Updated: May 23, 2022
I'm a passionate advocate for creating good Asian game content, not just for Asians but for the entire world. And who better to create this content than Asians themselves? Board games tell some of the best stories, and we need great Asian game makers as much as we need great storytellers, poets and film directors representing Asia. Sadly, among the most famous 'Asian' or Asian sounding board games (Tokaido, Takenoko, Sushi Go, Hanabi etc), none of them are actually created by Asians (mostly French!). This is not to say that we can't have great cross-cultural collaborations, of course - we very much should.
Currently, however, most games with Asian themes feel appropriated. For example, almost all 'Asian' games not created by Asians (including the list above) feel like they need to utilise an Oriental looking font and/or paint slitty eyes or mustaches on Asian caricatures to justify its exotic 'Asian' theme. If this happened in most other mediums, people would be up in arms, pitchforks at the ready, but the board game industry still has no issue harvesting and relying on stereotypes, which speaks volumes about its core demographics. As the market grows and diversifies, however, we should be able to create games that have meaning for all facets of society.
I'm intimately familiar with the struggle that Asian designers and publishers face to create good and authentic Asian games. Because the Western market is so used to their stereotypes of what is 'Asian' (like assuming North American Chinese food is actual Chinese food), games that are truly Asian won't be as easy to digest, and perhaps won't be as palatable as the 'Asian' games that they are used to. Because our board game markets here in Asia aren't as sustainable (yet), we face the conundrum of either being true to our identities or to keep to more universal themes in the hopes that these won't scare Western buyers away.
Our dream is that sooner rather than later, we can create games that are not only a bright beacon of our Asian identity that tell proud Asian stories but which still appeal to and are celebrated by players and markets all over the world. To celebrate this goal, here are five Asian games lovingly designed by Asian designers that don't compromise on their Asian-ness.
Also one of the games that come to my mind that possesses a strikingly modern Asian artwork and aesthetic, Dadaocheng makes no secret of its proud Taiwanese roots with a title that non-Chinese gamers would probably never be able to remember. Though the game itself has quite a disconnect with its mechanics (a match-3 game with an colonial-age city-building theme!), the quirky watercolour style and clean illustrations are strong enough to carry the theme home. The match-3 mechanic in this game, while distantly abstract, is still worth trying out for its innovative twist. So So games have lots of games in their inventory that are just so-so game design-wise, but their aesthetic sense never fails to impress and Dadaocheng is a great example of this. Bonus points for event cards that are lovingly detailed even though their effect on the game is minimal.
Iki possesses the hallmarks of not just a great Asian game, but a great board game. The artwork is faithful to a very specific archaic Japanese style without sacrificing modern aesthetic or information design, while the gameplay relies on very distinct Euro-style mechanics such as rondels and risk-management while still managing to impart a uniquely Japanese feel (and some of the best graphically designed card-backs I've ever seen in a game). It's a decent gateway game for players just getting into Euro-style games, which is always a plus, and Asia is going to need a bunch of those very soon. Playing Iki always reminds me how we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to reaching into our history, culture and aesthetic (for example, to find gems such as the professional Ear Cleaner and the Soap Bubble Man).
3. Round House
A highly proficient Euro-style game by one of the best game design houses this side of the Pacific, Round House doesn't have the memorable artwork of the other games here but makes up for it by having one of the most German designs (that's a great thing) in an Asian board game. There aren't many games from Asia that can provide a German-level mechanical depth, and while not perfect, Round House delivers that kick. The addition of the second storey platform as a physical component that has a gameplay function is both ingenious and visually impressive. And lots and lots of bonus points for having a player board that actually has a house with my last name on it - never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that possible in a Eurogame.
Hisashi-san's games revolve mainly around trains, because that's a theme that's really close to his heart. But sometimes he taps on traditional Japanese lore and settings, and he gratifyingly reserved Yokohama (he lives there!) for one of his best-designed games. Many Euro-style games are named after cities, most often trading hubs, a tradition that has become cloyingly trite. Run-of the-mill Euro-style resource management and cube-pushing often ensues (not that there's anything wrong with that). But somehow, the sleek Japanese game design that revolves around an innovative simple engine-building mechanic as well as the modern yet quirky Japanese style graphics by Hisashi-san's Okusama ryo_nyamo manage to bring us back to a bustling colonial time in Japanese history, and everything just fits.
Herbalism goes beyond the tour of duty because it gives us an Asian theme in a place that we would least expect to find one. Herbalism is a deduction game which is a godsend for those who love the genre, and the game is surprisingly thinky and satisfying. Granted, deduction games too often have detective-catch-murderer themes and this is probably the most unique skin for a deduction game in the history of the genre, but the theme of Chinese herbs and medicine seems to be force-fit here. It almost feels like the authors wanted desperately to create a traditional Chinese medicine game before anyone else, and so they pasted it on, even though this would have been a much better theme for, say, a resource management game. Nevertheless, Herbalism (the second entry from Emperor S4 in this list) is a breath of fresh air with its proudly Taiwanese artwork and brain-burning mechanics.
Can you think of more games that you think fit the above category? We'll need many more great games by Asian designers to change the perception of Asia in board gaming, but I have faith that we can do it in the years to come. At Origame, we are always working hard to create truly Asian games that you will love, and you can call your own.