Eight Chinese college students gather in a small room, surrounding a table.
Lights are turned off. Candles are lit. Cards are distributed.
One of them draws a card and throws it in front of another: “Slash!”
“Dodge!” The latter responds, while throwing another card into the pile, “And now that I survive the attack, lightning shall strike at you.”
This is no gathering of a secret cult. It is a gathering of eight friends to play a card game called Sanguosha (Kill! In the Three Kingdoms), an extremely popular time-killer in China these days.
The game supports up to eight people. It begins with each player drawing a role card blindly.
Four types of roles exist:
The Emperor, whose goal is to eliminate all Rebels;
Rebels, whose goal is to slay the Emperor;
Loyalists, whose goal is to protect the Emperor and to help the Emperor eliminate all Rebels;
The Quisling, whose objective is to eliminate all Rebels and Loyalists, eventually slaying the Emperor in a duel.
After the roles are decided, the Emperor chooses his or her character from seven randomly drawn character cards. Then, the other players choose their characters from five randomly drawn character cards. Each character has one or a few special abilities. For example, one character, Zhang Jiao, as noted at the beginning of this article, can call lightning to strike at a particular target every time he uses a “dodge” card, potentially causing two points of damage. Another character, Diao Chan, can cause two male characters to, forcibly, deal damage to each other.
Starting from the Emperor, each character draws four cards, and the game begins. Again, starting from the Emperor, each character draws another two cards, and uses these cards to deal damage to others, equip themselves with weapons and armory, disarms other characters, all for the purpose of achieving the goal of their role.
The reason why this game has become extremely popular is because it has a story and a grand historical epic that supports its rules and characters: The Three Kingdoms. The Three Kingdoms is an era of China between two dynasties where three warlords, Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Quan, fought alongside their warriors and counselors to rule China. It is a story of betrayal and loyalty, a story of schemes and wizardry, and a story of ambitions and glory. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, was written based on this period of history. Although it is a novel that all Chinese young men are advised to read by their fathers and grandfathers, the story is appreciated by men and women alike.
When “Sanguosha” players start playing the card game, certain aspects of the game, such as each character’s abilities, immediately remind them of the story. Zhang Jiao, for example, as mentioned above, was the leader of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. A Taoist practitioner and known as “General of Heaven,” Jiao was considered capable of calling lightning to punish the unjust.
Another character that we referred to earlier, Diao Chan, is famous not only for being one of the four most beautiful women in China’s history, but also for her maneuvers against a valiant warrior, Lü Bu, and his master warlord, Dong Zhuo, leading to the death of both men.
When the Chinese start playing Sanguosha, they’re not learning a new game. Instead, they start reliving a period of history that they’ve always dreamed of, the Three Kingdoms.
I was amongst the first play-testers of Sanguosha, as a college friend of mine was one of the developers of this game. It was the summer of 2007 when my friend first approached me and my Dungeons & Dragons gaming group with the prototype of Sanguosha. At that time, many video game developers and board game fans were constantly attempting to create China’s first commercial board / card game. “Guys, do me a favor,” my friend said, “we’re designing a new card game, and we’d like you to be our play-testers.”
He designed numerous games before. We liked Sanguosha as soon as we started playing, like we did many of his previous games. We played it every time before my D&D game for an hour or so. Then, there was a weekend that I was not able to run our game. My fellow players said, let’s get together and play Sanguosha for the weekend. And so they did, for an entire weekend. The game gradually spread to other students hanging out at the same café, and then to their friends… Today, in China, if you enter a café full of students and white collars gathered around tables playing card games, over 90% of the time, they will be playing Sanguosha.
There is a reason why this game became the first successful commercial Chinese card game, unlike many of the previous attempts that my friend and many others made.
For a long time, the Chinese have been playing western and Japanese card games, board games, and role-playing games. Besides, western movies and Japanese anime have been dominant in the Chinese market for decades. For such a long time, it seems that the once abundant Chinese creativity had run out. It seemed that the culture that shaped the Chinese civilization had been lost in wars and revolutions. And for such a long time, the Chinese culture seems to be one that duplicates others and lacks originality, even though native artists and developers have struggled to give it a better name.
But in recent years, a trend is resurrecting the Chinese culture: Chinese kids are putting away American movies and Japanese anime, instead picking up their native entertainment (well, perhaps they’re not putting away much of Japanese anime, but definitely a lot of American movies). Over 90% of the Chinese card game market has been taken by Sanguosha by 2010, compared to the non-existence of any Chinese card game prior to 2007.
Why has this happened?, one has to ask. And why now? Why Sanguosha?
For many years, Chinese children were taught to be modest and humble by their teachers and by their life experiences. They were also taught that they had to learn, and that they were not doing well enough. This may have come from an awareness of China’s weaknesses on a national level. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  suggests that the basic level of an individual’s needs (physiological needs) must be met before that individual seeks higher level needs (safety, love/ belonging, esteem, and self-actualization). For decades, the majority of the Chinese population was struggling to satisfy physiological, safety, and love/belonging needs. Gradually, a portion of educated individuals in urban areas started seeking the lower level of esteem: the need for status, recognition, fame, attention, and respect of others. The higher level of esteem includes the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The Chinese tried to achieve the lower level of esteem by mimicking what the Americans and the Japanese did, but when recognition and status had been earned, the people wanted to have something of their own that they could be proud of. Sanguosha, a modernized card game featuring a history that the Chinese are proud of, has filled the niche right in time.
The highest need in Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization, a need to become more of what one already is, and to find one’s role in the world. As individuals in China seek to find out and become who they should be, the country will not only be known for its grand history and splendid attractions. America has been known for its diversity, freedom and pursuit of happiness. What will China be known for?
A culture can be largely learned and understood by observing and practicing what its members do. Play Sanguosha, for the next stop is Chinatown. –Nuxia & Lynga
 Maslow, A.H.: A theory of human motivation. Psychological review 50, 370 (1943)