Xeo Lye had a career in Singapore’s wealth management industry, actively managing portfolios of high-net-worth individuals and giving financial talks, when he noticed that macroeconomics was the missing element in financial education.
“Many of the questions my audience asked tended to focus on debt and budget management, value investing and fundamental analysis. Even in school, I found that the economics you learn there was not practical. No one breaks it down for the man in the street,” he says.
“You don’t learn about taxes, government policies, interest rates, fiscal policies and monetary policies. [Not many realise] that it is important to learn economics as it actually drives the mega macro trends of any asset class.”
This gave him the idea of including these topics in his talks. “I started to focus on economic trends. I covered areas such as politics and economics and how the US Federal Reserve’s interests affect investments (and markets) in both Malaysia and Singapore. This garnered a lot of positive feedback and interest,” says the co-founder of Capital Gains Studio Pte Ltd.
“To make my talks more interesting, I incorporated some simple games on Microsoft PowerPoint. People liked them and started asking if they could bring the slides home. From here, my colleagues and I contemplated designing either a tabletop or digital game.
“We decided that a tabletop game would be better due to its accessibility. Also, by creating a game, I would be able to influence a larger audience. So, even if I am no longer around, my legacy will continue.”
That became the foundation for Wongamania. While the team was developing the game, a friend of Lye, who was working with Bursa Malaysia to set up investment clubs at Malaysian universities, suggested that he create the first Wongamania exclusively for Bursa and its investment clubs. That was in 2014.
“To my surprise, the students or youth could grasp the concepts of the game quite well, which I initially thought were high-level concepts. The feedback was exceptionally good. So, from there, we launched Wongamania: Classic on Jan 1 last year,” says Lye.
“It caters for the Asian audience because there are themes such as filial piety, which are very Asian. Wongamania: Banana Economy, launched in Malaysia on Sept 3, is geared for a more international audience.
“We didn’t want Wongamania to be a textbook in the guise of a game. Many educational games are, which means that they are not fun. That is why we brought in modern game designers from the US and Europe.”
The Wongamania games are the first tabletop games in the world to focus on the application of economics. They allow two to five players to respond to various economic scenarios — recovery, growth, stagnation and recession. Along the way, players can buy and sell assets, introduce unexpected global events, impose personal events that help or sabotage yourself or other players, and have powerful individuals disrupt a player or the entire economy.
As Wongamania is designed to reflect the real world, Lye hopes that it is an innovative, fun and relatable way to improve financial literacy. He also hopes the games will encourage people to explore elements such as interest rates, tax and socio-political risks.
“In recent years, politics has driven a lot of the economic movements in the markets. By playing this game, I hope that it will inspire people to learn about such things as well as black swan events,” he says.
“Besides teaching people when to buy stocks, bonds and properties by understanding the economic cycle, we also want to teach them that the game of finance is sometimes unfair. [That is important to know] before they start investing in real life.
“When it comes to investing, you will notice that many invest in stocks and properties. These are extremely sensitive to the economic cycle and often, investors have no idea what to invest in during economic stagnation and recession.”
The game recommends that players consider other assets such as bonds during economic stagnation or recession. “I think the most interesting thing is that in the developed world, bonds are a pretty common investment instrument. However, in Asia, the trend of looking at bonds has just started. Over in Singapore, the regulator started the retail bond market because it wanted to encourage investors to look at fixed income rather than just stocks,” says Lye.
“I want to impress upon you that there are other things one can invest in during an economic stagnation or recession. So, if you play the game right, you can see that bonds are pretty powerful in a recession. Some players adopt the strategy of maintaining their bond holdings during a recession when interest rates are low. When interest rates continue to fall, these players benefit, unlike those who focus on stocks.
“In the game, there are also government and junk bonds. With government bonds, you do not lose money and continue to earn interest during a recession. However, if the players hold on to junk bonds during a recession, they will see losses. This is to reflect the real-life risk of these bonds. The players also learn that junk bonds give much better returns than government bonds.”
Unlike other financial education games, Wongamania: Banana Economy employs a modern game design that relies more on strategy and critical thinking than on luck. “Other board games tend to use dice, which is based on luck. Wongamania: Banana Economy was designed using modern game design principles that emphasise critical thinking and strategy. Hence, this makes your decisions more impactful when it comes to determining the outcome of the game. That is because investing is all about strategy and critical thinking. [These are the mental tools] used to up our game or win the game of finance,” says Lye.
“We designed this game to reflect how the world of money works in reality. In this game, [rather than just being an investor], you get to become a person of influence who can influence the government to change its policies. [Players learn that] in the world of investing, things such as interest rates and taxes have influence. [Hence,] we want the players to have both the power of central bankers and the ability to own assets to see the impact.
“The term ‘banana republic’ originated from countries in the Caribbean, where the elites have influence over the economy. I think this is something a lot of people can relate to as many feel that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and that the wealth game is not a fair one.
“This game is actually meant for adults even though the labels says the game is for those aged ‘14 and above’, as there are some mature themes such as divorce and corruption. The game also has a satirical theme. We hired one of the top comic artists in Singapore to illustrate the game in a light-hearted, cartoonish style, [while incorporating] some of the political and economic themes going on in Singapore and around the world.”
How will players know if their financial literacy has improved as a result of playing Wongamania? Lye says while there is no assessment tool to measure this, the players can ask themselves what they have learnt from the game.
“They might say that they have learnt about the economic cycle, or the importance of insurance, or what to buy and what not to buy during the different stages of the economic cycle. This game is neither a test nor a performance-based tool. We are moving away from performance testing and towards experiential learning. We focus on the experience. We want to make it fun.”
Wongamania can also be used by financial educators. “I have noticed that there is a lack of tools that financial educators can use. They are still using traditional tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. There is a lack of creative materials to help them engage people. We want to be the first to come up with creative ways to teach financial literacy,” he says.
Lye believes that the old-school values of interaction, teamwork and learning together are the key to financial intelligence and literacy because when a player shares his experience after playing the game, the other players learn from his experience too.
“When you look at human behaviour, we respond and learn better in an environment where experience is shared. When it comes to parenting, cars and gardening, for example, we learn from the mistakes of others. So, we should do the same when it comes to finance. I hope that Wongamania can achieve that,” he says.
The company plans to introduce a game that focuses on debt in September next year. “I have found that debt is a common theme in all countries. Debtzilla started off as a character in Wongamania: Banana Economy, but we received feedback that there should be a separate game for this as there is a worldwide debt problem. There is no game in the market right now that teaches you how to manage debt. In this game, we will teach players the tools for managing finance such as debt refinancing, debt extension and debt forgiveness,” says Lye.
He adds that Wongamania: Banana Economy has received good feedback in Singapore, with many players saying they were able to enjoy it repeatedly. Plus, it is not a long-drawn activity as it only takes 30 to 45 minutes to finish the game.
Wongamania: Banana Economy is available online and at bookstores nationwide. It is retailed at RM125.