This is a feature I wrote for a reporting and writing course at the University of Hong Kong.
November 27, 2013
HONG KONG – The second-floor canteen at the City University of Hong Kong teems with life on a Saturday afternoon. Many students are here to have their afternoon snack. Others are deeply engrossed in homework or study. But there are a few tables where a different sort of activity is taking place. People are playing board games.
You will not see the familiar “Monopoly” or “Scrabble” though. The 10-odd games on the tables in the large canteen bear intriguing titles like “Caverna”, “Descent” or “Inception”. They belong to the ever-growing number of modern board games available on the Hong Kong market, many of them designed in Europe, but translated and published in Chinese.
In the world where video gaming has become ubiquitous, available on computer screens, TVs, tablets and cell phones, the enduring popularity of board games may come as a surprise. The hobby eschews modern digital technology for cardboard, plastic dice and colourful pieces of wood. And it also brings together friends and families around the table for an evening of playful rivalry in a way that video games cannot. Hong Kong’s board gaming community is small but vibrant. People of all ages and walks of life find intellectual stimulation, camaraderie and new friends in the lands of imagination and friendly competition.
The two large canteens on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong have been popular with Hong Kong board gamers for at least six years, according to Angus Fong, a regular participant. A restaurant manager in his thirties, Fong, like most of his friends here today, is not associated with CityU. One does not have to be a student here in order to participate in the games.
“The food is cheap and the space is free” says Odie Leung, who is here with four of his friends. Leung, also in his late thirties, used to be a regular in the CityU canteen. He works in Mainland China these days and today is one of those rare occasions when he can get together with his friends for a game during a visit to Hong Kong.
Leung says he enjoys the social aspect of the hobby. There’s more human interaction, he says, than, for example, in chess, and games are “more multidimensional”, especially those that can be played by more than two people. Unlike video games, board games “let you influence other players, manipulate them”, he says between turns. “Board games help you develop mental and emotional skills.”
Leung believes that playing games with a person helps to get to know them. He quotes a Chinese saying: “If I want to know my future son-in-law, I play mahjong with him.” He doesn’t play the traditional Chinese game of mahjong, he says, since he does not enjoy gambling, but he believes that the modern board games can fulfil the same function. “Women can judge a [prospective boyfriend’s] character through games”, he says. “People show their true character.”
Not many women appear to be following Leung’s suggestion here. The crowd gathered over board games in the CityU canteen this day is predominantly male. Women account for less than 10 percent of the gamers.
But the ratio of women to men tends to be higher in more casual gatherings of board gamers, says Annie Cheung, a member of the Hong Kong Board Gamers group which uses the online service Meetup to arrange meetings. During the group’s Wednesday night gathering at Capstone, a game cafe in Causeway Bay, women constitute nearly half of the players. “Women talk more, they like interaction in games, they like negotiation,” says the 36-years-old journalist who just finished a card game that did involve much negotiation and trading. Thanks to Meetup, she developed a group of female friends who often gather together separately to play more complex games.
“Meetup is thriving in Hong Kong”, says David Lazar, the organiser of the board gaming group, “thanks to a large expatriate community who often do not have family or other roots here and are looking for things to do.” Lazar’s group tries to meet at least a couple times a month, usually in one of the city’s several board game cafes. “Jolly Thinkers has quite a decent selection of games”, says the 40-year-old entrepreneur, referring to a board game cafe in Wan Chai. The group usually relies on the cafe’s library of games, but occasionally a member brings his or her own.
Novelty and variety of experience attract people to modern board games. Lazar used to play chess, but got bored with the game. “Chess is only for two people”, he says. “In board games you can do different things, and the games are shorter. There’s more action.”
Games have been part of human culture for thousands of years. Archeologists have recently discovered 5000-years-old game pieces in an ancient Turkish burial site, according to Discovery News. Although board games like “Monopoly” or “Risk” have been popular since the 1950s, the origin of the modern board game hobby is usually attributed to Germany. Playing a style of intellectually challenging, competitive, but also family-friendly games was a popular pastime as far back as 1970s. German game designers, some of whom have become celebrities in the gaming community, have popularised that style of games throughout the world, in particular through the commercial success of one such game, “Settlers of Catan”, in the mid 1990s.
There is something for everyone in the board gaming hobby. Board Game Geek, a website that has become, since its launch in 2000, a go-to resource for all things related to board games, lists over 67,000 games. Among the most popular ones, according to the site’s ranking, is “Agricola”, which allows the player to step into the shoes of a medieval farmer for a couple of hours. Players of “Twilight Struggle”, which currently tops the ranking, re-enact the tense politics of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. Other games can bring you to the battle fields of ancient Rome, or a galaxy far away, or even the thrilling world of German electoral politics. And more games are published every year. Spiel 2013, the annual board game trade show held in Essen, Germany in October saw the release of more than 800 new titles.
Andrzej Cierpicki, a semi-retired arbitrator in the construction industry who has been the president of the Hong Kong society of Wargamers for the last 15 years, owns a big collection of games. “I’m a hoarder”, he admits. He has catalogued 1,726 games stacked neatly on shelves in a dedicated game room in his rural house near Sai Kung, and more still need to be accounted for.
Wargames are one of several genres of board games. They depict historical battles or entire wars, from those of ancient Rome to the late 20th century. “[They] appeal to my love of strategy games and my interest in history”, says Cierpicki. “The two fit like hand in glove.” “I like to read up on the game I’m playing beforehand, to understand more about what it’s supposed to be representing.”
Board games are not for everyone. “It takes suspension of disbelief”, says Cierpicki, “particularly in a war game, because you are fighting Waterloo and it’s basically cardboard counters on a map. Some people aren’t able to do that.” The games he plays also require dedication and time, since many come with thick rule books and take many hours to complete. But he appreciates the opportunity to immerse himself in a game that is recreating an aspect of history. “It’s a bit like watching a movie really”, he says.
Both Cierpicki and Lazar do occasionally encounter blank stares when talking to others about their hobby. “Some people think it’s childish,” says Cierpicki, who also owns a large collection of military miniatures – essentially toy soldiers. “Some people don’t grow up. We still get pleasure from playing with toys, basically. People have toys. All men have toys, it’s just the kind of toys they have. They may have a motorcycle, or they may have a yacht or a set of golf clubs. They are all sorts of variations on toys.”
Lazar acknowledges that board gaming is perceived by some as “geeky”, but he is okay with it. “Geeky is good. It means you’re interested in something, know something, you’re passionate enough about something to learn about it. There’s nothing wrong about it.”
“As far as social activities go, [board gaming] is the best if you think about it”, says Lazar. “[It] doesn’t include violence, it promotes thinking, it promotes social interaction, you can’t think of anything better than this.”