Visiting Helsinki, or any city in Finland, this weekend might make tourists feel like they’re the only ones who’ve not been invited to a party. They might not be bending the truth; a lot of Finns are heading to the countryside to celebrate one of the year’s biggest festivities, Midsummer or juhannus in Finnish.
Aside from food, sauna and dips in the lake, a game known as Mölkky is a popular way to spend time with fellow celebrators. It includes a dozen wooden skittles, which are all marked with numbers and supposed to be knocked down by players taking turns in throwing them with yet another skittle.
Mölkky, invented in Finland in the mid-’90s, isn’t just a summer cottage privilege. It’s a common sight in city parks, too – especially in Paris.
“In France, Mölkky is a bit of a celebrity already,” says Juha Nieminen, sales director of Tactic, the company that currently owns the rights of the trademark. “It all started by accident, when exchange students and other visitors took the game from Finland back to France with them. Now there’s a big Mölkky community.”
Mölkky is well known enough to have its own annual world championship tournament. Last year, it was organised in Paris, this year in the Czech Republic and next year it’ll take place in Tactic’s hometown Pori, Finland.
Still, the game’s popularity is far from its peak: Tactic aims to produce a million Mölkkys a year as soon as its facilities are updated to the increasing speed of production.
“It won’t happen this year or the next, but soon anyway,” Nieminen notes. “We see a huge potential for Mölkky in the international market.”
Half a century of family games
On top of this week’s midsummer, Tactic is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The company started out in a family garage, and the ownership still remains in the hands of the same family.
Some of the games in Tactic’s selection have been available for decades and continue be popular among new generations of growing gamers. Newcomers include a collaboration with the Angry Birds creator Rovio. Mölkky joined the gang in 2010, when Tactic bought the game’s rights from its original manufacturer.
Now, producing Mölkky is a full-time job for over a dozen people in two shifts. To meet the million-games-a-year target, the factory needs to speed up – but patiently.
“We’re not looking for quick wins and flash sales,” Nieminen explains. “We’re already exporting hundreds of thousands of games, and we always build our sales sustainably, together with local partners.”
Nieminen believes that Mölkky’s got what it takes to become a global classic.
“It’s not high tech yet it’s ecological and somewhat exotic,” he describes. “The materials from pure Finnish nature and a simple approach to spending time outdoors with friends are universally appreciated.”
Online friends for offline games
A Finn focusing on mobile games during juhannus would receive a lot of frowns from his or her friends at the summer cottage. Mölkky gets people’s eyes off the screens.
Nieminen doesn’t see digital games as a threat to traditional board and outdoor games. If anything, they encourage people to play more, whatever the game.
“The beauty of games like Mölkky is that you need another human being to play with,” Nieminen explains. “The interaction happens through the game, not with it.”
However, Tactic is about to bring a digital element to traditional Mölkky as well. The company will launch an app through which people can seek other keen players in parks, beaches and other public spaces. The app can also be used to ease the point counting process.
Yes, points. Not everyone is interested in keeping track of them, but there tends to be someone in the group who follows the rules to each and every letter. Even this Midsummer, a player or two might lose their temper with others not taking the tournament as seriously.
Nieminen emphasises that fun is at the core of Mölkky, not winning.
“Someone always wins, someone always loses,” he reminds everyone who’s about grab a skittle. “Mölkky is a laid-back game. Even in the world championships, some teams show up in funny costumes and turn it into a carnival.”
At best, Mölkky can be an icebreaker at a cottage party. Knowing Finnish summer, sometimes the biggest skittle could be used to break actual ice on the frozen lake…
This is how you play Mölkky:
You’ll need 12 numbered skittles, a Mölkky throwing skittle, a scoreboard and friends or strangers to play with.
The skittles are placed in a formation. A throwing line is drawn three to four metres away from the formation.
The first player throws (always underhand!) at the group of skittles and tries to knock them over. After a throw, fallen skittles are put upright where they fell.
If one skittle falls, the score is the number on the skittle. When more than one fall, the score is the number of fallen skittles, regardless of the actual numbers written on them.
If a player misses (has no score) three times in a row, he or she is out of game.
The game ends when the first player reaches exactly 50 points. If one scores over 50, the player’s score is reduced to 25.