All the right moves
In an upstairs cafe in Prince Edward, a young man is about to get shot. Not with a gun but with the reach for a card and a laugh over a board game called Bang. 'I'd like to shoot you,' says a young woman in the Jolly Thinkers cafe. There are cheers and laughter around the table as the teenage victim smiles at his fate.
At an adjacent table, a Hollywood movie producer is casting talent in an animated session of Hollywood Blockbuster alongside another foursome engrossed in a game of Buccaneer.
The laughter suggests that old-fashioned board games are gaining appeal with the PlayStation generation. Through two specialist cafes, young people are finding that a few hours' laughter over a roll of the dice is a lot more gratifying than playing solo with a video game console.
'When I smile, I can see others smile too,' says Samuel Tang Man-sum, who frequently plays board games with his 11-year-old son. 'Seeing their expressions and reactions makes it a completely different experience from playing it on a computer. Some of us also play online versions of the games when there's no time to meet, but we still prefer board games any day because it's much more fun with a group of people.'
That's music to the ears of John Guest, 44, who opened Jolly Thinkers, Hong Kong's first board game cafe, in 2006 with two friends. The venture, which has yet to break even, stems from seeing the effect of computer games on friends' children a decade ago.
'These four people just sat on the sofa doing nothing but playing with their video games,' Guest recalls. So, the Briton quit his job in educational toy development to introduce board games from Germany to friends.
There's more to board games than just war games, chess, Scrabble and Monopoly, says Guest. Popular in the west over the past decade, they can 'teach children a lot about decision making, negotiation, sharing, manners, risk management, losing gracefully and winning humbly', he says.
That's why he won't allow video games in Jolly Thinkers.
'I won't force [board games] on people, but it's a pity to see a group of kids become silent in a corner when they get their PSPs [PlayStation portables] after interacting really well in a board game,' says Guest. 'Now I make it a rule that no video games are allowed in the cafe. I much prefer that everyone's involved and having fun, socialising with your friends.'
The cafe has more than 300 board games, mostly acquired at an annual trade fair in Essen, Germany.
A long-term love of board games often stems from picking the right one to start with, says Guest, a full-time teaching assistant at the University of Hong Kong's linguistics department. Ice-breaking and fun-orientated games with simple rules best suit beginners, says Guest, who also guides the cafe's gamers in fluent Cantonese at weekends. Websites such as boardgamegeek.com also provide tips to the local board game community.
Cafe co-owner Joyce Lam Yuen-han, a former university colleague of Guest's, says she prefers board games that whet her appetite for knowledge.
'For instance, the game Carcassonne is about a medieval fortified town of the same name in southern France,' says Lam. 'I was so intrigued by the game that I visited the ancient city and it's beautiful. You end up knowing a little about different topics such as culture and history and you want to find out more yourself. It's a lovely way to learn.'
The cafe is also collaborating with the Chinese University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on programmes to introduce board games to primary and secondary schools.
The games aren't just for brainiacs. 'I like the social and party games, not the brain-teasing, serious ones played by diehard gamers,' says Lam.
Cafe regulars Irene Co Ngai-ling, Sky Sum Pui-lam and Hannah Yip Shuk-han also prefer simple games. 'It's a lot of fun to experience different adventures and scenarios that you won't [have] in real life,' says Yip, a 24-year-old concert producer.
They recently brought along another friend, Ko Kin-hei, a stranger to board games. After a few rounds, the leisure events organiser says he wouldn't hesitate to come back again. 'It's easier to pick up than I thought,' says Ko, 23.
But he won't give up his PSP just yet. 'It's hard to find partners for board games,' he says. 'Video games are still great when you want to kill time alone.'
However, Eric Wong Sze-ho, chairman of the Elite Board Game Club, prefers to wait for board game partners than pick up a game console.
'You get jaded easily from looking for new games to conquer,' says the 30-year-old immigration officer. 'It's also easy to be addicted because there's no end to it.'
Club members meet at What Is Boardgame Cafe (whatiscafe.com) in Yau Ma Tei, another upstairs hangout that attracts older gamers. 'Now we meet not just to play, but more to catch up as well,' says Wong.
The two cafes offer welcome alternative venues to the handful of gaming groups such as the Kornhill Boardgame Organisation, who usually play at each other's homes, he says.
Opened by Poon Yu-fung and partners in November 2006, What Is Boardgame Cafe is so popular at weekends that it also takes space at the neighbouring tutoring centre to accommodate players.
Poon, 26, says he has tired of the online games he was once addicted to. 'You get to a point where you find it meaningless to vanquish one villain or monster after another. It gets all too repetitive,' says the production assistant. 'On the other hand, board games are very imaginative and interesting. I am constantly surprised.'
That's the point of playing games, says Denny Ho Kwok-leung, an associate professor of applied social science at the Polytechnic University.
'It should be a social experience, but now it's only about winning and losing,' he says. 'I am afraid the traditional games of my childhood may disappear one day because very few children play them now. They need people to tell them about the fun of these games.'
However, Tang, 40, is doing his bit to change that by introducing the old games to his son.
'I teach him the local, old-fashioned games like those played with pencils and paper and rubber bands,' he says. 'We might be a minority, but people I know are now doing the same thing. It also warms my heart to see my son pass it on to his friends. That's our little way of trying to make a difference in the world.'