When I decided to jump back into my childhood hobby of board games, I was a little leery, since I was currently living in the country of Korea. I figured that some Koreans played board games, but given the massive concentration of computer games in the country, I didn't expect much more. I was very surprised, therefore, to find that Korea is slowly becoming a Mecca of board gaming. Thousands of Koreans play and are passionate about board games, and I am realizing that I may be in the best country in the world to support my hobby!
The cornerstone of the Korean board gaming scene is the board game cafe. There are 250 of them scattered throughout the country, with about 130 of those in the city of Seoul alone. I was able to interview Ki-Chan Kim, the owner of Playoff Cafes, a chain of about thirteen board game cafes, all located in Seoul. He informed me that each one of his cafes hosted about ninety people on a weekday, with upwards to two hundred on weekends. When one multiplies these numbers by the amount of cafes in Korea, you can see that a staggering number of people are playing board games!
A board game cafe is a unique business, one that I doubt is duplicated anywhere else in the world. As a person walks into a cafe (most of them are located in business districts and are in the same buildings as restaurants and other establishments), they are greeted by a smiling, happy staff, from three to six people. At this point, the time is marked down for when the customer has come into the cafe, since consumers are charged for the time they spend in the cafe (usually $1 or $2 per hour.) The more well to do establishments will give an electronic card to the customer—to keep track of the time they are there and the food/drink they consume, while the inexpensive cafes will merely write it down in a log. The staff then seats the gamers down at a table (one of about ten to twenty in the cafe), and gives them two menus: one of drinks and snacks, another of games. The drinks are rather expensive, but are usually of good quality (if you like coffee, cappuccinos, and soda pop). Not all cafes serve food, but the ones who do have snacks that consist of nachos and cheese, chips, and cake.
The game menu is a notebook full of pictures, names, and descriptions of games. The games are grouped into categories: two-player games, card games, advanced strategy games, etc. The gamers point out the game that they want to play to the staff person serving them, who then goes over to where the games are stored (usually against one wall of the cafe on some nice, modern bookcases), and retrieves it for the players. If necessary, the staff person will explain the game to the gamers, teaching them the game and/or playing along with them. Of course, this doesn't always do foreigners much good—but the instructions are included with the games, and some cafes have English speakers who are more than happy to teach the games. In fact, Brian Ridge, an American is starting up a cafe that will cater to foreigners, something that has us quite excited.
Cafes are very clean, very modern-looking places, with artwork up on the walls advertising games from the past and present. Spiel de Jahres award winners, box cover art, and pictures of people playing the games adorn the walls. The cafe usually caters to one of two different groups of clientele; either students from the local colleges and universities (who prefer more sophisticated games), or office workers (who prefer much simpler games). It is not uncommon for five or six board game cafes to be on the same street, within one hundred feet of one another—and on a typical night all of them are filled to capacity!
So why are these cafes so popular in Korea? Why do so many folk come and get together and play games? One statistic that helps us understand this phenomenon—and it's an amazing fact by itself—is that 65% of all the gamers in Korea are women. This is an incredible number, and unlike any other country on earth. The answer for this mystery is quite simple, however, for all one has to do is to understand Korean culture and society. The Korean people are extremely social and love to do things in groups. Since group activities are held in such high regard, playing board games is a natural application for folk, and it is becoming more and more popular in the country. This also means, however, that most Koreans play board games for the social aspect rather than for the game itself. Many of them walk into a cafe, and play whatever game is being recommended by the staff that day or one that they already know how to play. Because of this, the most popular games played are Rummikub, Halli Galli, Clue, Jenga, and similar other games. Other games that are growing in popularity are Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Citadels, and many other Eurogames.
A heavy responsibility thus rests on the owners of the cafes and their staff. Since most people who come to the cafes turn to them for direction, it is up for them to provide new games, and the general direction that gaming will take in the country. I am happy to say that I have observed this being done in a fantastic way. The owners of the game cafes and the board game stores in Korea are a fanatical, hard-core gaming group. They are always scrounging the internet, seeking new games, going to conventions, and more—all to promote the hobby in Korea. Most game cafes boast a list of seventy to one hundred fifty games, and it's very easy to find new games that have just been released on the shelves.
Almost every board game store in Korea (about forty or so) is completely online. A few game stores have storefronts, but even they just have the appearance of a warehouse. Many of these stores become exclusive suppliers for the cafes, and patrons to these cafes can purchase games that they have tried and liked directly from the cafe staff. Unfortunately, because of Korean tariffs, and the high price of shipping, most games in Korea are fairly expensive, costing up to 30% more than they would in America or Germany. I usually find that I can get a better deal from online stores, although I often purchase from the local stores to show my support. There are hundreds of Korean web pages that talk about games, sell games, etc.
There are some games that are not popular in Korea—and I'm sure our grognards would not be too happy with this, but war games are almost extinct in the country. It's easy enough to go onto the American military bases, where the board game groups (such as the Yahoo! group WargamersROK) almost exclusively play war games, but the general Korean populace doesn't touch them. Nobody can really give me a clear reason for this, but I think it's either because war games are less social than other games, or because there is a very real, although certainly distant, possibility of war in this country. Instead, Koreans prefer card games, and usually like the English versions of these games, so that they can brush up on their English skills.
After reading these statistics, and seeing just how popular gaming is becoming in Korea, one may ask why Korea hasn't become one of the headquarters for board games in the world. There are three reasons for this, with the first being that board games are fairly new in Korea. Only in the past five years, especially the last two, has this incredible phenomenon broken forth. Several outlets point out that perhaps board gaming is only a fad, something that will die out in a couple more years. Hopefully, with good direction from the board game enthusiasts, the hobby will grow, rather than fade away into the night. The second reason is that while board games are popular with the younger crowd (under 35) they still aren't taken seriously by the majority of Koreans. The only game that is taken seriously in Korea is Go, which has a television station dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Korean Chess and Poker are also popular with the older set, but they look down upon playing most other board games as a frivolous hobby. The younger Koreans are determined to change this outlook, but as with anything in the oriental culture, change takes time.
The third reason, and possibly the most disheartening one, is a lack of unity between the board game cafes and internet stores. Since competition is fierce in this industry, as with most industries in Korea, the cafes work very hard against one another, and do little in common. I am trying to host a country-wide board game conference, but am having problems, because none of the board game cafes and stores want to work together. Until they do, there will never be a unified front for board games in Korea. Also, many of the stores attempt, and often succeed in getting exclusive rights to a company's games. For example, Rio Grande Games are only carried by one internet store in Korea, and they won't work with many of the other cafes and other stores. This can, and will lead to problems in the future. I have tried to dissuade the cafes and companies from doing this, and some of them have stopped, but it is still there.
Even though that may sound depressing, I still am heartily encouraged about the face of board gaming here in Korea. I was just at a board game auction the other day, which was handled with as much care as if they were auctioning off diamonds at Christies, and was pleased to see how knowledgeable the people were about games, their designers, and more. When I can go to a board game cafe and pay about $5 bucks a night, to play any of their games (or bring my own) with my friends, I am excited. I've been to the cafes on a regular basis, and it's fantastic to see all the people (especially the women) playing games excitedly and happily. Many companies, such as Days of Wonder, have informed me that they are producing new versions of their games in Korean—which is fantastic! I, for one, am incredibly happy to be living as a board gamer in this country at this time, and urge any of the readers who have the time or finances, to come visit us—we're always ready and willing to play a game!
- Tom Vasel