13 December 2023
Carrooka is one of the most alluring dexterity games out there right now, and with a version coming from a pair of British designers, we chatted to George about why Carrooka is worth a spin.
Some games just asked to be taken into your life in a serious way. Carrooka is one of them. Many of the most ‘important’ games of the hobby are huge, you can skim down the Board Game Geek rankings and find boxes that weight that of a small car, with game lengths that eventually span into days, and with a table presence that requires binoculars and semaphore to properly plan a turn.
Carrooka has a different impressiveness of scale, it’s just a lovely, huge, piece of wood. A little bit Carrom and a little bit Snooker is a dexterity game played on a large wooden, and most importantly circular, board. You flick discs like you do in the ancient Indian game of Carrom (without all the powder, thankfully) but you have snooker pockets and follow the usual rules for snooker (pot a red disc, pot a coloured disc, and so on). And despite this very simple idea, it’s a little bit magic.
We talk to George, one half of the Carrooka team about creating the game, its success, and why you should give it a spin.
Written by Christopher John Eggett.
What is Carrooka?
On the Sunday afternoon of Tabletop Gaming Live 2022 I was knackered, wandering around looking for interesting things for this magazine. Or so I thought. In fact, I was looking for somewhere to have a sit down. Which is what the very kind George offered me at the Carrooka stand.
I took a shot. It should be easy right? It’s just snooker with flicking. I mucked it up, naturally. And then as I contemplated whether I’d need to flick the disc backwards towards myself in an awkward way, George turned the tables on me. Not figuratively, literally. See, Carrooka comes not only hand made in the workshop by master carpenter Jack (and George, but less masterfully) but on the gaming equivalent of a Lazy Susan. With a gentle turn of the edge of the board the whole thing rotates, making your shots easier, and, importantly at the last day of a weekend long show, without standing up.
“The quirky and key thing is that it rotates,” says George, “so the idea is you can sit at a table and essentially have a game of snooker or pool but using pucks or discs instead of balls and using your finger instead of a cue.”
“It's the board that changes the game and changes the dynamics of the game,” says George, “the rules are much known and loved and I really like that about it because I think you could, you could walk into a pub or a cafe or a living room and see it, and you would probably know how to play it without looking at a rule book.”
There are some slight difference an quirks in the game, such as the flicking style and the different lines on the board. For example, rather than taking free shots from the ‘D’ as you would on a snooker table, you take from a line around the edge. These lines are also used to reposition the white disc on the board if it is too close to the edge of the board to flick.
Why Make Carrooka?
The origin story for Carrooka is a familiar one for those who got a little bit creative in the various lockdowns of the last few years. Jack had been a carpenter for 35 years and George had worked at an international development charity focussing on Malawi.
“Jack was a keen snooker player, a keen but terrible snooker player,” says George, going on to joke that she doubted he actually went to the snooker club as he never got any better, “Just before Covid came around and all the lockdowns happened he’d started looking at home snooker tables. Now, we live in a little terraced house, and there is no way without knocking down a wall and going into the neighbour’s house that we could have a snooker table in here. And even if you try and get a good quality home snooker table, they just don’t exit. They’re either toys or they are massive.”
Through this period the pair spotted Carrom, and George bought Jack a board as a Christmas present.
Carrom is an ancient game played extensively in India, but throughout Asia. It has a square board with a rail around the edge and players are attempting to pop counters into pockets. It’s also advised to play with a lot of Carrom powder thrown on the board.
“The romanticized story goes that when the Brits colonized India they saw the locals playing Carrom and thought ‘Ah, we could put pockets on our Billiards tables’,” explains George, “which led to snooker. So Jack came across this story and thought ‘oh, I could reinvent a snooker version of Carrom’ – and because I was off to Malawi he turned the house into a workshop to start making boards.”
“He made rectangular Carrom boards but marked out like a snooker table,” continues George, “now, the thing about Carrom is you have a strike counter but every play you pick it up and put it back in front of you. And you can’t do that in Snooker.”
“And we’re quite lazy, and didn’t want to be walking around the table or anything like that – so we put a kind of Lazy Susan on the bottom of it and knocked a glass of the table with the corner of the board.”
“I said, let’s make it round. And as soon as we did that it became a brilliant game straight away.”
The couple planned to take Carrooka to UK Games Expo which was sadly cancelled later due to ongoing lockdowns. This allowed the pair to refine the game and eventually Jack gave up his day job so they could launch the game on Kickstarter. They raised £11,000 which ended up being a hundred or so boards.
“It was only really because of the Kickstater that we learned that Carrooka fits into a family of dexterity games,” says George, “that was lucky for us because I was still working full time, so we hadn't done a lot of market research. We hadn't sort of done everything that you're supposed to do.”
And that’s what you get with Carrooka, a game made just because it was good fun by people who have never really looked at the Board Game Geek top 100. It’s refreshingly detached from the ‘hobby’ that we like to obsess over. Like George and Jack themselves, it’s a charming experience all round.
Carrooka feels like a grafted branch on the family tree of a line of games. It should have already existed. A little like Jack and George travelled back to the first time a British person saw a Carrom board and thought about putting pockets on Billiard tables, and created a game from that point.
“It’s surprising it’s taken this long for it to happen,” says George, “you could say we’ve just stolen two games and mashed them together. I think Carrooka is unique enough to stand on its own, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have picked the best bits of two different games and put them together. It seems to be catching people’s eye anyway.”
We joke about how I would have happily accepted that the story of Carrooka is one where it was played in the 1800s and then fell out of fashion. It feels old and like it’s always existed. After the interview George sends me a photoshopped version of the 18th Century satirical artist Hogarth’s painting, An Election Entertainment, featuring a Carrooka board between the slumping figures. It doesn’t really look out of place at all.
“You’re playing a familiar game, but in a very different format,” says George, outlining the direct attraction of the game “you're trying to pop the counters into the pockets with the strike counter and you get to play with all these angles around the edge of a circle.”
From the first moment of flicking the striker counter Carrooka feels like a game you’d like to get good at. We treat a lot of ‘hobby’ games like they’re film, television or a novel – like they should impart meaning. Carrooka feels like a sport. It tells you you’re going to have to develop muscles (albeit very small ones in your finger) and become natural with the motions of the game.
“You can play all the kind of shots that you play in Snooker or Pool. You are literally aiming the striker at a counter and calculating. It's maths,” says George of the kind of plays you’ll be making in Carrooka, “you're calculating angles so you can go straight across, you can do some very fine cuts and cut counters into the pockets.”
“But what's brilliant about Carrooka is that edge play around the circle. So we call it a ‘Carroo’ – but you should say ‘Carooo!’,” says George, the second time as the imitation of the word falling off a cliff, “it's only me that makes the sound effect for it though.”
“You can, literally, have a striker counter on one side of a board and your object counter on completely the other side of the board and it's blocked by all the other counters in the middle,” explains George, “and you can scoop the striker counter – you can make it hug the edge of the rail – and you can technically go 360 degrees around the edge. And that opens up lots of possibilities in terms of quite exciting potting angles and everything.”
“I love the fact that it's multi-generational. People are playing it with their parents and with their kids and grandparents are playing it with grandkids,” says George, “and we hope that kids will take the boards off to university and the parents will buy a new one and kids will hand it down to their kids and it won't date.”
These don’t sound like lofty goals, but a very obvious progression for the game.
Lessons for Future
There’s a good lesson in George and Jack’s story for new would-be game designers as well.
“We didn’t know anything about the games’ industry at all, but we did know about making things,” explains George, “now, I suppose looking back, we didn't have the skills – it was just a case of necessity.”
Because the pair could do everything in terms of production and design they could complete the project without outside help. It also doesn’t hurt their marketing that they’re a charming husband and wife team who walk down to a nearby workshop every day and make the board you’re buying from them with their own hands.
The making of the boards depends on the model ordered. George outlines how the largest ‘tournament’ tables go through a process of discussion with the customer.
“We talk to the customer about what would they want, what colour finish they want, whether they want to have legs on it, as you can make it into a dining table with a solid oak lid on it. Which then it locks so that it – you don't want it to spin while you're having your Sunday roast after all,” says George “and then you just lift the lid off and unlock it and it turns into a Carrooka table.”
The wood in the boards is Baltic birch plywood, which I’m informed is a sustainable material and from forestry improve sources. They are then screen printed by hand, sanded, varnished, waxed and so on to create the lovely product that is the Carrooka board.
Best Pub Game?
I put it to George that Carrooka should simply be in every pub in the country.
“We genuinely want to support, and like working with independents,” says George, after conceding that it should surely be only a matter of time. The pair have worked with independent brewery Bristol Beer Factory, which have bought a tournament board for each of their venues.
“I often get drunk phone calls at two am, with someone saying ‘I’ve just been playing your game for four hours and I want to get one’,” she laughs, “we love the fact people buy boards for their homes, but it makes sense to be in pubs. It gets people chatting, it breaks down barriers.”
Some pubs are having to remove their traditional Snooker tables anyway, as giving up that space in these somewhat leaner times for the industry when it could tables in it just doesn’t make sense.
There have already been a number of small tournaments in local gaming cafes. But there might be grander plans on the horizon.
“We keep threatening to organise the first World World Championships,” says George, I laugh, “we’re going to start at the top.”
Of course, this only works when you’re able to leave the workshop to organise it. The pair are working as fast as they can to keep up with the demand. They’ve worked with local carpenters in the area to try and scale up slightly, but like with any business, it’s a tricky decision to make. Almost as tricky as some of the shots you’ll make in the game.
The current waiting list for a Carrooka board is around six weeks, but we think it’s well worth the wait.