Interview: Tony Mitchell, Board Game Master

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ANYONE who has sat around playing board games with their nearest and dearest will know that a head for strategy, ruthless cunning and a callous lack of empathy are prerequisites if you want to hold your own, never mind be a winner.

So you’d expect games inventor Tony Mitchell, from Ormiston in East Lothian, whose Stramash will be the centre of many a family fall-out this Christmas, to have all of these in spades – or hearts, clubs and diamonds. “I’ve spent years playing this game but I can’t remember the last time I won,” he laughs.

“My son and wife are very good, but I suppose I’m just not ruthless enough.”

Mitchell does have a head for business, however, and has developed the game over a number of years, evolving and adapting it into its current format. A chase game for anyone from “eight to awfie auld”, its aim is to get five Laddies, or marbles, to the safety of their castle, knocking opponents off the board as they go, with the added elements of individual board pieces rather than a flat board, and cards.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a games developer. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I need to develop a game’. And I didn’t invent it, because it’s an interpretation and adaptation of ancient games, in particular an Indian game called Parcheesi, which was played 2,500 years ago with cowrie shells.

“So it evolved organically and we introduced cards rather than dice and developed it as we played it. There was one moment of inspiration while in a shower in Hong Kong, when I thought, ‘Let’s make the game’, but we had already been playing it with family and friends for a number of years by then.”

From the shower moment, it was three years until the Mitchells took delivery of the first Stramash sets earlier this year. They have already sold 1,200 since it was launched, and expect to sell another 1,500 by the end of the year. “At first it was going to be plastic, then it was delayed for a year when the financial wizards of the world decided to crash the economy. That was a good thing, though, as we then decided to go lo-tech and do a wooden version and also to give it a Scottish identity,” says the 55-year-old.

“The name was the first thing – it’s a great word and reflects the process of the game, the rammy element of knocking each other off the board – and the Scottish angle then developed from that and it became a heritage thing. I was grandiosely thinking that Scotland has a national everything else but we don’t have a board game. Chess is particularly popular in Russia, backgammon in Asia, so maybe Stramash suits Scotland.

“It’s fun but it also has a feisty element where you don’t get anything for being shy and retiring – and, as we know, one Scotsman in a room can start a fight,” he says.

Mitchell had fun creating a history for Stramash, a bogus back story that stretches back through the Enlightenment and around the globe as Scots involved in the British Empire spread it from the mines of Canada to the opium dens of China. John Knox is claimed to have banned it and it may have been what sparked the Porteous Riots. Now that Scotland has its own parliament again, the mashie boards are back out as Scots regain their cultural confidence and play Stramash freely, according to its creator. “I tell people how Scots would always have their mashie boards and marbles stuffed down their socks and come together to play in secret, and have introduced an element of fact to its history, bringing in John Knox and the Act of Union – some people actually believe it,” he says.

A background in advertising and marketing in business development for the Scottish Sports Council and Hibernian FC came in handy when it came to selling Stramash, and Mitchell is keen to keep control firmly in his own hands. Maybe he’s not such a bad tactician after all. “I’m trying to build it organically and sell it on the internet rather than the traditional way of getting John Lewis or Tesco to take it,” he says. “They would take it in volume and I would have to borrow money to get it made, so would be working for the bank or business angel and relying on large retailers to pay me on time.

“People say it would fly off the shelves of John Lewis, and it probably would, but they would make a fortune while I wouldn’t because they would almost sell it at cost price. Doing it organically is slower but more secure, and if the product is good enough it will spread by word of mouth. The internet gives a worldwide market anyway.

“It’s a good game – people have been playing it in various forms for years. This version comes from Scotland and is like a nice malt. You don’t have to be Scottish to appreciate it, but it helps.” •


Twitter: @JanetChristie2

Stramash, £39.99, from specialist bookshops around the country (