Guangzhou, ChinaHe Jiaxi has given up killing terrorists. He's put down his AK-47s and grenades and long-range sniper rifles. He's dropped his plasma cannons, too, because about two years ago, obliterating legions of marauding space monsters went out of style. The former competitive computer-game champion, along with hundreds of his young Chinese compatriots, has a new passion: board games.
"You work all day and in Guangzhou, you get off work and where can you go? Go to a bar, a karaoke club, play mah-jongg, go to a club. It's already become very boring. But now board games are here and it's very exciting," he says.
Mr. He is one of a growing band of young entrepreneurs in this industrial megacity who have seen the changes wrought by economic progress and have found them lacking. Actual places where people can interact with new people, instead of with a computer screen, are in extremely short supply. Salvation is coming in the form of old-fashioned, tabletop games with dice and wooden tokens familiar to anyone who grew up in the West, games such as Monopoly, Pictionary, and the popular German game Settlers of Catan.
He's business, called BG Club (Board Game Club), began as a collection of couches and tables in a small shop off a side street in Guangzhou and has expanded to six locations, including a main headquarters with private rooms, scores of board games from around the world, and a devoted group of members who pay by the hour for the privilege of rolling dice with strangers. Estimates vary, but there are now as many as 60 board-game bars in the city, up from just one – the original BG Club, founded in late 2007.
He doesn't see board games as a fad, but as a social necessity. For overworked young Chinese professionals, who have gone from cloistered high school and college environments to high-stress white-collar jobs, outlets have mainly involved lonely hours spent annihilating space creatures in online games or meaningless interactions in clubs overwhelmed by thumping techno music.
"Here you can actually talk to people ... face to face," he says, instead of just looking at a computer screen, adding that more than half of his clientele actually shows up for board-game action alone, fully expecting to be paired up with other lonely souls (or eager club employees) to get the necessary quorum together to play Axis & Allies until the wee hours. And, he notes, "It's a chance for people to test their abilities. Spending all day at a company, that work can be miserable. Who doesn't want to be up on a stage, showing their abilities?"
For Angela Wang, a young real estate professional who comes four days a week to the club to build wooded settlements on a cardboard map of an island with a rotating band of fellow devotees, the board-game lifestyle borders on a philosophy. She met her husband after both of them spent hours trying to assassinate each other during games of Killer. Seen as a precursor to the board-game clubs, Killer is a battle of psychology where players sit around a table and try to guess who the murderers are before the murderers kill them. She can't imagine doing anything else with her time.
"This is just about being happy," Ms. Wang says. "In Guangzhou, we are all people from elsewhere, and people can just come here to relax.... We don't like going to bars; those friends aren't close friends."
One notable attribute of the board games played is their foreignness. Almost every game in these clubs comes from the United States or Europe, with the most popular being Settlers of Catan, a German strategy game where players amass resources to build cities and roads faster than the other players. In a land already flush with games – the Chinese version of chess, Chinese checkers, mah-jongg, go, and card games – it might seem odd that young professionals feel something is missing. But to think that way misunderstands what Chinese youth culture is all about, says Zhang Wenqi, one of the founders of Board & Fun, a board-game club housed in a downtown Guangzhou apartment building. Chinese young people, he says, simply love new things, especially foreign new things.
"With board games there are so many different kinds. There are games about buying and selling things, strategy games, entertainment games, games based on reactions, games based on artistic ability. There is a game to fit everyone's particular abilities," he says. "Foreign board-game culture has become this new, fresh, very curious way to have fun."
Guangzhou wasn't the first place board games arrived in China, but the city's commercial mind-set saw the earliest efforts to turn them into a viable, replicable business, says Wang Jiancheng, an early entrepreneur and operator of a website that reviews new releases in the global board-game market.
But as clubs have spread to major cities across China, popularity has already bred its own problems. Competition has spawned imitators who aren't true believers in the board-game spirit, he says. While the earliest venues offer original, high-quality versions of the board games, some newer proprietors have taken to buying pirated copies and playing fast and loose with the rules, damaging the industry's fledgling reputation.
To combat this, Mr. Wang formed the South China Board Game Alliance, a federation of 20 or so board-game establishments committed to putting the integrity of board games above the pursuit of profit.
"Money is important. If this is to become an industry it has to support itself ... but if you don't protect the experience, people will come to their first board games and then leave," he says. "Board games are like life ... you can find everything on that tabletop."
Whether board games can establish themselves permanently among the notoriously finicky Chinese white-collar set is an open question. But Wang is confident.
"We want to make this something essential to life," he says. "Like karaoke."