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Board games help build post-pandemic friendships

Secret Hitler, Arkham Horror, Terraforming Mars, Tumbling Monkeys—just some of the board games in the bright paper boxes at  808 Games. In one corner of the café, four drunk patrons squabbled over tokens the size of their fingernails.

In another corner, three women were engrossed in their first session of ROOT, a strategy game about animals trying to rule the forest. The players are strangers to each other, but they have played together online every week for a month.

Players at 808 Games place their tokens on a “ROOT” board

A player who goes by Ms X_X on the social media platform X, held a paper pamphlet twice the size of her hand while she mulled over the colourful tokens. Her two fellow players pored over the rules book like a treasure map.

Chris Lo, the owner of 808 Games and a veteran of the board game industry for over 11 years, approached them for assistance.

“Has my turn ended?”  X_X asked.

“Not yet. You still have to do a night action,” Lo replied.

This is a typical afternoon at 808 Games. a board game café in Mong Kok which rents out games to its customers for an hourly fee. It has an assortment of games ranging from UNO to Cthulhu: Death May Die, a lengthy campaign board game which includes a 60cm plastic statue of Cthulhu, a mythical creature in the Lovecraft horror.

The setting for Cthulhu Death May Die is placed on the table.

The cluttered café has been in operation since 2010, making it the oldest board game café in Hong Kong. Since then, other cafés such as Wheat and Wood, a casual café centered around socializing, or Jolly Thinkers, which has its own Board Game educator programme, have opened in Hong Kong There are now more than ten board game cafés in the city.

Since 2010, 808 Games has gone through two owners, one renovation and a pandemic.

Lo, 32, says COVID-19 has been a turning point for 808’s atmosphere.

“I definitely think there is a change in what people buy,” he said. “The regular customers are still there, but I also see a lot of new people.”

808’s online sales went up during the pandemic. But Lo was glad when the social distancing measures ended and in-store business flourished again.

“I think we’re just fed up with meeting online,” he said. “I know that there are online games out there that can simulate playing board games, but nothing can beat the feeling of meeting face to face”.

Chris Lo, the owner of 808 Games, showing his favourite board game, The Great Western Trail.

Hong Kong had some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world. The first social-distancing measure went into effect in 2020, prohibiting gatherings of more than four people in public spaces.  The government reported that entertainment and media revenue had the biggest year-on-year drop. 

After the social distancing measures ended in September 2022, normal life gradually resumed. Statista forecasts a  4.56% increase in the toys and games market revenue for 2023, which includes board game retail, musical instruments and sports goods.

The Hong Kong Game Theory Society, the board game association at  Hong Kong Baptist University, had trouble operating during lockdown. They used online platforms such as  Discord and Tabletop Simulator to facilitate virtual game nights. Members were able to maintain connections and enjoy their favourite games online, but there were setbacks.

Members of the HKBU Game Theory Society play a social board game.

“Besides the virtual problems, teaching new board game players became more challenging because physical demos and tutorials were seriously affected. We could use the instruction or tutorial videos on YouTube to do some online teaching and video guides to help newcomers,” Qiu Sze Yi, 19, head of the Hong Kong Game Theory Society said.

But since offline playing returned, the community has grown to a total of 370 members, welcoming 60 new board game enthusiasts.

A member of the HKBU Game Theory Society accuses another player of lying.

There is also a scientific reason why offline board games have been revived.

The Chinese Journal of Communication states  Board games and their social possibilities may be proven through the socially oriented concept of immersion, an anthropological term which describes that broad social dynamics can create experiences of being together in small-level games such as board games.

According to the journal, each player of a board game is an important part of the gaming experience, creating a sense of cohesion that can build strong social ties.

Lee In-hye, 50, is a board game fan and counselling psychologist for the Korean Ministry of National Defence in Seoul. She said board games have both entertainment and psychological appeal. They give players an experience that cannot be reenacted through online gaming or Zoom calls.

“Games require you to get to know your opponent and read their moves in a short amount of time,” she explained.  “This leads to a very focused, empathetic, and unified immersion with your opponent, which is something you don't normally get to do.”

According to Lee, board games are one of the most effective tools for socialization because of their inclusive nature.

“It's one of the least restrictive mediums in terms of location, audience, time, and age. They're also easy for even the most introverted people to pick up,” she said.

Shelves of 808 Game are stocked with all sorts of social board games.

Most of all, board games are simply fun.

“Try new games and get people to play with you. Maybe you will learn more and have a lot of fun,” Lo said.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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