The Secrets of Success with Mark Azzam, Founder, Back to Games – The Board Game Shop

According to the list of challenges there are 76 Best Board Games of all time, ranging from the greats like Chess and Monopoly, to Pictionary and Chinese checkers

Oh to be a child again – How many board games have you played in your time? For me, playing board games meant big family occasions (once a week at the weekend normally) with the family laughing when your brother goes to jail when playing monopoly and shouting over the dinner table that is covered with fake money and dice… the nostalgia!

And it was this nostalgia that made me intrigued to find out more. Always surprised about the struggle to find the board games I want so I can give my children the experience I had, I was excited to find out Back to Games. A shop dedicated purely to board games sounds like a fairy tale amid the digital era that we are in. So when I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Azzam, Founder of Back to Games I jumped at the chance. Like myself, he is a person who has always been fascinated by other worlds and loves to experience as much as possible, taking every opportunity to learn more in life, “I explore these worlds either through my job as an airline pilot (when I visit other countries and interact with a multitude of cultures), or through playing the many tabletop games I adore. Life is a unique journey for each of us, and I have decided to act on both my passions for flying and gaming, here in the UAE.

Wasn’t it a bit risky opening a board games shop when children want to sit on their computer?

Tabletop gaming has been going through a strong resurgence since 2010, both across Western World and even parts of S.E. Asia and Australia. Many people are going back to playing tabletop and society games, and the market has been growing consistently by about 10% to 15% per annum. This Renaissance of tabletop gaming, as we call it in our field, is very real and an exciting time for all those who love the hobby, be it the gamers, the game designers or the game publishers. There are easily anywhere from 20 to 30 strong new titles being released every month by over 100 well-known, modern game publishers around the world currently. The time of almost every board or card game being under either the Hasbro or Mattel line is over, the market had changed drastically with so much more to offer than Monopoly or Scrabble.

The idea of having two game shops in this region may be considered risky, but it is about time that such shops have come to appease all the gamers in the UAE and across the GCC.

Digital games have been around for quite a while now, dominating the market. During the 1990’s, they put tabletop games on the back burner. I think that although many people love digital games, it is getting a little repetitive, tiring and redundant now. I believe that modern tabletop gaming is here to stay and grow.

Why board games?

Passion! I have always believed that living your passion and doing what you love is the greatest blessing in one’s lifetime. I am not only very passionate about tabletop games, the good they can bring to individuals who play them and to our society as a whole; I am also very passionate when I take time off from my life to enjoy a really good and strategic board game.

Tell us about your strategy…

Mark Azzam, Founder, Back to Games

Back to Games brings people back together – families, friends or partners. We build and interact with gaming communities we deeply care for.

Electronic gaming just cannot do what Back to Games does. That very special direct human connection and interaction that we all crave in our very nature is something that electronic games cannot satisfy. Humans are social beings and social games tap into that timeless need for us to enjoy one another’s company. This is the strategy we build upon and use.

For example, our ‘Back to Family’ section has fantastic games for children to learn important life-lessons from when they play our games with their parents or siblings. ‘Back to History’ has incredible tabletop games themed to different historical settings that are so accurate in their information and design, some may directly teach you things about a specific historical setting while you enjoy the game. Another example is our ‘Back to Friends’ section, which has some great party and trivia games that you can explore with a larger group of people. These games will leave you with memories of game nights that are unforgettable!

When was the last time you had a really funny or memorable event while playing a video game that you shared and discussed with a group of people you had played with? This recollection of special times while playing is something very normal with tabletop gamers when you ask them about their hobby.

Did you share your business idea with others and what was their reaction? 

Yes, I did share my idea with family and friends that are close to me at the start of it all. I had this idea for quite a few years before I implemented it. People had mixed reactions, as expected. Generally, those who were gamers, like myself, were very excited about the thought of having a local game shop they can buy games at and meet like-minded people.

Others who did not really understand our geeky world of tabletop gaming were somewhat concerned about this business idea being viable and sustainable.

As any business person would be, I was worried when I started Back to Games and still concerned about the big picture of what I am doing and where all this will head in the near and far future. But, that worry is what drives me forward to do more to ensure that our shops stay strong and the business sustains itself. Here we are now, one and a half years later, with 2 of the best and most recognised tabletop game shops in the whole Middle East.

What advice would you give others who want succeed in an area that is dominated by global giants?

I would advise people to ensure that they are passionate about whatever idea they would like to implement into a business and are willing, deep down, to go all the way with it. There are many times when doubt casts its shadow upon us. You just to always believe in yourself, in the vision you are presenting to the world, and in the full potential of your idea or business, no matter where you intend to take it.

Back to Games has recently opened in Times Square Centre, Dubai (tel: +971 4 323 1336).  They can also be found in Shams Boutik Mall, Abu Dhabi (+971 2 562 3338).