How it all started
As might be the case for many kids in my generation, my love for games started with Pokémon. I spent hours sitting at the front gate at my Grandma’s, enjoying the breeze while levelling my first (and only, since I was a real noob and didn’t realise that I could catch others) Pokémon. I couldn’t understand why my awesome Charmander would lose to Brock’s Pokemon when it easily defeated the bugs in the Viridian Forest. I proceeded to evolve my Charmander into a Charizard just so I could beat Brock’s Onix with Scratch. Good times.
My love for Pokémon fuelled my love for drawing. I would copy illustrations of the coolest-looking Pokémon from game guides and keep them in a pocket-styled folder that I brought to school. It surprised me when my classmates asked if they could buy them for a dollar a piece. Other than the last remaining sketch of a really dodgy-looking Golduck, I was sold out that very day. Not bad for an 8-yo. I did not know it then, but that first taste of being an entrepreneur would come to influence my professional career as an adult, and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Falling in love
It was 1999, and the English version of the Pokémon Trading Card Game was finally introduced to Singaporean kids. I was instantly drawn to it. The idea of owning a physical copy of my favourite Pokémon gave me more satisfaction than collecting all the digital ones, especially since the holofoiled cards looked so damn good. My brothers and I each received a different starter deck for Christmas (which we opened waaaay before Boxing Day) and spent a good part of our December school holidays messing around with them. My brother always enjoyed employing weird and out-of-the-box strategies that only worked half the time, while I combed the rules for loopholes to exploit. To my mother’s despair, we would later save up our pocket money to buy cards that nobody wanted in order to pull off wacky strategies against each other. I guess that was why I never got to own a Charizard card.
The week after exams in primary school was fondly termed by us students as Card Game Week. The classroom was the ideal battleground for us, since our teachers left us to entertain ourselves as long as we didn’t make too much noise. Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game had overtaken Pokémon as the TCG to play, mostly due to the cool cartoon series showing on television. But for me, it was also relatively more complex, allowing more strategies to be employed and giving players more options to strive for victory. While these options were still restricted by monetary investments into the game to get the best cards, there were more than enough strategies to play with for us kids. At the age of 11, I realised that I had fallen in love with card games…
The shaping years
…only to spend my early teen years gaming on consoles instead. My brothers and I always enjoyed crashing at our cousin’s, playing Smash Brothers and a plethora of Mario-related games on the Nintendo 64. So when the Gamecube was launched in 2002, we begged our parents for one, promising good results and behaviour (hahahahahaha) for the entire year. Blood and tears were shed, and we finally got it the next year. What made Nintendo games special was the fact that all their games could be played up to 4 players, as compared to 2 on the Playstation or PC. This mattered a lot to a family with 3 sons.
During that period of time, the popularity of TCGs slowly declined, while Counter-strike and DOTA started to rise as the hottest games to play. With access to both the Gamecube and LAN shops (PC gaming centres), there were literally too many games and too little time to play. Really good times.
My first experience with DOTA was a disaster. It was my very first visit to a LAN shop, and I had never heard of the game. I was told by my team to play Skeleton King and wait at the tower for the enemies to walk in. Simple enough right? My teammates thought so, and I thought so too. Until I proceeded to unknowingly walk towards the enemy tower 1 minute into the game. Quite obviously, we lost that game. But it was so humiliating that I would lock myself in my room to learn and master every single hero for the next few weeks. The more I played, the more I appreciated the game. DOTA was such a difficult game that it required not just hand-eye coordination, but also strategy, communication and guts. Every game was different not because of the components of the game, but because of who you were playing with and against. It encouraged quick decision making and coordination. I was hooked.
It was at this point that I realised that I wanted to create games like the ones I had been enjoying. Games that offered opportunities for both strategic thinking and social interactions. I decided that I wanted be a game designer.
It was in the third year of University that I finally played my first European classic. I had signed up for a tabletop game design module with my buddies and we were so ready to get our A’s. Thinking that we could immediately work on an ingenious idea we already had in mind, we were raring to go. However, we were told that in order to learn how to make games, we had to first play many, many games. And so we did.
Besides classics like Agricola and Carcassonne, we were introduced to a game called Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. Playing it was a truly mind-blowing experience. Even for tabletop newbies, we could easily tell that the implementations of game mechanics were elegant and innovative, effectively emulating the activities and culture of an entire society. Thinking back, it was fortunate for us that the teacher had enforced his lesson plan. Without playing those games, we would have never been able to think of the various mechanics that we could implement into our own game, nor would we have been able to solve any of our balancing issues. Pulling together all the lessons that we learned throughout that semester, our team successfully designed a pretty neat game and earned our A’s.
But beyond the grades, the module had rekindled my passion for tabletop games. It was extremely satisfying to watch our classmates laugh and enjoy a game that we made with our own hands. In fact, I realised that boardgames fit exactly into the kind of games that I wanted to design, as they often involved strategy and encouraged social interaction. On top of that, I was a major in graphic design and designing analog games fell directly under my skillset.
Running a business
I always thought that we would publish our game after we graduated, but life dealt us an unexpected hand. A few months into my first job as a digital marketer, I was given an opportunity to start my own graphic design business along with three other partners. The plan was always to build a business only after saving up enough capital, but why hesitate when the opportunity was being handed to you on a silver platter? Being young and bold, we took the plunge.
Running your own business was at least 10 times more difficult and stressful on mind, emotions and body than what I had expected. We had the technical skills to perform the design services that we offered, but we had barely scratched the surface of the business part of business, which really is what a business owner should be good at. We were extremely fortunate to have the support of family and friends, and I learned that having a community that would back you up in times of need is actually the most important factor of running a business. As challenging as it was, learning how to run a business has trained me to be more resilient, proactive and risk-taking, soft skills that you could never learn in school.
It was difficult to find time to design games while running a business. A couple of months into the business, I had an opportunity to steer the company towards creating boardgames. As we had not set a very concrete path for the business, my partners agreed to give it a try. A government organisation, in collaboration with Hashbro, had opened up a boardgame design competition to the public. The game’s design had to address the issue of universal design in built environments, and I was supportive of both the cause and the prizes offered. There was a chance that Hashbro would publish the winning entry if their executives deemed it marketable. Unfortunately, our entry, Animal Hotel, only managed to get into the finalists round. We may not have won, but the time spent creating a game together with my partners will always stand out to me as the most fun I had when I was in the company.
New Game +
2 years later, a month ago from now. I have returned to my passion for game design. This blog is my first step to reunite with tabletop games, as I attempt to relearn mechanics that I have lost touch with, play games that I have missed out on and learn the ins and outs of the industry from scratch. I hope that the content that I will be offering will bring value to my fellow game designers and aid the boardgames industry in Singapore in one way or another.
Here’s to new beginnings. Cheers!