Updated: Dec 17, 2022
Origame Meets is a series of conversations where we talk with like-minded folks from the industry and learn about their inspiration behind the work that they do.
LUMA is an arts and media company that also happens to publish games, their most famous to date being Kaki Lima. Kaki Lima is a thoughtfully designed game that oozes Penang charm and is a great example of a modern Asian board game. We met up with Goh Choon Ean to learn more about her design process as well as the must-know secrets behind Kaki Lima.
How did you start playing modern board games, and how did you get into board game design?
My favourite tabletop game when I was a kid was Boggle. I took a set with me to college and I still do play it quite regularly, actually. Personally, I consider it a classic game that still feels modern after so many decades. Haha, fun fact - we were both born the same year!
As for Eurogames, the one that got me hooked was Carcassonne, which an American friend had brought to a church camp and I remember thinking wow, board games can be like this?! After that, I started my own collection of games and organising game sessions in the LUMA creative space.
I started designing games when I was programming a workshop for a youth arts camp by Arts-ED in 2017. I thought board game design would be a perfect match to what the youth needed to observe and express about cultural heritage. So I went about working on an example of what an output could look like. And that was how Kaki Lima started off - as a prototype participants could play, experience, and learn from before they designed their own games. After the workshop, we decided to develop Kaki Lima and see it through getting produced and published under Arts-ED and LUMA.
How did your company LUMA come about? What is the meaning behind the name?
LUMA is an initiative by my company LiveWire! Media to support arts and culture through media production and other creative means. LUMA was named after the Latin word for brightness or luminance. The LUMA vision - Lighting Up through Media and the Arts - is about believing in people coming together to shine like bright lights; being generous with their talents, time and resources; and fusing a sense of community in creativity.
The name is meaningful in addition to being a cool acronym! Can you give us a quick summary of Kaki Lima, as well as what people can look forward to experiencing when they play the game?
Kaki Lima, the Malay term for five-foot way, is about walking around George Town, Penang, using the arched pathways that line the heritage zone of the tropical island in northern Malaysia.
Players as pedestrians navigate their way through a grid of kaki lima cards, and score victory points from reaching places on daily task lists, exploring the different sites in town, and meeting up with other pedestrians, many times to enjoy local delicacies. Walking being at the heart of the game, players also score points for clearing blocked kaki lima to make a more accessible neighbourhood.
Kaki Lima stands out as being very authentically Penang, including the cover of the game. What were the design choices that you made to give the game a more Penang flavour?
As one of its original purposes was to demonstrate how you could create a culture-reflective game using a phone camera, I had from the beginning decided to capture images of the eclectic tiles that paved the kaki lima around town, to use as part of the game's visual design. So the graphics you see on the box, the Kaki Lima logo, the rulebook, the back and borders of the different cards, the Jom! tokens – all employ those photos of actual tiles in Penang, many of which have been there for centuries.
We also wanted the 8 pedestrians in the game to represent the different cultures and characters you would encounter in Penang. One of my team members, Atikah, did the initial research work for that, and Charis crafted the 8 characters into life, not only illustrating how they look but also providing a short backstory for each of them with a hint of their connection to Penang and its five-foot ways.
The characters in Kaki Lima are indeed diverse and bring the game to life. What did you set out to do in the design of the game, and how do you think the mechanics that you chose achieved that?
There’s a certain satisfaction gained from finding your way through a maze, and from checking things off on a to-do list. This was essentially the ideas behind the 2 core mechanics in Kaki Lima, which are simply grid movement and hand management. Everything else came in to deepen or enhance those ideas. For instance, the board is made up of cards which are shuffled every game to create a different maze of kaki lima each time, while clearing blocked paths would open up new routes to go about your daily tasks more efficiently. And the different Boosters were added to the Langkah (Step) cards to make planning your route more interesting. Same went for the Jom! Explore objective cards - which gave you reasons to go beyond the places on your Pi Mana? Task Lists and well… explore!
Worth mentioning is how we wanted players to feel like they are in a community or part of a neighbourhood. So the Community Achievement bonus multiplier for contributing to a more accessible neighbourhood can really move up your scores. And it’s also why the Ajak or Jio mechanic (Invite in Malay and Hokkien) was incorporated into the gameplay - where players can ajak other players to accompany each other on walks when they bump into each other in the kaki lima, or to meet up at different locations, or to clear blocked paths together. There’s also a Jom! Explore objective card for the first person to meet everyone else walking around town that particular play. It’s also the reason why the task that scores the highest on a list is one that is done with another player. Of course, it is entirely up to you if you want to use this mechanic or not. Like in real life, sometimes we want to just keep to ourselves and do our own thing, which is absolutely fine, but heh, as a popular local phrase goes – Don’t say bojio! (Don’t say you weren’t invited!)
Are there any interesting aspects of Kaki Lima that players may not be aware of?
An easter egg game can be played using the backs of all the Kaki Lima cards (red, green and orange borders) that create the town grid. Flip them over and try connecting them into a giant pathway of patterned tiles. It’s my 4-year-old nephew’s favourite way to play Kaki Lima at the moment.
There’s also the MCO (Movement Control Order) Mode of Kaki Lima which was designed by Evan Cheah when he was finding ways to pass his time during the height of the pandemic. He sent the rules to me and I enjoyed playing it so much, I included it as an alternative Kaki Lima setup in Tabletopia. The Kaki Lima MCO Mode (Solo + Duel variants) is a quick game where you play one of the pedestrians picking up and delivering food orders to other pedestrians who are home during lockdown (a.k.a. MCO in Malaysia). You can download the rules for the MCO Mode here:
What are your favourite Asian (or Asian-themed) board games?
I’m not saying this because this is an Origame interview, haha, but really - I’ve truly been inspired by the whole series of games designed by Daryl Chow these few years that are themed after Asian culture. Kopi King is my favourite game to start gaming sessions with, and I’m suspecting Durian Dash which I’ve just received will fast become next in line. For something weightier and wackier, I’d say Drama Pukul 7 by Haireey Hashnan and Zamri Mustapha of Meja Belakang, would be my favourite go-to Malaysian-themed game.
I promise that we did not pressure you in any way to say that! Can you share anything more about any of your future releases, and what can people expect to see on your social media channels?
These past 2 years, I’ve been working on Bansan which is what northern Hokkiens in Malaysia call wet markets. The prototype is in its 17th iteration at the moment and hopefully it’ll be on its way to get launched in 2023. This time, the art will be fully directed and illustrated by Charis Loke and we’re looking forward to a game that reflects the hustle and bustle of a multicultural market in Malaysia. Updates on playtests and the game’s progress will be posted on the Bansan Facebook page as well as on Arts-ED and LUMA socs.
Thanks so much for all your insightful answers Choon Ean! Bansan sounds like another must-play for lovers of modern Asian board games. We're looking forward to more great games from you, Charis, and the rest of the LUMA team!
Learn more about Kaki Lima at their Facebook page, and Bansan here. You can also learn more about Arts Ed here, as well as go here to learn more about Charis Loke's work. Kaki Lima is also available right here at the Origame webstore!