For many Americans, Sunday brunch means waffles, pancakes, and bacon and eggs. But for my family, and millions of Chinese immigrants, Sunday brunch means just one thing: It’s time for some dim sum. A new board game called Steam up: A Feast of Dim Sum, published by Hot Banana Games, has adapted the tradition of dim sum — small portions of flavorful food steamed inside bamboo baskets — into a novel new board game. While it’s not the first tabletop game to center Chinese traditions at its core, it offers one of the most endearing board game experiences I’ve had in a long time.
As luck would have it, the launch of Steam Up coincided neatly with my 婆婆, or grandmother, Belle Yee’s birthday celebration in Vancouver, where the game was made. I roped in my mother Brenda Ford, my cousin Eric Lee, my cousin Kimberley Lam, and her husband Sing-Yue Lam to sneak in a couple games of Steam Up — an appetizer, if you will — before the big birthday dinner. What we found is a game that is deceptively straightforward, but with lots of moving parts to keep track of.
The setup board looks like a real-life dim sum table, with little steamers to hold pieces and a rotating turntable, just like at the restaurant. On their turn, each player takes two actions of their choosing: taking any one dim sum token, drawing one fortune card and optionally rotating the turntable, playing a fortune card and optionally rotating the turntable, swapping two fortune cards for one token, and/or purchasing a steamer by spending tokens to exactly match the pieces inside.
If a player buys a steamer, they score points. Characters gain different point amounts for different dim sum pieces, and at the end of a round, a fate card is drawn and the effects are resolved. After each steamer is purchased, a tracker counts down, and once the tracker reaches the end — or all fate cards have been drawn — the game ends, and the player with the most points wins.
Steam Up comes in two editions: standard and deluxe. The differences are essentially aesthetic. The deluxe edition replaces flat punch-card tokens with wooden tokens, prints characters and the scoreboard on higher-quality cardstock, and most importantly, replaces flat dim sum punch card pieces with rubber dim sum squishies.
The squishies deserve highlighting, as they delighted all the members of my family, especially my 婆婆, who quickly recognized siu mai (pork dumpling), lo mai gai (sticky rice), har gow (shrimp dumpling), fung zao (chicken feet, but literally translated as “phoenix claws”), and char siu bao (pork buns). The premium, squishy bits were also more functional than the cardboard chits. Picking them out from a bag and moving them during the game was easier than using the flat pieces. Even my 103-year-old 婆婆 found the squishies easy to handle.
However, they were so appealing that Kimberley and Sing-Yue had to bow out, as their two-year-old son repeatedly tried to grab the squishies. They’d probably be in his stomach without intervention — they just look that good.
The family was also delighted, especially my 婆婆, by the manual and the game layout. Some of dim sum’s customs, like serving tea to others before yourself, are described. The artwork is also stunning and cute, and my 婆婆 loved flipping through the manual and seeing the dim sum stereotypes that make up the various characters you can play — the loyal customer, the food blogger, or the seafood lover to name a few. Each is matched to one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Unfortunately, the complexity of the game also meant my 婆婆 wasn’t able to directly take part. There was a surprising amount of effects from fortune cards, fate cards, character abilities, and the turntable itself to keep track of. This became an issue as we found ourselves backtracking for missed effects, especially fate cards. The second issue was the physical design. The turntable was tricky to turn, and only Eric made effective use of it, depriving my mother and I of full steamers at a few key points.
The steamers and dim sum squishies could also be finicky. While the squishies were easier to handle and definitely better aesthetically, they could cause steamers to tip if squishies weren’t placed perfectly inside. The steamers also sometimes clung to each other, and this led to spilled dim sum.
Ultimately, my mother emerged victorious with her “loyal customer” character quickly adding up bonus points, which is tied to one of the game’s issues. There are characters who are simply easier to win with. Some are even marked with a teacup icon, to show they are easier to play.
Steam Up is laser-targeted to Chinese-American audiences. The familiarity of dim sum squishies and the character archetypes is something that felt welcoming, especially to 婆婆, who pronounced it “very cute” and “just like real dim sum” — even if competitive eating flies in the face of real-life Chinese politeness.
Steam Up is a bit of a niche specialty, but its Kickstarter success shows the creators have hit that niche in stride. Overall, the experience left us full enough, but hungry to try its thousands of possible variations. In short, it’s the quintessential dim sum experience.
Steam Up: A Feast of Dim Sum is available now. If you’re intrigued by it, opt for the Deluxe Edition at $66. While currently sold out, more copies should be available for pre-order soon. The Standard Edition will feel less special and will save you only a bit of money at $47.