Friday 31 May 2024

the state of Malaysian boardgames

The first game from Cili Padi Games, Dancing Queen, was released at the end of 2022. I started getting into game design in 2019. I got into the boardgaming hobby in 2003. When I was just a player (and buyer), I never paid much attention to Malaysian made games. Firstly, there weren't many in the first place. Secondly, they were not very good. Sorry, I know that's not being very patriotic. Now I am no longer just a player. I'm also a designer and publisher. I now see games a little differently. Sometimes I buy a game not because I think I will like it. I buy it because I want to see how other people make games. I want to learn from how other people design products. 

This is how I see Malaysian games: They are still at an early, infant stage. The market is small. Most gamers prefer to play non-Malaysian games. To be honest, that's me too. Malaysian games are not well known internationally. In Asia, countries which have established some reputation in the boardgame world are firstly Japan, followed by Korea and Taiwan. From our neighbour Singapore we have Daryl Chow who now has international presence. Malaysia still needs to work hard. Now I'm part of that need-to-work-hard group myself. 

How does the world see Malaysian-made games? If I were outside looking in, I would see that most Malaysian games are simple non-gamer games, and they look like they are made by non-gamers too.  Outsiders. Now I have this view partly because I am a veteran gamer. I'm probably a little snobbish because of that. I imagine if I were a gamer outside of Malaysia seeing so many games made by non-gamers, I wouldn't be very interested. Now I don't mean to say making games for non-gamers is wrong. In Malaysia, gamers are a small minority. Non-gamers are the majority. It makes sense to make products that have a bigger audience. In other Asian countries which have a wider acceptance of boardgames, there are many more casual and light gamers than there are heavy strategy gamers. Love Letter is from Japan. It certainly is a light game. Most Malaysian games are light, but they are not yet at the level of quality as games like Love Letter

In Malaysia, those who can make a sustainable living from boardgames are retailers and boardgame cafes. There are online retailers and also physical store retailers. Not many, but it's good news for gamers that we do have local retailers now. 20 years ago I had to order games in bulk from USA or Canada and have them literally shipped (i.e. sent by ship). Anyone still remember Starlit Citadel? We don't have game designers or publishers who can make a living from boardgames yet. That said, anywhere in the world, doing this is not easy. In Malaysia, the market is small. To make a living from designing or publishing games, it's either we grow the market significantly (which won't happen overnight), or we go global. We are working on them. 

Philharmonix by Faris Suhaimi found an experienced publisher in Archona Games. Their Kickstarter campaign funded successfully. Leaping Lions by Darryl Tan won the 2023 ButtonShy Games competition. Melaka by Effendy Norzaman made it through to the final round of the Zenobia Awards. These are all very encouraging and inspiring. 

TTGDMY (Table Top Game Designers of Malaysia) is the most active community of boardgame designers in Malaysia. We have playtest sessions regularly. We exchange ideas and news. We often meet at events, having booths near one another and exchanging war stories. Our Facebook group was established in 2015, and we have 1800 members now. It is good to have a community of designers who learn together and encourage one another. We motivate one another to do better and go further. To better Malaysian games, one way may be to create a brand and identity for ourselves. It is not easy to do. We are all individuals, with different full-time jobs and personal backgrounds. We have different values and ideas about game design. It's not easy pulling so many different people together to agree on something, let alone to get something so challenging done. 

LUMA (publisher of Kaki Lima and Bansan) lead by Choon Ean is getting involved more in the game publishing business. They will focus on games with Malaysian cultural elements. This is exciting for local game designers. Most game designers want to have their games picked up by publishers. Doing publishing by yourself is a monumental undertaking. You need to take care of product design, art, printing, logistics, marketing, fulfilment. It's a lot to handle, and a lot to learn. 

At Cili Padi Games, although I have published two games, in the long run I don't actually plan to be a game publisher. I envision Cili Padi Games to be a game design studio. Until I can consistently find publishers who want to publisher my game designs, I'm doing the publishing myself so that I can gain experience and learn about the industry. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort. That's what you need to be willing to do if you want to get good at something. Cili Padi Games wants to specialise in small box card games that deliver something a little different. I am an old timer and a gamer. I cannot make myself create cookie cutter games. I cannot bring myself to create another shallow take-that game. I can say I'm an artist and I have standards. However from another perspective I'm being stubborn and impractical. Many people who buy small and cheap games are looking for brainless time wasters. They don't care about how artsy or innovative your game is. They just want something they can have fun with for a while. Now I know when I go into game design and publishing, I should be treating it as a proper business. It should be profitable and sustainable. But let's be honest, I can keep doing this only because of the passion and how it is also a hobby. So I allow myself to stand firm on some of my principles. Even if they make life a little harder for me. Got to stick to what you believe in. 

I picked Dancing Queen as my first game because it won the competition on BoardGameGeek. That would help in marketing the game. The game also fulfils my criteria in terms of what kind of games I should publish. However Dancing Queen is not an easy game for non-gamers to learn by themselves. Also since it is a purely 2-player game, the target audience and use case for the game become smaller. From a publisher perspective, I am making this tough for myself. My second game Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs is a game for 7 to 18 players. It goes to the other extreme. This is an unusual player count. Snow White is not exactly a game I myself seek out to play. I chose it because when I playtested it, almost all the groups I showed it to were deeply engaged. The response surprised me. I play games to make me happy, but I create games to make other people happy. So that's why Snow White. Compared to Dancing Queen, it is much easier for casual gamers to understand and to be able to play competently.  

My third game, which I am working on now, is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This time, finally, the player range is more normal. It is for 2 to 6 players. This is a game I have been working on and fine-tuning for a long time. It is also a title which is easier for casual players. 

I aim to publish an average of one game a year for five years. I want to build up the Cili Padi Games brand, and also my own presence as a game designer. Let's see where I am at after my fifth game. That will be around 2027. I will take stock and decide what's next. 

Dancing Queen has found a publisher which will give it an international release. This international edition will probably be out in 2025, if all goes according to plan. Being able to find a publisher for it was a huge encouragement for me. It will be a big help. An established publisher is much more experienced than I am. They have the connections and the resources to better market and distribute the game. I'm very much looking forward to what they will do with Dancing Queen. I will continue to look for publishers for my other games. I'm looking for Asian publishers which will do editions in languages other than English. If you have tried my other games and know any publisher who may be interested, please let me know. 

I hope to make more interesting and innovative games which bring joy to people. Many Malaysian designers spend a lot energy and make many sacrifices to create games, because they believe in the value of play and in bringing happiness to people. 

Go Malaysia! 

Friday 24 May 2024


The Game

The latest version of Politiko is version 3.0, Peninsula Edition. This is a simple card game about Malaysian politics. It pokes fun at local political parties. It is not meant to be taken seriously. In fact it is rather politically incorrect. Don't play this with people who are taking politics too seriously. In this game you roleplay as political parties (all of them will sound very familiar). Your goal is to be first to gain enough voters to win the election. Parties may form coalitions. If you do that, the coalition has a higher requirement to win. 

The leftmost card here is a party card, as in political party. Every party is limited to being able to gain only specific types of voters. This one here can only gain Malay voters. There are Malay voters, Chinese voters, Indian voters, and Others. Voters are also categorised by their political stance - conservative, moderate or liberal. Every party has a unique power which can be used once per turn. This party above may swap its hand of cards with another party. 

A player turn is simple. You draw two cards, and you play two cards. You may also use your party's unique power. Many cards have two halves. When you play a card, you may use either half. To gain a voter for your party, you simply play before you a voter card which fits your party. So it's a matter of whether you draw the right voter type. Other than voter cards, you have scheme cards. These have various abilities, mostly hurting others, some helping yourself. The content of the cards is all related to Malaysian politics (up to the 2022 general elections). You have vernacular schools, petrol subsidies, blaming the Jews, members of parliament switching parties, royal interventions and so on. 

The unique powers of the parties in the game are all related to the real-life parties the designers are hinting at. One particular Indian political party gets to draw a card whenever the large Malay party plays a scheme card. That means this Indian party always benefits from this Malay party by sticking around. Sounds familiar, yes? 

The Play

The game is a race to get the required number of voters. Coincidentally in the game I played, all four players had race-based parties. Not that this is surprising in Malaysian politics. The game is about attacking one another while trying to make progress. Leading players are regularly ganged up upon by others. You will lose voters. It is a struggle between making progress while being pulled back by your opponents. There isn't much strategy. You just make the best out of the cards you draw, sometimes waiting for the most effective moment to play a certain card. You may beg, negotiate, threaten and divert attention. There is real politicking among the players since it is a free-for-all melee. One particular player was unlucky because he was the India party. It was difficult for him to get voters because there were fewer Indian voter cards in the deck. Perhaps Indian parties need to form coalitions with other parties to have a better chance of winning, just like in real Malaysian politics. 

There is a hand limit of 4 cards.

You even have sedition charges in the game! 
The Thoughts

Politiko is a simple game made for non-gamers. You'll get the humour only if you are Malaysian or have some familiarity with Malaysian politics. The game has plenty of player interaction, because you are going to attack one another all the time. It's a game with a lot of take-that. 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Snow White on Opinionated Gamers


Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs was reviewed by the Opinionated Gamers. It is exciting for me to hear that it was played at the Gathering of Friends convention. 

Friday 17 May 2024

boardgaming in photos: The Adventures of Snow White

I designed a counter display unit for Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs. The game comes in a small box, and in a retail store this is a disadvantage. It has less visibility compared to big box games. A counter display unit like this will help create a bigger footprint and more visibility. 

This is still a prototype. There are still some issues with some of the dimensions. Correction required. I printed this mock-up on normal paper. The actual thing will be printed on cardboard. 

I won't be printing many units, so I will be assembling these myself. A unit can fit six boxes. 

14 Apr 2024. I participated in a Tzu Chi association (慈济) event. The main event was a Sunday school for parents and children. This particular day they had a special programme introducing boardgames to families. It was quite a big group. We had about 12 tables of players. I brought Snow White. Before the event I didn't know the age range of the children. It was quite a mix, from lower primary to upper secondary. When we settled down to play, I got a little worried. I had some lower primary kids at my table. Now Snow White was not specifically designed to be a children's game. I was worried whether the younger children would be able to handle it. Thankfully at the time we had 7 players, the minimum player count. Normally I recommend players to play in groups of around 10. 7 is workable but it's a bit easier and not challenging enough for my tastes. Since we had younger children, 7 was a good number. They managed fine. At the table we had adults too, even one senior citizen. It was an amazing feeling seeing Snow White being played by three different generations at the same time. 

Within the one hour activity slot, my table did 4 or 5 games. Players swapped in and out. They were encouraged to visit different table to try different games. 

2 May 2024. I visited my alma mater. Well, to be more accurate, the Malaysian campus of my alma mater. I was invited by the boardgames club of Monash University Malaysia to showcase my games at their weekly gathering. That day two other local game designers were there too. Brandon brought Pantheon War. Nasi Lemak made an appearance too. 

I left school almost 30 years ago. Stepping into a campus (though not the actual campus I studied in) was an amazing feeling. At the guardhouse I registered myself as a visitor. All around me were young people. I felt energised. 

I brought three games that day - Dancing Queen, Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I managed to show all three to the students. A senpai (senior) teaching his kouhai (juniors). Snow White was played the most. It was wonderful seeing so many of them so absorbed in the game. I taught them one of the variants - the twin. 

I recently came up with a hand signal for Cili Padi Games, this one above. From now on, I plan to ask people who play my game to pose like this when I take a photo with or of them. This is a form of marketing and branding. The little finger represents Cili Padi - small and spicy. I have thought about whether this signal might be inappropriate in some countries or cultures. So far I have only found two other things this gesture can mean. In Japan, this can mean girlfriend, wife or mistress. That doesn't sound too bad. The other one is from Mediterranean countries. Apparently some people use this to belittle others. I'm not sure how common this is, or whether the gesture looks exactly like this. 

Friends from Monash, whether student or alumni, please post below and let me know which year you're in (or which year you graduated) and what course you are doing (or did). I graduated in 1997 and I did computer science at the Clayton campus. 

I recently read a post from Bruno Faidutti in which he shared that half his 2023 income from boardgames is from Citadels. To make a living from purely designing boardgames, you probably need to have an evergreen title. He could have gone into game design full-time many years ago, but he chose not to. He continued to teach. Teaching was his full-time job, and game designing a part-time job. His full-time job took 80% of his time, but his part-time job paid more than his full-time job. Teaching was his way of contributing to society. I respect that. Coincidentally I played Citadels recently. I don't play it much nowadays. It was one of the games I bought when I got into the hobby around 2003. It was already a popular game then. It is still selling well today, after more than 20 years. 

The Architect is one of the characters in Citadels

Ticket to Ride: London. We had a massive traffic jam. 

I have been a boardgamer for many years. Now I am using boardgames in my work. It certainly wasn't something I would have expected when I got into the hobby. I consider myself lucky. My full time work is leadership training. This above is one training activity I designed, a giant boardgame based on Hong Kong gangster movies of the 80's and 90's. The board is a map of Hong Kong. 

I also use Pandemic as a training tool in my work. I created a giant version of it. Not all boardgames are suitable to be used as training tools. Pandemic is a great fit because many aspects are related to leadership and management. Twenty, or even ten years ago, I would not have imagined myself teaching people to play games in such a serious work setting. 

The training activity I designed is called Rivers and Lakes. That's the literal translation of a Chinese term "jiang hu" (江湖) which refers to the underground society. It is a game about gangs fighting turf wars. There are two gangs, the Kong family and the Woo family. If I get a big group, I add a third gang, the Lee family. 

In line with the setting, the territory names are in Traditional Chinese in addition to English.

Also in line with the setting, the attack markers are white vans. 

Players get to pick who they want to roleplay as. The characters are all Hong Kong movie stars of the 80's and 90's. 

Friday 10 May 2024

Brew Crafters: Travel Card Game

The Game

Brew Crafters is originally a boardgame. I have not played the boardgame version before, but I had the chance to try the card game version - Brew Crafters: Travel Card Game. This is a game about brewing all sorts of beer. There are five different types of beer to brew, and you need different combinations of ingredients. Their point values are different. The game ends when any player reaches 21 points. Whoever has the most points wins. 

On your turn you start with taking two cards. There are five face-up cards on the table you can pick from. You may also draw from the deck. Each card has two uses. You either use it as an ingredient (icon in top left corner) or play it as a tool. You may only perform one of these actions on your turn. To install a tool, you simply play the card face-up before you. It will give you some power for the rest of the game. If you decide to brew beer instead, you discard the required ingredients to score points. 

There are many different tools. Some help you with brewing specific types of beer. These two above allow you to use fewer ingredients when brewing specific types of beer. Some tools let you score more points when brewing beer. Some let you score bonus points at game end based on other tools you own. 

The five ingredients in the game have different rarities. Apple and coffee beans are the rarest. The high valued beers require them. You have a hand limit of 7 cards. The most valuable beer needs 7 ingredients too. It is quite difficult to get the exact 7 ingredients to make this beer, without discarding cards you can't use. It feels wasteful but likely it's a sacrifice you have to make. 

The Play

This is a procedurally simple game. The core process is collecting ingredients to brew beer. While doing this, you also decide which tools you want to play to give you an edge over your opponents. The target score is 21pts. The highest valued beer is worth 6pts. You'll reach the target score by brewing 3 to 4 times. The lowest valued beer is worth 3pts. That takes more brewing, but the ingredients are easier to collect and you need fewer ingredients too. The game doesn't take long to play. Within that limited time, you try to work out a good combo of tools to help you brew and to help you score more points. There is luck in terms of what cards you draw and what are available on the table. You try to put together tools which jive with one another. For example if you manage to put together several cards that help you with brewing coffee stout, you'll want to focus on just that beer. 

Sometimes you will be torn between using a card as an ingredient and playing it as a tool. This is an interesting decision you have to make in the game. 

So far I have only done a 2-player game. Coincidentally both of us played the exact same tools in the first third of the game. We both wanted to work on the higher valued beers. Only towards mid game our tool choices diverged. The next time I play I should try different tool combinations and different beers. 

The Thoughts

Brew Crafters: Travel Card Game is a light strategy game. It does not present any particularly new ideas. Multi-use cards are nothing new by now. The beer brewing setting has its attractiveness. The overall package doesn't give me any surprise. However I am curious to play it more to explore other strategies. Maybe I'll find something more. 

Friday 3 May 2024

The Malaysian Dream

The Game

The Malaysian Dream is a simple card game for casual players. You play as all sorts of funny characters in Malaysia, and you pursue your dreams. There is a deck of face-up dream cards. The topmost card is always visible. Everyone knows the next dream that can be fulfilled. You fulfil dreams by paying for it. This game is keeping it real, my friends. When the dreams deck runs out, the game ends. Whoever has completed the most number of dreams is the winner. 

That on the left is a character card. On the right, that's one of the dream cards. Characters all have unique abilities. Dreams cost either 300K or 500K, but both types are worth 1 point. 

Other than character cards and dream cards, the rest of the cards in the game are simply player cards. Some of them are action cards. You do something with them, following the instructions on them. Some of them are money cards. Money in hand cannot be spent to buy dreams. You need to perform an action called putting money into the bank. That just means laying down your money cards. Money on the table can be spent. It can be stolen too. 

Some action cards are used to attack your opponents. Some are used to help yourself. Some cards let you steal money. Some even steal dreams. When you steal money but your victim has none, you steal a dream instead. That's painful. When you run out of player cards, you reshuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck. You continue playing until the dreams deck runs out. 

Some cards ask you to do things beyond the game components and the game table. E.g. you need to do jumping jacks, or you do a staring contest, or you compete to see who stands up last (and that person will be penalised). There's even one card which requires you to recite the Rukun Negara (the Nation Principles of Malaysia). 

Some dream cards count as double if claimed by specific characters. In this example, the bomoh (witch doctor) gets an extra point for fulfilling the dream of protecting Malaysia from disaster. One other character in the game is an MLM agent. She scores an extra point if she fulfils the dream of buying a sports car. 

The Play

This is a silly fun type of game. It is simple. Many card powers are written on the cards themselves. You just follow instructions. You hope to draw money cards, so that you can use them to buy dream cards. There are many take-that cards in the game. You steal money and dreams from your opponents. With at least three players, you will have some politics. Winning or losing may come down to who the players decide to attack most. If you get attacked more than others, you probably won't win. There is luck. Sometimes some people will get all those powerful and nasty cards. Some people will just happen to have the protection cards at the right times. All the cards are related to Malaysia. The humour is what Malaysians will appreciate. 

4-player game in progress

The Thoughts

This is very much a non-gamer or casual gamer game. It doesn't require much brain power. It has a lot of take-that, or the more Malaysian term would be a lot of "sabo" (sabotage) cards. There is a fair bit of luck. Officially the game is for 2 to 6 players. I don't think it will work well with two. I think you need at least three. With 2 players, you can only choose one opponent to attack. It becomes an exercise of seeing who draws the better cards for attacking the opponent. With three players, at least you have some politicking to do. I'm a gamer, so The Malaysian Dream is not my type of game. I personally don't like game mechanisms which make you do stuff like singing and other physical exertions. I want to sit down and play a boardgame. I want to do something intellectually stimulating. I want to interact with people. For me, some of the jokes in this game don't last. The second time round I already start to tire. The first time someone needs to recite the Rukun Negara, I find it amusing. The second time it becomes tiresome. I do like the art style. The jokes are relevant to Malaysians. The game will work better for non-gamers. The novelty may wear out quickly for gamers.