Chao Recruit!: Turning the NS Experience Into a Card Game

You’ve heard of Singaporean Dream, Hawker Wars and Chope! The Card Game. Now, get ready for Chao Recruit! The BMT - inspired card game was created by NUS students Liu Chuanjiang and Romaine Lee. Speaking to Liu, we find out more about what it took for them to create their card game from their inspirations to their aspirations for what lies ahead for their board game.

Chao Recruit! The BMT Inspired Card Game by NSXperience

By Jill Chang & Yong Jia Yu

It started as a simple hand-drawn card game, a gift from a girlfriend to her boyfriend suffering through the woes of National Service (NS). And yet, much like a recruit graduating from training, Chao Recruit! has transformed into a full-fledged card game with one goal: to represent the Basic Military Training (BMT) experience. 

We spoke to 22-year-old Liu Chuanjiang, co-founder of The NSXperience and creator of Chao Recruit!, to gain insights about his card game, his own journey through NS, and what lies ahead.

Getting ready for your home-based NS experience

Chao Recruit! is a card game that brings you on a journey through the BMT experience as a recruit. Incorporating all too familiar Singlish lingo and stereotypes that most post-BMT men would resonate with, this game is made for anyone who wants a snippet of the NS experience.

Each deck contains 59 action cards, seven character cards with special abilities, 33 experience (XP) cards, 11 Kena cards and one rule book. 

The main goal of the game is to be the first to finish your BMT by completing three sets of cards that totals to five XP. You can use this by accumulating a combination of XP cards ranging from +1 to +4 XP, or Kena cards ranging from -3 to -5 XP.

What’s included in the Chao Recruit! pack.

Each player begins with five cards and a random identity card that grants them a special ability. From the design alone, some of you may notice it bears an uncanny resemblance to a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Identity Card, or more specifically an 11B. On each turn, players can draw two cards and play up to three actions. 

It is during these actions that you can either work on completing your sets with XP and Kena cards, playing an action card against another player or activating your special ability. 

The game continues until someone completes three full sets of five XP. For a more visual understanding of the game, check out their demonstration here:

From digging shellscrapes to entrepreneur: The inspiration behind Chao Recruit!

Liu recalls his initial experience in university where he, unlike his male peers at that time, had not yet served NS and struggled to connect with them.

However, when he started serving NS midway through university, he began to relate to these experiences better and was excited to share them with his girlfriend, 19-year-old Romaine Lee. As a way to better understand him during this journey, she created a gift both of them shared a love for and could enjoy together — a hand-drawn card game using pieces of paper slotted into plastic sheets. 

“She really made it a point to really relate to me in NS.” Liu recounts fondly. 

“For me, building this card game together with my girlfriend was not just a way to strengthen (our) relationship, it is also a way for me to give back to NS.

“I may not be the perfect soldier, but hey, I’m trying my best in my own way,” Liu says with a laugh. 

This fun and easy-to-play game could be a communication tool on the topic of NS, accessible to all regardless of gender or stage in life. This spurred him to further develop the game, and the aim to allow everyone to relate to the NS experience inspired the name of his company — The NSXperience.

Being huge board game fans, Liu and Lee then decided to share their game with the masses. Part of their preparation involved playing all of Singaporean board game designer Daryl Chow’s games and even speaking to the creator of The Singaporean Dream herselfTheresa Syn. 

“I consulted her in February last year quite a bit about the viability (of Chao Recruit!), the market size, and how we could go about creating it,” says Liu, who recounts Syn’s advice of using hand-drawn paper prototypes instead of getting the prototypes printed professionally to cut costs.

The Rocky Hill

With the expertise of the company’s Technical Lead Ku Shan Yi and Lee’s illustrations, the NSXperience team were able to create an assembly line that simply generates the cards without having to make any major adjustments.

However, the card-making process isn’t as simple as a game, Liu shares.

He begins by explaining the challenges of the game mechanics, wherewith only a passion for card games and a helpful group of friends, Liu and Lee had cycled through four different variations of the game. 

“Some were too complicated, some were too simple, and some were simply not fun.”

The multiple prototypes created for Chao Recruit!

One challenge he faced was with the production process. Liu recounts the many conversations he’s had with manufacturers due to an increase in the price of shipment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Eventually, they were able to find a printing service with well-known clients like the Ministry of Education (MOE), making them more reliable but also quite costly. Thus, Liu prepared a Kickstarter to raise funds.

Liu explains the initial difficulty of garnering publicity to help their Kickstarter take-off, especially as first-time creators relying purely on the strength of their concept and artwork. 

“91.3FM actually reached out to us organically because they saw our article on The New Paper. That day was one of the best days for us on Kickstarter because it spiked to S$3000 in one day.” Liu recalls.

Launched in July, The NSxperience intended to reach just S$8,000 on Kickstarter for their card game by mid-August, the minimum amount needed to cover their production costs, Liu says. However, by the end of the one-month campaign, they managed to double their goal to over S$17,000 with 336 backers for the project. 

Liu was ecstatic. 

“I was so honoured, I was thinking this was going (to raise) S$10,000 max. S$8,000 was only our baseline (production) cost, so we were only expecting a few orders to come in.”

Creating an NS experience for all

So why go through all the hassle to create an “NSXperience” for all? With movies such as Army Daze, 2359 and the Ah boys to Men trilogy (with an Ah Girls go Army spinoff in the works), and NS being an already well established institution in Singapore, is there really a need for Chao Recruit! to go over the same story again?

Yes, there is.

Liu and Lee have both experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end of “army talk”. Sign extra? Sai kang? Chao keng? These are all jargons that someone who’d never served would not understand, of which there are many. 

Lee herself was one such example, slowly hearing army stories from Liu until she understood what her boyfriend was going through in camp. Chao Recruit!, therefore, aims to accelerate this process.

Just as the initial drawings of the game were a gift from girlfriend to boyfriend, Liu hopes that his game will also be a good gift to any NSF still struggling to fit in, or anyone that wants a gamified taste of the NS experience.

Full-time NSmen would feel the greatest affinity with their day-to-day lives, even using it to settle into their new routines. Operationally Ready NSmen, who have completed their two-year obligation to the SAF, would look upon the various features of the game with nostalgia, and perhaps a sense of accomplishment at overcoming a tough period of their lives.

Most intriguing, though, is the impact on the pre-enlistees: boys who aren’t of age to serve the nation yet would get their first taste of what it’s like through Chao Recruit!. Liu raises the example of a wildly successful playtest of their game with a group of students from a National Cadet Corps unit, who enjoyed it far more than the MOE-issued Total Defence strategy card game ー Guardians of the City.

So what’s the future of the game going to look like?

Digitalisation is definitely in the pipeline, Liu shares — though he adds that the team’s main focus is on the physical card game’s launch.

He also aims to express a variety of NS experiences with subsequent games. BMT is a good starting point which most, if not all, NSFs start from, but the company’s called The NSXperience, not just Chao Recruit!.

Perhaps, with Chao Recruit!, two years won’t seem so long after all. Who knows? It could be in every Singaporean son’s field pack someday.

Chao Recruit is now available for preorder here. For updates and progress on their works, follow NSXperience on Instagram or join their Discord Channel.