So You Want to Be an Asian Board Game Designer?
Updated: May 7, 2019
When Capital Gains Studio first entered into the tabletop scene in Singapore, many of the previous generation of tabletop game publishers have thrown in the towel and left the scene all together, along with their industry knowledge and competency. With no established publishers in the region, game designers often have to double up as game publishers and we can totally understand why our predecessors left as the board game publishing environment in this part of the world. It is harsh and unforgiving. We started with wanting to just design a simple low budget educational game for workshops and classroom as a side project with no knowledge whatsoever how a good game is produced. Fast forward three years later, we have gained a lot more knowledge and expertise after attending the tabletop school of hardknocks after publishing 3 games and about to launch another Kickstarter for Debtzilla. With Kickstarter launching their operation in Singapore and Hong Kong in 2016, we are seeing more local designers trying to fund and launch their tabletop game via Kickstarter. So I thought its timely to share with some of the up and coming game designers and publishers some of the challenges they will face.
Ain't got Time and Money for Board Games
In the ancient past, tabletop games are reserved for the rich and noble, whereby they are the only people who have the time and money to enjoy a strategic game of chess. This is somewhat true for most parts of Asia as the majority of the population is trying to break out of the poverty trap and moving into the middle income. Many Asian countries also boast the some of the longest working hours in the world and by the time we reach home at late at night, we are too tired to even make babies, leaving little time for board games. The thriving bootleg market also means that the average popular board games be purchased at a discount to their actual retail price. When we tried to penetrate the less developed markets which have a much weaker currency exchange, we have to decide if we wanted to slash our retail price by more than half in order to compete with bootleg board games or only target a very niche elite market who can afford the game. In high population and high growth markets such as China, India and Indonesia, board game is still considered as a luxury niche product and the easier markets to penetrate are the smaller rich nations with a higher disposable income such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
Other Challenges Facing the Asian Designer
Asia has a similar problem to Europe: There is such a huge in differentiation of culture and language that localization is the key to sell your board game. In South East Asia alone, you will need to translate your game into 6-7 different languages in which each country probably will have a demand of 300-400 units with sustained marketing efforts. Hardly worth the effort to do a minimal print runs for each country. Therefore, the ability to design a language independent game where it can cater to different languages by able to update the rulebook is important for a designer aiming to distribute their games in Asia.
In terms of art, anime style artwork tend to gain better traction in North Asia and South East Asia, due to the popularity of Japanese anime and manga in the region. Just looking at the attendance of pop culture conventions will give you an idea of the demand for art. Anime Festival Asia (AFA) which features mainly Japanese pop culture has an attendance of around 150k while Singapore Toys, Games and Comic convention (STGCC) has an attendance of around 50k. The local illustrators we worked with often shared with us on the better marketability of anime art as compared to the more semi-realistic art more favored by the western markets. However, designing a board game with a pure anime theme may find trouble when marketing to the western markets as there is still a stigma against anime artwork.
Heavy games which takes a few hours to play will also find limited traction in Asia and the more popular games are usually smaller and quick to learn and play social games, as evident from many of the table top games published by Asian designers. For example, social games such as Werewolf and Saboteur are popular in China, while Japan has a more dominant card game culture. One of the best selling game in Malaysia is a game about a social game called Poop.
Therefore, a designer who is considering to market out of their home country to different parts of Asia have to consider the language, game mechanics, art and limited demand for board game. It is a high risk and potentially low return strategy. Confronted with such a design and logistical nightmare, many designers choose to design their games with the US and European market in mind, only to be hit with another set of challenge.
Marketing in US and Europe? Time Space and Money
In Singapore, I often participate in game testing sessions and when I asked the game designer about their target audience, the game designer will often say, "United States and Germany." It is not a surprise since many designers believe that there is a lack of demand locally while the grass is greener on the Western front.
Asian game designers also tend to believe that Kickstarter will solve most of their marketing challenges and helps to penetrate the Western Markets. The truth is that it is not as effective as they think. They often under-estimated the amount of money, time and networks they need to build before and after the Kickstarter campaign with the media, publishers and distributors which are often done during conventions and tradeshows. However, the cost of air tickets and logisitcs often makes the cost difficult to bear and most small Asian indie designer simply does not have the resource and time to attend all these conventions.
Financially strapped and fearful that they will be stuck with a load of board games which they cannot sell, designers often go for small print runs of 500 and below. There is a joke within the Singapore creative community: "If you can sell 500 books, you are considered to be a best seller in Singapore". Not willing to take a risk to go for a bigger print run, the per unit cost of manufacturing shoots up too high for these designers and given that most major distributors in the western markets will want 60% of the product retail price plus shipping, it makes distributing into the US market unprofitable for most designers who are not willing to risk a print run of 2000 and above.
Lastly, the western markets are getting more competitive by the day as the number of board games being launched is increasing on a yearly basis. In order to stand out from the crowd, a board game has to have top notch production value in order to compete at the highest level. An board game considered as excellent standard in the local context, is normally considered as average to good when pitting against some of the best board games around the world. You have to raise the bar beyond your usual standards if you want to stand a chance even to compete on a global level.
Design Locally, Think Globally
Hence, here are the choices which an Asian designer can take
- Design a game with art, language and mechanics suitable for the local market with the benefit of cheaper marketing cost but at the risk of limited demand. A good example is a Singapore adaptation of Cards Against Humanity "Lim Peh Says" which raised more than $120,000. As the jokes are only unique to Singaporeans, the product probably will not go international anytime but a simple card game raising a 6 digit figure is still no joke.
- Design a game with the Western Market in mind with top of the line artwork, components and unique mechanics. The best example is Three Kingdom Redux, a beautifully designed and balanced heavy Euro game which has a better distribution network in the Western Market than in Asia. They did not launch their project on Kickstarter.
- Design a game with mechanics and artwork that appeals to the local market but at the same time, can still be enjoyed by an international audience. This is the route that we took for Wongamania: Banana Economy, but this is a risky route whereby you may risk alienating all the markets you wish to pursue rather than making everyone happy. For example, Wongamania: Banana Economy is often referred as a "Simple Game" by the more seasoned players in the western market, whereby it is considered a "Difficult Game" locally as the most commonly exposed tabletop games in this part of the world are simple games such as Cards against Humanities and Monopoly. Trying to maintain that balance requires designer to put in a lot more effort in terms of designing every aspect of the game.
The Choices Designers Have to Make
So you live in Asia and want to design a board game? Before you start, you need to do a quick check of your own resources and who you want to design your board game for. If you are unable to take time off and invest a huge amount of time and money in design, artwork, air tickets and convention fees to US or Germany, consider designing a simple game for your local market and build your expertise from ground up. When we first started, we are amazed by the kind of cardboard you can use to design a simple card game and learning the 101 variety of cardboard, is the first step to become a good designer We are also seeing an increased interest in tabletop gaming as Asians are getting increasingly wealthy and work life balance becoming a priority among Asian families. Who knows, that small game you have designed for your local market with limited demand may become the next big hit when the tabletop culture become more widespread in years to come.