Dubai: A unique card game that builds relationships

Dubai expats Helina and Heleriin Hein and Christopher Gammelgaard have come up with a card game that helps you navigate real conversations


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 3:51 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Apr 2024, 8:01 AM

It was in 2003 when Heleriin, Helina and her fiance Christopher moved to Dubai from Estonia. The girls grew up in a small town called Mustla, which had a population of 800 people. But there was a sense of connection. Moving into a city of possibilities like Dubai allowed their worldview to expand, but they also noticed how the interconnectedness through conversation was different.

In a big city, everyone is running on a treadmill in terms of finding their place in the world, which often makes real conversations difficult because you are not really pausing at any time. Sensing this need to facilitate conversations, Heleriin, Helina and her fiancé Christopher Gammelgaard have come up with a unique boardgame concept that helps people communicate better.

The origins

Interestingly, Bokakenia is inspired by an eponymous imaginary friend the girls had in their childhood. “I guess he came out of this fear of talking about tough stuff,” says Helina. “It was easier to say, ‘Bokakenia wants to know if you are mad.’ It made those difficult questions feel a bit safer to ask back then.”

Heleriin says he was not born out of loneliness. “He originated when we were small and were playing with our dolls. My sister asked me if she could play with mine. Initially, I didn’t want to give it to her, but I also didn’t want to offend her. So, I’d say, ‘Let me ask Bokakenia. Oh, Bokakenia said not right now.’ It became a habit to consult Bokakenia when we encountered a difficult situation.” The name itself, adds Heleriin, does not mean anything as such. “The name doesn’t have a meaning, I don’t even know how I came up with the name as a kid! Definitely want to go back to learn more about my thought process back then,” she says.

In its boardgame avatar, Bokakenia is designed to guide players through 31 unique questions that vary to suit friends, romantic partners, families and colleagues, aiming to reveal thoughts, perspectives and emotions previously unexplored. “Even if you think you know someone well, you’d be surprised at the depths you can reach, areas your usual interactions may not touch. And for those, deeper, maybe more challenging questions, it’s Bokakenia doing the asking, not you, which makes it easier. Plus, we have carefully designed and tested these questions to avoid any potential arguments, focusing instead on those wholesome, bonding conversations.”

Heleriin adds that Helina, Chris and she tested the questions for over two years. “We wanted to ensure they provided a deeper connection and left people feeling warmth and happiness from the conversations. The decks are helpful because they ask the questions for you. If that makes sense? For example, for people who find it hard to ask things from their partner or friends directly, it is there to lead the conversation for you.”

Christopher Gammelgaard
Christopher Gammelgaard

Christopher has contributed to the male perspective in the game. “For someone like me, who wouldn’t necessarily ever ask deep questions, it’s a lot easier to have these conversations with someone when I can ask the questions under the disguise of card game,” he says.

A deck for everyone

The trio has prepared separate decks for different groups. There are cards that you can play with everyone (friends, family and other loved ones), cards for romantic couples (new as well as established), cards for spouses, cards for parents and children, and cards for colleagues. Each deck contains 31 extensively tested questions specifically designed to build closer bonds within that social dynamic through meaningful conversations. As Christopher adds, “The cards contain questions that cover several diverse topics, some of which can help you ‘break the (deep) ice’ and allow you to initiate follow-up questions in a much more comfortable manner. Sometimes, days after the conversations.”

Though Bokakenia has been a passion project, the outcome has been unexpectedly great. “I was bracing for a slow start, but within the first six months of our launch in March last year, we actually sold out our parent and kid decks, which was incredible,” says Helina.

She recalls the case of a couple that was going through a tough time, who reached out to the trio to “let us know that the deck really helped them communicate better”. There was a time when a mother, having played the parent and kid deck, spoke of having some of the best conversations with her son. “We sold out the ‘Kids’ decks much faster than we had anticipated possibly because of the videos of hilarious and adorable answers from kids that parents posted, which, in turn, seemed to catch the attention of more and more parents,” says Christopher.

Relationship-building through cards

The cards, adds Helina, are designed not to facilitate difficult conversations but to strengthen one’s relationship through conversation. “We've designed the decks to unfold in a way that creates a welcoming space in which you feel comfortable being vulnerable, sharing your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, while listening and connecting with your partner (or other players, depending on the deck you’re playing),” she says. “This can then give you a strong base to build your relationship from or strengthen an existing connection.”

As a game, Bokakenia is a reminder of that stark reality of modern life --- the incredible loneliness. The inability to communicate effectively is born out of living in silos with our gadgets for company. “I think many of us live in a reality that moves incredibly fast and is full of distractions. We have our phones, which don’t stop pinging, and our minds are constantly juggling professional and personal deadlines, appointments, chores, errands. Finding time to pause and connect, to truly be present with someone, is a real challenge. It's often easier to just watch a movie or eat a meal together to unwind,” says Helina.

“There's also this big push nowadays towards independence, self-love, and self-care, with a message that we shouldn't depend on anyone for anything – when, in reality, barricading yourself from others keeps you from experiencing some of the deepest and most fulfilling joys of life.” In that sense, perhaps in some way, Bokakenia helps us navigate that fine line --- of saving us from our own loneliness


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