One of the things that is always satisfying about the season ahead, and the memories I have of those behind, are some of the amazing books I have read and the joy of relaxing and playing a raucous game or two together with family and friends. Recently I sat down with a man who has made the pursuit of a good read and an entertaining challenge his business. While working in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a successful CEO coach in the field of venture vapital, Hadi Barkat was also studying to take his Swiss citizenship test. Already responsible for his company’s gatherings and offsite entertainment, he employed the services of a game designer, and decided to brainstorm a way to turn his study into a form of entertainment.
Out of this was born Helvetiq, initially a trivia game based on Swiss knowledge, and two years on, a fully fledged Swiss publishing house, committed to the world of French, German, Italian and English games and books, when its inventor decided to turn his side project into a full-time business.
Helvetiq is very much a print publishing house: “The death of print is very much overstated,” Mr Barkat tells me, shuffling a deck of ordinary playing cards as we chat in the coffee corner of their their loft studio located in the annex of the Stellwerk building in Basel.
Helvetiq, like its CEO and owner, seems very fond of turning learning or effort into play or entertainment. While about 60% of its output is in the form of games, Helvetiq also has many great books too. Yet even its titles often seem caught up in a sense of playful travel in how they approach their subjects, as with Monika Saxer’s Beer Hiking, which pairs the challenge of hiking and walking trails with the goal of drinking a unique Swiss craft brew at the end of one’s journey. Diccon Bewes’ Around Switzerland In 80 Maps is another example of what Mr Barkat considers a timeless idea.
Another thing that stands out with Helvetiq is its craft. There is sense of agency here, both in the design and execution of its titles. No one is waiting around for the next big manuscript to plop through the door and land on the slush pile.
“Two things we don’t do here: a lot of market research, or money-grab. You won’t see a colouring book from Helvetiq,” says the CEO, who believes copycatting is more work and a lot less fun. “Publishing is an art of starting a concept and seeing it fly.” Creativity itself is a path of discovery for Mr Barkat: “You have to be humble. I like to see where things lead. Some people plan every detail, and that works for them, but we can’t control too many things … to see where an idea leads can create more authenticity.”
At any moment Helvetiq has approximately 20 new games and book titles in development and appears to thrive on seeking out and sharing experiences. Simple-to-grasp concepts are key. Yet simplicity is no hindrance to a rich experience in a roster of books and games that require a high level of finesse in their execution. Everything however, does seem to start with a persuasive, easily stated idea. Their books and games also seem to have a consistent illustration accented aesthetic, which also helps many of their titles pop out on the shelves.
Helvetiq is another example of how print and paper remain not only highly relevant, but profitable in a world saturated with often over-hyped digital experiences. It also demonstrates how creativity is all about exploring unexpected paths to find rewarding destinations. So this Christmas if you’re looking to escape screen time and reconnect with a real life, three-dimensional experience for you or your family, take a moment to peruse Helvetiq’s catalogue. They put in the work so that we can play.