There I was, stuck in a gas station, zombies banging at the door and only a pile of garbage and a small knife to determine my fate. The atmosphere is tense and tentative. One false move and I’ll lose the last bag of medical supplies that I desperately need to get back to camp. I roll…I get bitten and I die. The medical supplies are lost; a harsh blow to our remaining zombie apocalypse survivors. I pass the dice to the right, bringing my disastrous turn to an end. I order a coffee, take a breather, and begin to hatch a new plan for my only surviving character, vowing to make up for my poor choices that left me dying in a pool of zombie blood.
Sounds like a video game? Nope, I was as far away from technology as I could possibly get. When people hear the word gamer, they will almost always prefix it with the word ‘video’. But here in Thailand, a new, old school kind of gaming has taken the country by storm: table top board games. Seriously! It surprised me how big the community was in Chiang Mai. In fact, across the globe, more and more board game cafes are popping up with customers from all walks of life getting hooked, and not just those who played dungeons and dragons in their awkward teen years.
Chiang Mai currently has around five dedicated board game cafes, all part of a larger board game community that hosts almost-daily meet ups, events, and even a few conventions a year. In spite of this, I would bet that this sub-culture was until now unknown to you. We at Citylife had never heard of it either until I happened across a Facebook group filled with comments, members and daily updates.
I soon began talking with an avid gamer named Stuart who is understood to be one of the best board gaming gurus in Chiang Mai (it’s definitely a thing). Sitting waiting for me in a cafe, a regular cafe, he looked just like you’d expect an experienced board gamer to look like, if you ever thought about experienced board gamers at all. As I sat down I noticed a deck of space themed cards peeping out of his open bag, and I began to get a bit excited.
With interest in gaming going back way beyond his move to Thailand, Stuart struggled at first to find a community as into gaming as he was. Working in a local school, he expressed disappointment with the lack of after school clubs, so decided to start his own: the Payap Board Gaming Club. Around that time, Stuart met Max – admin of the Chiangmai Board Game group on Facebook – and the world of gamers opened up to him, just as it has for me. He even hosted the first ever board game convention in Chiang Mai, Lanna Con, at the Three Kings Monument in March.
As a self-proclaimed ‘board game evangelist’, Stuart enthusiastically laid out the basics for me, getting me up to speed on what’s what. “There are four major game types,” he said. “Classic, Party, Euro and Event.”
Classic games are your standard Monopoly, Life and Chess. Games that have been around for decades, if not centuries and millennia, and everyone knows them, or of them.
Party games are traditionally for more than five people and can handle up to 60 players. These are boardless games which involve communication and resistance play – pretending not to be a terrorist in Two Booms and a Room or hiding your werewolf identity in Ultimate Werewolf.
Euro games are your old, complex games, often originating from mid twentieth century Europe. These have no dice and rely a lot on critical thinking. Manipulation of the systems as well as other players is key and these games usually take hours to complete. Think austere brown boards with graphics of castle walls and moats playing with farming or politics.
Event games are really broad and really raw. Fast dice play and sheer luck dominate the games, with titles such as Xia, Fief and StarCraft topping the league tables, players range from amateur to professional (think Korean game conventions).
Stuart took me on a tour of all available board game venues in Chiang Mai for anyone, at any level. His own club at Payap has grown so much it now accepts visitors, with people of all nationalities coming down to the school every first and third Tuesday of the month during term time. Described as the nexus of gaming in Chiang Mai, Payap also holds a Game Day every last Friday of the month, 11am to 8pm, with over 50 visitors at any time. “I once was playing a game with players from Thailand, Nepal, Russia, Korea, Japan, England and America,” said Stuart after he placed his pile of cards on the table. “Games really bring people together. It’s a ball!”
Other events include weekly Ultimate Werewolf nights, meet ups at CAMP every weekend and Chiang Mai University also hosts a gaming club which is almost exclusively Thai. “This club is great too because it is easier for Thais to get involved, especially if their English is not so good,” said Stuart.
He pointed to the deck of cards, and said “Fancy a game of Star Realms?” I thought he would never ask…
Thout, owner of Chubby Cat, a board game cafe on Soi Wat Umong, told me of how many young Thais learn most of their English from board games. “It’s a great way to learn English,” he said. “Almost everyone who plays games has to understand English well enough to get the rules and know what’s going on.” In spite of being my mother tongue, I was struggling to understand all the rules; but then I do get easily confused! “Most gamers I know learned most of their English from playing games,” said Hiran, owner of Time Capsule Board Game Cafe who is currently designing and making his very own board game called Hirondelle Gate, entirely in English.
Games seem to serve a deeper purpose too; encouraging self-development and critical thinking skills. Another cafe owner, Top, told me that education was why he got so involved with board games. “In 2008 I got into gaming in Bangkok, but when I moved back to Chiang Mai, I couldn’t find anybody to play with,” he explained. “Trying to find people to play with, and with my passion in education led me to opening my very own board game cafe, Open Box.” One of Top’s aims is to encourage critical thought through games, something that is lost from the Thai education system. Agricola is a perfect example of such a game, focusing on the importance of resources, finances and strategic methodology to each turn to ensure your family doesn’t die of starvation.
Today’s games are far more strategic than past classical games such as Monopoly or Life. Instead of a single path to victory, there are many ways that players can approach the situation, with several different winning objectives; the end game is never clear. The presence of rogue players tasked with destroying the collective goal also adds fire to the mix, with a range of poker faces from all players alike. Problem solving is really put to the test, with games like the Dead of Winter where players must survive a zombie apocalypse and Settlers of Catan where you need to build your settlement without being blocked off by another clan’s expansion.
Yet in-game finances are nothing compared to real-world finances, which Top told me can be prohibitive. He says that he can order games for people, but “games are expensive, and the import tax on toys is around 30%,” he explained. “After shipping costs, tax and to achieve a small profit margin, a retailer in Thailand must sell a game at pretty much double the price.” That adds up, with very few board games sold at lower than 1,500 baht.
No wonder then, that all these caf?s have popped up, offering people of all ages a chance to come and play a game for as little as 20 baht an hour. Each caf? also has people on hand, ready to teach and play any game you want free of charge, while serving you a coffee, tea or a sandwich at the same time.
Our game guru Stuart suggested a list of the best games to get started with – available at almost every caf? and often referred to as a ‘gateway game’ in the gaming community. Usually event games, they are short and there is no player elimination. “Player elimination is a real faux pas in gaming,” mentioned Stuart, using an example of playing a six hour euro game but being eliminated in the first thirty minutes, what a mood killer.
For two players, try Jaipur, Star Realms or Carcassone. For up to four players try Sushi Go!, Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride and for five or more, get your teeth into For Sale, Saboteur or Bang!
If my article has got you as interested as it got me (I just admitted to my editorial room – amidst a collective burst of laughter – that I have since my first visit returned five times to the gaming cafes…last night I was conquering the Mongols in Shogun for four hours), you can add yourself to the Chiangmai Board Game Facebook page and sign up to any of the latest meet-ups planned. Failing that, just bring some friends along to any one of the cafes, pick a game and surprise yourself with how much fun you can have. In a matter of weeks, I have become hooked, so don’t be shocked to see me mid-shootout with a sheriff somewhere in the Wild West when you pop in.
Open Mon to Fri 10.30am – midnight,
Sat to Sun 09.30am – midnight
100/16 Moo 8, Soi Wat Umong, Suthep
Open Daily, 10am – 5pm
195/305 Moo Tanawan, Sanphisua
Open Mon to Fri 4pm – 9pm,
Sat 1pm – 9pm, closed Sundays.
Trat Wong Road, Wat Ket
Open Tues to Sun 8am – 8pm
555/15 Fifth Avenue, Nong Chom
Golden Goblin Games
Online Table Top Game store based in Chiang Mai