Asian Style Board Games
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
Four years ago, my starting point was purpose, not play. I stumbled into this field by accident after being deeply inspired by Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I wanted to create something life-giving for people, something tangible that spoke to their human experiences. What resulted was Smol Tok. It’s not a board game in the strictest sense of the word but a community-building tool containing game elements like rules and levels to facilitate meaningful conversations in small groups. You could call it a gamified platform for relationship-building.
But over the past four years with Smol Tok, my perspective has shifted. Purpose is imperative but I’ve since come to appreciate the importance of play. The desire to play and have fun is a basic human instinct that we’re born with. As children, we discover the world through play and, depending on how we’re raised, our instinct for play is nurtured or suppressed, but never removed.
This year, purpose and play converge in Origame. Our single-minded focus on building modern Asian board games is defined by these two terms. Origame’s purpose is not merely to infuse Asian themes into board games but to design play processes that will introduce players to Asian experiences and perspectives through the way we integrate original artwork, endgame objectives, and game mechanics.
Some examples of what we’re currently working on might help illustrate what we mean. Food is a natural place to start when sharing about Asia. Many countries and cultures in the region - from Japan to Vietnam - celebrate the mid-autumn festival in their own ways by giving and receiving mooncakes in one form or another. Out of the many different flavours and textures of mooncakes, we’ve chosen to feature the popular ones in Mooncake Master through the mechanic of sharing mooncake slices, beautifully portrayed by a fresh Singaporean illustrator whose quirky style will appear again in later publications. Play involves building the most beautiful mooncake or customising one that meets a customer’s order. Winning is as much about besting your peers as it is about beating your own score by making the most out of the mooncake slices you’ve been given - in other words, the striving for excellence. We made the conscious decision to feature a diverse line-up of mooncake customers from a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and occupations - the faces of people you would commonly meet on the streets in Asia.
Hawker or street food is another crucial aspect of life in Asia. Imagine a game that gives players a taste of the urgency of finding an empty table to chope and deciding what dishes to eat. We’re building a game that sandboxes this experience and showcases the cuisine available at our humble hawker centres. Once again, we’re working with a talented Singaporean illustrator who’s adept at making people salivate at his food drawings.
ASIAN FLORA AND FAUNA
Asia’s natural environment and biodiversity offers a rich cornucopia of native plants and animals that we’re also featuring in our board games. We’re currently finishing up the artwork on a push-your-luck memory game of conservation entitled Nautilus. It features rare, beautiful, and endangered sea creatures from the Pacific ocean. In it, you compete with your peers to locate, tag, and protect them before they go extinct whilst avoiding man-made pollutants and obstacles that frustrate your efforts as you explore underwater vistas. We’re lucky to be working with an Indonesian illustrator and diver whose love and passion for the ocean drives his work. His art has been featured in the likes of National Geographic.
Finally, the colourful histories, traditions, and cultures of Asia offer us a deep well from which to draw inspiration for our designs. Asia is not monolithic but consists of many unique cultures and identities with long and proud histories. It's not possible to mix all these cultures together into a single Asian 'Supermix' blend to represent the whole region. Instead, we see the need to tease out the commonalities and differences, and understand how each is navigating the waters of tradition and modernity.
This is akin to our experience as designers: both Daryl and I are Peranakans. We grew up in households that sounded, tasted, smelled, and felt different from its Chinese, Malay, and European influences. As such, we’ve never fully identified with any one of these root cultures but had to continuously come to terms with how they blend together. In spite of that, or perhaps precisely because of that, we’re approaching the task of creating modern Asian board games with a lot more appreciation and nuance.
We can’t wait to start work next year on a board game about collecting and installing Peranakan tiles. Like most things Peranakan, these tiles are a mix of local aspiration and Western art: they weren’t made by Peranakans but imported from Belgian, English, and Japanese craftsmen. It will play like a mix between a conservationist’s dream and an interior designer’s dare as players compete based on the number of complete tile configurations that rank in complexity. The final product will be bright, bold, and beautiful - or we won’t be able to face our relatives again.
ASIAN STYLE BOARD GAMES
Players and designers commonly distinguish between American and Euro style board games. These terms do not denote where a particular board game originates from but imply a set of characteristics. American style board games are generally built around strong themes or characters, emphasise player interaction, and feature an unmistakable degree of randomness/luck. Euro style board games are generally more abstract in theme, focus on game mechanics, and relies more on players making informed choices.
But what about Asian style board games? What unique contribution can our Asian experiences and perspectives make to board game design?
The term isn’t currently used or defined in the industry but in cataloguing the board games we’ll be publishing in Origame, I want to make an attempt at perhaps suggesting what this could look and sound like, from the vantage point of a Singaporean designer who stands at the crosswinds of Asia and the world. This might get a little philosophical.
Rooted in Reality - The real world is brimming with stories and ideas from the past and the present. There’s no real need to construct a fiction for its own sake. Instead, we hope to draw inspiration from the world, and present taken-for-granted social/cultural/environmental issues in the fresh format of a board game to help players see and appreciate the world with new eyes.
Playing with Optimisation - Winning and losing are an essential part of playing. Players take certain actions and anticipate certain results. But in the real world, everything is interconnected and unpredictable. Instead of clear-cut winners or losers, we hope to build in the possibility of, individually or cooperatively, winning/losing according to the amount of improvement or optimisation achieved in how results/resources are distributed.
Striving for Excellence - Board games are fantastic communal experiences where players connect over competition. Players hone their skills by cutting their teeth with other players. However, with most current board games, the possibility of playing for leisure or practice is dependent on the availability of players. We hope to design board games with variant rules that play just as well solo as it does in a group.
The characteristics I’ve mentioned here are by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start. Through our brand of modern, Asian, purpose-driven board games, we intend to feel our way forwards in shaping what an Asian style board game can mean in the industry, and offer players new experiences and perspectives that carry over long after their board games are boxed.
A version of this article also appears on the Starknicked blog.