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Board games are back with a vengeance


Keep calm and game on: Board games are back in play, with a new crowd that wants to put down its phones and talk to real people.

"The very first time we were here, there was only one full table. About 10 people. Now, we have over 1,000 members." - Game designer Daryl Chow (above). He and his team want to eliminate the old-fashioned notion of board games being akin to Snakes and Ladders or chess. He is the designer of Overbooked, a quirky board game in which players are competitive airline seat managers

Modern board games, while hugely diverse in theme and plot, can be grouped based on whether they require more luck and combat, ending in player elimination from the game (American-type games), or those that keep everyone playing till the end, and instead focus on indirect conflict over resources and points (Euro-type games).

LOOKING around, the doomed man became keenly aware that there was nowhere to hide despite the multitude of locations that surrounded him. Time was his ally, but even with such a powerful weapon, he couldn't stem the tide of zombies for long. He thought hard for a few beats, and a decision finally crystallised in his weary mind. His gaze settled on a distant point. "Is there space there?" he wondered aloud to no one in particular. Several nods met the query, and the baseball bat-wielding man walked to the part of the board marked "Security Centre". That was me a few weeks ago. I wasn't in any danger, aside from the possibility of being laughed at for making the wrong move.

I was in fact safely ensconced in a cafe along Owen Road, playing a board game with several people who had come to this Halloween-themed gaming meet-up for some action involving the wide-eyed undead.

The growing trend of board-gaming was on full display at the House of Commons cafe the evening I was there. A pastime once confined to rainy nights indoors, it has morphed into one which has spawned professional competitions, a multimillion dollar industry with huge yearly conventions and massive fanbases.

Gaming today, far removed from the days of Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, Cluedo and Risk, has hatched a whole new breed of multi-player mind-benders that are fighting for table space in your home.

Market voices on:

Forbidden Stars, Dead of Winter, Codenames, Resistance, Zombicide. If you have heard of these games, you're in rarefied company. These are very much board games as you know them, requiring dice, counters and plenty of free time, but demand much more mental gymnastics to fully realise the hours of entertainment they bring. Timeless mechanics give them enduring appeal, while striking design and compelling themes draw new generations of fans.

Sales of board games at hobby stores in the United States have boomed in recent years. US sales have risen 15 to 20 per cent in each of the last three years, according to online trade publication ICv2 which tracks "geek culture". Globally, sales of games and puzzles have grown from US$9.3 billion in 2013 to US$9.6 billion in 2016, data from market researcher Euromonitor shows.

In the beginning...

Gamers put the start of the recent revival at around 2010, before the ubiquity of smartphones and tablet devices began to encroach on tabletop territory. The game Settlers of Catan (now known as just Catan), where players aim to colonise territories, is widely considered the spark which fired up the resurgence in tabletop games.

But between 2011 and 2013, global retail sales of games and puzzles slipped 3 per cent (in US$ constant value terms), according to Euromonitor, as the proliferation of mobile devices and online games hoovered up attention.

Yet, in a twist of irony, it was eventually the explosion of gaming platforms such as the Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo Wii which helped catalyse sales of modern, innovative board games among millennials who were already fans of game play.

The popularity of gaming on smartphones also opened up a world of possibilities for game designers. The board game Carcassonne, for example, has birthed a game app rated 4.7 out of 5 on the Apple App Store, and other board games such as Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Splendor gained a second wind on digital marketplaces.

Crowdfunding site Kickstarter has benefited many people looking to break into the board-game business, helping them defray costs of designing a game. It has also aided established publishers in pushing their games out to a much wider audience. The board game version of the popular computer action-role playing game (RPG) Dark Souls, for instance, was funded in just three minutes with an initial goal of US$70,832, and within 24 hours managing to smash US$1 million in funding.

And just in September this year, Steamforged Games - which also published Dark Souls - launched its Kickstarter campaign for Resident Evil 2, another video-to-board game conversion. It broke through its original funding goal of £150,000 (S$268,524) within an hour, and wrapped up its month-long campaign with a whopping £800,561 in the bank.

Entire websites have sprung up and accelerated the appeal of today's board games, such as the encyclopaedic BoardGameGeek. Hundreds of thousands of hours of YouTube video have been produced. Shut Up & Sit Down is a particularly popular one, as is TableTop, presented by American actor Wil Wheaton, whose fanatical dedication to board games is well documented.

A social network

Modern board games, while hugely diverse in theme and plot, can be grouped based on whether they require more luck and combat, ending in player elimination from the game (American-type games), or those that keep everyone playing till the end, and instead focus on indirect conflict over resources and points (Euro-type games).

Mall of Horror - what I was playing at the House of Commons a few weeks ago - is emblematic of the genre which has risen to prominence in recent years. The game is styled in the American way, and is one of hundreds of zombie-themed games which have risen, as it were, from the dead. The game's objective is to keep the player's three characters alive as long as possible (you can even put in a macabre vote to have other players be killed by zombies.)

The meet-up at the House of Commons was the brainchild of game designer Daryl Chow, 35, and his team, who call themselves the Card Board Crew. Their goal? To "eliminate the traditional image of board games as merely choiceless games like Snakes and Ladders or dry games like chess".

Sporting a nearly-shaven head and a small goatee, Daryl doesn't look like your typical "gamer" geek at first glance. But his dedication to the community is indubitable. He scurries around energetically teaching the various groups how to play, never slowing. One group was playing One Night Ultimate Werewolf, a particularly raucous party game in which participants must try to deduce, among them, who the Werewolves are.

"The very first time we were here, there was only one full table. About 10 people. Now, we have over 1,000 members," Daryl says, gesturing across the room.

His wife Lily, 39, agrees. She helped secure the agreement with the cafe which plays host to the meet-up every Friday night.

"It's nice to see fresh faces every time. When we reached our 500th member milestone, we had a thank-you party and treated our members to a meal. It hasn't even been six months, but we have expanded to three locations now," she said.

Turning to bid goodbye to a tall, lanky young man who looked to be in his late 20s, both of them remarked on how enthusiastic he was. I had played with that participant earlier, where his zeal for the games was highly evident.

"He makes the games fun," Daryl chuckles.

Daryl is no stranger to seeing delight on gamers' faces. A game designer of 10 years who began his career in Canada, he is part of an elite group where single ideas are transformed into entire board games, down to details on design and mechanics, requiring no less mental dexterity than would be required of a chess player. He prefers playing games styled in the steady, structured Euro mechanic, as opposed to the run-and-gun American template.

While in the cold north, he met people who were beginning to design their own games, and that's where he caught his break.

"This group I started designing with were part of this organisation that was growing and it's still growing now, called the Game Artisans of Canada, part of the (gaming) grassroots community there. At that time, no one was a published designer yet, now almost everyone is a published designer," Daryl says.

Returning to Singapore with a PhD in theoretical linguistics, he teaches at the National Institute of Education and continues to design games. He is the designer of Kickstarter-backed Overbooked, a quirky number in which players are competitive airline seat managers and strive to be the most prestigious airline with the most satisfied customers.

If you seat too many passengers, customers become unhappy, and points will be lost for seating too few. (The inspiration for Overbooked was, of course, the episode between United Airlines and Dr David Dao, a paid passenger who was beaten and forcibly ejected from an overbooked aircraft to make space for UA staff.)

Sharing is caring

In Singapore, board games were first brought to the masses in cafes which sprouted up during the gaming heyday of the early 2000s. Some will recall Settlers' Cafe and The Mind Cafe, two pioneer establishments. Nostalgic gamers will point further back to the late 1980s, when teenagers would huddle over Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in classrooms, at recess, in comics shops, at home. A fantasy role-playing game, D&D has itself enjoyed a revival thanks to its exposure in Netflix's hit series Stranger Things.

But the halcyon days have passed, and cafes are not as in vogue as they once were. Alvin Tan, founder and owner of The Mind Cafe along Prinsep Street, says business was hit badly when the iPhone and online gaming materialised, but the cafe kept chugging along.

Amid a group of raucous teenage girls and bands of gamers poring over their next move, he reveals he has begun reaching out to corporate clients for teambonding sessions to bolster the inevitable drop in traffic he sees during the weekdays.

"This business is actually rather resistant in times of crisis. When a company is doing well, they might spend more promoting board-gaming activities (for their staff). When a company is not doing well, they'll consider cheaper options, and board-gaming is a cheaper option," Mr Tan says. "The big blow came when the employment levy rose, and rental rates nearly doubled," he recalls.

Instead of merely letting these companies play board games when they show up, he hit upon the idea to refashion board games into something resembling more of a gameshow than a board game. "A lot of gameshows you see on TV come from board games. You must understand the games and the mechanics, then think in terms of how it can benefit the company."

Alvin reckons that the rebirth of board games comes in the wake of a certain backlash against the all-encompassing, but in fact, anti-social mobile phone.

"People say 'eh, I need to meet friends' more. This boils down to a fundamental issue: we cannot play a game alone," he says.

"In fact, it's good to play together, because you can see the character of a person! Especially for couples. When your partner loses, you know what happens, and it's good to see this before you get married," he says with a laugh.

One couple well acquainted with the joys of board games are newlyweds Patrick Lim and Tee Hanbin. In their Ang Mo Kio flat, the tasteful shades of the living room are punctuated by a riot of blazing colours from countless boxes of tabletop games shelved neatly behind the sofa.

Despite their diverse interests, they discovered that gaming was something they both loved, even if they could not agree on playing the same board games.

"She likes Splendor, Castles (of Burgundy),Dead of Winter. But she has a ceiling," Patrick says, perched on his sofa. The gaming aficionado relishes the cerebral challenge of the games, among which he counts Zombicide, Forbidden Stars and The Lord of the Rings as favourites.

Sitting next to him, Hanbin nods in agreement. "If it takes too long, I get very bored," she admits. "It's not relaxing at the start, you've got to learn all the rules of the game."

The boxes stacked chest-high range from quick and cheery party pursuits to heavy three-hour behemoths.

"It (playing board games) is one of the few things we both like to do, I guess. When I go shopping, I don't like him to come along, and he plays his own games which I don't know how to play," Hanbin cheekily interjects.

According to Daryl, the game designer, Singapore has one of the largest board-gaming communities in Asia, aside from Japan and Taiwan. He counts Hong Kong as another strong community, being one of the few countries selling Asian-themed games to the West.

He strongly advocates for the Asian community to represent itself in the international arena. One bugbear, he laments, is the "cultural appropriation" made by several Western board games, with over-romanticised views of Asia. "When another board game cover resets our culture by a thousand years, the only thing we can do is stifle our nausea, and thank the heavens that we aren't Egyptians," he quipped.

Deeper purpose

Momentum seems to be gathering for budding Asian game designers. Some games are already making their mark, with Confucius and King of Siam among the most well-researched and respectful of history and culture, according to Daryl.

It's all fun and games for most tabletop players, but for Dr Alicia Pon, board games has a much deeper purpose.

As part of her PhD, the senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) developed her own board game, but it isn't one which most would be familiar with. Titled My Wonderful Life, it retains the usual dice-rolling, counter-moving game mechanics, but delves into unique territory. The game facilitates conversation around end-of-life topics for patients, with an emphasis on guiding players to conduct a "review" of their life, with the ultimate goal of helping them come to terms with their mortality.

"What you want to do is for people to play this game so they can then talk about stuff," she says.

She has brought the game to hospitals and hospices, and played with patients in the presence of their families. They love the game, Dr Pon says.

"They assume they're just playing a game, as if they're not talking about themselves, when they actually are," she says. "Our play is therapeutic, but it is still about a relationship."

With the experience of gaming, she says, a memory is co-created together between people seated at the table, which is very different if they had, for instance, played over the Internet. You can see the dynamics and each others' body language in person, Dr Pon says.

"And the thing is if you play a board game, you are unable to multitask," she notes.

"You have to put your phone away, and you actually have a very beautiful and lovely relationship with the person you play with.

"It is about attention, about focus."

In an age of always on, always connected mobile devices, that is precisely the appeal of the board game. Tabletop play represents a steady, reliable dichotomy to the frenetic bonanza of games available at the touch of a virtual button. The board game gives us an unbroken moment with friends or family, where we sit together and play as one. Game on.