Updated: Jun 5, 2020
TOBEXPO (Taiwan Original Boardgame Expo) 2019 was the first board game convention I’ve ever been to. That might sound strange coming from a co-founder of Origame who’s just published Mooncake Master and Chope! but it’s true. If the words ‘board game’ and ‘convention’ trigger a particular stereotype, I hope that my experience at TOBEXPO will change the way you look at board games and the conventions that celebrate them.
TOBEXPO 2019 ran from 13-15 September over the mid-autumn long weekend in Taipei. As board game publishers, we also added a pre/post convention programme that involved day visits to our printers and partners, and impromptu game nights with other Asian board game designers.
Since Origame launched at the start of 2019, the work of creating board games, discovering the right talents, and building distribution channels all occurred at the micro level. As a first-time convention goer, TOBEXPO opened my eyes to all that at a regional level. I want to share three cultural trends that has shaped my perspective on the role board games can play in modern Asian society.
SOCIAL MIXING AND COMMUNITY BUILDING
In Taiwan, board games are as typical as bubble tea: it’s available everywhere and anyone can get a taste of it. Each brand has its own particular flavour - brewed internationally or locally - to suit specific cravings. Like bubble tea drinkers, board gamers come from all walks of life, cutting across different ages, genders, and backgrounds. At the convention, I was surprised to see schoolmates, couples, and whole families with parents in tow wandering from booth to booth sampling the latest releases.
It also helped that TOBEXPO 2019 wasn’t held in some ulu convention centre or business hall. Instead, it was held in the heart of Taipei at Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a super trendy venue of historical significance that also hosts arts and design related events under one roof. The pairing is implicit: in board games, art and design converge in a medium that people can interact with together without pretence.
We’re far from this level of board game normalisation in Singapore but this comparison illustrates what’s possible in Asian countries beset by increasing social fragmentation and polarisation: board games can serve as a catalyst for social mixing and community building.
PRIDE AND HUMILITY, COLLABORATION AND COMPETITION
As members of an uncommon profession, board game designers have resurrected the concept of a guild: among them, an unspoken work ethic and esprit de corps exists. To illustrate, we visited Taiwan Boardgame Design’s (TBD) play-office on our first night in the city. Smoox Chen, the founder of TBD and unofficial galviniser of the Taiwanese board game community, was already hosting seven Thai designers when we arrived. Important introductions were made - ours were the only two non-Taiwanese booths at TOBEXPO 2019. We quickly progressed to playing the games we had published, putting them through their paces, and giving/receiving critical feedback on the play experience. The significance of this encounter needs to be unpacked.
For individual designers, a good work ethic consists of a healthy balance of pride and humility: pride in the fruits of your labours and humility to know that there are many other ways to improve your craft. Underlying this balance is the desire and drive to constantly create better board games and play experiences - how good a designer you are directly corresponds with how much critical feedback you can take from other designers/players.
For Asian designers as a collective, the esprit de corps is characterised by a healthy balance of collaboration and competition: designers freely collaborate across borders to grow the industry in Asia while letting the board games they create compete freely on the open market.
This isn’t a zero-sum game, especially in Asia where board games are generally regarded as a frivolous novelty or a fringe activity. But this isn’t a free-for-all either where poorly designed board games are propped up. Hence the lengths that designers will go to to hone their skills and sharpen each other, recognising that the profession will grow in credibility as the board games they design get smarter and sleeker.
This work ethic and esprit de corps among designers is remarkable for perpetuating itself on the basis of artisanal pride and professional honour; it is even more remarkable when one notices its shortage in other more developed industries and professions where workers are driven to perform for the sake of the bottom line. Perhaps the way board game designers go about their profession can open up conversations on how/why we work, and offer people a new way to rediscover and relate to the work that they do.
ASIAN VALUES ADDED
Looking back on the past 50-70 years, countries across Asia are still coming to terms with their colonial heritage, both good and bad. Over the decades, different Asian countries have struggled and succeeded in staying relevant in a globalised world by outperforming the West and providing value-added services at a lower cost. But progress is unevenly distributed across Asia.
In this context, modern board games are a relatively recent phenomenon from the West that we in the East have quickly adopted and reinterpreted with varying degrees of success.
Singaporeans were early adopters of board games: equipped with the English language and large disposable incomes, many have amassed large private collections for personal use. But despite having a headstart in the scene, Singapore remains largely a nation of board game consumers, not producers. We hope to change that.
By comparison, the Taiwanese weren’t content to translate and play imported board games. Their communities nurtured homegrown designers whose creations are able to hold their own at international conventions. Like them, the Thais are taking their first steps to becoming a major Asian board game producing nation.
As the industry matures and as more Asian designers and publishers emerge, the question remains: what’s so special about modern Asian board games? Or to put it less bluntly, what special sauce are we adding to the board games that we create? We may need another 5 to 10 years before we can answer that question meaningfully. But looking at how the industry is developing now, my gut tells me that instead of looking for an answer in Asian board games as finished products, we should be looking at the processes and values that inform how they’re being designed. Maintaining a fine balance between pride and humility, giving and receiving, collaboration and competition; this balance that drives Asian designers will find expression in the games that they create.
As the body of work grows, the impact will be subtly felt by players and observers alike. They will look upon modern Asian board games in all its diversity and recognise themselves, their identities, cultures, and values reflected back at them.