Like many internationals applying for Swiss nationality, Hadi Barkat faced a series of citizenship exams.
However, as he tells Jennifer Davies, his tips for learning facts and figures about Switzerland soon transformed his career forever, when he created Helvetiq, the board game that became a best-seller.
What inspired you to start making board games?
Well, game making came by accident in a way. The game Helvetiq is the result of a citizenship procedure in Switzerland. In 2008, I was living in Lausanne at the time and traveling a lot for a job in venture capital when I decided to try a crazy side project. I wanted to get ready for the two citizenship interviews, but in a fun and sociable way if possible. But everything available was too academic, so I ended up creating what I needed. The idea of the Helvetiq game was to test people's knowledge of Switzerland in a way that was both instructive and fun.
Were you surprised at the popularity of Helvetiq?
Yes. In the first month we sold our first 3,000 games in the Suisse Romande alone. I didn't even realize how extraordinary that was at the time. I was convinced it was my friends and family buying the game! Eventually, I reprinted the game one more time but I was convinced this was going to be the last time there would be a demand. But that wasn't so. Then we translated it into German, English and Italian and we made more games like the city editions of Helvetiq, a vocabulary-learning game called Pictolingua, and a geography game called Cantuun among others. For me, it's amusing that the preparation for a citizenship test started it all. That it caught on and sold so well is purely astonishing (30,000 copies of the base game to date). We realized that people are passionate to learn about their country, their city, their favorite hobby and about anything really – as long as it is made fun and accessible.
So can you take us through an average day in your life?
I wish I could describe one. My days are all over the place and it depends if I'm traveling or not.I'll be working with my graphic designer colleague to finish a game and send it to production. Next, I'll get in touch with a bookstore customer who would like to list one of our books in their Christmas catalogue. Next, I'm talking to an author who has submitted a great project idea to refine it and agree on a schedule. That's a nice segue into work on next year's catalogue and into collaborating with our partners outside of Switzerland on new titles. What's challenging is having to handle many different chunks of work that are unrelated. Also challenging are the distractions of logistics and admin but I'm happy to finish them as soon as I can to get them out of the way.
At 17 years old you came from Algeria to study at Lausanne's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).Was it a culture shock?
The countries are different but share a common language: French. That made things a bit easier most probably. The main challenge was succeeding in my studies. Coming from a different system, I had no benchmark. But socially, I can't think of an easier way to land in a country than joining an academic institution. I was able to make friends right away, some of whom I still see regularly today.
Why did you want to stay in Switzerland?
It was never an analytical decision for me. I loved it so much in Switzerland that there was never a question of "Should I stay? or "Should I go?" Nature here is insanely beautiful. People are friendly and respectful. And the country just works. Is it true you live in Copenhagen and Lausanne? Actually I also live in Basel, as well as Copenhagen and Lausanne... and prior to that Boston. We will soon have a second Swiss office in Basel. My main work is in Lausanne. My family is in Copenhagen. My wife Tania heads a lab at the University of Copenhagen.
What appeals to you about designing board games?
It's a creative job: You can think all the things that you want. It's a shaping job: You start with something rough and you cut down until you reach a delightful experience. It's an aesthetic job: Good graphic design and ergonomics are important for the games I make. I like to think that we make coffee table games where the experience is holistic.
You're also an author. How does your writing fit with game making?
Game making and writing are both creative. These days, my full time job is game making and publishing while writing is the indulgence that I do with whatever time there is left. Are there particular themes that you like to write about? In fiction, I wrote about commuting, a moment of everyday travel with its share of poetics and misery. I am now writing a novel which is difficult to describe when I'm still so much into it.
What does your family think of your new career?
At first they were surprised because I was doing things I was never trained for. Now they've seen how diverse and creative the work is, I feel they like and understand it. At least they still come to my game and book launch parties!
What makes you happiest?
In life, so many things, but I'll pick the laugh of my daughters and their funny observations about the world.
What does the future hold for you?
Our second Swiss office will open soon in Basel. We are also working on a new book by Diccon Bewes and some new awesome games in matchboxes. And are also making inroads in Europe and the US with games such as LondonIQ, BerlinIQ, ParisIQ and NYCIQ.
FOR MORE ABOUT HADI BARKAT
Photos: Courtesy Hadi Barkat; Portrait © Olivier Evard, Helvetiq in play © Florian