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Playing Politics: Developing the Best-Selling Board Game Shasn

Shasn the board gameShasn the board game

I have made two feature documentaries in my home country of India. The second, While We Watched, came out on the same day as “Barbenheimer” and just finished a month-long run at the IFC Center in New York. The first one, An Insignificant Man, which I co-directed with Khushboo Ranka, ran in theaters across India for nine weeks. However, my most commercially successful project isn’t either of these—it’s a board game, Shasn (“Governance,” created by Zain Memon), that was born out of An Insignificant Man’s impact campaign and has been sold in more than 75 countries across the world today, raking in excess of $2 million in sales. 

An Insignificant Man was about a new political party in India and its first election. When the film premiered at TIFF 2016, the programming staff and festival team welcomed it with open arms. However, as the festival unfolded, I had my first brush with the competitive press landscape. Everybody was busy—there were films by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris playing alongside mine in the same section. Even Leonard DiCaprio had a documentary that year! We knew we were going to have a difficult time getting the film out in India given its political theme and were relying on a big festival premiere to bolster our prospects. Audiences turned up in large numbers, but when the festival came to an end, we walked away with hardly any industry press. We wanted to start a conversation about political systems, but clearly traditional film press was not going to be the place.

We came back and began working on India release plans with my producer, Anand Gandhi. To be able to exhibit a film in Indian theaters, filmmakers need to apply for an exhibition certificate from a government body. For several decades, governments have used this certification body as a political tool, creating obstacles for films that they disagree with. Our film met the same fate. We spent months fighting, won a landmark court decision and were able to release the film in theaters. The film took off on opening weekend. We started getting calls from distributors across the country, expanded to more cities and theaters and soon got a call from India’s leading DVD distributors, which wanted to bring the film out.

We got cracking and began the production pipeline. However, I soon felt like this exercise seemed a little in vain, considering that no one really buys DVDs anymore—people are either streaming or downloading. My team agreed, and we decided that we should pack the DVD with more features—director’s commentary, deleted scenes, etc. But even those didn’t seem appealing enough. I thought it would be interesting if we could include a simple game packaged with the DVD. One of my collaborators, Nidhi Shetty, came up with the idea of a multiple-choice, question-based game that would help people determine what kind of politician they would be—a game that would amplify the theme of the film. She built an initial draft that I played and enjoyed, but it lacked any complexity and was far too basic. So, we reached out to my creative producer, Zain Memon, and told him what we wanted to do. Zain was immediately excited and asked me to hand things over to him. Zain is an absolute genius and a serious gamer, but he had never designed a game until that point. I left the reins to him because, honestly, I had no clue how to do it anyway. 

Zain assembled a team of young authors and began building. A couple of weeks later, he presented the first draft of the game, which all of us found thoroughly enjoyable. At this point, it was all being done with paper cutouts and scribbled notes, much like an arts and craft project at school. We made more people play and started incorporating their feedback. Over the next few months, Zain built a complex game from scratch. It was a new place for all of us because we had only made films and VR until then. What he and his team of game designers in their mid-20s created was essentially a competitive political strategy game about the cost and consequences of power. Every player assumes the role of a politician in the middle of a high-octane election campaign. Every game session would see a fair amount of screaming, cajoling and intense competition amongst the players. We held hundreds of playtests at our office, inviting friends over to play the games. We would present our ideas to Zain and his team, and they would try to turn them into game design mechanisms and hardcode them into the game. For example, one piece of feedback we received was about just how prevalent gerrymandering was in the United States and how we should have that within the game. Because Shasn is a traditional area-control game, Zain took that feedback and put it in by giving stronger players the power to affect voters in neighboring districts. After all the tinkering, we finally reached a point wherein average games would run anywhere between two to six hours and were thoroughly enjoyable. We saw patterns or behavior strategy and narratives emerge with different types of player groups. We took this treasure trove of insights and altered the game almost daily to help it arrive at the story we wanted to tell.

By this point, we had completely forgotten about the DVD production and were entirely focused on the game. I was just beginning a university tour of the United States at the time, so I took the game along and presented it to various games labs and students at universities like MIT. The staggeringly positive response helped me feel more confident about the game. While traveling, I also landed a meeting with Elan Lee, who had made the massively successful party game Exploding Kittens. Elan played the game and immediately offered to help with any advice, including for a possible Kickstarter campaign. He opened my eyes to the fact that tabletop games’ revenue on Kickstarter in 2016 was more than $100 million, much higher than even video games on the platform. 

I came back to India and shared all these leads and feedback with Zain and Anand, who began working on getting a crowdfunding campaign together. We had previously run successful crowdfunding campaigns for films, but board games were a new world altogether. We studied hundreds of Kickstarter campaigns—their copy, campaign goals, stretch goals, frequency of communication with backers, geographical distribution of backers and more. We discovered that the tabletop gaming community is still nascent and actually quite closely knit, which meant that, unlike film, you don’t really need a ton of money to make noise there. There weren’t any prominent Indian game creators on Kickstarter, so we’d have to establish our credibility to convince people to back us. We began building a presence on the scene by shipping out several copies of the game to serious board gamers and YouTube content creators to demonstrate that we were real. Simultaneously, we were building our own campaign, for which the helpful folks at Kickstarter were very welcoming and generous with their advice. 

When we finally launched, we were looking to raise $40,000 but ended up raising $360,000! As the project closed, word spread like wildfire. We were filmmakers, so we had made the best campaign film we could, but we ultimately realized that what convinced the board game community was not our film but our game rulebook, which we had put on our Kickstarter page. People from the tabletop gaming community dived into it and began commenting on just how solid our game looked from the inside. We gained credibility not because of what we were telling people about the game but because of the game itself. It was all quite heartening.

Once we were done with the campaign, we got into fulfillment, i.e., getting the game delivered to backers. This was an entirely new process for us. We had to learn how manufacturing works, how shipping costs can escalate because of the smallest mistake, how each customer must have the same unboxing experience across continents. Shasn is a decently complex game with approximately five kilograms of gameplay content. Every single component within that box is crucial to the gaming experience. It’s imperative that each of these elements is manufactured with precision and delivered flawlessly worldwide. A slight mishap could either compromise the gameplay without players realizing there’s an issue or result in significant costs for us due to remanufacturing and reshipping. Coming from a film and television background, we weren’t familiar with the intricate details of shipping tens of thousands of physical copies globally, so mastering this supply chain was a significant learning curve for us. But based on customer reviews, not only did we meet expectations, we also set a standard that exceeds many games in the market.

To date, Shasn has done more than $2 million in sales. In 2021, we launched the sequel, Shasn: Azadi, on Kickstarter. That new game has made sales of $500,000 even before shipping. Every game sees intense competition and conversation between players around politics. It is absolutely the best impact product we could have built for An Insignificant Man. We recently conducted a brand audit for the reach of the product around the world. Across sales channels, social media and video platforms, we learned that more than three million people had played the game or seen content and videos about people playing or talking about Shasn. Shasn is played in board game cafes and is a part of academic courses in India. It won the Social Impact Award at IndieCade Europe 2019, regarded as the Sundance of the gaming industry, and is at the epicenter of the surge in tabletop gaming in India.

I came back to TIFF 2022 with While We Watched. I was nervous and arrived with very low expectations. Programmers Thom Powers and Lauren Clarke stood by my side the entire festival. I was so grateful for their support. During the festival, TIFF organized an industry talk around the success of Shasn. People came to me after the talk and said they had no idea about the world of board games and were amazed at our success, and when the festival ended, my film was announced as a winner. However, that didn’t mean that my film got a ton of press at TIFF, but I now know that traditional press doesn’t determine the fate of your film and its impact ambitions—you have to seek new ways to reach and connect with your audiences continuously. My new game, based on While We Watched, is called Bards of Bad Omen. It’s a board game simulation of a newsroom and launches on Kickstarter soon. 

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