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'Unplugged' board games popular with plugged-in young people

LI Yan and four friends spent three obsessed days closeted in her apartment over the Chinese New Year holiday. Apart from catching a few winks and eating noodles, they did just one thing: playing "Sanguo Sha," or "The Killers of Three Kingdoms."

It's not the latest title on Wii or a traditional Chinese leisure game like mahjong.

"Sanguo Sha," which consists of 108 cards and three to 10 players, is one of the hottest board games in China these days. "Unplugged" ?? not virtual ?? board games are gaining a toehold in the city, providing everyone with face time.

Multiple players can take part in "Three Kingdoms" killing dramas, operate power grids, create civilizations, go on medieval quests, buy and sell modern art, play World War II games or silly party games. Many female players like the simpler games and party games, it is said.

There are games clubs and regular playing sessions, some organized by employers. Games bars are springing up and Shanghai now has three major board games bars, one on Guoding Road near Fudan University, one near South Shopping Mall in Minhang District, and the FF Bar in Xujiahui.

Players and psychologists say board games are healthier than obsessive online games that will isolate players from real-world interaction. Board games range from easy party games to strategy and economics games and adventure; people play face-to-face, interact and socialize.

"Three Kingdoms" was developed from the Western board game "Bang!" and is based on the history and story of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD) 1,800 years ago. "Sanguo Sha" features Character cards and Role cards. The Role cards are heroes, known for particular feats in the Three Kingdoms period.

The Character cards are Lord, Loyalist, Rebel and Spy. The Lord announces his role and places it face up in front of him. The other players' roles remain secret.

The Lord and Loyalist's goal is to wipe out all Rebels and Spies while the Rebels are required to kill the Lord. The Spy has to survive with the Lord only and finally kill him in order to win, which makes his strategy fluid.

It requires four to 10 players, seven are recommended. Games take from half an hour to two hours.

"The uncertainty of players' characters is intriguing. Everyone needs to guess who's alliance and who's enemy," says Li, 26, who works in a publishing house.

People can play in their personal styles from daily life, or adopt a new style. They can debate strategies and that expands friendships and helps them make new friends, says Li.

Board games (zhuo shang you xi), which means "playing on the table" in Chinese, includes hot games like "Sanguo Sha," "UNO," "Puerto Rico" and "Modern Art."

Li plays "Sanguo Sha" at least once a week. Although she is pregnant, she takes the bus or Metro each week to play with friends.

Elva Cai stayed overnight playing the game when the HSBC Shanghai employee first learned how to play it. Cai then immediately purchased one package on and taught five colleagues to play within a week.

"I can't resist playing it and I have to keep it secret from my mother," says Amigo Su, mother of a one-year-old girl. "She takes care of my baby and feels unhappy if I spend too much spare time playing the game away from home."

Board games seem to have caught on in the past few months. People from the same company find it easier to socialize over board games than at work.

"Everyone can feel simple happiness and forget the troubles in daily life. They can chat and smile though they usually don't talk to each other," says player Zhanggui (meaning "boss" in Chinese), who operates a professional board games bar, FF Bar in Xujiahui.

"The craziest experience? We play board games for about 12 hours a day," says player Landice, who switched 10 months ago to board game from the wildly popular online "World of WarCraft."

"People playing board games can't hide themselves during the face-to-face playing and I have made a lot of new friends," Landice says.

Landice, who works for a trading firm, regularly plays board games with several friends once or twice a week.

"I don't expect this to change for at least 10 years," he adds.

Besides "Sanguo Sha," another hot title "UNO" is relatively simple and has become a must-have gadget for parties.

"UNO" uses cards with different colors and numbers and players must stick to the same color or number. The winner is the first person who ends up without any cards in hand.

Though board games (apart from chess and checkers) are relatively new in China, there almost 80 different categories of games listed on the board game Website (

There are 3,000-plus board games worldwide, experts say. They include abstract strategy, adventure, card games, economics, fighting, numbers, war games, party game, memory tests, action and word games.

Many of are spinoffs of popular novels, online games or films, such as "Harry Potter" and "WarCraft."

Many games represent regional culture and players, for example, need to know something about knights, dwarfs, quests and necromancers before playing some European adventure or role playing games.

If you are a student of World War II, you have many choices, such as the war game "AA" (Axis & Allies).

Unlike beginners and casual players, experienced players like games involving strategic thinking and communications skills.

Professionals have translated some games' rules into Chinese, expanding the popularity of Western games.

One expert interviewed calls himself Soul, who works in the finance department of a telecommunications equipment firm. He has translated the rules of more than 30 games. Among them, two games, "Modern Art" and "Race for the Galaxy," have a Chinese version.

"I like the strategy and management games as they need thinking and communications or trading with other players. As with my job, I like games related to numbers," says Soul.

Soul's other favorites are "Puerto Rico" and "Power Grid." In the grid game, players operate a power company and consider the cost of power delivery among cities and the cost and efficiency of wind, solar, nuclear and coal-fired plants.

"It's like an intelligent competition and everyone wants to win. It's exciting," says Soul.

Landice's favorite is "A Game of Throns," a European strategy game derived from the novel the Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R Martin."

Other highly recommended titles by experienced players include "Diplomacy," which has dozens of years' history and is played by diplomats around the world.

"Experienced players often come here on weekdays, playing strategy games or testing new titles. Regular players then come on days off," says game bar operator Zhanggui.

Of course, Soul, Landice and Zhanggui all like playing "Sanguo Sha."

An interesting aspect of board games are their tools, which are often wildly imaginative. There are puzzles, toy soldiers and weapons, darts, magnetic snakes among other things.

Soul has collected more than 30 board games while Landice has more than 10.

Board games are pricey in China as most are imported. They often cost more than 200 yuan (US$30); high-end games can cost 700 yuan or more.

The modern "Monopoly" with credit cards costs 300 yuan.

Board game bars have been springing up since last year. They offer hundreds of board games and usually water. The cost is usually 10 yuan an hour or 30 yuan per game.

"Players can try five or more games in an afternoon," says Zhanggui of FF Bar where experienced players and staff are tutors. It opened last August; capacity is around 60 players.

"If you want to play on weekends, you had better book seats before Wednesday," he says.

The sex ratio of bar visitors is six men to four women but it is often half and half on weekends in FF Bar.

A "Sanguo Sha" competition was held in FF last month; there were more than 80 players in the finals.

Li, the pregnant "Three Kingdoms" fan, hopes she can enter a competition some day. "Now I need more practice."

New board games

'The Settlers of Catan'

Players try to dominate the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. Rolls of the dice determine the resources. Players collect resources to build civilizations. The victor is the first to achieve 10 points. The prize-winning game has won many awards and appeals to both gamers and nongamers.

Category: Civilization/negotiation

Players required: 3-4 (4 is best)

Playing time: 90 minutes

'Modern Art'

Buying and selling paintings to make money is the object. Players are both buyers and sellers, trying to profit in both roles. Players are dealt a hand of painting cards and put them up for auction. The player with the most money after four rounds wins.

Category: Economics

Players required: 3-5 (4-5 is best)

Playing time: 45 minutes


Named after the famed medieval city in southern France, the game involves placement of tiles on features (cities, roads, farms, monasteries). There are also markers. It's complicated to explain but actually pretty simple.

Category: Medieval

Players required: 2-5 (2 is best)

Playing time: 60 minutes


Abstract strategy game with irregular-shaped pieces that players try to place on the board. Pieces cannot be adjacent to your own pieces but must touch at least one corner of your pieces.

Category: Abstract strategy

Players required: 1-4 (4 is best)

Playing time: 20 minutes

(Source by Zhanggui and Soul)


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