Let’s go back to Alchemy Games first.
In some ways, Alchemy Games is similar to a lot of hobby game stores I’ve seen in the US. Posters for Magic: The Gathering greet you as you enter, a shelf of Dungeons & Dragons books lines the back wall, and there are glass display cases with miniatures for wargamers. It’s the sort of place that looks like it caters to your stereotypical gamer — young, single, male — and may be a bit overwhelming to casual gamers and non-gamers. (You can see more photos of the store in the slideshow at the end of the post.)
The location near NTU opened about a year ago, but the original branch has been around a bit longer. Although you can purchase board games at the store, you can also sit down and play games from their library — for a price. This, based on the two other stores I visited and the Taiwan Today article, seems to be more of the norm in Taiwan. Part of this, I imagine, is just due to a cultural difference: Taiwan has shops where you can rent time to sit and read manga, something that doesn’t have a lot of parallels in the United States. Space is at a premium (particularly in the city) so a public space with tables and chairs to just sit and play games is something of a luxury.
I spoke with a guy who goes by the name Kaseno — he usually works in the SOGO location but was managing the NTU shop when I stopped by. From his perspective, there are two separate gaming populations, the ones who purchase games and the ones who prefer to rent space and play them in the store, and they’re roughly equal in size. Most of the customers come in the evenings and on weekends (which makes sense). They do hold Magic tournaments — in fact, a national tournament took place during the time I was in Taiwan, though I only found out about it afterward.
I did note that although there were games in Chinese translation, at least half (and maybe more) were in English only (or even German and other European languages). Kaseno agreed, saying that they tended to cater to more English-speaking customers. People who shop or play at Alchemy are usually gamers already, folks who already know the games. Some are visitors and immigrants from other countries, some are students at the nearby university. In fact, as I was leaving the SOGO location I met a German couple headed down the hallway toward the store. Kaseno admitted that it can be a difficult hobby for somebody who cannot read English. In particular, many games are so language-dependent (think about how much text is involved in a game like Castle Ravenloft or Arkham Horror) that just having a translation of the rules isn’t enough.
The D&D books were in English as well, and I asked about the popularity of D&D. Kaseno said that they had enjoyed some popularity years ago, but they’ve been eclipsed by videogames and online games. People flocked to MMOs, which are very popular in Asia, and it didn’t help that Taiwan didn’t get some of the editions of D&D. (I think he said they didn’t get 4th edition.) The time commitment is also particularly difficult: both students and employees have long hours, and most people seem to have less free time than in the US. So committing to a D&D campaign can seem completely out of reach.
As far as the population of gamers, Kaseno said they’re mostly 17-25, college age and starting careers. While there are some folks in the 25-35 range, they come less often, maybe once a month, but they’re usually willing to play longer games when they do. In his opinion, many people seemed to stop gaming once they got married, or in particular when they have kids.
Alchemy had fewer games suitable for younger kids, for a number of reasons. First is, again, the time factor: in many couples both parents work, and there is little time to take the kids out to a game store to play. But also, because of import fees, games tend to be a bit more expensive in Taiwan than you’d typically find in the US, and parents are unlikely to pay that much for a game that’s intended just for younger children. Kaseno’s prediction is that board gaming won’t really take off for another generation, when the folks that have quit gaming now because of kids become grandparents and retire, and then they start showing their grandkids the games they used to enjoy. It’s a somewhat pessimistic view, but without good children’s games to play I can’t see how younger kids would enter the hobby.
Next: Phantasia Games