Citizens at Play

Board games can help deepen the meaning of representative democracy for the body politic

The Athenian origins of democracy articulated a polity whereby the populace (albeit an exclusively determined one) of the state directly participated in decision-making that concerned their lives and matters of state. The father of direct democracy, Cleisthenes, certainly did not have in mind a polity like India with 1.4 billion citizens spread across more than three million square kilometres, varying in gender, caste, class, language, religion and so on. The incongruity between the mechanism of direct democracy and the challenges of modern-day nation states with burgeoning and diverse populations meant that representative democracies evolved as the order of the day in most post-colonial nations.

The framework of parliamentary democracy in India predominantly entails indirect or representative citizen participation, primarily through elected representatives. Hundreds of thousands of citizens elect their representatives, who in turn engage in law and policymaking on their behalf. These representatives — Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Legislative Assemblies, and local level representatives — maintain accountability to the electorate residing within their respective constituencies through periodic elections and are tasked with representing their interests within Parliament, state assemblies and local governing institutions. In principle, they participate in voting on bills and motions, and fulfil vital legislative responsibilities on behalf of constituents who have voted for them. Pertinently, the Indian democratic system does not incorporate mechanisms for direct participation such as referendums, recalls or initiatives, which are more suitable for political entities characterised by relatively smaller populations.

India has successfully articulated representative democracy since attaining independence from colonial rule, holding free and fair elections at regular intervals. While this is no small feat, 75 years on, as India reflects on its democratic journey, there is ample scope to innovate on the contours of democracy as practised and expressed in India.

Institutions like the Indian Parliament, due to the structure of representative democracy, stand at an arm’s length from the citizenry. Having worked on legislative and policy research for a national political party for several years, my experience has led me to observe and conclude that a significant information and access vacuum exists in India with respect to the foremost expression of Indian democracy, Parliament, and the process of law-making therein.

The emergence of the communications revolution, the digital era, and the pervasive use of social media have notably moulded, impacted and enhanced how citizens interact with Parliament. The live airing of parliamentary proceedings on dedicated TV channels, reforms which facilitate the solicitation of public comment on bills and agenda items through online platforms, and analogous advancements have, to a certain degree, bridged the information and access gap. Yet, much more can be done by non-state actors like civil society.

Sabha, the boardgame, was conceptualised by my colleagues and myself at Justice Adda against this backdrop. Justice Adda was founded as a social enterprise with the objective of democratising access to information about ordinary justice problems and facilitating greater participation among different sections of society in advancing innovations and ideas for access to justice and democracy. A collective of lawyers, social scientists, designers and creative thinkers, the organisation has sought to create innovative and unique solutions to generate information resources about the seemingly lofty institutions around us, that are usable and useful to the average citizen.

Sabha was designed as a multiplayer boardgame with the objective of informing anyone keen to learn about the process of law-making in Parliament, the roles and responsibilities of parliamentarians, procedures that determine the functioning of Parliament, and the fallout of realpolitik in Parliament. Sabha tries to equip citizens with the necessary information, vocabulary, and inspiration to engage with the very tasks that they have elected their representatives to perform.

Sabha seeks to transform the intricate world of Parliament into an immersive and interactive experience. Through the gameplay, players emulate the roles of MPs, tasked with navigating the complexities of legislation and democratic politics. Their mission is to draft bills, engage in passionate debates, negotiate with fellow players to secure support, and amass sufficient votes to see their bills through both Houses of Parliament and receive the President’s assent to finally become an Act. As they advance through the game, participants encounter real-world scenarios, from political alliances and public opinion shifts to procedural obstacles and policy challenges. Through winning and losing votes, making and breaking alliances, and strategic decision-making, they gain a deep understanding of how Parliament operates, all while competing to pass their legislation and emerge victorious lawmakers.

The main board of the game depicts the different stages of law-making in Parliament, from the drafting of a bill to it becoming an Act. Through the gameplay each player moves back and forth through these successive stages and learns more about them.


A key component of the game is getting players to draft their own, unique bills. The game provides suggestive scenarios consisting of hypothetical policy challenges inspired by real life that can form the basis for players to draft their bills.

Players take turns to play various Action Cards as they advance through the game. These cards have been designed to introduce concepts related to Parliament, define them, and create analogous actions within the game that emulate, as much as possible, their real-world implications.


Sabha has been developed as an open access print-and-play game. Anyone can download the components of the game from the website, www.playsabha.com, print the different parts of the game and start playing. From the get-go, our objective was to create an engaging information resource that minimises barriers to access as much as possible.

Sabha can be downloaded for free from www.playsabha.com. It can be printed and set up at one’s home, school, office, or any other setting.

Our objective for this game was to also make a substantive contribution towards advancing a participatory model of governance, policy formulation, and democratic civic engagement. Participatory models play a pivotal role in democratic participation and policymaking, underpinning principles of inclusivity, transparency, and accountability within a democracy. These models emphasise the active involvement of citizens and stakeholders in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. The importance of participatory models lies in their ability to strengthen the democratic foundation by fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment among citizens. When people have a direct hand in shaping policies and governance, it leads to better-informed, more responsive, and equitable decisions. This not only enhances the legitimacy of a system that may seem distant from the people it represents but also results in policies that more accurately reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of the population.


Sabha has been designed with the objective of promoting discussion, debate, and critical thinking around matters of policy and law as they play out in Parliament.

Our journey through the realm of democracy and Parliament, guided by the innovative power of board games, has led us to discover that the spirit of participation, learning, and engagement is thriving. Games like Sabha have proven to be more than just a pastime, they are dynamic tools that democratise knowledge and empower individuals to grasp the intricacies of their democratic system. By bridging the gap between the hallowed halls of Parliament and the living rooms of everyday citizens, board games like Sabha can play a small but impactful role towards deepening the meaning of representative democracy. So, draw a card, and let the adventure continue as we, as citizens, explore, learn, and innovate our way to a more informed, engaged, and vibrant democracy.


About the author: Saumya Varma is a public policy research and advocacy professional based out of Delhi, India, who has worked in the parliamentary and legislative space for over five years. She is passionate about politics, policy, and innovation to deepen civic engagement with democratic institutions. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Oxford and a master’s degree in modern Indian history from Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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