Six Reasons China Loves Board Game Cafés
Board game cafés are mere novelties in the West. London has one; New York, three; and Toronto, home to the pioneering Snakes and Lattes, has six. But board games in China are on another level entirely. Listings website Dianping gives 349 venues for Tabletop Gaming in Shanghai, and even that’s a low estimate. People.com.cn puts the figure at over 1,000. Shanghai has more game cafés than Starbucks (and Shanghai has more Starbucks branches than any other city in the world). So what makes board game cafés so popular here?
1. Gaming is an accepted pastime
Other forms of gaming have laid a foundation for the popularity of board games. Online gaming, both at home and in internet cafés, is immensely popular. It’s relatively simple to convert a five-person online gaming team into a board game group.
2. Offline gaming is seen as more wholesome
When online gaming began to be seen as a dangerous addiction, board games offered a ‘healthier’ alternative. They became a safe place to meet new people, socialise with friends, and take dates. Most board game cafés are also dry, and even at those that do serve alcohol, there’s little pressure to drink. The absence of alcohol and smoking makes them seem more wholesome than bars, nightclubs and karaoke parlours, something especially important to young women facing social pressure to avoid venues seen as dangerous or sinful by their parents.
3. Board games are gender inclusive
Another benefit of board game cafés is that the activities they offer are fairly gender neutral. Instead of guns, sex and explosions, as you see in video games such as Grand Theft Auto V, board games move away from pervasive gender stereotypes. Board game players may instead be tasked with managing a farm, building a train network, or constructing one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, activities with which both genders can be comfortable.
Grand Theft Auto versus Agricola: guns and crime in a video game versus managing a board game farm and family.
4. A ‘gateway’ game won countless new players
Table top card game Legends of the Three Kingdoms (San Guo Sha) was such a phenomenon that it pulled many players away from their computers. Between 2009 and 2012 the game was everywhere, even becoming one of the most stolen products from the city’s Seven-Elevens. Like numerous computer games, Legends of the Three Kingdoms is based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s four great classical novels, and thus offered mythological continuity to ease the transition from the screen to the table.
5. Space is scarce
Like any big city, space in Shanghai is a commodity. But unlike a city like London, where it is more common for people to have at least a kitchen table to play games on, many people in China live in six person dormitories, even after college, or cramped apartments with tiny kitchens. Board game cafes offer a public space in which to relax, something many people lack in their private spheres.
6. Geeks aren’t freaks
For much of the 20th century, masculine activity in my home country, England, was associated with physical activity, a muscular body and a willingness to embrace danger. The same has not been true in China, where masculinity can be understood more in how one does an activity, rather than what one does. This means there are less socially ingrained barriers to taking part in board games. Whereas in England sitting down and playing a board game about battling characters from fantasy literature (Three Kingdoms or, perhaps, Game of Thrones) would be considered un-masculine and nerdy, the same is not necessarily true in China.
The popularity of board games in China has wide-ranging implications for marketers. A highly sought after demographic — teens and people in their 20s — are meeting in environments where they can actually hear each other and remember the things they discuss, a great platform for influencers. It also evidences an appetite for adventure without too much risk that may be underserved by brands more used to appealing to Western markets.
Article by Carwyn Morris