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UPDATED: November 29, 2010 NO. 48 DECEMBER 2, 2010
A Gathering of Gamers


A few blocks away from Fudan University is a clean, quiet street called College Road. Lined with newly opened shops that cater to Fudan's students, College Road seems like one of the safest neighborhoods in Shanghai, but unbeknown to most locals, this inconspicuous road has been the site of a string of murders over the course of the last year. Some estimate the number of victims to be in the hundreds, others in the thousands.

Walk down to the end of College Road, and you can see the apartment building where the deed is done. If you take the elevator to the top floor, you can even hear the screams of victims mixed with the maniacal laughs of their murders. Ring the doorbell of the floor's only apartment if you dare, and a smiling woman will open the door to greet you.

"Come in!" she says, gesturing excitedly with her hands. "Welcome to Nana Kill-Time Box! Take a seat while I get you a drink."

Admittedly, Nana Kill-Time Box (NKTB) is not a den of mass murder in the traditional sense—it's actually a board game club where players fight for their lives in China's most popular card game Three Kingdoms Kill.

The "club" is really just an apartment decked out with cushy couches, a Wii and a pool table. The four bosses are a group of friends, all in their 20s, who are united by a shared passion for games. They opened the place last September after quitting their day jobs and pooling their savings. So far the investment seems to be paying off—on weekends the place is packed with college students and young white-collar workers, jabbering away in thick Shanghai dialect.

Surprisingly, the only thing that seems out of place in this gamers' lounge is the stack of dusty Euro board games in the corner. Games like Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, which are often praised by Western board gamers as the finest in their genre, are left virtually untouched in NKTB. Instead, players almost exclusively choose China's own Three Kingdoms Kill.

Published in 2008 by Beijing-based YOKA Games, Three Kingdoms Kill has lifted China's domestic board game industry out of obscurity and into the mainstream. In just over two years, it has sold well over a million copies.

One reason the game has connected so well with Chinese gamers is its culturally specific theme. In the game, each player takes on the role of a famous character from the classic meganovel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which describes the rise and fall of three competing kingdoms dating back nearly 1,800 years. In the last decade, the novel has been adapted for practically every medium possible, including comic books, TV shows and videogames, and many Chinese feel a certain connection to the novel's archetypal protagonists. Some players refuse to play as anyone but Liu Bei, the idealistic and emotionally sensitive leader of the Shu Kingdom, while others swear by Cao Cao, the cunning and ambitious warlord of the Wei Kingdom.

Three Kingdoms Kill also appeals to Chinese gamers because it lends itself well to large groups and has a strong emphasis on teamwork and psychological deception. At the beginning of each round, players are randomly assigned one of four different identities: Prince, Minister, Traitor, or Rebel. A player's identity not only determines his goal for the round but also his allies and enemies.

It is difficult to tell friend from foe because identities remain secret throughout the game. A talented player is able to trick and control other players, sometimes posing as an ally of the stronger faction in order to avoid certain death and other times rallying allies to attack those whom he has publicly branded as enemies.

In any case, the mechanics of Three Kingdoms Kill are actually almost entirely taken from Bang! — a Wild West-themed card game released by Italian publisher da Vinci Games. In fact, YOKA's design choice is very much in line with the tradition in Chinese art and literature to study, imitate, and perhaps improve on previous masters.

Whether YOKA will be able to continue leading the growth of China's young board game industry remains unclear, but the current popularity of Three Kingdoms Kill is undeniable. Symbolic of the organic entrepreneurship that characterizes the Chinese economy, board game clubs like NKTB are sprouting up in cities all over, striving to meet the demand of a rapidly growing group of casual gamers.

The writer is an American living in Beijing

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