The race to the bottom couldn’t have been described more clearly. The year was 1966, Hong Kong’s Commissioner of Police Henry Heath was giving testimony to a commission that had been set up to examine the cause of one of the city’s earliest examples of social mobilisation – the Star Ferry riots.

“I would say that there is corruption in the police force, but that there is corruption in other government departments and… indeed, in commercial life and, in fact, pretty well every walk of life here in Hong Kong,” he said.

While his words would have surprised few at the time, they represent an era that nowadays is better explained on Hong Kong’s cinema screens than in school history curricula. Three recent university graduates now see an opportunity to tell this story in a new way – through a board game that brings the realities of Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s to life.

Ivan Poon, Issac Liu and Luke Yeung. Photo: Aaron Mc Nicholas.

“There is a series of similar games that are called ‘social deduction,’ where you have a group of players with secret identities and you have to guess the identity of other players in order to achieve some purpose,” says 24-year-old Luke Yeung.

Billionaire Sergeant, as the game is known, allows players to assume one of three identities from the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, with the aim of either ensuring the success of the group’s investigations, or doing everything you can to undermine those efforts while corrupting honest players along the way.

The game, Yeung says enthusiastically, has become something totally different from its original concept, since the initial idea had been to use a zombie apocalypse as the setting.

“But after all of our testing, we thought the theme was not very outstanding, so we changed to something more local. There are no other games that are already using this theme.”

The Independent Commission Against Corruption was formed only in 1974. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Yeung designed Billionaire Sergeant with two secondary school friends, 25-year-old Issac Liu and 24-year-old Ivan Poon. Although experienced gamers who have been playing together since their teenage years, this is their first foray into producing a board game from scratch.

The project began in December 2016 and its gameplay has since been perfected after being tested among more than 50 groups of players. Compared with more advanced tactical and strategy games, Billionaire Sergeant requires only 4-6 players and can be completed in as little as 30 minutes.

“We found that the social deduction game is something like the gateway game for beginners… so we decided to design a game for the beginner,” Yeung explains.

For those who find a long rulebook and an even longer time commitment daunting, Billionaire Sergeant proves quite accessible. Two or three attempts should illustrate the rules clearly for first-time players, and upon grasping the basic concept, the opportunities for more cunning tactics become clear. A good balance between strategy and luck succeeds at keeping the outcome unpredictable until the final round.

“Uncertainty is the key of the game,” Yeung says. “You have to guess about my identity.”

Luke Yeung. Photo: Aaron Mc Nicholas.

For players of Billionaire Sergeant, the harsh realities of Hong Kong before the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974 are laid bare. A police officer who begins the game with corrupt tendencies cannot reform himself; his objective will always be to interfere with an investigation’s progress. On the other hand, an honest officer who receives too many bribes in the course of play does have a chance to win back his honour, but only by forcing another player to accept the illicit funds instead.

“That is a very, very cruel betrayal,” Yeung laughs as he points to the function card which changes the game’s fortunes in this way. “Because I shift one of my bribes to my partner. He was the honourable one, but after he receives this, he becomes the dishonourable one.”

It is not especially difficult to imagine such twists of fate occurring in 1960s Hong Kong, a place where corruption was tough to eradicate and one could only hope that dishonest deeds remained hidden from public view.

Billionaire Sergeant. Photo: Aaron Mc Nicholas.

Before 1974, the power of enforcement of Hong Kong’s anti-corruption laws rested with the city’s police force. Yet the government was warned in as early as 1961 that nearly 50 per cent of corruption complaints against Hong Kong’s public servants were directed against the police force itself.

In the decades following World War II, public servants’ salaries failed to keep pace with economic growth in a city with a rapidly increasing population, thereby creating a fertile environment for bribery to determine who received priority for everything from public housing to a driving licences.

File photo: In-Media.

The watershed moment came in 1973 when then-chief superintendent Peter Godber fled Hong Kong while under investigation for transferring large amounts of money to overseas bank accounts, far more than a police officer’s salary could provide. Despite being placed on an immigration watch list, Godber managed to escape the city thanks to a police security pass that allowed him to bypass border control checkpoints and reach a departure gate at Kai Tak Airport.

The establishment of the ICAC the following year was greeted by a justifiably cynical public, who would later watch as Godber was extradited back to Hong Kong from the UK in 1975 and stood trial for accepting bribes. His conviction was only possible thanks to the testimony of two similarly corrupt colleagues, men of no moral superiority to Godber himself.

Billionaire Sergeant. Photo: Aaron Mc Nicholas.

In a gamers’ world where Grand Theft Auto villains are more popular than cookie-cutter heroes, the three designers know that greed for greed’s sake will appeal to some players’ fantasies. Yeung laughs as he mentions “the joy of betraying your partner” and describes how a player’s personality can expose itself by playing the game.

“It is something more deep,” he explains. “You can know about whether your friend is aggressive, risky, or opportunistic… I think it is very socialising.”

The themes of this era remain a popular choice for Hong Kong’s filmmakers. The most famous example is 1991 duology Lee Rock, in which Andy Lau plays a notoriously corrupt staff sergeant based on the real-life $500 Million Dollar Inspector, Lui Lok. It is no surprise, then, that a player with this police rank in Billionaire Sergeant not only lacks the freedom to choose an honourable path, but can only achieve victory by corrupting every other player in the game.

Photo: Aaron Mc Nicholas.

Although this makes an honourable outcome seem close to impossible, Yeung and his friends have plans to sustain intrigue in the game by adding a 1974 expansion pack which will introduce the ICAC officer as a fourth playable identity. With this expansion, corrupt police officers will have more opportunities to mend their ways, but at the same time, more cunning methods to betray your teammates will also be unlocked.

Players will perhaps learn a lesser known fact about Peter Godber’s case; that it represented one of the earliest examples of Hong Kong’s student activists campaigning against the practices of the city’s police force.

Among these three designers, a more recent example of this, the Umbrella Movement, is mentioned as a potential theme for their next game. But for now, they encourage those interested in Billionaire Sergeant to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign. Reaching their target of HK$90,000 will allow them to deliver the game to all their backers, and it will be available for delivery to anyone across the globe who wants to step into a world of temptation and betrayal.

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Aaron Mc Nicholas

Aaron is a Hong Kong journalist working on the video team at Storyful news agency. He also has a strong interest in local Hong Kong politics. Prior to moving to the city, Aaron worked as a program researcher for TV3 and contributed written pieces to in his native Ireland. He graduated from Dublin City University with a BA in Journalism.