When Covid-19 reached Singapore’s shores in 2020, one of the hardest-hit sectors was Play Nation, a local brand of games cafes in Singapore.
The various iterations of safe management measures over the two-year period meant that all three of their games cafes in Singapore were unable to open, or could only open to a very limited capacity.
The experience was extremely frustrating for them, especially as Play Nation was at the height of its success, and was poised to expand its cafes regionally.
But rather than “continue to stay sad”, the founders took the time to hunker down and find ways to “re-entrepreneur” — as one of them put it — their way out of the crisis.
And hunker down they did, its founders tell Mothership they will be launching dozens of new products in the coming year, most of them in collaboration with well-loved international brands, and hopes to put their games in every Singaporean household, and beyond.
Sad faces on the MRT
The idea for Play Nation, whose slogan is “saving the world from boredom”, came about when one of the founders, Wong Kai Jun, was on her way home from her accounting job at a large accounting firm.
She recounted being surrounded by frowning faces at Raffles Place MRT.
“Everybody was dreading going to work, everybody looked very sian,” Wong told Mothership.
Seeing this compelled Wong to think of how she could be in a business that “offered fun” and that could put a smile on people’s faces.
This led her to starting a games cafe in December 2009 with her twin sister, Wong Kai Lin, and her former-classmate-turned-husband Gabriel Leow, now all aged 38.
In the 13 years since its founding, Play Nation has enjoyed success and expanded to three large locations in Singapore, at Prinsep Street, *Scape and Tampines Hub.
In that time, they also opened a flagship cafe in the Philippines, and had franchisees there eager to open more outlets.
Play Nation also bagged an award at the Spirit of Enterprise awards in 2013, in recognition of their entrepreneurial efforts.
More than a cafe
Despite the success of their games cafes and their flagship store in the Philippines, the founders wanted to do a lot more with Play Nation.
“We didn’t just want to keep opening cafe after cafe,” said Kai Jun.
Developing their own line of products was the way forward, the team decided.
Kai Jun said she became fascinated with a specific vision: “We all grew up playing games and toys from international brands. But I thought to myself, why can’t people grow up playing locally designed games and toys?”
Their first-hand experience serving customers at their cafes also gave them valuable insight into what people cherished about games.
Play Nation launched their very first board game in 2017, called Dream Catchers, at a convention in Essen, Germany.
The founders recounted their surprise when their debut game received so much attention that it became oversubscribed.
The experience told them that there was a demand for Singapore-made games, and solidified their desire to make Play Nation a household name.
“We realised it wasn’t a pipe dream anymore, that this was actually possible,” said Kai Jun.
“Re-entrepreneuring” their way out of Covid-19
Covid-19 proved to be an extremely trying time for Play Nation’s founders, who told Mothership they had to temporarily consolidate all three of their outlets to just its flagship Prinsep Street outlet over the pandemic.
It was particularly painful for them, as their games cafe business was at its prime.
“We really saw a new height for the Play Nation cafe,” Kai Lin reflected.
Plans to go regional with their cafe had to be shelved in light of the pandemic.
The founders, however, took no pity on themselves, and were determined to “re-entrepreneur” their way out of the situation.
The founders were keen to make Covid-19 “the best opportunity ever” for Play Nation, and to redefine what their brand stood for.
Kai Jun said: “We want to deliver happy memories to every customer through play, and if customers couldn’t come into our store anymore, we will now go into customers’ homes instead.”
They recounted rejecting media interviews and reporters who were keen to cover their Covid-19 journey.
They wanted to use “every bit of time” they had to produce and create new games and toys.
And with that focus, the founders of Play Nation created an impressive line-up of products ready to be launched in the coming months.
Uniquely Singaporean games and toys
Bicycle Cards will be manufacturing “This is Home” in a U.S. facility, in its first collaboration with a Singapore company.
The playing cards will be available in all FairPrice, 7-Eleven, Cheers and Play Nation outlets from Jan. 1, 2023.
Another toy launched by Play Nation was the “Kopitiam Mini Blocks”, a toy set that pays homage to Singapore’s shophouses in the 1840s and its unique coffee shop culture.
From Nov. 3 to Dec. 25, 2022, Play Nation’s Kopitiam Mini Blocks will be available at all Cheers convenience stores, at a very affordable promotional price of S$12.90, with any purchase of S$5.
On this range of products, Kai Jun said these were games and toys that were “uniquely Singaporean that can enter households here.”
A household name in Singapore, and beyond
With the troubles of Covid-19 mostly behind the team, Play Nation’s founders shared that they are fully geared up for this new phase in their business of taking their games and toys to households in Singapore and around the world, and to explore new opportunities with Play Nation’s cafes again.
And there’s much to look forward to.
In the coming year, Play Nation will be launching 10 to 30 new products, most of them collaborations with well-loved international brands.
“Play Nation needs to be a household brand. It has to be a brand that walks into every Singaporean household, and ultimately into the homes of every country in the world,” said Kai Jun.
All photos via Play Nation.
This sponsored article by Play Nation made this writer wish she was playing games more often.