Board in Sabah

Words by Hong Di-Anne
Photos by Hong Di-Anne

“Di-Anne, have you figured out your soft story yet?”

“Oh, I guess it’s going to be about cats or board games.”

“Really going out of your comfort zone, eh?”

As an alumni on this trip, I had been given the relatively easy task of only having to produce one article, and being able to choose the topic of the article. I thought about finding out more about a favourite hobby of mine – board games. I contacted a Sabahan friend of mine I had known through Android: Netrunner card games tournaments in Kuala Lumpur, Jeremiah Joinod Peter Mojuntin, or JJ. JJ and I had originally planned to just meet and play board games with some members of the community. However, time was pressing due to his and my schedule (I had a couple hours free before cultural night), and so I just asked him to introduce me to a games shop or café. On the way to the shop, we spoke about the tabletop scene in Kota Kinabalu. As it turns out, board games cafés, the kind of family-friendly places that are steadily growing in popularity back home in KL, are rare in KK.

“We used to have a couple of games shops, but they eventually closed down. Even then they weren’t purely for games. There was a café that doubled as a cell group meeting place, which had inconsistent opening hours, and another that was also a piano school.”

JJ told me that part of the reason why the cafés closed down was due to logistical issues. Parking can be hard to find, there’s also space and lighting issues in small shoplots. He mentioned that the games shop he’s taking me to have similar space issues, even though it’s a more traditional games shop; mostly dedicated to the Warhammer miniatures wargame and collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, and Vanguard. Another reason for the lack of games cafés’ popularity is the unknown nature of board gaming as a hobby in Sabah. “Maybe in KL, where it’s more cultured, it’s more accepted… here it’s still quite a niche thing,” said JJ. Far be it from me to comment on how cultured KL is, but it’s clear to see that even though there are some very passionate hobbyists, it’s not quite a mainstream hobby.

There’s a financial aspect to board games as well. People are simply not willing to spend money to play at a café or shop, or to rent games. The more involved gamers prefer to buy games outright. JJ also enlightened me on the disposable income disparity between KK and KL, as the cost of living in both cities is comparable, but the income in KK is generally lower.

JJ started the Sabah Tabletop Community Facebook group to try and bring together the Sabahan board gaming community, and to make it easier for people to meet up and play board games. Members of the community regularly meet at each other’s houses or in public areas such as cafes and fast food restaurants. JJ told me that they once fitted 23 people into a bubble tea place! Unfortunately, these large groups are sometimes unwelcomed by café owners, as one once put up a “No Games Allowed” sign as they were leaving. This active online and offline community has also facilitated the organisation of several community events such as a Splendor championship, and a board game retreat in the mountains of Sabah (inspired by a similar games retreat held in KL), where 20 people played over 100 board games over the course of 3 days (I’m so jealous!). JJ has also been invited to conventions as well as a youth centre to teach board games.


STC.jpgThe Sabah Tabletop Community logo

JJ brought me to Moe House, a games shop located in Star City Phase 2, not too far from our lodgings. The shop is very much like any other traditional tabletop or miniatures-focused games shop in KL; it’s got the obligatory Games Workshop shelf of Citadel paint pots and Warhammer minis, the walls of card sleeves and cards, the hanging displays of accessories (deckboxes, playmats, dice and the like), and of course, the table full of Warhammer minis, with two or three people peering over them intently, measuring tape at the ready.  On every study trip (this being my third), I seem to be able to find somewhere that oddly reminds me of home. During ISO MakTor it was the Buddhist temple in Makassar, for ISO Yangon it was finding out that you tiau is a popular dish, and apparently for ISO Sabah I’ve found comfort in a games shop, after all my time spent playing Netrunner (and other games, but mostly Netrunner, let’s be honest) in similar ones in various parts of Kuala Lumpur.


Shop.jpgMoe House interior and exterior

JJ introduced me to the shop owner, David Ling Neng Chay. David started Moe House 5 years ago, out of his own interest. He started out with mostly collectibles, and gradually expanded into Warhammer and TCGs (Trading Card Games). Moe House, I’m told, specialises in Warhammer, while Internet Arena (another games shop that doubles as an Internet café) provides more table space for board games, specialises in Magic: The Gathering.


David.JPGThe shop owner in his natural habitat

The store is tiny, but cosy, and the regulars all seem to know each other. David easily acknowledged that his clientele demographic is largely, if not all, male, mostly due to their products (Warhammer, Magic and Vanguard – the ‘serious’ lifestyle games – notorious for their low female player count). JJ mentioned that a lot more women are involved in the Sabah Tabletop Community group, a statement I find to more or less line up with my own experience, having witnessed more women playing board games at a games café than Warhammer or Magic at a games shop.

The most interesting fact I found out was that in KK, the player count of Vanguard vastly outnumbers Magic: The Gathering. Vanguard tournaments can attract up to 100 players easily, compared to Magic or Netrunner which can only garner a player count of around 10-20. This totally blew my mind, as someone who had only heard of Magic as being the #1 premier card game of all-time forever, not just in KL, but worldwide. David told me this is because the booster packs are relatively cheap, and the game is easy, making it very accessible to teens. Indeed, while I was in the store, five or six young boys ranging in ages from about 8 to 15 came into the shop to buy or enquire about Vanguard cards. David also provides some board games available to rent for a small fee, but due to space constraints the more popular games are the shorter ones, played in between rounds of Warhammer.


Board games.JPGThe cardboard shelf

Economically, games shops in KK find it difficult to compete with online retailers, particularly a West Malaysian games retailer that provides free shipping to East Malaysia. Occasionally, games shops will be able to take advantage of Kickstarters’ retailer bundles, but if none are available, players will simply perform a group purchase themselves. Compounding this are the physical shops’ overheads such as rental and utility bills. David himself would like to have a bigger space but costs simply do not allow it.

Location and distance are also issues when it comes to accessibility. A 10-minute drive is considered far away in KK, and the nearest university is half an hour out, compared to, for instance, the SS15 retail area in Subang Jaya, which is within 10-minute walking or driving distance of 4 or 5 universities and colleges. The aforementioned parking issues also come to the fore, making it difficult for large groups to gather.

Even so, local players are happy to support local shops and the local community whenever they can. The Sabah Tabletop Community are very active in organising meetups and games nights, and have also organised tournaments such as the Splendour tournament during Hobbycon 2016, a board games convention. On a personal note, JJ also gladly pays more for Netrunner expansion packs when buying them via local shops (about RM10-15 more than retail price in KL).

As we finished our chat, David pulled out a game and said, “I think we can play this, it’s fun.” I looked at him and pulled out an exact same copy of the game I had carted over from KL – Grifters.


Grifters.JPGI won the game, by the way. Oops.

After the game, JJ kindly sent me along to the venue of our cultural night. We said goodbye with me promising to return to KK and have a proper game (or 10) with him and the rest of Sabah Tabletop. I really felt like I’d learned tons about how different the cardboard scene is in KK, but still filled with the kind of passionate nerdery I’m familiar with in my own games groups. Board games “just brings people together,” said JJ, and I can definitely agree.


Humans.jpgThanks, David and JJ!

At this point in her life, Di-Anne can probably give you an unprepared presentation on kpop and board games.


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