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Demystifying the Cultural Developer in board games

There’s alot of strong opinions on the topic of cultural appropriation vs appreciation within the board game community. Whenever it comes up, there is always a never ending debate around who is being overly sensitive and who is being close minded.

The idea of hiring a cultural consultant simply because of how you were born can seem off putting for many, especially if it’s a culture you feel deeply familiar with and willing to research.

So, I thought I’d shed some light on my first hand experience working as the Cultural Consultant / Developer on Manchukuo: Legacy Under Siege

The KS exclusive Box Sleeve for the Tiger School

First, a little about me:

My name is MingYang Lu, and I’m a 1.5 generation Chinese American immigrant. (Though not yet a US citizen.) You might have seen me hosting the “Using Asian culture in Games” panels at Pax Unplugged 2018 or Gen Con 2019 with panelists like SenFoong Lim and Daniel Kwan. I also go by the moniker Brother Ming, a play on how in Chinese, friends often refer to one another as brother or sister.

Ok, so with that out of the way…

What is a Cultural Consultant?

This is a kind of umbrella term for several different roles, but in general, it’s someone you hire in a professional sense to ensure respectful uses of a particular culture in whatever product you’re creating and selling. For example, if you are not Thai, but write a novel set in Thailand, you might hire a kind of Cultural Consultant called Sensitivity Readers. Their job would be to read your book and point out anything that might be jarring or offensive to an ethnically Thai person.

In most cases, these works are not intended for an audience of that culture. Your novel set in Thailand is probably not meant for Thai readers, just like how the Manchukuo kickstarter is not meant for the Chinese market. Despite that, it is important to ensure respectful uses of Thailand because 1, there will still be some Thai people within your audience, and 2, if you want your book to eventually succeed outside of your immediate market, this helps future proof it.

It’s important to note that a Cultural Consultant is not a historian. While they can help with research, what they provide is to help create something authentic and respectful, not historically accurate.

Player board art of the Mantis School

Then What is a Cultural Developer?

Cultural Developer is a term I, along with several others within the Asian tabletop gaming community (such as James Mendez Hodes and Banana Chan) have been recently discussing the usage of. It describes a Cultural Consultant specifically in the tabletop gaming industry who is also experienced with game design and development, and thus able to bring a more nuanced skill set for the relationship between a game’s theme and how it is translated via mechanics.

So what does a Cultural Consultant do?

This will vary from project to project, but at a high level, they provide first hand knowledge and research regarding whatever topics you need for an authentic and tasteful representation of the culture used in your game.

These tasks could be as simple as accurate and natural sounding translations. For example, on Manchukuo, I provided Chinese names for families and characters, translations for the names of locations, and also Chinese idioms (ChengYu) to use as taglines for the different schools.

智勇双全 — Zhì Yǒng Shuāng Quán “To posses both wisdom and bravery.”

They could also be more nuanced, like explaining the difference between historical accuracy as a weapon rather than promoting inclusion.

This is a much deeper topic that I won’t be diving into, but some examples are why the inclusion of multiple female leader characters and the use of animal KungFu fighting styles in a historical setting that is out of place are both ok. Though not perfectly historically accurate, neither of these things take away from the authenticity of the game, and promote an experience that invites everyone to the table in a positive way. After all, female resistance fighters did exist in Manchukuo, and Shaolin Wushu was developed long before Manchukuo.

赵一曼 - Zhao Yiman was a real female Chinese resistance fighter against the Imperial Japanese Army

Most often for board games though, Cultural Consultant work will have to do with presentation. This will include language of course, but more likely it will be the visuals. The outfits, the people, and even the items resented within the game are often the most hand waved part about using a culture not your own. This oversight is typically what immediately tells customers from that culture:

“Ah, this game isn’t for me, it’s simply a parody of my culture designed to be consumed by people who don’t actually look like me.”

In Manchukuo, one of the simplest examples of this was the “offerings” tokens, a resource gained by the player when they helped devastated families rebuild. Since families in need wouldn’t be able to repay the player in the standard resources of Tools, Money, or Food, they give the player a special resource called Offerings.

Originally, these offerings were tokens of burning incense. At a glance, this seems harmless, but to a Chinese player, it would throw a wrench in the immersion. After all, incense is generally burned for spirits and gods, not to offer thanks to the living. Instead, I suggested these tokens be replaced with images of fruit, specifically water pears, an very common gifts given between Chinese people as offerings of gratitude and well wishes.

This change may feel insignificant, but is a great example of what makes a game feel authentic

Then did you do anything special as a Cultural Developer?

In addition to my work as the Cultural Consultant, I was also able to help provide insight regarding the game play as a game designer myself. I sat down to play the game (really loved it), and highlighted any mechanics that might have culturally problematic interpretations for a player.

For example, in Manchukuo, a game which is purely competitive, I pointed out that a player’s mindset would naturally be to consider the other players as enemies. At first I suggested adding some sort of semi-coop element to the game, to mitigate this possibility, but as the game was designed ground up to be a crunchy competitive worker placement game, such a patch felt wrong for the original design.

After some some back and forth discussion about this particular issue, the designer and publisher ultimately came up with the garrison standee as the most seamless way to address my concerns. A physical presence that traveled the board, the garrison applied pressure to all players, successfully keeping the fun competitive worker placement experience of the game, while retaining the story of struggle and defiance within Manchukuo much more respectfully.

The occupational army’s patrol harasses all players equally

How do I find the right cultural consultant for my project?

If you’ve come this far and are a game designer yourself, this might be a big hurdle for you. After all, it’s not standard practice within the industry, and can feel awkward to advertise.

The answer however might be surprisingly simple. First, just start by asking your industry friends of color. Within industries where a minority is extremely underrepresented, we will often self group or hear of each other more often. You’d be surprised that they might know someone who knows someone perfect for the job, or at least someone who could point you in the right direction.

Second, realize that asking someone to do the emotional labor of explaining cultural nuances to you IS labor. A good friend might do it out of that friendship, but you need to be ready to compensate someone for their time when this is done for a commercial product.

Third, just follow more industry folk of color on social media. The more you expose yourself, the better informed you’ll be. There is no list or write up you can simply read to figure it out (Though they certainly have value).

Lastly, so have the best experience possible once you’ve found a Cultural Consultant or Developer, understand that the process will be a personal experience, both for them but even more so for you. Culture itself is very personal, and you WILL feel attacked if told a view you’ve had is either misinformed or problematic.

Realizing that this will be a personal experience for whoever you hire is also just as important. Just because I worked as a Chinese cultural developer does not mean my personal experience of Chinese culture is indicative of ALL Chinese peoples. In many ways, my experience will be wildly different from others, possibly even those who came from the same home town as me. My view of Chinese culture is personal to me after all.

I’m really just a nerd with a passion, no one that special.

So sounds like everything the consultant say goes?

I really hope that’s not your take away so far! Because no, absolutely not, that would be ludicrous. Consultants provide a second opinion with expertise, but they certainly won’t direct your project for you. From the get go, I was straight forward with the publisher that I will give him my opinion, and it’s his choice in the end on how the game will look. There were certainly many concessions given, but none that I’m unhappy about!

Working with a Cultural Consultant is all about compromises after all, and the later in the process a consultant is brought in, the harder and more expensive it will be to change art, writing, presentation, or even mechanics.

However, if you ignore everything a consultant tells you, there will be a point where a consultant will refuse to have their name attached to the project, though you’d still be expected to pay for their time.

Will all of this actually improve my project?

I will be honest. If your question is about funding on kickstarter, or just selling more games, then the answer is likely no, maybe*.

The large majority of the hobby board game market will not care about these nuanced improvements and fixes. Just go to Gen Con and look around, maybe even look down from a balcony. You’ll probably be able to count the number of Asians, not even specifically Chinese, you see on your fingers. (Maybe 2 sets of hands if you’re lucky.)

But if we don’t strive to make the board gaming community and industry bigger, more inviting and diverse, I would say we’re failing as a community by definition.

That said, the answer could be “maybe.” For example, if your project did have something catastrophically insensitive, and

someone just wasn’t going to leave it be on a bad day and wanted to go on a rant about it, and that rant then somehow gains traction, it might set your project page ablaze with criticism. On the flip side, if your project does an incredible job of being authentic and inviting, it might penetrate into a new community and find an audience outside of the established hobby market.

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