

Collage showing "The Way" game (Mahmoud Zaini)

“The Way” game (Mahmoud Zaini)

AGSIW: Tell us about the game you have been producing, “The Way”?

Mahmoud: The game includes wooden dice, a wooden board, some cards, and laser cut wooden figurines. There are seven different homes on the board that each player starts moving from, along with a deck of cards at each home. Each must try and collect seven different cards (one from each home) in order to win. Yet each card is also an action card that can be used to attack others or help yourself progress on your travel across the board between homes.

AGSIW: How is the game connected to Arab and Islamic culture?

Mahmoud: When playing “The Way” you try and collect knowledge or artifacts for a city that has lost its old values. You are like a scholar competing with other scholars in order to actualize the city’s lost past. Each home or base location represents a different kind of knowledge. The collecting of cards represents the scholars’ struggle for collecting lost knowledge, against the actions of other scholars or with their help. The intention therefore revolves around an adventure: the adventure of seeking knowledge, which is a big theme in Islamic thought and tradition.

AGSIW: What is the appeal of board games in Saudi Arabia?

Arabs and Saudis play a lot of games due to the social nature of our culture. Games usually involve sitting down together as a group, drinking tea, and laughing the night away. Games that can encourage that cohesion and spirit – for me – are very important to all of humanity. Such games will most definitely appear and be invented within the Arab world, and I believe must be made in order to maximize the impact of this spirit on all communities.

Cards from "The Way" (Mahmoud Zaini)

Cards from “The Way” (Mahmoud Zaini)

AGSIW: How do you explain the revival of board games, especially within a digital age?

Mahmoud: It is quite fascinating seeing a revived interest in boards games and physical games in general in a world that is increasingly moving toward the digital and virtual space. The trend is local, but it is also global. An explanation of this phenomenon is complex, but the influence of individually catered social media platforms and technologies plays a significant role here in my opinion. It’s a sort of nostalgia for the past, and a longing for the physical and concrete.

In Saudi Arabia, concreteness and physicality is still very much felt. The overall culture remains highly social, and families gather almost every weekend and in very large numbers. Technology that distracts the individual from his social duty is frowned upon, and resistance to such digital invasions of the social sphere is high. Conservative, family- and home-centered Saudi Arabia is therefore a fertile ground for the introduction of new highly social board games and card games.

AGSIW: Will you describe the cafes and places where people gather to play, and the type of people who participate?

Mahmoud: You have mostly specialized coffee houses like Cup and Couch or Medd cafe that have games set up for costumers to play with. These locations are designed with a wooden texture given to everything, steel bars hanging on the ceiling, low couches, and cozy pillows around every table. The cafes are filled with young Saudis, most of whom have studied or traveled many times abroad. Unlike usual cafes, these locations are not quiet due to the heavy influx of young people entering and exiting on an hourly basis. The locations are filled with both guys and girls, and are not sex specific. Girls in particular love these locations, while guys may go to newer board game specific shops where they can geek out on non-Saudi games.

AGSIW: Tell us about Inov8 and the native gaming industry in general.

Mahmoud: We create card games and have one application on the App Store. We have more than seven games in production, and are planning on releasing them all within the next two years, God-willing. We have five people working full time at this studio and I’m one of them, along with a total of 20 people who help out, working part time, volunteering, or interning.

The native gaming industry in Saudi Arabia is very small. There are mainly four companies competing fiercely on the scene: Nard Games, RPS games, Inov8, and Ekkah Games. There are other companies producing phone apps, but none have acquired a strong reputation like these “card game-centered” studios, which can present their games at events and create their own gatherings that Saudis love.

AGSIW: What is your prediction for the future of Arabic games?

Mahmoud: The future seems very bright for this industry insofar as we all continue to produce such games. The amount of possible game ideas is endless. The market is thirsty for such entertainment and, with a changing Middle East, this demand will be met. In my opinion, in order for such games to be successful they have to represent what makes us unique. Focusing on sociability will be the main goal, along with the introduction of meaningful interactions into the world of gaming that turn the game into an escape outlet.

Saffanah Zaini is a student at George Mason University and a former intern with the Arab Gulf States Institute.