LTL’s Ultimate Guide to Chinese Board Games PLUS How to Learn Chinese Using Them

Discover The Best Chinese Board Games

Have you ever considered the humble board game as a Chinese language learning tool? Do you want to know the most popular Chinese board games?

Chinese Board Game - A great way to learn Chinese

Here at LTL, we’re all about learning the language while having fun. You may have seen our blog about improving your Mandarin with Chinese-language video games or Chinese movies online. But now it’s time for a more low-tech tactic …

Below we’ll discuss:

1. How can playing a board game help you learn Chinese?

2. Board game bars in China and where to find them

3. Essential vocabulary before you play

4. Our top five games for Chinese learners

  • Settlers of Catan
  • Codenames
  • Carcassonne
  • Citadels
  • Pandemic

5. China’s favourite traditional board games

  • Weiqi (Go)
  • Xiangqi (Chess)
  • Majiang (Mahjong)
Check out our students from Denmark, Tobias and Mikkel, learning Mahjong and Chess in their class with us at LTL Taiwan

So, first up, let’s talk about the link between Chinese board games and mastering Mandarin.

Why should you give Chinese Board Games a go?

Reason #1: Often you HAVE to speak in order to progress in the game.

  • For all the competitive types out there, this is language learning gold. Whether it’s haggling over prices in Settlers of Catan (卡坦岛), or giving verbal clues in Codenames (行动代号), speaking Chinese will become a tool to win the game – or to deceive your fellow players !

In our experience, the more you’re invested winning a game, the more you’ll want to speak. You’ll end up forgetting about being word or tone-perfect! Under time pressure, you’ll quickly learn to get around gaps in your vocabulary to express what you mean, which is a really valuable tool for improving your fluency.

Reason #2: Vocab, vocab, vocab!

  • Whichever game you pick, you’re likely to find a real mix of familiar, not-so-familiar and brand-new vocabulary.
Board games in Chinese

If you’ve only been learning Chinese a short while, it’s therefore a good idea to pick a Chinese-language game that you’ve played before in your native language, so you don’t feel too overwhelmed. An alternative is to research the rules before you play, or ask a friend to explain the basics to you in your language.

But once game play begins, put that dictionary (or translation app) away! And that’s really not as hard as it sounds…

The great thing about your average Chinese board game is that you’re probably going to see and hear the same words and phrases again and again.

Most modern games are very visual too, with the board and specialist playing cards often illustrating the meaning behind the written text.

Research also shows that we tend to remember vocabulary better when we associate a word or phrase with a personal memory – and what better way to memorize the Mandarin word for “sheep” than by playing an intense game of Settlers with your new Chinese friends?

Reason #3: For that sense of accomplishment (whether you win or lose!)

  • We get it, learning Chinese can be hard work sometimes, but so can winning a game of Citadels!

But believe us here – the first time you grasp the rules of a game that’s been explained to you in Chinese, or manage to communicate the rules of your favourite game to Chinese friends, you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment.

Managing to win the game itself when you’re playing in Chinese will just be the cherry on top!

Reason #4: Board games are inherently social.

  • Now, most of us are learning Chinese because we want to be able to talk to native speakers and make connections with local people, right? And what better way to build on new friendships than to engage in a friendly game of Carcassonne?

Also, a language learning hack… On more than one occasion, I’ve been to a Chinese board game bars in China with one or two friends, and other locals have come up to our table and asked to join us. If you’re feeling brave, you can also ask to watch or join in on another group’s board game.

It really can be that easy to meet and practice your Chinese with native speakers!

But where can I find these Chinese board games, I hear you cry?

Modern Board Game Bars in China

A board game café in Chengdu

In recent years, Chinese board game cafés and bars (桌游吧 zhuōyóu bā) have been springing up in cities all over China.

We’ve seen them in Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Dali and Chengdu, to name a few cities.

These are places where young people can meet up for a drink with friends while trying out both classic and contemporary board games from around the world – without the expense of buying the game itself!

These cafés and bars are usually fitted out with funky furniture and shelves filled with dozens of board games to choose from, mostly in their Chinese language versions.

Staff act as part barista, part board games tutor, as they come round the tables to help customers understand the rules and tactics for each game.

If you’re in Chengdu, check out LTL’s local favourite Chinese board game café Born to Play 天生爱玩 (Tiānshēng Ài Wán) , run by the self-confessed board game geek Nichols (尼克).

Nichols is always delighted to help foreign visitors find a game that suits their level of Chinese, and may even play the first round with you, until you get the hang of the rules. Unlimited use of the games costs 40CNY per person per day.

Check out how to play Monopoly in Chinese!

The nearest metro stop is Wuhou Flyover (武侯立交) on Line 3.

Essential Vocabulary before you play:

Before you get stuck into any board game with Chinese friends, you’re going to need to get your head around some basic terminology:

  • Board game 桌游 (zhuōyóu)
  • Board 桌面 (zhuōmiàn)
  • Rules 规则 (guīzé)
  • Cards 卡片 kǎpiàn
  • Dice 骰子 (tóuzi)
  • Scorecard 计分卡 (jìfēnkǎ)
  • Score marker (playing piece) 计分器 (jìfēnqì)
  • Strategy board game 策略桌游  (cèlüè zhuōyóu)
  • Cooperative board game 合作桌游  (hézuò zhuōyóu)
  • Card game 纸牌游戏  (zhǐpái yóuxì)
  • Player one 玩家一  (wánjiā yī)
  • Player two 玩家二 (wánjiā èr )
  • It’s your turn! 轮到你了!(lúndào nǐ le!)
  • Who’s won? 谁赢了?(shéi yíng le?)
  • I’m the champion! 我是冠军!(wǒ shì guànjūn!)
  • We are the winners! 我们是赢家!(wǒmen shì yíngjia!)
  • You’ve lost! 你输了!(nǐ shū le!)

LTL’s Top 5 Games for Improving your Chinese:

#1 Settlers of Catan卡坦岛 (kǎtǎndǎo)

A classic board game found in student dorm buildings, family game cupboards and board game bars around the world.

The beauty of this game for Chinese language beginners is its simplicity .

To play, you really just need a good grasp of Chinese numbers and the Chinese names for the five valuable resources traded within the game:

Brick  砖块 zhuānkuài)Timber 木材 (mùcái)
Wool 羊毛  (yángmáo)Grain 谷物 (gǔwù)
Ore  矿石 (kuàngshí) 

If you don’t have a grasp of Chinese numbers yet, spare us two minutes, and we’ll teach you:

#2 Codenames 行动代号

Codenames is a relatively new game on the scene, and it’s totally based around providing and guessing verbal clues in pairs. Playing the Chinese version is a great way to improve your reading skills.

The game can be adapted to suit various levels of Chinese ability, but is only recommended to those who have been studying Chinese for at least a few months.

Upper-beginner / intermediate students will want to select the Chinese character cards they’re comfortable with in advance, and then double check that everyone around the table knows their meanings before the game begins.

If you’re playing in a mixed group of foreign and Chinese friends, you can also try mixing English tiles with Chinese tiles for a bilingual game – most board games cafés in China will provide both the English and the Chinese language versions.

Top Tip: Once it’s your turn to provide clues to your partner, try referring to the radicals to guide him or her to the right cards – this is a trick which isn’t possible in the English language version!

#3 Carcassonne卡卡頌 (kǎkǎsòng)

In a game of Carcassonne, the players create the board during gameplay by placing tile pieces into a sort of giant jigsaw.

These tiles show a mixture of medieval landscape features such as walled cities (城堡 chéngbǎo), roads (道路 dàolù) cloisters (修道院 xiūdàoyuàn) and open grassland (草原 cǎoyuán).

The rules of the game are simple, and at its most basic level it can be played with only the most rudimentary Chinese.

For more advanced Chinese learners, use the opportunity to practice your Mandarin debating skills, as you decide where to place your piece.

The game often sparks heated discussions, as players compete against friends to claim the most land.  

#4 Citadels 富饶之城

Chinese Board Games - Citadels 富饶之城
Chinese Board Games – Citadels 富饶之城

A brilliant game for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners.

The game is centred around role-playing eight different characters, who may choose to trade with, steal from or even murder fellow characters in the course of a game.

The game is quick-moving and you’ll hear the same character names and actions coming up repeatedly throughout the game.

The eight characters in the basic version are the following:

EnglishHanzPinyin

Assassin

刺客

cìkè
Thief

盗贼

dàozéi
Magician

魔法师

mófǎshī
King

国王

guówáng
Bishop

主教

zhǔjiào
Merchant

商人

shāngrén
Architect

建筑师

jiànzhùshī
Warlord

领主

lǐngzhǔ

#5 Pandemic 瘟疫危机

For those of you looking for a Chinese language challenge, look no further than a game of Pandemic.

Unlike many Chinese board games, this one is cooperative, meaning that you need to work closely with your friends to “beat the board”. That means a lot of discussion of tactics as you decide how best to cure and prevent the spread of four deadly diseases.

True to its name, the language of the game includes a lot of common medical vocabulary such as outbreak (爆发) and quarantine (检疫) (oddly written pre-COVID-19 by the way).

Although these words may be rare in day-to-day conversations with Chinese native speakers, recognising them could come in very handy one day!

Again, see the irony here! All of a sudden Quarantine and Outbreak have been terms we now use everyday when speaking Chinese! You really never know!

Chinese Board Games – Traditional Classics

Now, it’s no secret that Chinese people have always loved getting together with friends and neighbours to play a board game – well before specialist cafés and bars arrived in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

If you walk through any park or residential area in China on a hot summer evening, you’re bound to come across groups of older people on the pavements crowded around a game of Weiqi (Go), Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) or the favourite among Chengdu locals, Majiang (Mahjong). 

Chengdu even has dedicated Majiang parlours, which are fitted out with heaters under the tables to warm patrons’ knees on those colder, drizzly days.

Chinese Board Games in the street is NOT a rare sighting!
Chinese Board Games in the street is NOT a rare sighting!

Unlike some modern Chinese board games, these traditional pursuits don’t require the players themselves to speak much.

However, games such as Majiang are a real social event, so use the opportunity to meet native speakers and practice your Mandarin Chinese.

Friends, neighbours and even casual passers-by will often back one player and shout out tips and tactics from the sidelines – or use the game as a chance to gossip about the latest neighbourhood news.

If you arm yourself with a basic knowledge of the rules first, there’s no harm in joining the crowd around the board. You’ll be enjoying a tradition that has been maintained in China for literally thousands of years. 

As well as the cultural insights you’ll gain, it’s brilliant Chinese listening practice to hear native speakers celebrate and commiserate with their friends. You may even pick up on some local dialect if you make “spectating” a regular habit.

More often than not, a friendly local will be keen to give you their take on the intricacies of the game, and who they think will win.

Below, a quick-fire guide to China’s three most beloved traditional games:

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#1 Weiqi (Go)

Weiqi is a two-player board game that originated in China over 5,000 years ago. That’s so long ago, it’s said to be the oldest board game in the world that’s been continuously played to the present day!

Legend has it that this unique strategy game was invented by Emperor Yao (2,255–2206 BC) as a teaching tool to discipline his ‘playboy’ son Dan Zhu.

The art of strategically placing the game’s black and white stones soon became one of the four essential skills that ancient Chinese scholars had to master, in order to be considered ‘cultured’.

Today Weiqi’s popularity is still largely centred in Eastern Asia, where there are said to be over 20 million regular players.

DID YOU KNOW – School children in China are often taught to play at school!

However, the best place to find people playing Weiqi is in your local teahouse, or else in People’s Park.

Here’s a handy video guide to the rules of play:

#2 Xiangqi (Chinese Chess)

Chinese Board Games - Chess, but with cannons and a river!
Chess, but with cannons and a river!

Literally translating as ‘Elephant Chess’, Xiangqi is the traditional Chinese version of what we know around the world as chess.

The object of the game is the same – capture your opponent’s king, while protecting your own.

However, just to make things a bit more tricky, the Xiangqi board has a “river” running directly between you and your opponent.

Only certain chess pieces can cross the “river”, and crossing it often changes their movement and abilities.

Another major difference – Xianqi has cannons, chariots and elephants for chess pieces, which I think we can all agree are way cooler than measly bishops and knights.

If you want to learn the rules of Xiangqi in just three minutes, check out this video:

#3 Majiang (Mahjong)

Though not technically a board game – it’s played with tiles directly onto the tabletop – Majiang definitely deserves a mention here!

It’s by far the most commonly played game on the streets of China.

Invented in China during the Qing dynasty, Majiang is most often played between four people – though a public game will usually attract a far larger crowd around the table!

Mahjong - In theory not a Chinese board game, but why not!

There are plenty of detailed English-language guides online if you want to get your head around the rules. In essence though, it’s based around drawing and discarding tiles showing various Chinese characters and symbols in order to make a particular  “set”.

Ready to learn another Chinese board game… Great

This video claims it can teach you the basics in just 2.5 minutes:

There you have it, your ultimate guide to learning Chinese board games and how to play board games in China. Who says learning a language has to be boring!

Chinese Board Games – FAQ’s

Is Chinese Chess than same as Standard Chess?

No, they are quite different.

Just to make things a bit more tricky, the Xiangqi (Chinese word for Chinese Chess) board has a “river” running directly between you and your opponent. You still have to capture your opponents king but only certain pieces can cross the river,

Is Mahjong a Chinese board game?

Yes, Mahjong is a popular board game played in China which involves four people. Find out how to play here.

Where can I play Chinese board games?

Actually there has been a growth in bars that specialise in Chinese board games!

In recent years, Chinese board game cafés and bars (桌游吧 zhuōyóu bā) have been springing up in cities all over China.

What is Mahjong in Chinese?

It sounds similar to mahjong but is actually pronounced 麻将 (májiàng).

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    Irene Magnosi , Student Advisor

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