Origame, the Singapore based publishing company co-founded by designer, Daryl Chow PhD, is a shining star in modern Asian board game production.
Their growing collection of games is a clear reflection of the diversity and talent within Asian culture. We caught up with Daryl to find out more about his vision, his company, and his plans for the future!
Daryl, thank you so much for chatting with me today. As time is short, let’s go straight in. You have a PhD – why board gaming?
Education should be a stepping-stone to where you want to get to, not a roadblock. I was designing games semi-professionally while teaching in university, and so while it was quite a big leap conceptually to go full time into game design and game making, in practice it wasn’t.
Plus, looking back, my education has helped me in many areas of the industry – knowing linguistics and languages has helped with networking and learning about games all around Asia, academic level research has prepared me for the amount of work that goes into looking into the stories and culture behind games, and lots of academic writing has helped with the constant revision of rulebooks and even creative writing for games.
Origame’s focus is “Asian-style” board games. Can you explain what that means?
Our focus is on making modern Asian board games. Modern refers to the fact that we are constantly innovating and using the best quality ingredients (in this case mechanics and artwork) to create the best possible games we can in the period of time we are in.
As Asian creators, we have long seen a lack of representation of authenticity of Asian culture in many industries, but most notably in board games. Most board games with Asian names and artwork are not created by Asians, and often an ‘exotic skin’ is appropriated to sell games (Egyptian is another egregious example). As a game designer I understand this, because games are inherently mechanical and you run out of relevant themes very fast.
However, from a cultural standpoint, movie makers and authors don’t make movies or write novels about other cultures because to do so would be inauthentic and insincere, and games should not be all that different.
Through Origame, we want to make games that are true, soulful representations of our culture that Asians can be proud of, and that non-Asians can use to learn about Asian culture. Having these small windows to learn about other cultures makes different cultures and people feel less foreign, so hopefully our games can build bridges of understanding.
I love the idea of promoting Asian culture through board gaming – do you feel any pressure being such a notable figurehead in a small but growing sector of our hobby?
I don’t think we are anywhere near being a figurehead, and I don’t think I’m anywhere near the level of game design proficiency that I want to be at, but hopefully in time to come people will take notice of the work we do. I’ve never looked at game design in terms of single products, but as a skill that has to be cultivated over time, and that is why I always imagine my best games are still far ahead in the future.
Slowly but surely, we will get better over time, because we approach game-making like craftsmen, honing not only our products but our craft and trying to get better every game – this is one of the things I learnt from my Japanese friends and colleagues. As long as people keep supporting us, I don’t feel any pressure because it is only natural to keep growing and improving in our chosen craft of game-making.
I think you are being too modest ? Origame has, and is in the process of, publishing a number of quality games in two years, and the mechanics in each are really varied. Is this part of your vision to reflect the diversity of Asian culture?
More importantly, we wanted to feature different aspects of our culture, and I guess in a roundabout way, because I strongly believe in linkage between mechanics and theme, the mechanics all naturally ended up being quite different.
As a designer I am constantly innovating and trying to come up with new mechanics to create fresh experiences for players. We also wanted to showcase to our Asian audiences, who may not be familiar with modern board games, how vast a universe of different board game mechanics there are out there.
Ironically, though we wanted to reflect a wide range of culture, all our games have so far ended up being about food, which speaks to how close a link there is between our food and culture. We have plans for non-food games very soon, though!
No complaints from me there – I love Asian food! ? Plus there is a strong link between culture, community and, mealtimes. Do you have a personal favourite so far?
Mooncake Master will always have a special place because it was our first project, and it embodies what we want to achieve in our craft – sleek yet choice-rich game infrastructure packaged in eye-catching traditional yet modern aesthetic.
Speaking of successful fusions, can you tell me a little more about your partnership with Nick Pang, the publisher of the card based experience, Smol Tok?
There would be no Origame without Nick, because he handles most of the heavy lifting for the business, which allows me to keep focus on game creation and networking. We have different skillsets, but we both have a shared vision of our games as cultural artefacts, a common aesthetic as well as identity (Singaporean Peranakan), so we work very well together.
I can attest to that! I have just started playing Plantopia and it is a wonderful little game. Not only that but it has been a phenomenal Kickstarter success, having funded in just 3 hours.
With previous successes in Kickstarter projects (The Artemis Project and Overbooked) for other publishers, how did you find running your campaign as Origame?
Having some experience definitely helped, but nothing can fully prepare you for a Kickstarter with 5000 backers during a pandemic. There were quite a lot of unforeseen rough patches and we were humbled by the process, but really hope that we can continue using Kickstarter to bring our games to audiences around the world.
No doubt that the Pandemic has had a huge impact on the board gaming industry. How have you found juggling the business of publishing games, designing, and dealing with Lockdown?
We’ve now spent more time operating as a company during the pandemic than not. I am still not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It has been a mixed bag – board games are a very international business so not going to conventions has probably hurt our worldwide exposure a bit. Because of the pandemic, however, board game sales have picked up locally, and our games are sold in both supermarkets and even 7-11s in Singapore.
One thing that has been a huge shame, however, was that we had plans to grow our Asian Board Game Festival (ABGF) in 2020 to include more publishers from more countries, as well as to expose more Singaporeans to Asian board games. In 2019, we managed to expose so many people to so many games in just one evening, so we’re really hoping that we have the chance to host another ABGF in the not so distant future.
In fact, we have not actually had the chance to attend a physical convention outside of Asia as Origame, though we had plans to go to the UK Game Expo (UKGE) before Covid scuttered them. We do want to show people all around the world the quality of our games, and conventions are an excellent way to do so since board games are such a physical medium.
I am really looking forward to seeing ABGF grow – like other conventions and community based events, it is another great way to draw more people into our hobby. It is obvious that community is important to you and Origame. Do you begin with theme or mechanics when considering how to design a game that will promote inclusivity and unity?
I think the simple answer is both. Because I’m thinking of mechanics so often, I’m more likely to start with a mechanical idea first, then try to combine it with a meaningful theme. If there isn’t one, then likely I won’t pursue its completion until I find one.
Similarly, once I come across an inspiring theme that jives with a mechanical framework from my mental catalogue, that’s when I know it’s a game idea worth pursuing. As the game takes shape, the theme will inform the mechanics and vice versa. Games that have strong links between mechanics and theme are much more intuitive to play and also feel more meaningful and less abstract. That in turn makes it a better game for the community.
Where would you like to see Origame in 5, 10 years’ time?
There’s still so many themes and stories we want to tell – not just from Singapore but from South East Asia and all over Asia – so as long as people keep playing our games we will do all we can to keep going (the board game industry is a tough one).
With the amount of young people playing board games now, I would like to see board games as a much more widespread media, especially among Asian audiences, in the near future. Hopefully Origame will play a meaningful part of this trend. As a company, my personal aspiration is to grow to the point where I can just fully concentrate on game design – that’s really the only thing that matters to me.
I would personally love to learn more about Asian architecture through your games so I am keeping my fingers crossed for that as a future theme! Are there any particular designers, artists, or creators you would like to work with?
I love design collaborations, so I’m always ecstatic to work with designers all over the world, especially from different countries. Asian game creators I’ve never met but whom I would love to meet include Emerson Matsuuchi and Kwanchai Moriya. I think Kwanchai’s style would be an awesome fit for Origame as he could basically do whatever he wants and we would be totally fine with it. And it would be surreal to be able to speak Thai and Japanese to the same person.
Well, that’s an exciting invitation – Kwanchai and Emerson, if you’re reading this, get in touch!
What ideas can you not stop thinking about right now?
I haven’t stopped thinking of board game mechanics since about over 10 years ago. At first it was just a way to get to sleep, but since it’s my full time craft now I’ve purposefully lost any excuse to stop the constant tinkering in my mind. I’m always hammering away, trying to improve current and upcoming games, as well as to fuse existing mechanics to create new ones. I don’t really concentrate on one thing, and usually work on multiple games at once because I find it’s too easy to hit a dead end when doing board game design.
What kind of gamer are you?
I’ll play anything at least once, but my preferences are for games that have good links between theme and mechanics. I’m definitely more partial to Euro mechanics but I’m happy to play whatever suits the crowd I’m with the best.
One last question just for fun. if you could play a board game with anybody (real or fictional), who would it be, what game would you play, and (perhaps most important of all!) what snacks would you choose? ?
One of the life-changing moments for me was being able to sit down and play games with famous Japanese game designers back when I was still a fledgling designer.
I was star-struck to be at the same table as Hayashi-san(of Yokohama fame, though he hadn’t created that game yet and because of that encounter I ended up writing the English rules), Kanai-san(Love Letter) and Kawasaki-san (Traders of Osaka), and they were actually interested to play my dinky prototypes (all of which I think have not survived the chopping board).
I’ve had different yet similar experiences all around Asia, including Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. So if I were to choose, it would be a marathon game session with Asian game designers all around the world, with everyone bringing their own designed games as well as their own snacks (this was actually part of my vision for ABGF!). I will be there with Origame games and Singaporean snacks such as salted egg potato chips and pandan cake.
Well, I love Metro X so any future Daryl Chow – Hayashi-san collaboration is definitely going to get a thumbs up from me! ? And salted egg potato chips sounds amazing!
Thank you again for taking time out to chat with me, Daryl. I am definitely going to be adding more Origame titles to my collection as you continue to design and create wonderful modern boardgames that celebrate and represent the very best of Asian culture.
If you would like to find out more about Daryl Chow, ABGF, and Origame, please click here