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Boardgames as a window to Vietnam? Vietnamese game publisher Ngu Hanh Games shows us how

Ngu Hanh Games, a rapidly emerging tabletop game publisher in Vietnam, is renowned for its distinct Vietnamese-themed games and captivating artwork. They have recently licensed their game "Dream Diary" to a Singaporean publisher, and we had a conversation with them to delve deeper into the details!


Q: Please give the readers a short introduction about yourself and your studio. What is your “origin” story? How did you start off designing games.


We are Toan Nguyen and Man Tran, the designers behind Dream Diary, created by Ngu Hanh Games (N.H.G) in Vietnam. Today, we're excited to share our journey with fellow board game enthusiasts from around the world.


Our love for board games dates back to 2015 when we were in university, but it remained a casual hobby for us until 2019. It was in that year that we made a pivotal decision: leaving our jobs at large corporations and founding our own studio, Ngu Hanh Games. At the time, Vietnam had only recently started embracing board games, and there was virtually no board game design industry in the country. We recognized a unique opportunity when we observed that there was a void in the market. Notably, there were no board games on boardgamegeek.com that reflected Vietnamese culture.


With this realization, Ngu Hanh Games set out on its mission with the slogan "Bringing Vietnam to the World of Board Games." We took on the role of pioneers, creating original gameplay mechanics and themes that revolved around Vietnamese culture. Over the past five years, this approach has become our distinctive signature in the board game industry.


Q: What inspired the ideas behind Dream Diary? Why did you choose to make this type of game?


In 2021, the idea for Dream Diary struck us during a challenging period in Vietnam, marked by the dark shadows of the Covid-19 pandemic looming over us. Prior to this, we hadn't been particularly fond of cooperative games. However, as the world around us changed, and the situation grew increasingly dire, we felt compelled to create something uplifting for players. This led us to embark on the development of an innovative concept, where players collaborate to journey from one location to another, inspired by the beauty of scenic landscapes – a reflection of the time when venturing outdoors was nearly impossible.



Q: What is your creation process like?


Typically, our creative process follows a four-step framework we call I.M.B.A - Ideas, Mechanics, Breakthrough, and Art. Dream Diary adhered to this same approach, and its inception was particularly exciting because it marked the first cooperative board game designed in Vietnam.


However, we faced our initial hurdle in designing a cooperative game, a genre we weren't previously fond of. Crafting inventive mechanics for a cooperative game presented us with a considerable challenge.


The Mechanics and Breakthrough phases became iterative stages, as the more mechanics we developed, the more we needed to streamline the rules to maintain a clean and comprehensible game. This phase involved two months of playtesting, where we extensively tested the game within our company. All departments and staff members were required to play the game at least once. We also enlisted trusted fellow designers, developers, and board game café owners - individuals with industry expertise - to provide diverse perspectives for refining the core gameplay. Balancing wasn't a focus at this stage, as major changes were still possible.


The art phase typically commenced in the third month, once the initial ideas had taken shape. Initially, the concept revolved around traveling within Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but most playtesters found the theme somewhat lacking. Subsequently, the artist and I made the decision to embark on a redesign, infusing a touch of fantasy into the game. This decision, while exciting, did present some challenges to our content team, who now had to create a new narrative to align with the revised artwork.


In total, Dream Diary took us four months to develop (though, if we consider the months when the project was paused, it extended to ten months). In the eleventh hour, just one month before finalizing the prototype for manufacturing, we introduced a significant component - the memory sheet. This addition fundamentally transformed the game and delighted playtesters, as it eliminated the need for players to rely on memory. With the I.M.B.A process now complete, Dream Diary was poised for production and ready to make its debut in the market after four months of dedicated work.



Q. What did you learn from making Dream Diary? Or what lessons from other games did you implement into Dream Diary? What about your game that you wished could have been done better?

Designing Dream Diary represents a significant milestone in our careers as game designers. Through this experience, we learned a valuable lesson about designing cooperative games: it's not always about reinventing the core mechanics. In the case of Dream Diary, we employed straightforward mechanics like limited communication, but with a unique twist that relied solely on adjectives.


During the development of Dream Diary, many playtesters drew comparisons to a blend of Dixit and Codenames, but the truth is that we drew much of our inspiration from Just One, a beloved word and co-op game. The satisfaction that comes from trying to understand and guess another player's hints resonated deeply with us, and Just One encapsulated that exact feeling.


During the creation of Dream Diary, we faced constraints in terms of time, budget, and available manpower. Given more resources, we would have loved to include additional cards in the game, enhance the clarity of the rulebook, and add more details to each component. While we are proud of the game as it stands, we believe that there is always room for improvement, and that's an ethos we carry with us in all our endeavors.


Q: The artwork of Dream Diary is gorgeous. Who is the artist behind this game and how did you come to work with him or her?

In the creation of Dream Diary, we firmly believed that the artist would play a pivotal role in making the game truly shine. Fortunately, we made an inspired choice in selecting Mr. Minh Nguyen for this crucial role. His journey with us began as an intern in art design in late 2021. Initially, he honed his skills by working on a revised version of one of our older games, but his true artistic talent remained concealed.


It was only when we requested him to create a couple of Facebook cover images for our company that his exceptional aptitude came to light. Minh possesses a unique gift for crafting a fantasy folklore style that imbues the world with dreamlike and vibrant qualities. He transitioned into a full-time artist for our team, dedicating an entire year to his craft and contributing immensely to the artwork of Dream Diary in just two short months.


A fascinating tidbit about Minh is that he's a devoted fan of heavy euro-style board games, a passion that stands in stark contrast to his artistic sensibilities.



Q: You managed to license your game to a Singaporean base publisher – Capital Gains Studio. How did that happen? What is the difference between the Vietnamese version and the new version?


At the close of 2022, we had the privilege of attending the Asian Board Game Festival 2022, marking our first foray into an international event of this magnitude. During the event, our primary focus was on promoting and selling our games, with little thought given to the prospect of licensing. Instead, our aim was to engage in networking and establish connections with fellow publishers, fostering friendships, and sharing copies of our games as gestures of goodwill.


A week after returning from the event, we received unexpected contact from Capital Gain Studio. Initially, we believed they were interested in importing and distributing our games exclusively in Singapore. However, it turned out to be much more - a licensing proposition. Over the course of several months, we diligently worked on finalizing all the necessary documents, and as a special feature for the Capital Gain Studio version, we developed a two-player mode. This mode has since become the signature distinction between the Vietnamese and Capital Gain Studio versions.


In the CGS version, players will enjoy the addition of a two-player mode and a smaller box size, catering to a mass market audience, especially those who favor portability when traveling with board games. On the other hand, the Vietnamese version maintains its unique appeal with a larger box, perfect for players who enjoy displaying and collecting board games.


Q: Our Singaporean audience are often curious how the gaming market is like for other countries. How is the tabletop gaming culture like in Vietnam?


As previously mentioned, Vietnam has only become familiar with board games over the past decade. During this time, the tabletop gaming scene in Vietnam has experienced rapid growth, but it has also been marked by a certain degree of chaos. We have witnessed the opening and closing of studios, publishers, board game cafes, and retailers one after the other in short spans of time, and this trend continues today.


Tabletop gaming in Vietnam has evolved into a captivating pastime for students and young adults. In contrast to a traditional game night culture, we embrace a weekend board game day culture. Towards the end of the week, board game cafes are bustling with customers, with most tables occupied by groups of friends, families, and sometimes even older individuals.


However, for the older generation, tabletop gaming remains a somewhat perplexing and time-consuming activity. Despite this, the younger generation in Vietnam, the alpha generation, is growing up as "board game natives" and holds great potential as future customers in the world of tabletop gaming.


Q: Do you have any plans for future games?


Certainly, we're currently in an incredibly motivated phase as we near the completion of a project we've been diligently working on for two years. This project is a tile-matching Euro-style game named "Restoration," where players step into the shoes of ceramic tile laying artists, utilizing a traditional decoration method native to Vietnam, akin to mosaic art. In this game, players actively participate in the restoration of a historical royal palace from the Nguyen Dynasty, a dynasty of significant historical importance in Vietnam (which is also the reason why many Vietnamese people share the Nguyen surname).


We're excited to announce that we will be demonstrating this game at the Asian Board Game Festival 2023 in Singapore, scheduled for November this year, and we are planning to officially release it in the first quarter of 2024.



Q: What is your favourite genre of games or games you think are underrated?


We have a deep affinity for family abstract games, although we acknowledge that they can sometimes be a bit extensive in scope. Among the mechanics we hold dear, tile laying, set collection, and resource management feature prominently. We are also passionate about games that draw inspiration from ancient and medieval themes, regardless of the culture, be it European, Ancient American, Japanese, or Vietnamese, as they offer rich and diverse settings that ignite our imagination.


Q: Where can your game be found in Vietnam and Singapore? What is your website where the audience can find out more?


In Vietnam, our games are readily available at various bookstores across the country. Additionally, you can find our games in select souvenir shops and board game cafes. Simply inquire about the title, and you'll be able to acquire a copy. In Singapore, you can find Dream Diary from Capital Gains Studio. If you are looking for our Vietnamese edition and other of our published games, visit our Singaporean distributor, Origame, You can find out more about our games at nguhanhgames.com.

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