It hasn’t quite reached ludicrous and Ludoholic proportions yet. But bosses across India are beginning to see red when they catch a glimpse of the red-blue-green-yellow grid.
Every international airport has a list of contrabands. But imagine Vikash Jaiswal’s surprise when he found his most popular product the subject of an internal circular passed amongst employees working at a premier arrival lounge of the Delhi airport. The flyer warned that employees had been spotted playing Ludo on their mobile phones and were henceforth barred from it during work hours.
Promptly, Jaiswal, the head developer of Ludo King, a runaway hit on the Indian online gaming scene with over 180 million installs, posed for photographs with the circular alongside a local Ludo stud who claimed he’d never lost a game. “After the pictures, the airport employees began arguing over who was the best and dispersed to settle the matter,” Jaiswal recalls with a guffaw.
Ludo, a boardgame that is a part of almost every Indian childhood, pops up now on mobile phones and computers. It has gone past first-person strategy games like PUBG in numbers, and is fast closing in on Candy Crush via both Google Play and iOS app stores. In 2016, Ludo King boasted four million installs and went up to 57 million in 2017, crossing 118 million in 2018.
The ludo fixation can be spotted where four to six men are hunched over a mobile phone, and are taking turns scrolling as the random throw of dice moves tokens. This rage has spread from Badhwar Park in Cuffe Parade, where dozens sit silently under tree canopies of south Mumbai, to Madhukar Varamballi’s “group” on the daily 7.17 pm local train from Churchgate to Nala Sopara. Window seats are rushed towards, a large bag turns into a table. One phone tinkles open to the game, and the day chugs past as tokens race from start to finish. “First, my friends used to talk about many things in life. Now they just play ludo,” says Madhukar with a frown. He is not a fan.
Jaiswal, 41, recalls taking a solo trip to Vaishno Devi earlier this year, to thank assorted deities after his monthly active users crossed 65 million. “Everywhere from the airport to local stalls at the shrine, people were playing ludo,” he recalls. Even on the chadhai — that most arduous climb to a spiritual high — pilgrims stopped to catch a breath and sneak in a round.
The gaming whiz from Patna who grew up a Super Mario fan is surprised at how the game (other developers like Ludo Game and Ludo Master are riding the wave too) has taken off after he launched on December 31, 2015. “The phenomenon is unstoppable,” he says, adding that Pune, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Indore, Lucknow lead the user figures, followed by Mumbai, Patna, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
So, who’s up for a game of ludo on the phone? Cops from the local arms unit on bandobast duty at the Bombay High Court kill time playing as they wait to be summoned as does the soldier who’s posted in the Northeast and often logs on to the multi-player interface.
Meera Nayar, 27, works in a government office in a small state capital, with the most impersonal of transactions on her daily work menu. She played the boardgame with her cousins as a child, and insists that as silly as it sounds, winning at ludo has helped prop up her self-esteem many a time. “When you are dejected, and nothing is going your way, ludo gives you this feeling of thoda toh accomplishment ho gaya life mein. You could have one coin left and you still end up winning. The uncertainty is exciting. You think you’ll lose, but you win. Suddenly, you don’t feel like a loser,” she says, as she explains how her office colleagues have carved out ludo niches. “There are four coins and you have to take risks. Others play it safe, defending in safe boxes. Some people get adventurous — and all of a sudden you are identified by your style of play in office,” she says.
She reckons the software for offline Ludo King (when you play the mobile/computer alone) is designed to ensure players win most times, and it’s this scripted certainty that she seeks when she’s “damn bored.” Cooking (and eating) are her other obsessions. But that love for food has not translated to a natural affinity for Instagram. “Photos kitna dekhenge? (How many photos can you see?) You can play Ludo King peacefully in office. Of course, when work comes up, it’s priority,” she says, explaining the very non 9-to-5 nature of her specific central government work.
While ludo has hogged the attention of some in high-stress jobs, helping them limber down mentally, it is a perfect time-decelerator for others. Samia Modak, 26, has settled on it after treading a similar path of online games that don’t tax the brain excessively after a rough day at the legal courts.
“It’s obviously not Brainvita,” she says of a certain kind of wakeful mindlessness that helps in summoning downtime for the stressed mind. “Temple Run, Subway Surf, Candy Crush, and now Ludo King for the last one year,” she says, adding that real-life professional exertions are so complex that the simplest things can allure her in phone games. “Like in Fruit Ninja, the slashing sounds of different fruits were distinct. A papaya wouldn’t be the same as an apple. The sound effect was the hook. In Ludo, I like the chime when you reach the star, and the deflating thud when a token gets killed — things that have nothing to do with winning or losing,” she adds.
Jaiswal’s father died when the Ludo King ideator was two years old. When he came to live at his maternal grandparents’ soon after, his uncle fuelled his interest in video games. “Patna ke mohalle mein craze bada tha, and I was the Super Mario champ of my gully. The void left by my father was filled by this habit. I grew up introverted, but creative,” he says. Three years of failures at engineering entrance exams pushed him towards a course in graphics and multimedia. Eventually, he got through a college and enrolled in computer engineering. In his third year, he came up with a PC-based game EggyBoy. He circulated CDs of the game to developing majors in Delhi and Mumbai; PC Quest magazine ran it as their “Game of the Month” in July-August of 2004. Designing difficulty levels became a hobby, and the idea for Ludo took root in his brain.
In 2015, Jaiswal played Snakes & Ladders King and was impressed with its tinkling sound effects. “I told my wife, if I implement this in Ludo, it’ll be a hit,” he says. When it kicked off in early 2016, Ludo King’s rise was meteoric. The multi-player format (four people play on four mobiles) skyrocketed it further, as the game was shared from mobile to mobile and the actual numbers far outjumped analytics on Google Play dashboards.
“It’s replaced cards in most roadside stalls,” he says. Another developer, without wanting to be named, insists that the numbers have chomped into two staples — Hindi crime show reruns and porn. Jaiswal, emboldened by Ludo King figures, is determined to appropriate another sedentary Indian trait into a game code winner. “Trivia. It’s my next experiment based on knowledge of Indian games,” says the man who confesses he loses at Ludo “95 per cent of the times”.
Sriram Narayan, who works in market research at a Mumbai firm, insists that Ludo King is the only game he’s taken to on mobile. “It’s not a game of luck, it needs strategy,” he says. He reckons he inherited this love from his mother, who can play it on her iPad for hours on end. Usha Narayan is 60 and remembers taking to the game — “offline only” — when she was gifted an iPad last year. “I started playing when no one was at home,” she recalls. She jumped from Candy Crush to Grand Escape to settle on two hours daily of Ludo King. “I think it is fixed,” she says. Then why play? “See, I’ve played 174 times and lost only thrice. Isn’t that brilliant?” she says with infectious cheer.
The game’s draw is in its simplicity and how addictive it can get. Jaiswal has assigned a member of his team to tackle aggressive calls that come daily from Lucknow and Punjab, demanding to know the “cheat codes”. Gametion, the company that owns Ludo King, recently approached Mika Singh for a Punjabi pop number, and he immediately wrote down a ditty, after noting, “Everyone in Punjab is playing that game only.” Singer Tony Kakkar was anyway already rap-tapping to “Ghar pe Ludo khelungi, woh boli dil bhi de doongi,” wearing dark Ray-Bans in a nightclub.
Ludo is a pan-India story: a group of youngsters in Lakhnadon taluk in Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni district play the game at a roadside tea stall late in the evening. In Rishikesh, the entire tourist industry is engrossed in the game when they are not ferrying travellers around. Frequent traveller Mihir Pai recalls being dragged into marathon Ludo sessions when travelling in a bus through the Andamans last summer. “Ludo is good because you can do several things while playing the game. Matlab ek khel raha hai, toh baaki teen kya karenge? So others would chat in that time and catch up. It doesn’t need intense concentration,” he says of the hyper-casual game.
“Replayability is the key to any game’s success,” Jaiswal says. So, Akshay and Sunil, a pair of 19-year-old office boys in one of the tall towers of Mumbai’s Nariman Point, seamlessly fill their lunch-hours and travel times with Ludo King. While its charm among auto and taxi drivers in cities is gaining legendary proportions, a lonely soldier on patrolling duty sent his experience of surviving solitude to the feedback offices of Hello Ludo, an interactive version of the online game that is dominating the audio space — in this, you can chat with other players on chat windows.
“At its core, ludo is very forgiving in nature, you just jock back to the base and start playing. There’s no virtual violence, and it lends itself to a great deal of conversation,” says Arpita Kapoor of Hello Ludo. Users have done everything from killing loneliness to learning to speak Kannada alongside playing Ludo in this interactive chatty version.
Small-town epiphanies play out beautifully alongside this version of the game. “One of our players from Haryana was getting married the day after she installed Hello Ludo. She was apprehensive about the arranged marriage. Another player calmed her down and said that she should look at it as a new wave in her life,” Kapoor recalls. Another time, a user from Ara in Bihar emailed them about a rough time in his life. “He said he felt low all the time. Through Hello Ludo, he got connected to another player, who had suffered from depression years ago and who asked him to seek help. He took his playmate’s advice and after a week’s medication , his condition improved,” she says.
Life rarely depends on winning at ludo, though — the stakes are low, but the game has nicely sidled into uncomplex or tangled semi-urban lives. Hill stations with sparse 4G networks also support this low data-chomping download, and while users often throw a barrage of “cheatercock” and “stupid game” barbs at developers’ websites over the random die-throw, the game has steered clear of toxicity because it is so simple, and dependent on servers generating permutations.
Randomness reigns and seems to suit the Indian mind, even though Hello Ludo is bringing in cricket-themed variations, and Ludo King starts a global leaderboard from next year. Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh line up behind India in game-user numbers, while Jaiswal insists that one mustn’t be surprised if the game takes off in China and Saudi Arabia. Even as the global trends veer towards Counter Strike, League of Legends and the rising American giant Fortnite, ludo’s free game downloads lumber along in India.
The predominant player demographic of Ludo King is migrants between 25 and 34 years, (13-17 years: 6 per cent; 18-24 years: 31 per cent; 25-34 years: 33 per cent; 35-44 years: 9 per cent), analytics point at a 65 per cent male inclination towards the sport, whose most popular version is v4.3 on Android & 2.9 on iOS. Ludo traffic peaks between 7 pm and 11 pm, over the 4s and one-on-one format. “Five aur six players ka naya zabardast version aaya hai,” says Rasik Choubey, who is excited about this proliferation that can extend to his entire taxi stand line at Sion in Mumbai.
It was at India’s most depressing of queues though that Ludo King offered some succour last year. “People stood in demonetisation lines to encash their cheques playing Ludo quietly on their phones,” recalls a developer at Gametion. Even as life got difficult, they reached out to the comfort of a childhood memory — of simpler times when games people played merely depended on the throw of the die.