Iran is known in Western circles primarily for its Islamic fundamentalism and its animosity toward the United States. The historically minded, of course, will hold a great respect for the country’s literature, its poetry, and its cultural history. But vanishingly few outside the Middle East know Iran for its board gaming culture, which is huge.
By huge, I actually mean massive. When you enter Tehran, the capital of Iran, you’ll find it filled with cafes. Many of them are dedicated to board games, and you’ll find people of all ages, genders, and different backgrounds playing with colorful bits and cardboard tokens, exploring everything from heavy Euro-style strategy games to simple deduction puzzles. The world of board games in my home country is extraordinary, rising over the last decade and a half to become a fundamental part of the modern culture of Iran.
Image: Atlasi Board Game Cafe via Instagram
To contextualize this phenomenon, we need to take a quick look at history. Iran in the 20th century used to be a Western-backed monarchy with a tyrannical king. That king gained absolute power through a coup d’etat in 1921, only to be toppled by a massive Islamist revolution in 1979.
Due to the strong influences of its religious and other leaders, the revolution turned Iran into yet another dictatorial regime ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini started a campaign called Cultural Revolution, designed to purge Iran of what he deemed as liberal, communist, socialist, and anti-Islamic influences. The cultural revolution was a devastating event, and its influence is persistently reinforced by the current regime.
“The youth has no fun” is an expression frequently used by many Iranians to describe the lack of entertainment in Iran. Alcoholic beverages are illegal in the country, so there are no bars of any kind. Dancing, musical instruments, singing, and many other activities are either prohibited or are extremely limited, and only men can enjoy them in what has ironically become some of the country’s most accidentally homoerotic environments. Football, or soccer for Americans, is the most widely appealing hobby in the country, and even that excludes half of the population entirely.
On Sept. 16 Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died at the hands of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — colloquially known as the Morality Police in the West. This led to a series of high-profile anti-government protests across Iran, the likes of which the country hasn’t seen since the 1979 revolution. It’s being called “the 2022 revolution.”
Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has used its power to create a form of gender apartheid that specifically targets young women. On many streets in Tehran, you can find the members of the Morality Police targeting and harassing young women for some of the most ludicrous reasons, such as holding hands with their boyfriends or wearing the hijab incorrectly — as was the case for Amini.
Image: Dressage Café
This extreme form of social restraint in public has led to board game cafes becoming ridiculously profitable. Public streets transforming into strongholds of the Morality Police paved the way for privately owned businesses to become safe havens for young Iranians. Their warmth, openness, delicious dishes, and the kind faces of their staff provide excellent escapism for many young people who wish to spend their evenings in a relaxing place with their friends without having to worry about the simplest things, such as what they are wearing. Many of these cafes are owned and operated by frustrated young people. Aida Charkhgari is one of these unlikely entrepreneurs.
In the early months of 2019, Charkhgari met up with her husband, Amirhussein Naderi, who was, for lack of a better term, a board game aficionado. Naderi introduced Charkhgari to Dungeons & Dragons, which led to tabletop role-playing games becoming an essential part of their life. The couple’s love for tabletop RPGs guided them to explore other tabletop games and Iranian communities that were just enthusiastic about the hobby.
Shortly after their marriage, they thought of opening up a cafe. Aida told me that they wanted the cafe to feel like their own home, where their close friends regularly gather to play games. They named it Dressage Café.
“We crafted themes of Dungeons & Dragons games based on the customers’ suggestions. They really loved these events,” Charkhgari said. After D&D, the cafe was host to mostly Iranian games, which helped raise awareness among consumers and increase sales for Iranian developers.
Charkhgari said that deception games such as Mafia Nights are among the most popular titles in their cafe. Mafia Night is a modern Iranian iteration of the classic Mafia game, also known in the West as Werewolf. The game became so popular that it inspired a television show in Iran called Mafia Nights. A highly melodramatic and controversial TV show, it invites celebrities of different backgrounds to gather and play the game live on Iranian TV.
Charkhgari and Naderi weren’t alone in their decision to open up a board game cafe. Throughout the capital, there are many similar cafes where you can meet with friends to play whatever type of game you like. Tehran is also not the only place in Iran where board game cafes flourish. Almost every city in Iran has board game cafes on its streets, and the expansion is reaching well into the countryside.
Some cafes are quiet and small; they usually have Euro-style games such as Trajan or War of the Ring for tiny groups of people who want to spend hours upon hours managing their economy and executing well-thought-out strategies. You can also find bigger cafes that hold D&D events and invite people to play massive rounds of Mafia Nights-style deception games. A great example is an anime-oriented cafe called Haiku Café that every month used to hold an anime-themed TTRPG campaign, or a Harry Potter-oriented cafe called Platform doing the same. Many such cafes even go as far as paying prestigious artists to make promotion art, alternate box cover art, or even Iranian character standees for dedicated players.
Cafes aren’t the only places to find a game in Iran. Roomiz, a new website launched in 2015 by Amir Salamati, lets fans of tabletop games in Iran find each other online. Salamati started the website with his friends on a lark, but to their surprise, Roomiz suddenly became very popular among people all across the country. Salamati soon realized that it wasn’t just Tehranian city dwellers who were interested in board games; many other big cities in Iran had a huge, untapped audience for board games, which motivated the Roomiz team to add on staff and expand their online offerings.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the activities that Salamati was very proud of were the conventions that Roomiz helped to organize all over Iran. In the summer of 2016, more than a thousand people showed up to its first convention, far exceeding what Salamati and his team had expected to be a small, regional gathering. That number quadrupled the following year, and by the fourth year more than 11,000 Iranians came to the main Roomiz convention.
“All that being said, our biggest achievement was probably working with the board game cafes,” Salamati said. He called the rise of the Iranian board game cafes a truly amazing concept. Renowned French board game designer Dominique Ehrhard, who came to Iran a couple of years ago, told Salamati that he was shocked by the sheer number of board game cafes and their unique culture. “A friendly face always comes to you and your friends to explain the games. Or if you haven’t brought any friends, they will help you to find a few when you’re staying there.” These were some of the things that the French designer mentioned when describing his culture shock in his discussion with Salamati.
“It’s tragic yet so beautiful,” said Agathe, a board game enthusiast of Armenian origin I met during my research. She stood out when talking to different people from board game cafes. Agathe asked that her last name not be published in this article. That’s because she’s spent many hours on the streets of Tehran, protesting — fighting, she says — alongside her brothers and sisters for freedom and justice for Amini and all those harassed by the Islamic regime.
“We, Iranians, find ways to adapt and find happiness in tyranny. I’m incredibly glad board games are becoming huge in Iran, but I hope for a future in which we don’t play board games just to run away from the bleak reality that takes place outside of the cafes. Because much like everything else that they have taken away from us, one day will come when board games also become banned.”
Agathe’s words hit hard and echo in my head, especially today, more than ever.