What you don’t see. Chinatown and the problems and celebrations of design in tabletop games.
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
In one description by the renowned board game reviewers Shut Up & Sit Down, they take the time to mention the immigration story behind the game’s narrative. “A new wave of Chinese immigrants is moving into Chinatown,” “The immigrants, hard-working men and women, are arriving by the thousands to buy buildings, establish businesses and fulfil the American Dream,” and “In this game you are one of [those immigrants]” (SU&SD 2019). This theme of immigration is not essential to the gameplay of Chinatown (1999), however it is essential to the theme, setting and context. In short, it is the story. And here in lies the problem.
Chinatown is a brilliant game but carries a heavy a sense of duality. On the one side the design of the gameplay, the assembly of mechanics and use of components help to lift the player into a magic circle that transcends even our understanding of time. On the other, the narrative design and artistic execution invite problematic connotations, stereotyping and cultural appropriation. Chinatown simultaneously demonstrates the incredible experiences gameplay can offer and the challenges the industry must face. Chinatown is a perfect example of tabletop game design at its best and at its not-so-best. This article will aim to offer a deeper reading of Chinatown in the hope that future generations can learn to balance all elements of design in equal measure, ensure experience and narrative make up the complete player experience.
With the tag line “The art of trading”, Chinatown positions the players in an anything goes trade war. Players must negotiate with others to establish ever growing plots for business and increasing chains of commerce. The board is made up of 85 building locations, split between six districts, based in New York City during the 1960s. Over the course of six rounds, players will stockpile as much wealth from their companies and their dealings as they can and whoever has the most money at the end is crowned the winner. In short, Chinatown is direct and has opted for a simpler, open set of rules for the players to appropriate how they see fit. This is a significant game design and the multiple layers of play it creates can be celebrated.
It is widely accepted that “the fewer the rules a designer needs to find fun” the closer you get to “what tabletop games should be”, offering less barriers between the player and the fun (Heron, 2017). For a game designer the job of the rules is to establish an area of play and the systems within and then let the players explore. Arguably, the best games open themselves up and envelope you in its possibilities, leaving the wrestling to take place with your friends around the table and not with the instruction manual. Chinatown does exactly this. It quickly and easily defines the boundaries of play and then moves aside acting as the silent playground within which the players conjure the fun. This playground is never better felt then in the negotiation phase but to truly understand the magic of this we must first establish some rules about play.
Play is appropriative and play gives us purpose (Sicart, 2017; Flanagan, 2009; Huizinga, 1949). When we enter play we engage in a ritual that transcends socio-cultural borders and the slate is almost wiped clean, upon which the act of playing helps us to establish new social and cultural norms and communities (Flanagan, 2009). Importantly, these spaces exist outside our known reality within what Johan Huizinga calls “The Magic Cirlce” (Huizinga, 1949). Within this sacred space the game becomes a system designed to help establish the parameters, set out purpose and act as an infrastructure for reward. We, the players, get to appropriate this space fulfilling the purpose and gaining the reward; the process of fun. (Sicart, 2017).
The Magic Circle of Chinatown does many things that ensure the game is enjoyed by all. Initially it allows the players to transcend their known relationships and reputations and establish new ones. This is important to have a fair negotiations phase. Additionally, the game seems to establish two simultaneous definitions and uses of time that create a framework around the players and their play. This is a very interesting gameplay design that bears the soul of the game and is best experienced during the negotiation phase as players attempt to maximise their profits through business savvy plot distribution.
During the game there are often deals being made parallel to other deals that are simultaneously being made in tandem with other deals that can only fall into place if these previous deals are completed, ultimately opening up doors to other deals that may make past deals profitable again. Deals, Deals, Deals. In this process time suddenly loses its linear direction and becomes chaotic. The past, present and future are bundled up together and become equal moments of consideration that factor into the lucrativeness of each deal. Players must shift their perspective between the now, the what was and what could be to ensure they are better prepared to make the right decisions.
Having the players regularly reminded of the past, present and future blows the scope of the game and individual strategy wide open. Instead of simply processing a set of orders for your turn, your player agency covers the whole timeframe of the game conscious of the precarious position of Lady Luck dancing the fence that separates you from rise and ruin. More importantly, every trade made or the potential for a trade in the future makes all the players conscious of the board state. Suddenly the separated sections become a map of opportunity that all players must be conscious of at all times. The negotiation phase of the game propels the players into the orbit of the wider narrative where every move has consequence on the outcome of the game and the past, present and future exist simultaneously.
Only the rigid system of the rest of the game offers the familiar sense of linear time. When we enter into the Magic Circle of Chinatown we begin to see that time and control have been revalued. The Game has a sense of control through dedicated ordering, but the players must engage in a chaotic, non-linear sense of time to harness control. By trusting in future, unwritten moves to come in to play, whilst plotting present actions, but considering the past moves of other players to assess allegiances, the experience of the player must be one of omnipresence. Here the Game is simple and linear and the players lift up away from the known, appropriating time to create potential success.
The story the gameplay tells is one of sheer brilliance. There are moments of tension coupled with times of great relief. Relationships between friends and family members are on the table as much as the buildings and businesses. It artfully shapes a playground with clear defined objects for play and then steps back to let the players play however they see fit. Yet, in all its brilliance of the structure of gameplay there is still a pang of something uncomfortable, something, that once followed, leads us to a problem a little bigger than Chinatown. To understand what is being discussed here we must come round again to the theme of immigration and the rather problematic execution of the visuals.
Designed and brought to life by Karsten Hartwig, Frank Vohwinkel and Matthieu Leyssens (three Caucasian men), Chinatown’s box art, some of the imagery on the board and the overall design narrative falls a little short of politically correct. Instead, it manages to stick a landing into the murky waters of cultural appropriation. Ignoring the obvious questions of whether these men had the cultural authenticity to produce a game so heavily reliant on themes of immigration and Chinese culture in urban America, a closer look of some of the game imagery shines a light on the questionable visual narrative of the game. Firstly the box art.
Stood in the proverbial shadows, in the corner of the top box the main figure lurks, dollar bills rolled up in his clenched fist and a sly smirk on his face. Dressed in an “authentic” Chinese shirt and hat this image stands as the guardian to the game. It invites the player in to Chinatown whilst suggesting there is a something afoot, something shady or not as it seems. We don’t have to look far to figure that out. The figure stands outside the frame of a picture. Representing a conventional, maybe even stereotypical, Chinatown image, the framing of the picture with the figure stood outside of it in the foreground tells us this exactly that: this is a picture and maybe there is more to see. Ultimately the juxtaposition of the shadiness of the character and the conventional image of the setting communicates a feeling of the underground as the true Chinatown behind this colourful facade. I would go as far to say as it even invites a sense of the illicit nature of the place you are about to enter, like the host to an illegal gambling hall tucked away in some ordinary laundrette.
Although this is my own subjective reading of the imagery, there is a particular scene on the board that reinforces theses claims. And this image is far more direct.
The board has several different scenes taking place that bolster the setting. There is a Chinese dragon in a parade, there are rooftops of business districts and there are yellow taxis. Close to one of the edges of the board two of these cars have collided and have since gathered a crowd of onlookers. For some people this is just an innocent image that enriches the story of the game. However, when we pull up some racial stereotypes we can see that many other people have understood this image as a link or reference to the idea of “a questionable driving ability” of Chinese people during the 50’s and 60’s (SU&SD, 2019). Referring back to a video play through of the same reviewers who opened this article, the team at SU&SD reference the same image drawing attention to the same connotations (SU&SD, 2019). In addition to these images we have the chopsticks font that is used throughout the rule book as a typeface that characterises Chinese written style. All these things are problematic.
This visual style is problematic in a way that almost normalises cultural appropriation in tabletop gaming should it go unchecked. However, it this train of thought does lend itself to a greater narrative about the board game industry. Maybe these observations of Chinatown have alluded the spotlight because the largest demographic of tabletop consumers are not the victims. And here in lies the wider problem.
As the realm of board game design and tabletop gaming grows and grows the responsibility of the designers to ensure the accessibility and appropriate representations of games is becoming more and more significant. As boardgames begin to rocket into the stratosphere we have the chance to ensure the products that become popular and heavily consumed are well thought out, inspiring and built on foundations of fair perspective. By taking the time to examine some of the most popular gaming experiences we currently have access to, we can begin to understand and learn so to better inform our design decisions in the future. Ultimately, as designers we must begin to balance the architecture of both play and representation so to ensure that the stories we weave don’t exclude or leave anyone from the table.