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Designing Singapore 1889: A Journey through Triads, Tabletops, and Time

Embark on a journey into tabletop game design with Steve, the visionary behind Singapore 1889. In this interview, he shares insights into the game's historical inspiration and the challenges encountered during development. Delve into the evolution of game mechanics and artistic choices, immersing yourself in the captivating world of Singapore 1889.

Q: Steve is no stranger to the Singapore game designer scene, having designed games such as Cryptocurrency, Hotpot Havoc, Dinoverse and the latest game, Singapore 1889. For those readers new to the site, please give the readers a short introduction about yourself, your organization, your role?

Hey y’all! I’m Steve, the designer for the above-mentioned games, as well as a few more. I wear many hats for Capital Gains Studio as a game designer, developer, as well as many other roles involved in the creation of tabletop games. My favourite board game as of now is Viscounts of the West Kingdom, and my friends love asking me to read the rulebooks for games they bought.

Q: What was the story behind Singapore 1889? What sparked off the inspiration to design a game about Singapore’s colonial days.

I was initially conceptualizing a design based on the idiom "Bull in a China shop." However, the team expressed concerns that the theme might be too far-fetched and not easily relatable. In response, we began brainstorming for a more suitable idea.

During our discussions, we landed on the concept of incorporating the Chinese triads that held dominance during Singapore's colonial days. The narrative would explore a power struggle involving the triads, the British colonial government, and Singaporean merchants. This alternative theme not only adds an element of historical significance but also aligns more closely with Singapore's cultural context.

The team found this new theme to be engaging and thought it would seamlessly integrate with the game mechanics. As we continued to develop the concept, expanding on the core mechanics to align with the historical theme, the title "Singapore 1889" emerged as a fitting representation of the game's setting and time period.

Q: Game design process usually start off either from mechanic or theme. For Singapore 1889, which process came first and how did you go on to develop other aspects of the game.

I set out to design a game centered around Singapore's Chinatown, drawing inspiration from the idiom "Bull in a China shop." This led to the inception of the first iteration of Singapore 1889, built around the chaotic scenario of a bull causing mayhem inside a china shop. Players assumed the roles of shop owners striving to salvage their products from total destruction, with a unique twist – the more a specific item suffered damage, the more valuable any remaining copies of it became.

In response to feedback and brainstorming sessions, the initial theme laid the foundation for the game mechanics. Eventually, the concept evolved, and Singapore 1889 underwent a retheme to its current iteration.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect when producing Singapore 1889?

A notable challenge we encountered revolved around the transition from text-based descriptions to the use of icons within the game. In its initial stages, Singapore 1889 relied on textual descriptions on the Goods cards to convey their effects. However, we soon recognized the importance of language independence, which prompted us to make this significant alteration.

Subsequently, we embarked on the extensive process of conceiving and designing icons to represent each good's unique effects. This endeavor proved particularly challenging, given that some of these effects involved multiple steps or complexities. Despite our unwavering dedication, it became apparent that the icons could still be somewhat perplexing for many players. Fortunately, the presence of a reference in the rulebook and the straightforward nature of the effects gradually became clear to players after a few games.

Q: What are some of the interesting design choices you made in the game? What mistakes did your team make during development? What about this game you wished could have been done better?

The pursuit of perfection is an ongoing journey. Game designers often harbor the inclination to continuously enhance and fine-tune their creations, although this can sometimes prove counterproductive. A pivotal design decision we embraced involves introducing layers of difficulty to the game. The foundational difficulty level caters to family gamers, offering an accessible experience. Simultaneously, players have the flexibility to elevate the game's difficulty, unlocking deeper strategic elements for those who relish a more intricate gaming experience.

Presently, I am confident in asserting that there's nothing I would alter about the gameplay in its current state.

Q: The artwork of the game is quite unique. What is the inspiration that you took in creating the art concept, and how did you select the artist?

When contemplating the game's artistic direction, my mind conjured images of ancient calligraphy art—expressed through simple black ink on parchment. However, implementing such a style verbatim in a modern board game would likely elicit vehement objections from players. Consequently, I turned to the video game Okami as a reference point for the art direction.

Selecting Regina, the artist for Singapore 1889, for the task was a deliberate choice, rooted in our familiarity with her work style and confidence in her ability to authentically recreate the chosen aesthetic. Crafting the finer details of the illustrations proved to be a meticulous process, driven by our exacting standards for historical accuracy. Every aspect, from the characters to the commodities, hairstyles, and furnishings, underwent scrutiny. We invested considerable time in referencing old photographs from that era, making artistic choices to harmonize historical precision with the game's overall aesthetic.

Q: Singapore 1889 is a language independent game, which means a lot of symbols. What are the challenges you meet when designing the symbols, and what are the challenges you meet when trying to explain the game to players using the symbols?

Graphic design in board games serves as a means for the game designer to convey their ideas and concepts to the players. When executed skillfully, it seamlessly integrates into the gaming experience. However, when poorly executed, it can lead to confusion and frustration among players. In addition to the challenges I mentioned earlier, creating what can be classified as 'intuitive' icons for the broader market is an exceptionally formidable task.

Q: There are some controversies in using Opium as one of your goods. Why did you decide to use Opium? How do you select some of the goods used in the game?

The use of Opium was extremely rampant in that period of time, it had too much significance to be left out of a game that was trying to tell a story about such a time. However, an important good that did not make it into the final version of the game was gambier. It was one of Singapore’s main exports to China at that time, but not many people today know what it is. As such, the team decided to swap it out in favor of other more recognizable goods.

Q: Where can our readers find out more about Singapore 1889?

Head on over to Capital Gains Studio’s website at to find out more about Singapore 1889 as well as other games I’ve designed! You can also try out the game while attending a special exhibition at Sun Yet Sen Memorial Hall which features the triads and merchants of 19th century Singapore.


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