Thursday 28 September 2023

in the media: TV2 interview on boardgames and parenting


I was interviewed by TV2 (Malaysian national TV) journalist Choo Jia Yi, on boardgames, parenting and game design. The interview was aired on 28 Sep 2023. 

An ex-colleague Howie saw me on TV and excitedly took this photo to send to me. 

Link to interview: 

Monday 25 September 2023

Game design: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

This year I am participating in the Malaysia Board Game Design Competition (MYBOGADECO). My entry is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This was not a game designed specifically for the competition. When I signed up for the competition, I happened to have this game in development which matched the theme of the competition. At the time the game was still called Catch 22

By taking part in the competition, I forced myself to make progress with my design. I didn't have a proper theme for the game prior to this. Now I had to think about a suitable theme. I needed to get the rulebook properly written up. I had to make a proper prototype. I needed to work on my sell sheet too. 

The first prototype I made used characters from Miyazaki Hayao movies. At the time I didn't have any theme so I just picked some random pretty art I found on the internet. I used the name Catch 22 because the game was about not exceeding the number 22. Also "catch 22" is an English expression. I later realised there is a well-liked book by that name. My game is not related to the book. 

After deciding on the Ali Baba theme, I looked for relevant drawings on the internet and made the next prototype: 

For the competition I could not use other people's art without permission. As opposed to looking up the artists for the many pieces of art I used and getting permission one by one, I decided to ask my younger daughter Chen Rui to help. She did original art for me, and I made the third prototype below: 

This is how a game is set up. Everyone starts with $20 (or whatever the currency is in the age of Ali Baba). Your goal is to get to $80. 

This is a mock-up of a game in progress. Every round each player is dealt three cards. After looking at your cards, you arrange them before you face-down, with the smallest card on the left and the largest on the right. During a round, players take turns revealing cards. You may reveal any card belonging to any player, and you may even reveal the top card from the draw deck. However you may not reveal your own card. When you reveal a card, as long as the total of all face-up cards has not exceeded 22, you claim a reward. The longer the round goes, the bigger the reward. When a player eventually causes the total to go beyond 22, the round ends. This player doesn't get a reward, and is penalised instead, losing $10. 

The rewards start at $1, and can eventually increase to $200. 

I bought the poker chips on Shopee. The quality is so-so, but they are cheap. 

I bought the box at Daiso. 

I have now submitted this copy of the game to the competition judges. My other copy is the older prototype. I will need to create another copy of this latest version. 

Saturday 23 September 2023

In Front of the Elevators

The Game

In Front of the Elevators is a game from Japan, by Saachi, who has designed quite a few quirky and clever games. It is a light card game, about queuing up for elevators. Not the kind of setting you'd normally expect right?  Every player controls a family, and you want your family members to be able to get onto the elevators. If they do you score points. You have to queue when you approach an elevator. However the characters in the game have abilities which may let them cut queue. There are also other ways of manipulating the queues. You play this elevator waiting game for 3 rounds, and then the highest scorer wins. 

This above is a game in progress. You have three elevators on the left, and a queue next to each elevator. The elevator cards specify how many people they can fit, and how many points each person who manages to get in scores. Normally the first to go in scores the fewest points, and that last person to barely squeeze in scores the most. This is highly thematic. If you are the last to make your way in, naturally you feel luckiest. I find this funny and relatable. 

When you set up a round, every player randomly draws two cards belonging to his family (i.e. colour). The rest of the cards are shuffled and divided into three draw decks. The card backs in the game have different colours, representing the families. So when you draw a card, you know whether you are getting your own family member or someone else's. When you look at your opponents' hand cards, you know which families their cards are from. On your turn, you must play a card, i.e. send one of the characters in your hand to queue at one of the elevators, and then you draw a card from one of the draw decks. Everyone takes turns doing this, until the draw decks are exhausted and everyone has one card left unplayed. The then round ends. The characters at the head of the queues get to board the elevator, and they score points. 

A family has 7 members - Grandpa, Grandma, Dad, Mom, Son, Daughter, and a Lost Child. Whenever you play a card, you may be able to use its special power. For example when you send Daughter to queue, if in the same queue there is a Son (her brother), the Son (regardless of which family he is from) will let the Daughter cut queue in front of him. He takes good care of his sister. In the same way, Dad always lets Mom cut queue, Grandpa always spoils Grandma, Mom spoils Son, and so on. When the Lost Child comes to queue, one member in the same family will leave the queue and go to her, standing behind her, to accompany her. All the card powers are related to different ways they may manipulate the queue. When you draw cards, you can draw cards from your own family or from other families. That means you can play cards from other families. 

The three elevators specify how certain characters score double if they manage to board. For example for one of the elevators Mom and Grandma would score double. When sending family members to elevators, this is an important consideration. 

If three similar characters join the same queue, they get distracted. They meet old friends so they leave the queue to have a chat at the lobby. In game terms, this translates to the three cards going out of play. They score 1 point for the player who played the third character. When you play your own family member to an elevator where he or she can potentially score double, it can be risky because others may do the same, resulting in three similar characters being in the same queue. Everybody loses. Well, unless someone plays the fourth character, because by then the first three would have already left, and the fourth character would be the only character of the type in the queue now. 

The Play

Procedure-wise, this is a straight-forward game. The rules aren't complicated either. However it gives your brain a healthy jog. You may think that it should be good to queue early, so that you have a better chance to win a spot. However if you are there early, there is a higher risk of getting disrupted by a subsequent card play. E.g. the Lost Child might come looking for help, or the second and third card of the same character luring your card away. Now you think maybe you should go later. However if you are late to the party, you may be too far down the line to get onto the elevator. This is the kind of dilemma you will face. 

Even drawing a card is not exactly simple. There are three decks to choose from. Do you draw your own colour or an opponent's colour? If you draw your own, it means you have control over where to send your family member. You can hold on to your card and wait for the right moment. However if you draw an opponent's card, it means you can intentionally send it somewhere unproductive. In our game, we were more offensive than defensive, so we tended to grab other people's cards so that we could stick them somewhere useless. What nasty people we were. 

Your hand size is 2. Every turn you must play a card and then draw a card. What this effectively means is you can keep a card on hand and never play it, or you can save it until the best possible opportunity comes about. You may hold on to your own card to play it at the right moment. You may keep an opponent's card and play only when you are sure it won't score. 

It is easy to count cards. There are only seven characters in each colour. You can easily tell which characters are in play and which are still out there. In the early game, most characters are not out yet so there is much uncertainty. As the round progresses, the situation gets clearer. You gain more information, and this helps you make better decisions. In the early round your decisions are more luck-based, but as the round goes on, you will be making better informed decisions. This is quite an interesting experience. You feel you have more and more control, and you get to see whether your earlier bets pan out. 
Dad and Mom

The Lost Child. Card powers are shown at the top. 

There are two Daughters at the centre elevator. If anyone plays the third Daughter, all three Daughters will be removed from the queue, and the characters who will get on the elevator will be the two Grandpas and the Son. 

The Thoughts

In Front of the Elevators is very much a Japanese style game. Not many components, compact rules, and it brings to the table something unique and unusual. The fact that it is about queuing for elevators already make people go "what?"  I like that the game is able to create a refreshing experience by using just a handful of simple game mechanisms. It is a short game, but a fulfilling one. I enjoy the art style too. 

Tuesday 19 September 2023



Anything unusual that you notice about this photo? Long-time readers will probably know. 

I recently wrote in this blog that my tablecloth has much higher exposure than I do. When I play games and take photos of the games I play, I usually focus on the games themselves. I normally don't take photos of myself or my fellow players. So you'll see more of the tablecloth than me. 

I am attending a conference about simulation and games in the training industry. One speaker shared with us her game, and she said it was inspired by the Malaysian game Kuih Muih. The photo she showed in her slides is the one above. I immediately recognised this as a photo I took, because of the tablecloth. It's a weird feeling seeing my photo (and my tablecloth) at a seminar. Almost as weird as seeing my thumb in a Hong Kong government exam paper. 

In order to make me feel better and to calm my jealousy, I have to now post this photo which includes both my tablecloth and I. I can't be letting it hoard all the limelight. 

Sunday 17 September 2023

Ready to battle

Do you recognise this game? The answer is...




















This comical drawing is a birthday card from younger daughter Chen Rui. She combined Dancing Queen with the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure internet meme. I found it absolutely hilarious. I showed it to the original artist Edwin, and he had a good laugh too. His pretty girl is now more muscular than The Rock. We both thought maybe we should turn this into a game merchandise. What do you think? 

Friday 15 September 2023

Ark Nova

The Game

It's September 2023. Ark Nova is now the 4th ranked game at It is a heavy Eurogame about building your own zoo. Each player has a player board, and you do your building and scoring on your own board. You keep expanding your zoo until one player reaches a certain score threshold and triggers game end. Whoever scores highest wins the game. 

This is the player board. Along the bottom there are 5 action cards, and they are the core mechanism in the game. On your turn, you select one of these cards and perform the corresponding action. How powerful the action is depends on the position of the card (rightmost position is strongest). You then move the card to the leftmost position and slide the rest right to fill the gap. What this mechanism effectively does is it encourages you to take actions evenly. You usually want to wait for a card to travel further right before you use it. 

The hex spaces are your zoo. You will place tiles here, and tiles are zoo buildings, mostly enclosures for animals. 

The main game board is looooong. It only serves a few simple functions. You display cards which are available to players. There are score tracks for keeping score. There is also a countdown track which determines how soon a round ends. Player actions trigger this countdown. Rounds have varying lengths. When a round ends, you do some admin, e.g. making money and discarding cards beyond your hand limit. 

I find Ark Nova similar to Terraforming Mars. Both have a ton of cards. Both are about making effective combos of cards. There are a few types of cards in Ark Nova, the most common type being animals (above). The 4 at the top left is the enclosure size you need to have to be able to bring in this animal. The 20 is the cost to play this card (i.e. to bring in this animal type). The 8 at the bottom right is the additional visitors you will attract by having this animal at your zoo. Visitors affect your income. 

This on the right is a sponsor card. Sponsors give you long-term abilities so it is best to have them played early. You'll be able to utilise their powers more. 

Tiles with yellow borders are vacant enclosures, waiting for animals. Once you bring in the animals and an enclosure is filled, you flip it over to show the green border side. 

Action cards are double sided. You can upgrade an action card to the stronger purple side on the back. There are only a few opportunities to upgrade. Don't expect to be able to upgrade all five. 

This is a smaller common board. It has information and components related to the Association action. You get to claim some special privileges here, e.g. connections with zoo associations from different continents. You need these connections to be able to import animals. Those cards at the bottom are conservation cards. When you release specific types of animals back into the wild, you get to score points. One unique thing about the game is there are two types of points - visitor points and conservation points. Normally you score visitor points by having more animals in your zoo, and you score conservation points by releasing animals back into the wild. 

This is a secret objective card you get at the start of the game. Everyone gets two. 

Normally I don't think of chicken as zoo animals. These chicken in Ark Nova can be quite powerful. Technically they are sponsors. Don't ask me how that works. They score points when you play them, and also at game end. 

Those yellow icons printed on the player board are various benefits you get to claim when you build over them. 

Every player has two score markers. They start at opposite ends of the score track. From one end you track your visitor points, and from the other your conservation points. Game end is triggered whenever any player's two score markers meet. In this photo above my (blue) markers were getting close. Conservation points (on the right) are harder to get. At this point our visitor points were close, but I was far ahead in conservation points. 

The Play

Ark Nova is a game with many cards and a lot of text to read. It is a complex, heavy game. You have a lot to keep you busy. You want to create effective combos with your cards, so that you can score more points. The game has many aspects and you can't expect to be strong in all of them. You have to pick. You must prioritise. This is what makes decision-making interesting. 

There is not a lot of player interaction. Sometimes you fight over cards on the main board. Sometimes over privileges in the small common board. Generally there is little direct aggression. Everyone is busy with their own zoo. There is not much you can do to affect other players. You can try to end the round when your opponents have more cards in hand than the hand limit. This forces them to discard cards. This is probably the nastiest thing you can do in the game. 

There is a spatial element, but it's not a big part of the game. The most important part is the card combos. You can call this a development game. After all you are gradually building up your own pretty zoo. 

At this point I had two action cards upgraded, leftmost and rightmost. 

These were my cards. I had many African animals (see the yellow African continent icon at the top right of many of the cards). I also had many herbivores (green deer icon). The convention in Ark Nova is costs and prerequisites along the left edge, and card types at the top right corner. 

3-player game in progress

By game end I had only filled about two thirds of my board. 

The Thoughts

Ark Nova did not give me surprises or excitement. It is a typical heavy Eurogame, of the type most popular nowadays. So it is no surprise it does so well on the BoardGameGeek rankings. Many experienced gamers like this kind of game. It's the current mainstream. I can appreciate what makes it likeable. If someone suggests it I probably won't turn it down, but I wouldn't seek it out to play now that I've seen what it is. I feel there is not enough drama and player interaction. No emotional roller coaster ride. You are mostly building your own little zen garden. It's intricate and peaceful. 

Wednesday 6 September 2023


26-27 Aug 2023 was BOXCON game convention in Malaysia. I joined the event as one of the local game publishers. I only one have published game, but that is enough to qualify. I was at the Any Games convention at the end of July. This time round, there was enough space for me to fully display my bunting. Previously space was limited and I could only place my bunting behind my booth, so the bottom third was blocked from view. This time I was able to take a full-body shot with it. 

The convention was held at Strand Mall. I arrived early on Saturday morning. Even the lights were not turned on yet. My booth was at a good spot, almost directly facing the main entrance. The Cili Padi Games bunting can be seen clearly from the main entrance. 

I may look like the disciplinary teacher scolding students, but I was actually teaching a game - Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs. This is the game I want most to promote this time, because this is my next game I'm planning to release in December 2023. I hope to introduce it to more people and create some anticipation. One challenge is the minimum player count is 7. This makes it difficult to gather enough people to play. On Day 1 of the convention, I only managed to get Snow White played near closing time. When I did get it to the table, I was pleased to see it continue to work well. Players were immediately absorbed, because this is a game that requires concentration. I think the premise is also something that attracts people to want to try the game. 

At the end of Day 2, when I was about to pack up and leave, a group came and said they had been wanting to play Snow White. They asked whether I could stay a little bit longer so that they could play. I was certainly happy to oblige. They had noticed the game earlier, just that they didn't have enough people earlier, or I was busy teaching other groups other games. They made an effort to catch me before I left to try Snow White. That made my day. 

I managed to get my business card done just in time for the convention. When I was at the Any Games convention, I realised that not having my own business card was rather amateur. So I decided to get mine done for BOXCON. Time was tight. The two conventions were less than a month apart. I asked Edwin (who did the art for Dancing Queen) to design the business card. Once the design was finalised, I went online to place an order with a business card printing service. The cards arrived just one day before the convention. Just In Time! I do love this design from Edwin. 

This time tablecloths were not provided, so I brought my own. This particular tablecloth has been used for boardgaming for close to twenty years. When I take photos of boardgames for my blog, this tablecloth often appears in the background. It is getting much more exposure than I am. 

I brought five different games. Of these five, Dancing Queen was the only game already published. The rest were prototypes at different stages of development. They were all at playable stages, but they were at different levels of maturity. Playing my prototypes with many different people is important to me. It gives me ideas to improve my games. It helps me assess whether my games are up to standard to be worth publishing. 

The next game I plan to publish is Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs. The images I am using for my prototype are found on the internet, i.e. other people's art. I have started work on my own art. Edwin who did the art for Dancing Queen will be doing the art for me. I am looking forward to a different kind of Snow White and dwarfs. 

This above is my prototype Catch 22. I used characters from Miyazaki Hayao movies, but the game has nothing to do with these characters or the movies. This was a game which started from mechanism and not theme. I slapped on a cute theme just to make the prototype pretty. Catch 22 will probably be the next game after Snow White, i.e. it will be my publishing project for 2024. It is the more popular one among my current prototypes. I determine so by observing playtesters' behaviour when they play. Also sometimes some playtesters explicitly tell me they like this. 

I had not been giving the theme much thought. Now that this might be my next project, I knew I needed to give it some thought. I discussed with Jeixel, and one suggestion he gave me was Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is stealing treasures from the giant's home, and needs to escape before he is caught. Catch 22 has a risk escalation mechanism. Eventually I decided to change the name to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I use fairy tales as the themes for my games because they are recognisable and relatable. They are inviting, and spark curiosity.  

The story now is you players are Ali Baba's cousins. You see the fellow suddenly becoming rich, so you pester him to share his secret. He reluctantly tells you about the secret hideout of the forty thieves. So now you are at the cave grabbing as many treasures as you can before the thieves return to their den. Whoever happens to be the one still left behind when the thieves return will need to drop everything and run for their life. What do you think of the new name and theme?

This is a design I started recently, initially called Liar's Deck, in honour of the game Liar's Dice. This too is a mechanism-first design. Again, I did not try to come up with a theme when I made the first prototype. I just looked for pretty pictures from the internet to be used in the prototype. This game has nothing to do with cute Japanese anime-style cars. The game does involve lying, thus the initial name. Because of that, the most appropriate fairy tale to use would be Pinocchio! 

So here's the updated prototype. I am calling this simply Pinocchio. I couldn't find a complete set of pretty pictures featuring Pinocchio and characters in the story. So I collected different versions of Pinocchio drawn by different artists in different styles and put them all into my new prototype. 

BOXCON 2023 was the first public appearance of both Pinocchio and Ali Baba

My ex-colleagues and old friends Calvin, Zong Zhan and Zhi Nin came to visit. It was great to catch up with them. They tried quite many of my games. One other ex-colleague Alex also came to visit. He didn't know beforehand I would be there. He found out about the event and was interested to attend. He was half expecting I might be there. 

These two players enjoyed Dancing Queen so much that later that day they came back to play it again. This was very encouraging. When they won they would sing aloud "What is love.... Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me.... no more", and also "You are the dancing queen... "  It was a good move to name the cards in the game popular song names. I was also glad to see that they developed some tactics quickly, some of which took me many plays to work out when I was designing the game. These guys are sharp! It's a wonderful feeling seeing players appreciate my game to this level of depth. 

This was Snow White, and this was the group which came to play at the end of Day 2 when I was about to pack up and leave. 

Most of the other tables had been cleared, and this group stayed on to play Snow White. They played a few games while I continued to pack up my other stuff. After teaching them the rules, they were able to manage by themselves. This is after all not a very complicated game. 

Shean from Boardgame Fantasy, one of the organisers

Xiu Hong from Centlus Boardgame, the other organiser

Throughout BOXCON I mostly obediently stayed at my booth and did not go about trying other designers' games. I did make some rounds to take a quick look at what were available. The only game I tried was Jalan Raya, a local design still at the prototype stage. Choon Ean and I visited the booth together to try it out. This is an open information abstract game. Clean and simple design, refreshing. Something a little different from the usual fare.