Origame Meets is a series of conversations where we talk with like-minded folks from the Asian board game industry and learn about their inspiration behind the work that they do.
Cardboard East is a review blog and YouTube channel which focuses on Asian board games. It is rare for an American to talk about Asian games on their channels, let alone for Asian board games to be their sole focus, which is why Cardboard East is such an important voice in our Western dominated industry. Since we share the same passion for Asian board games (plus Jay is always fun to talk to), we thought that it was high time that we featured him here.
Hello Jay, and thanks for agreeing to sit down with us to chat all things Asian board games. We're really inspired by all your contributions to the board game universe! Firstly, how did you start playing modern board games, and how did you get into board game reviews?
Glad to be here. Thanks! There was a comic book shop within walking distance from my home and next door to where my piano classes were. Comics won. However, once I saw Magic the Gathering through the glass counter, I was hooked.
My solution for my mid-20’s life crisis was to immigrate to another country where I couldn’t speak the native language. It would be a challenging environment where I’d have to learn something every day. Living in Taiwan and learning the language and culture has easily been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done with my life. Gaming in another language was fascinating to me. My opponent would speak Chinese. I spoke English. But we both spoke games.
After living in Taiwan for well over a decade and being a gamer for over two, I thought I could give something back to the cultures (Taiwan and gaming) that have been so good to me. As a kid, I used to write 8-bit NES game reviews for my neighbor’s video rental shop. (Yeah, I’m old.) Surely, starting a brand, website, community, review blog, various social media accounts, and eventual YouTube channel would be just as easy, right?
I’m pretty sure we are the same age. Besides giving a voice to Taiwanese games (which you definitely do a good job of), what is the philosophy behind Cardboard East, and is there any hidden meaning in the name?
My mom recently told me that one of the best decisions she ever made in her life was buying me a Nintendo. The house got cleaner, quieter, and I stopped getting bored with recently purchased toys within 24 hours. I always thought the game publisher Data East had a really cool logo, and I must have played through Shadowrun at least a dozen times. The name Cardboard East instantly came to my mind and just stuck.
Philosophy? Most of my philosophy is covered in my article Cardboard East vs. Board Game Rankings. There’s this great video Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview where he explains how east and west cultures can relate to each other from the similarities but can learn more about each other from their differences; differences that can be shared and celebrated. Board games from Asia tend to tell a different story than their western counterparts. I want to make sure those games get a voice and can be heard.
People tend to think that the Internet and digitisation have torn down all the walls and barriers between cultures, and while there is some truth to that, it’s far from true. On the whole, North America and Europe know very little of Asian culture and how it operates. Gaming is just one tiny niche, and I’m glad and honoured to be able to help out, giving clarity and perspective. I think my mind melted the first time I navigated a Japanese website. I just want to lend out a helping hand to all those curious about games from the east. There are great stories here waiting to be heard.
This is a philosophy that we both share - we both fight that uphill battle to educate the world about Asian games in different ways, you through your thoughtful channels and us through design. Where do you think the value in Asian games lies in the crowded landscape of modern board games?
There is an old English expression: It takes all kinds (to create a world). Diversity is a necessity for a successful community.
For an alternate perspective from across the Pacific, there is a Chinese expression: ㄧ樣米養百樣人 (One kind or kernel of rice raises 100 different kinds of people). Diversity is a natural part of life.
Asia is home to some of the oldest games in history: Go, Xiangqi, Shogi, and the oldest in recorded history, Uhr. Yet the modern gaming industry is primarily driven from the west, with terms such as Eurogame or Ameritrash being commonplace. Now, I love games about trading in the Mediterranean and farming, but there are more stories waiting to be told out there. Diversity is a natural and necessary element in any community—especially in gaming. And that’s what Asian board games can offer the board game industry—diversity.
Diversity helps all of us see the world, and ourselves, from a different perspective, allowing us to grow and be more than what we were before. Think of how much the video game industry has changed once Nintendo and Sega became mainstream. Think of how much action movies have changed since Asian martial arts became mainstream. Even anime and manga are now a thing in North America. All three of those changes occurred within my lifetime. It’s a very exciting time right now for the board gaming industry. I’m looking forward to seeing how the industry evolves in the coming years, what Asia brings to the table, and, of course, playing all the games that are produced along the way (and telling you all about it on Cardboard East).
The video game industry is a nice comparison - there are so many classic and modern video games that we wouldn’t have if Asian games didn’t exist. Starting with Taiwan, what do you think Taiwanese games specifically offer to gamers everywhere that are uniquely Taiwanese? Feel free to use actual examples!
On the whole, Taiwan publishers have gotten really good at developing smaller box games that are easy to learn but hard to master. Naturally, not every game from Taiwan fits into that category, but there are quite a few that do.
I think this is a result of Taiwan designers and publishers developing a keen sense of the international board game market. Sure, selling games locally makes them money, but the international market is—as it is in every industry—more profitable. Taiwanese games tend to be smaller so more can fit on a container palette. They tend to be language independent to make it easier for distributors to sell in foreign markets. They tend to be more approachable but offer a good amount of replay value, allowing the game to be suitable for a wider range of players.
Taiwan games that excel at this would be Hanamikoji, Geisha’s Road, Walking in Burano, Joraku, Soulaween, Mini Express, Mini Park, Songbirds, and Guns & Steel.
Japan is an obvious juggernaut in the Asian board games industry. As an expert on Asian games, what is your experience with Japanese games and what do you think of them in general? As usual, feel free to list examples!
LOL. Are we going through every country?
When it comes to Japanese games, two words come to mind: innovation and friction.
Japanese games can be wildly innovative. They can be innovative through theme. Good examples of this would include Vogu which is about the sneaker industry (and comes in a tiny shoe box); Demon Worker which is a worker placement about getting minions ready to bring sorrow and misery to the world; Madori-ism which is about building the most ridiculous apartment via cards with architect layout designs on them; or Tokyo Highway which is a dexterity game about building a 3D highway system and placing little wooden car meeples.
Japanese games can also be wildly innovative through game mechanics. Good examples of this would include the previously mentioned Tokyo Highway, The Ravens of Thri Sahashri which is one of the most unique two-player games I’ve ever played; or Cat in the Box which somehow combined trick-taking with the quantum mechanics thought experiment “Schrödinger's cat".
Sadly, there is the friction and a lot of it. Japanese games can be incredibly difficult to get a hold of—even here in Asia. You could purchase them online but wow oh wow the average Japanese website will melt your brain as they are notoriously difficult to navigate. Indie Japanese games (often referred to as doujin games) have incredibly small print runs and are very difficult to get—even in Japan.
Another hurdle is shipping. Most Japanese publishers do not ship internationally. You need to go with a forwarding service that will ship games from the publisher to their warehouse and then again to you. That’s two shipping fees. Ouch!
Adding fuel to the fire is that unlike Taiwanese games, Japanese games tend to not be language independent, which makes acquiring them and playing them even more difficult. Okay, you got the game, but you still can’t play it. Time to buy your Japanese buddy some dinner.
In the last few years though, more and more Japanese publishers have online stores on Amazon.com.jp. Japanese publishers Tactical Games, Uchibacoya, itten, and Saashi and Saashi have all worked hard to host more modern-looking websites that are easy to navigate and lead users to their games in a near-frictionless environment. There have also been quite a few Japanese publishers running Kickstarter campaigns. Uchibacoya’s latest board game Ostia had a very successful Kickstarter campaign where they raised almost USD $200,000.
In the past, western publishers like TMG or Japanime Games have done a fantastic job at bringing Japanese games over to the North American market. Yokohama and Minevera are two great examples of this. Sadly, TMG has gone the way of the dodo. Japanime Games is still here with us and going strong; however, their catalog is quite different from TMG’s.
But despite the friction, Japanese games can be some of the best games in the entire industry. Startups is a brilliant card game and easily one of the best card games I’ve ever played. If you’re hunting for hidden gems, they’re here in Japan.
What’s next? Singapore?
Since you’re doing a Singapore-themed promotion on your channels, and also because we’re not writing an academic dissertation, I’ll spare you this one time. I will however ask you to summarise the rest of Asia and what they bring to the table. Besides Japan and Taiwan, which countries do you think people should be paying attention to to find hidden gems?
Easy. Korea, Thailand, India, and Singapore!
I’ve been really impressed with both Korea Boardgames and Mandoo games lately. Four Gardens and Jekyll vs. Hyde were both great games—excellent production quality, highly approachable gameplay, captivating table presence, alluring art, and tons of fun. Most importantly though, Korean game publishers—at least the bigger ones—have gotten MUCH better and faster at getting their games to the Western market.
Thailand isn’t an up-and-coming board game market; it’s alive and thriving! Content creators like BGN on YouTube are excellent at community building. I’ve got to say, out of all the publishers from around the world I’ve ever met, Thai publishers are the best at demoing their games—loud, kinetic, engaging, and damn funny. They’re able to connect with their audience faster than anywhere else I’ve seen. One publisher I’ve been really impressed with is Wizards of Learning. Their games Pizza Master and Water Journey are both excellent additions to any library.
I haven’t yet had a chance to play a game from India, but games from India are a thing now, and they look really impressive. Be sure to hit the bell notification on Cardboard East’s YouTube channel to ensure you don’t miss those videos when they come out later this year!
Singapore is an odd market. On one hand, Singapore is home to the crazy controversial 800 lbs gorilla that is CMON. On the other hand, you have a tribe of smaller publishers out there working incredibly hard to get their games out there. From that tribe came Three Kingdoms Redux. It’s almost 10 years old now but is without a doubt one of the best games to ever come out of Asia. And then there’s the publisher Origame. Don’t get me started on their games; otherwise, we’ll be here all day ;)
Didn’t I mention that you were spared? If you do want to spend all day reading about Asian games (and I’m always happy to), you’re welcome to do so anytime on Cardboard East. Let’s consider this: what do Asian publishers need to do to compete with games from the West? What are the biggest areas where they need to improve?
Step 1. It’s time to go big.
I don’t mean box size; I mean weight (or game complexity). There have been quite a few medium-weight strategy games out of Asia in recent years, and they have all seen varied levels of success, such as Khora: Rise of an Empire, Yin Yang, Aqua Garden, Ostia, Mini Rails, Four Gardens, Perfumery, Mini Express, Tulip Bubble, Symphony No. 9, Formosa Tea, Dadaocheng, and even the more recent Jiangnan. That may seem like quite a bit there, but those are the rare few out of the thousands of games that have come out of Asia over a span of roughly five years. Taiwan has the means and the people to make games like this, and if they really want to compete with Western designs, they need to go bigger.
Thankfully, there are a few Taiwan publishers who lean in this direction already. Moaideas, BGN, and Monsoon all have heavier games in development. They’re all run by old school gamers with a love for pre-2012 strategy games. I’m excited to see those future releases, but I’m a gamer and a collector at heart. I want more. I want bigger.
Step 2 is upgrading their overall graphic design and art style to match the trends of the 2020s.
Step 3 is more crowdfunding campaigns to get out there and increase awareness.
Your point about bigger games is duly noted - but from the perspective of an Asian publisher, it’s not that simple. We would really need Western audiences to chip in (this includes biting the shipping bullet) because it’s impossible just to rely on Asian markets to make and sell big games (which cost a lot more to make). It is a classic chicken-and-egg problem - we need to make big games to convince gamers to buy in, but we can’t get them to buy in until we make big games. That being said, we are absolutely planning crunchy AND chunky games here at Origame.
Let’s end on something fun - now that travel is opening up, where in Asia would you like to visit? It could be for board gaming or to escape board games, your call.
Exciting news! I’m looking forward to seeing your approach to solving this Catch 22! You know where and how to find me!
I still haven’t experienced Tokyo Game Market, and that really needs to change. Hopefully, 2023 will be the year I get to go to TGM.
However, I’m already planning a trip back to the States this summer. I haven’t seen my family in over 3 years, and I think it’s about time I introduce my wife to her mother-in-law. LOL. I love games, but family needs to come first. (But yeah, I’m totally buying some games there and bringing them back with me to Taiwan. Shipping ain’t cheap!)