Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Wong Siow Hwee plays board games in Singapore.
This week we find out about games in Singapore, where the scene is struggling to get started at the moment, but it turns out that there are already some intriguing developments like a Catan café. Siow Hwee is not just a game player, but also a minister and shares with us how the two strands of his life intertwine. May 13, 2004

Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.

Q1.Can you share a little bit with the readers by introducing yourself, in which corner of the world you live, how you like to spend your time and also how you got started in games?

Wong family
The Wong family
Hi, my name is Wong Siow Hwee from Singapore. (By the way, Wong is the surname, my race is Chinese). Singapore is a small country located in southeast Asia, south of Malaysia. (The name is bigger than the island size in most world maps) I am married (wife is Janey) and blessed with a new baby daughter named Rebecca who is about 2 months old now. I am 27+ years old and serve as a full-time pastor in a Presbyterian Church. I used to spend my time on music (guitar and bass) and reading (humor and devotional), but now most of my time goes to the baby and gaming sessions with my family. My gaming history is a bit complicated. I used to be a Chinese Chess fanatic since young and enjoy commercial games like Monopoly and Risk even into young adulthood. Three years ago I was introduced to the wonderful world of abstract strategy through the fabulous Gigamic games and later those from Pintoys. (I am always drawn towards beautiful games with simple rules and deep strategy.) After learning of the Mensa Select Awards (Gigamic won a few), I chanced upon party games like Apples to Apples and Fluxx. Through that, I researched my way into as they were very informative, and learned about the German game awards. My first games were Settlers of Canaan, Elfenland, Bohnanza and Lost Cities as I figured the bestsellers of Funagain should be a safe bet. They were purchased at a local shop with a link from the Rio Grande website. After playing the games, and fumbling into BoardGameGeek, the rest, as they say, is history.

Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?

I play my games at my own home, my in-law's and at my friend's place. I know of a board games cafe named Settler's Cafe where some casual gamers go for games. Most gamers I know play at one another's homes or at a clubhouse. Gaming at the local store is pretty popular, but it is mainly miniature gaming there. The market here is not big enough for conventions.

Q3. How do people in your area acquire the games? Are there shops? Also, is there any kind of database web site supporting translations or are most games "played" in English?

The most popular local shop here has been set up for only a couple of years. Before that it was mainly shipping from Germany and US. The number of gamers then were fewer, but they own the more coveted titles. Most gamers today buy from the local shop, not really because it is cheaper, but mainly because it is faster and more reliable. However, the shop deals mainly with a US distributor and therefore if we are desperate for the German-only titles, we still need to order from on-line stores in Germany. I would say that for those German titles, most would get their translations from BGG, and yes, most games have to be played in English, a language most Singaporeans are fluent in.

Personally, I order some English titles from JogoCanada (shipping is cheaper than US), and the bulk from the local store. Once in a while when a close friend visits Europe for work, I will ship in the German titles. I get all the translations and paste-ups from BGG, but I generally avoid paste-ups and order only language-independent games. I would say it is indeed a great boon to gamers here, now that American companies like Überplay, Face 2 Face, and Out of the Box are collaborating to release the German titles and out-of-print games, since their distribution network reaches Singapore. Rio Grande is still the mainstay, but their stock level is infrequent – how could they discontinue RA and Web of Power? – and their prices are not so attractive now after a recent price hike.

Q4. Do you have any ideas how many people in your country are playing new strategy games? Any idea what the demographics are like? What's the overlap with role-playing games (RPG), collectible card games (CCG), war games, computer games, video games, comic books, anime? Are there any special reasons why gaming is or is not popular there?

How many sounds like a tough question, especially if you include American games like Munchkin and gateway games like Bohnanza and Galloping Pigs. I would estimate serious "German" gamers at less than 50, strategy gamers at less than 100, and gateway gamers at less than 500. Demographics are mainly young professionals and their family and friends. The overlap comes mainly with war gamers, and to a lesser extent computer gamers. I think RPG and CCG gamers is a group of their own, and it is a much larger community. The main reason for its lack of popularity is minimal exposure, cost of the hobby (about double the US prices) and the high pace of an urban society. It certainly doesn't help matters that major department stores and toy stores in Singapore don't even stock gateway games like Epic Duels, Battleball or party games like Moods or Compatibility. Just imagine, Cranium is a recent introduction.

Q5. Are there any traditional board or card games, perhaps even non-proprietary, that have particular popularity in your country and how have they informed the gaming scene if at all?

Well, for traditional board games, I would say Chinese Chess is the most popular, followed by International Chess, Go, and Malay Checkers. I would not say that they inform the gaming scene as they pretty much have been around all the time. Most are exposed to them during the school days. At home, it is the usual Monopoly, Scrabble and Pay Day that get the majority of family gaming. Scrabble is getting a resurgence thanks to the intense marketing efforts of its publisher. Oh I forgot! Mah Jong is the favorite of all! During Chinese New Year, you can pretty much hear the noisy game throughout the night. It is popular among youngsters during camps, a weekly hobby for many with time to spare; still I dont think they inform the gaming scene as much.

But card games are far more popular during gatherings, and the standard card deck is omnipresent in camps and overnight parties. Most I know play a variant of Tichu called Chor Dai Di, and Bridge is popular with the more intellectual. Some play Heartattack which is a lot like Pit. I think Bridge is especially informative as it introduces basic trick-taking, and I often proceed to teach Oh Hell and Olé. Werewolf is gaining popularity with the young as well.

Q6. What games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise those of us living elsewhere?

With regard to These Games of Ours (TGOO), my general impression is that games popular here are similar to those popular in the US – no surprises I think.

Q7. Is anyone designing or publishing games there? Can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing?

This one is tough. Most home-grown games here are children games either for educational purposes (e.g. learning maths) or very luck based (I know of a school project, which some students designed a game to raise fund for needy students of the school). Sadly, we also have a Singapore version of Monopoly. It is the only Singaporean game with a big print run.

One company which stands out is called Van Der Veer Games and they have been around since 1998. Their most notable game is Blackmail, and they are still designing new board games though they do computer games as well

Q8. You have helped to compile the BGG list of games set in Singapore. What is your impression of these games? Have any of them received special attention or popularity because of it? Are there any kind of recurring motifs, even stereotypes, in these games on which you would like to comment?

These are all war games of WWII. I am not a war gamer, but I think they involve mainly the invasion of the Japanese forces into the then British colony of Singapore from Malaysia. They are not especially sought after (it is a bitter part of our history), and I think are mainly reviewed based on their game design merits rather than historicity. I think if you want a game based on Singapore that is not a wargame, you can either choose a shipping theme like Kontor or a shopping theme like Paris Paris. Otherwise, Singapore has too young a history for mythical themes like Java or Yucata.

Q9. Is there any mass media presence for board games there and what is the nature of that presence? Is there any mass market advertising for board games?

No, very sad, absolutely none at all. If you mean toys and Parker Brothers, yes, on the Children channel, otherwise, none. German board gaming is very, very niche here.

Q10. What is the societal view of board games and their players?

I think the societal view of board games is that they are for children or for a party atmosphere. I don't think the society is exposed to enough adult board game players for them to form an actual opinion or view of them. I know of some people who have not even heard of Taboo. You are talking about a densely populated urban society, whose main pastime, besides sports and shopping, is TV and movies. Board gaming I believe is a alternative lifestyle altogether.

Q11. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites?

Generally I would play any game, even the lousy ones if the rest are enjoying the game, for the social interaction value. So I think the gaming group is the most important aspect in a game. Even a game like Princes of Florence or simple ones like Coloretto will become unbearable, if the group does not like the game. Boredom is contagious. Similarly, enthusiasm is contagious.

With that as a premise, I would say a game will shine for me, if it has simple rules, yet is intensive in its execution. Games that I consider good, but which have too many exceptions in the rules include Puerto Rico (it is like a set of rules for every character), Amun-Re (the multiple ways to score) or even simple games like Fluxx (do this, now do that, and then this and so on) and Plateau (again, too many types of pieces). Simple rules that yet make you think and be clever are games like San Marco (brilliant), Tikal, and Zèrtz for the heavy ones, Clans, Carolus Magnus, and Medici for the middle ones, and Lost Cities, Land Unter and Money for the light card games. Hence, designers like Leo Colovini, Michael Schacht, Alan Moon, Stephen Dorra, and sometimes Knizia and Kramer who abide by these design rules are my favorites.

Games that few like are not my favorite games, as I value mass appeal in a game. Games I like are often easy to explain, but it's still worthwhile to strategize in them.

Like I said, I am a gaming addict. However, I do have a soft spot for abstract games with simple rules (Gigamic and GIPF series IN, Chess at the expert level OUT). Games that promote interaction like negotiation (Traders of Genoa, Quo Vadis), bluffing and memory (Rat-a-tat-cat, Liar's Dice) and partnership (Scotland Yard, Bridge), are all games that I choose to play often, and which I excel at.

Q12. Given that games are not so well known there, how do you find players? Do you employ games as part of your vocation in any way?

Actually, the best way would be to join the existing gaming groups in Singapore (I know of two big ones). But I am not a heavy gamer (the big groups prefer wargames and heavy games), and prefer to game with people I know. I think of games as part of my vocation, which is to promote interaction between friends and church members of my age group (young adult) and with my youth. That said, I do have a lot of difficulty to geting people to commit to a regular gaming session, even though I know they enjoy the games they have played. I think gaming is just not high in priority to most people.

Q13. You say they're enjoying the games, but do they also succeed in promoting interaction? Do you find some games to be more successful than others in this role?

I would say that in most games, there isn't really an interactive level in the personal revelation sense. Some are clearly intellectual and silent, like Clans and Metro. Others interact, but in a superficial manner, like Set and Zendo; the interaction is the competition. More of this type of interaction appears in trading games like Bohnanza and Traders of Genoa. But perhaps, those games which are pure fun promote interaction best. I have a lot of laughter coming from Barbarossa and Elchfest. I think party games have a special place and purpose. I don't particularly like games like Ungame as the interaction is too set up. But Compatibility, Double Dilemma, Couplez, and Wat'n'Dat combine interaction with fun and that is when games are more successful.

Q14. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there? Is there anything I've left out that you would like to say? And finally, what are the words for game and board game in Chinese and/or Malay?

Currently I have no involvement except participating with comments on Boardgamegeek. I do hope to design a game someday that would be published.

I don't know Malay, but the Chinese words for game is "you xi". The tone for "you" is the "you" in "Is that you?", and the tone for "xi" sounds like the "sea" in "let's go fishing in the sea". Thank you for your interview, I hope I am of help, and have a nice day.

It's been great – thanks for your time, Siow Hwee, and happy gaming!

Links Cited in this Interview:

Spotlight on Games > Interviews