We meet the Spanish craftsmen and women who have reinvented the traditional board game with a contemporary twist.
Dotted with medieval villages and castles, the road leading to the northwestern Spanish town of Zamora is filled with imagery plucked from the pages of a fairytale. And much like an ancient fable, the toy brand Pico Pao began with the chance discovery of a dusty old book. Brothers Miguel and Javier Sotillo were so enchanted by its detailed depictions of ancient board games that they decided to bring the antiquated treasures back.
The pair grew up in the countryside where they would salvage old materials to create playful contraptions. As adults, they first tried their hand at selling reproductions of cámaras minuteras (antique cameras) and pre-industrial looms. “It was a catastrophe,” says Javier. Breathing new life into ancient puzzles, however, awakened the imaginations of all ages. Replicas of the Sumerian Royal Game of Ur and other centuries-old diversions from Europe and Africa sparked just enough consumer curiosity to build a brand back in 1979.
Since then the venture has blossomed into a successful family business with an expanded range of original and cleverly designed toys as part of the Juegos de Antigüedad collection. They now travel far beyond this valley’s frontiers and out onto the shelves of some of the world’s best design stores and museum gift shops. The new Ludus Ludi range is a colourful synthesis of abstract art and the laws of physics, exploring the principles of balance using miniature objects such as chairs, ladders and geometric shapes.
“Older games are often based on conflict, encouraging rivalry between players,” says Javier. “Ludus Ludi games are based around the idea that you don’t need an opposing force to find balance. With these games you are challenging yourself, stimulating abstract thought and practical experimentation.” Los Taburetes (The Stools), Las Sillas (The Chairs) and El Balancín (The Seesaw) are just three games in a growing collection of 17 that explore primitive techniques of stacking and balancing. With no set rules, the player uses trial and error instead, forming a precarious yet pleasing structure of their own making.
Pico Pao’s new direction has been a cross-generational collaboration. When Javier’s 30-year-old nephew Pablo Carrascal started getting restless behind his desk at a Madrid-based architecture studio, his uncle showed him a prototype for some jigsaw-like chairs. Combining forces, they went on to produce Las Sillas, which became the inaugural game in the collection.
“Without him I wouldn’t have continued,” says Javier. “But now we enjoy exploring new ideas together.” The pair now work in tandem; sharing thoughts, elaborating on designs and then building and testing prototypes inside a separate workshop at the back of Javier’s home.
Increased international orders have allowed the team of five – including Pablo’s younger brother Andrés – to move into a newly renovated workshop inside an old estate home on Zamora’s outskirts. The pristine white interior where the toys are assembled contrasts with the ramshackle collection of ageing machinery that fills the space. Acquired by Javier from visits to old factories over the years, each machine has been custom-fitted to carve the intricate pieces of compressed cardboard and wood and then assemble them. They are then neatly packed inside wooden boxes that are also produced in-house.
Inside their far-flung factory of ideas, the restless, creative energy is palpable. It’s a spirit of exploration and invention that is encouraged by Javier, who believes that pushing the boundaries of one’s imagination is the foundation of every good game. His nephew Pablo agrees: “The sense of playfulness is innate in all of us; sometimes all we need is the right stimuli to awaken it.”