Updated: Dec 19, 2022
Many people assume that board gaming is a Western-centric male-dominated hobby. Enter any random board game store and you would most likely see a lot more guys stocking up on the latest titles or strategising over their next move mid-game. Many also assume that it would be really difficult to find someone who is Asian, female, or Asian and female, involved in the board game scene. Statistically, 92.6 percent of the top 400 board games are designed by white men.
But things are changing. If you were at the Asian Board Games Festival '22 (ABGF) last month, you would have been surprised to notice that possibly more than 50 percent of participants were female from all ages and backgrounds.
This week, we chatted with Choon Ean, designer of Kaki Lima from Penang, Malaysia, and Ly-ann from Singapore, (@missgameschool), an advocate for integrating board games with homeschooling.
Shihui: Hey Choon Ean and Ly-ann, thank you for making time to chat about ABGF and board games. Hopefully both of you have more time for yourselves after the festival and have been playing the new ABGF titles you got! This might be a tough question since there are so many to choose from, but which is your favourite board game at ABGF?
Choon Ean: It was actually a marvel that I managed to get time at all to go round the other booths to look at games I might like to add to my collection. In the end, I zeroed in on 3 games to bring home after 2 very quick walk-arounds during toilet breaks!
The first one was Folded Wishes by Ronald Villaver which was unanimously recommended by the Filipino contingent after I told them that I enjoy euro games. Sure enough, I was sold on it after hearing Ronald’s quick explanation of how the game works, seeing the beautifully-designed components, and also the fact that it was an origami-themed game at an Origame-organised board game festival!
I must also mention Last Hand Standing from Thailand. I’m not a fan of the elimination mechanic but the idea of chopping off each other’s fingers was just so ludicrous that I knew immediately I needed to get a copy and it has proven to be such a fun game to bring to the table!
Shihui: A visitor shared that sitting down to Folded Wishes is like playing a game of 4D chess, with so many dimensions and moves to strategise within the game! I remember Last Hand Standing because of the raucous cheers from the table, I'm so happy that it is so popular with your friends too!
This next question is for Ly-ann, given that you play so many games from all over the world, what was your impression of Asian games before ABGF? How has that changed after ABGF?
Ly-ann: I've always been rooting for the rise of Asian games. It really speaks to the soul when you see your people, culture, and heritage represented in the environment. Especially in an industry that has largely been dominated by the white male stereotype. Even so, I am more excited to see the great work coming out from Asia as I got to play the different games suited to the Asian palate.
Shihui: What is a fun memory you both have from ABGF that you treasure? Ly-ann: I got to meet the designers behind some of my favourite Asian board games, as well as the all important teams that go behind the scenes to produce each little box of joy. Also that my family got to join in a fun and meaningful way!
Choon Ean: Not sure if you can call it fun, but my most memorable moment was at the ABGF Industry Games Night. Upon introducing ourselves at one of the tables, the guy opposite me passed me his card and I immediately recognised it as the only Chinese name I had seen on a board game in a London store back in early 2019! I had since gotten 2 of his games which I blurted out right then. “You’re the designer of Design Town! And Harvest Time!”
Needless to say, it was a real unexpected thrill to actually meet the person whose name had been engraved in my memory the last few years. A huge bonus was Chih-Fan wanting to know more about Kaki Lima as well as giving me valuable feedback for Bansan. So that hour or so became my best memory of ABGF!
Shihui: This is solid proof that board games can connect people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries. Chih-Fan must be delighted to meet a fellow designer who is also a fan of his games! Such a nice feeling to meet kindred spirits who appreciate your work, share similar design philosophies and are so generous in helping one another out.
What got you into designing board games or into the board game industry?
Choon Ean: The short answer is that I was designing an Arts-ED workshop for young participants to learn how to design board games highlighting cultural heritage. Board game design was a perfect match to what the youth needed to observe and express about cultural heritage in Penang. Haha, the longer answer can be found in this previous Origame interview: https://origame.co/post/origame-meets-luma
Shihui: Yes! I really admired your can-do attitude! You worked on Kaki Lima as a prototype for participants to experience and learn from, before they designed their own games. After that workshop, feedback was so positive that your team decided to develop Kaki Lima further and got it produced and published.
Choon Ean: It really began when I was a kid, my favourite game was Boggle, which I still play. But when someone at church camp brought Carcassonne, I was totally wowed, "board games can be like this?!" After that, I started a collection of games and organised game sessions in the LUMA creative space.
Shihui: That's lovely! What about you Ly-ann, what got you started on board games?
Ly-ann: We fell into boardgames in 2011 as a broke and newly married couple. Carcasonne, Dominion, and Citadels turned out to be great investments since it was easy to spend meaningful time engaged and entertained over the weekends! Sometimes it was just us; other times, with our other broke and newly married friends. As our careers took off, we took our games with us wherever we went across Asia - even on the Trans-Siberian Railway! We put them aside for a season when the itty-bitty people joined our family but now we are growing little gamers almost every night!
Shihui: Yay start 'em young! We organised ABGF with the hope that it will create many opportunities and lower barriers for more people to try different kinds of games, especially if cost is a consideration. Who knows, there could be future designers who fondly think back to ABGF as the place that got them started.
Choon Ean, what inspires you as a board game designer?
Choon Ean: A few things…seeing and playing other board games that reflect culture, interacting with passionate game designers and hearing them share about their process, being at board game events like ABGF, and witnessing families and friends enjoy themselves when they play games!
Shihui: What differences do you notice between Singaporean gamers and gamers from your country?
Choon Ean: The observation I made was how the general public, and not necessarily gamers, respond to games. Singaporeans seem more keen to try playing different board games. I was teaching Kaki Lima non-stop throughout the 2 days of ABGF, aside from those 2 toilet breaks!
At many points, it felt like we were at a super crowded kopitiam with people standing around the tables waiting for those currently seated to finish their food (in this case the game) so that they could quickly sit down as soon as the previous players got up! Haha so crazy but so encouraging at the same time!
Shihui: Same at our tables! Ly-ann, did you know that one of your kids stepped up to reset the game table, and tried to teach the rules of Alphabeasts Attack! to other players? They are so confident! What words of advice or encouragement do you have for girls/women who are new to board games?
Ly-ann: All are equal at the game table. Young or old, regardless of sex and orientation. Each one is an equal mind and person, with things to contribute to the communal spirit of playing a game together.