Telling Tales on the Tabletop

The Rise of Taiwanese Games

2019 / July

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Geof Aberhart

In Taiwan, more than 100 original tabletop games are published a year. Beyond pure entertainment, the games are used for a variety of purposes, from government agencies and civic groups using them as a means to communicate with the public (to explain long-term care policies, for example), to businesses using them to train their staff in negoti­ating skills. Taiwan's own original board games, which cover a range of themes, are entertaining and highly collectible, demonstrating the strength of the Taiwanese cultural and creative sector.

Wikipedia describes tabletop games as “games that are normally played on a table or other flat surface, such as board games, card games, dice games, mini­ature wargames or tile-based games.” To most people, “tabletop game” brings to mind images of groups of people gathered around, playing a game on a board, with cards or with other bits and bobs, as a form of enter­tainment.

Giving tabletop games a boost

Rich Man, a Monopoly-like game published by Yawan Stationery, is a classic board game that most Taiwanese grew up playing. In 2008, Yawan established its own game design studio, Two Plus. The following year they launched three original games—Rabbit Hunt, Fuzzy ­Tiger, and Fire Bulls—becoming a pioneer in Taiwanese-­created tabletop games.

However, at that time the Taiwanese tabletop game market was still dominated by Western games, with homegrown games a rare sight in game stores. Many players began asking themselves why all the famous, fun games were coming from abroad, and whether Taiwan could design good games of its own.

The tough part for most game designers is visual­iz­ing their ideas. This was why in April 2012 veteran table­top gamer ­Smoox Chen convened a group of like-minded friends for the first Tai­pei Boardgame Playtest. Online, he invited people to bring their game projects along for testing and discussion. As well as helping build out the games’ mechanics, meetups like this have offered aspiring game makers a way to share resources and work together to develop a blueprint for Taiwanese-­made games. As such, they played a vital role in the early stages of the industry’s development.

Ever since that first playtest seven years ago, they’ve been held once a month without fail. Many of the people that showed up to the first event, Chen shares, didn’t have any experience in publishing table­top games, but everyone kept at it step by step, driven by their enthusiasm. Today, those same people are still at it and have become core members of publishing companies like EmperorS4 Games and Moaideas Game Design.

Theme + Fundraising = New Game Opportunities

The birth of a new tabletop game generally follows the same process: the bud of an idea, production of prototypes, testing and revision, publishing, attending trade shows, and marketing. Or at least that’s the tradi­tional way, Chen laughs, but with 2013’s The Wonderful Island, a new option arrived.

The Wonderful Island was the brainchild of designer Wu Po-yang, who had seen that the younger generation was clearly tired of politicians flinging empty insults at one another and needed some way to vent their frustrations; he also hoped to find a way to arouse people’s interest in politics. With political figures transformed into characters and campaign strategies into cards, players engage in their own simulated electoral campaign. The topicality of the game saw it quickly attract attention, and it soon sold several thousand units.

The Wonderful Island also ignited a trend for topical tabletop games, helping draw in people who were not habitual game players. Coupled with the rise of crowdfunding platforms, publishers have been able to get fans online and raise money prior to publishing, helping reduce risk and injecting more color and di­vers­ity into locally developed tabletop games.

Thinking outside the box

Publisher Big Fun is a company skilled at bringing outside elements into tabletop games, having launched several fun games with unusual themes.

Their 2015 game European Union: The Board Game was a joint project with the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan. Drawing on the historical background and parliamentary procedure of the EU, and using actual political parties and EU legislative bills as prototypes, the game sees each player take on the role of a party in the EU and try to get their own legislation passed. Players lobby and debate each other in a lively atmosphere, while at the same time learning about how the EU works. “Several companies have even used the game for their internal training, helping staff understand international relations and negotiating skills,” says Rachel Chen, chair of the Asia Gamification Innovation Education Association.

Big Fun call themselves the “biggest crossover table­top game publisher.” Executive director Slime Yang says, “In all of Taiwan, we are the only ones ­using table­top games as a marketing tool and a form of media.” Table­top games are not only capable of enter­tain­ing—if they have a story to them, they can also communicate concepts. Big Fun’s game Long-Term Care Planner, published last year, is one example.

The League for Persons with Disabilities, ROC, came to Big Fun in the hopes of developing ideas ­beyond ­lectures. The company drew inspiration from the government’s “Long-Term Care 2.0” policy, adapting real-life individual cases into fictional characters. The resulting game helps players understand and observe the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities through various scenarios.

Specialist stores

With the industry still in its infancy, original Taiwanese tabletop games are being driven by game makers who support one another in their drive to develop the market. Bao­dao Games is a store in Tai­chung set up specifically to cater to those wanting to buy Taiwanese games. Bao­dao’s founder Shin Lin is also chief oper­ating officer of game publisher Mozi Games. Initially, he had wanted to go around other stores to sell Mozi’s games, but he soon figured it would be better just to get a few of his friends’ games together with Mozi’s and sell them himself; hence Baodao was born.

The store specializes in original Taiwanese tabletop games, boasting titles that cover all kinds of themes and topics, from indigenous culture to subways to the power company.

The potential of tabletop games as teaching aids has also attracted the attention of parents and teachers, and Taiwanese-made games have begun to take on educational elements in response. Situated in a depart­ment store, Baodao’s main customers are famil­ies. Parents are particularly keen to use tabletop games as a way not only to keep their kids away from their electronic devices for a period and enjoy some parent‡child time, but also to help the kids hone their minds and their reactions.

Some of the more educational games are even used as common training materials by corporate con­sult­ants, such as Lin’s game Winnor, which was based on his own startup experience. Having seen for himself how tough the process of feeling your way through starting a business can be, Lin was inspired to create a game that gave some sense of what it’s like and help prepare people for the real thing.

All the world’s a tabletop

In the world of tabletop games, a variety of approaches to game mechanics can be found. Some games rely simply on basic math, prettied up with some artistic skill. This has helped Taiwanese games to catch the eye of foreign players at international trade shows. For example, Big Fun and illustrator Chiu Cin­yee’s Harvest Island features cards illustrated with Taiwanese fruits and animals in a meticulous and magical style, giving the game added collectible value as art. Not only did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs select the game as a “Special Souvenir of Taiwan” for 2018, the company even managed to secure distribution throughout Europe.

In an age when people are always busy and would rather entertain themselves with movies or smartphone games, it can be a challenge to make tabletop games attract­ive, so they need to rely on fine craftsmanship and the ability to give players a memorable experience.

The next step

In 2018, more than 100 original Taiwan-made table­top games were published. As many as 50 or 60 game-related expos are held a year in Taiwan, and at any given time there could be five different games up on crowdfunding platforms. It’s clear to see that Taiwanese tabletop games are booming.

Every choice a player makes is the result of their own thinking. The interactions between players are direct and real. Tabletop games can stimulate the mind and trigger the drive to learn, which has piqued the interest of educators.

As the industry develops and more firms get involved, there is a pressing need to develop new markets if revenues are to continue to grow. Rachel Chen believes that “gaming for seniors” is a possible direction to explore.

In other parts of the content industry, like animation and picture books, representing foreign products can save time and hassle, so why are tabletop game publishers so willing to fork over more money to deal with Taiwanese games? Maybe it’s as Slime Yang says: “We need to carve out a path for Taiwanese creativity.” Taiwanese tabletop games promise to be a new realm for Taiwanese creatives to showcase their capabilities.

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