Play is a universal activity. Though we often focus on the types of games from our own region, healthy tabletop design culture exists around the world. Titles from countries such as Argentina, Nigeria, Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan join the familiar western publishers at Spiel in Essen, Germany each fall. In this global gaming environment, Japan has developed a design scene that I find particularly compelling, so I’m here to do a dive into ten titles that may be unknown to wider audiences.
Japanese games have slowly found their way to US shores over the years, but it seems that more are coming today than ever before. I trace the stronger connections between the Japanese game scene and the US market through R-Eco, a game by Susumu Kawasaki that was released stateside by Z-Man Games in 2007. In a way, R-Eco set the tone for what many expect Japanese games to be — small box, simple rules, limited components (though, as with generality, many exceptions exist). This expectation was taken to the next level through the now-classic Love Letter by Seiji Kanai. With just 20 cards, this game has seen international acclaim and has been published in over 50 editions.
The Japanese gaming scene may sound familiar. Both classic and new euros line the shelves of board cafes, game groups pop-up as a way to hang out with friends, and conventions take place year-round as a way to connect folks to a larger culture of gaming. Just as we have Gen Con in the US as a large release date for the tabletop industry, Tokyo Game Market serves as a giant game fair for designers to launch their new titles. However, Tokyo Game Market happens twice a year — once in the spring, once in the fall. The thing that I find incredible about Tokyo Game Market is that it is primarily filled with independent designers, or doujin. These doujin groups are typically only a person or two designing, testing, and even handcrafting titles to sell, so oftentimes the print run may be under 50 games total! The culture seems to revolve around this labor of love, and only over time do these groups gain a following that allows them to launch larger print runs.
This do it yourself culture of publishing means that games are not as subject to the whims of the market. This also means that many doujin are willing to take risks with quirky themes or innovative mechanics. This is why I am drawn to Japanese games. I can find things that I cannot find anywhere else. What follows is a short list of games I recommend seeking out. By no means does this list attempt to capture everything I enjoy (I love trick-taking games and some of my favorites come from Japan), but rather serves as a good intro and variety. Unfortunately, some of these games are tough to find — if they’re available at all! — but at least a few have found a market through reprints in the US.
*I have used commonly accepted English titles and romaji for names for ease of use for the reader.
Designer – Muneyuki Yokouchi
Artist – AKAIIE, Ryo Nagitsuji
Publisher – Ayatsurare Ningyoukan
If the trademark of a Japanese game is a strange theme paired with simple gameplay in a small box, Pecunia could easily be the flagship. The setting puts players in the role of cult leaders recruiting new “lambs” to their “flock.” While it helps to have a larger flock, only the money you have at the end of the game counts toward victory. Oh, and your lambs can die along the way, whether through battle, starvation or umm…sacrifice. Cynical, a bit? While I might describe “push your luck” mechanisms as those that have players rolling dice or drawing cards, in Pecunia it is your opponents who determine your luck. On your turn, you can either add a lamb to one of four events, or take all the lambs at one of the areas, which also serves to push events toward triggering. The decision of whether to give or take lambs is excruciating since often the pool is partially juicy and partially poison for your own flock. By waiting for more juicy lambs to arrive, you must also take the risk that your opponents will add more poison. Simple mechanisms that lead to devious play. Unfortunately, this game is tough to find and no reprint is in the works. It’s a shame because Pecunia is a unique experience worth playing over and over.
Designer – Jun Sasaki, Goro Sasaki
Artist – Jun Sasaki
Publisher – Oink Games
Deep Sea Adventure is perhaps the most well-recognized game from Oink Games, a publisher known for their high production values packed into the same sized tiny boxes (until recent releases like Modern Art and Moneybags). This is also a prime example of taking a tired mechanism for many gamers—roll and move—and taking it in a fresh direction. Players are scuba divers hunting for treasure on the ocean floor, but as the rules explain, you are too poor to have your own oxygen and submarine so you must share a common vessel and tank. This unfortunate setting is not so bad until players start to pick up that treasure, which before the game starts is laid out in a freeform path. Players decide whether to move up or down the path, roll the dice, then move. Then the oxygen ticks down for each treasure the player holds. Oh, and treasure is heavy, so your movement is reduced each time you greedily grab more treasure. The better treasure is down deeper, but your ascent is far tougher than your descent. Remember that all the oxygen is common too, so every treasure gained around the table is slowly choking the whole group. Get back to the sub before the oxygen runs out and you can keep your treasure. Otherwise, your diver is rescued as the treasure falls into a pile at the ocean floor to lure players in the next round. This game inevitably gets players joking about how greedy others have become, draining everyone’s air. Its player interaction is indirect but meaningful, just the way I like it.
Designer – Yuo
Artist – Kotori Neiko
Publisher – Kocchiya
Don’t let the adorable birds fool you. This game’s original title—Birdie Fight—gives a better idea of what you’ll find in the box: a tactical tug-of-war hand management game where the winner is the one who holds the most powerful card in their hand at the end of the game. How does that card gain its power? Through the course of the game, players place numbered and suited cards into a grid where each column and row has a point value. The suit (bird type) that wins the highest value is the strongest bird of the forest. This game is incredibly easy to play, though difficult to see how actions may play out. Playing with 2-4 players in about 30 minutes, it is a favorite lunchtime or pre-dinner game.
Designer – Naotaka Shimamoto, Yoshiaki Tomioka
Artist – Yoshiaki Tomioka
Publisher – itten
Originally 2 players. Asmodee version allows 4 players
Of the games on this list, this one has the largest box. Inside the box, however, is a tiny ecosystem of overpasses and vehicles to be constructed by the players. As gamers, we describe “emergent play” as games where the game grows before our eyes (When comparing Carcassone to Settlers of Catan, Carc is the title with more emergent play). Tokyo Highway has some of the most beautiful emergent play your tabletop will ever see. I don’t often dive into art of components when describing a game, but the stark grey highway pieces combined with the brightly colored vehicles makes this game a true looker as players build the network. While billed as a dexterity game—and it is! Those pieces are tiny!—you will find yourself searching for the perfect placement to take advantage of killer combos…while also defending against those combos from others. The game plays out in roughly 30 minutes and we’re lucky that the US release contains pieces for up to 4 players! The original version only had enough pieces for head-to-head play.
Designer – Takashi Sakaue
Artist – Takashi Sakaue
Publisher – Product Arts, LLC
Okay, another roll-and-move. What is it with this tired mechanism finding new life abroad?! This game makes it fresh by having players roll a huge handful of dice at the beginning of the game (who doesn’t love chucking a handful of dice?), then using exactly one of the dice each turn to move your pawn around the board, depositing your die into the section you’ve landed on. The theme of the game—players are competing stars at the beginning of the universe—is paper thin, but the game itself is wonderful. It plays at a good clip and comes with a two-sided board and a couple variants to raise the difficulty. The only downside is it only plays 2-3 players.
Designer – Saashi
Artist – Takako Takarai
Publisher – Saashi & Saashi
Wind the Film! took me a few plays to figure out how it comes together so nicely. As tourists, players practice their photographic skills, trying to put together the perfect reel of film from their vacation. Film only operates in one direction once it’s in the camera, though. In the game, this means that once cards are organized in your hand, they cannot be reorganized unless otherwise allowed by the rules of the game. This provides one level of tension. The second level of tension comes from the gridded arrangement of cards shared by players. Oxn your turn, you must take 1-3 cards from the grid, but whatever quantity you take becomes the quantity you must play from your hand. It sounds easy, but imperfect information means you won’t always be taking the cards you want, which also means you’ll be gumming up your hand, which also means you’ll be playing cards that are out of order, which means your perfect roll of film turns out to be not so perfect after all. This is another favorite lunchtime game, working splendidly from 2-4 players and one where the lovable art obscures the dastardly play within. The good news is that a publisher in the West has the license to publish this in Europe and stateside. The bad news is they’ve sat on the license for over two years. I hope Wind the Film! gets the reprint it deserves!
Designer – Hisashi Hiyashi
Artist – Ryo Nyamo
Publisher – Okazu Brand
1-hordes of players
If you’ve been paying attention to tabletop gaming recently, you may have noticed a wave of roll-and-writes washing over the hobby. Hisashi Hiyashi is a legendary Japanese designer (Yokohama, Trains, Sail to India) and has been doing this style of game for a long while, starting with Rolling Japan in 2014, which has since grown into Rolling America, Rolling World, and countless custom fan-made maps. MetroX is an evolution of the genre that uses cards instead of dice. These flip-and-writes help cut down the randomness, giving players a diminishing pool of options that are possible as more cards are drawn. In MetroX, players try to complete their city’s urban transit lines before anyone else. Each card gives an amount of track players may lay, but if you happen to build intersecting track (and you will!) then your workers have to spend time connecting the lines, which cancels out any remaining track lay from the card. It’s a wonderfully puzzly game that rewards a bit of experience and can be played with a group as big or as small as your room can handle. I’ve played on a plane, in a car and in a room of 30 people. And it looks like maps are multiplying too. Okazu released two expansion maps at Spring Tokyo Game Market 2019.
Designer – Tanagokoro
Artist – uncredited
Publisher – Hobby Japan
This game’s theme is super unique and deeply tied to place. I love games that are an outpouring of the designer’s heritage, like the coal trilogy from Thomas Spitzer. Tataraba and Forest is a game about samurai, though samurai are not in the game itself. Samurai were known by their daisho, a pair of swords carried on each hip. These swords were forged from a special steel made in a tatara, the hut of bellows. The tatara needed fuel for the bellows, which came from the surrounding forest. A sustainable forest is an ecosystem of different trees, each with their own timelines of growth. And that is really what the game is about — tending a forest in support of the forging of iron for swords for the samurai. 2-4 players will plant trees around the board, watching them grow after each turn and taking care to fell them at the proper time. Tataraba and Forest plays like an abstract with players vying for positions for planting and cutting down each other’s trees. The only things on the board that have ownership is the worker pawn and the tatara itself. The game plays in about 30-45 minutes and is a wonderful exercise in strategy and timing, with a wholly unique setting.
Designer – Saashi
Artist – Takako Takarai
Publisher – Saashi & Saashi
This is the second game from publisher Saashi & Saashi, and also the second flip-and-write. Let’s Make a Bus Route is one of a kind (to my knowledge) in having a shared board for players to write on while playing, rather than having their own individual player sheets. This means the game is capped at four players, but that’s a good thing. I say that because Let’s Make a Bus Route is exactly that — making a bus route — and player’s jostle over roads for their network, taking penalties every time they cross over a segment of road that someone else has already driven on. Kyoto is only so big! As players develop their bus route, they will be picking up different types of riders. Students want to go to universities, commuters want to go to metro stations, tourists want to see the sights, and old folks…well, they just want to ride the bus. Each flipped card shows a color, which corresponds to a different pattern to extend your route. You may adjust the route if you wish, but doing so will cost you an ever-increasing point penalty. The cute art (Saashi and Saashi always has cute art!) gives no hint toward the frustrated grunts you’ll utter as you realize traffic is preventing your efficient path to the location you had planned for. Let’s Make a Bus Route forces players to contend with each other in a way that few other games in the genre have pulled off yet.
Designer – Masaki Suga
Artist – Saori Shibata
Publisher – analog lunchbox
Passtally is one of the most brain-burny games I’ve ever played. The rules are deviously simple, but the permutations of moves is frighteningly high. Similar to Dirk Henn’s Metro, players try to make the longest route using tiles to connect markers around the edge of the board. Each turn, you must take two actions which can be either placing a tile or moving your markers around the board. At the end of your turn, you score your connections, counting the number of “passes” you’ve made. For each tile used in the route, the number of passes equals the height of that tile. Oh yeah, tiles can be placed atop each other. The board state at the start looks completely benign, but as the game progresses the paths become spaghetti-like. It’s a good thing that the player count is limited to three because processing your options on each turn can take a while. There are two ways I enjoy Passtally. First, playing in a convention-like environment where you can talk to other folks when it’s not your turn. The board state will change so radically between turns that there’s little point in planning your next move. Second, play with a chess clock or timer. Speed play opens up interesting moves that build on each other over the course of the game. A sub-optimal move early may lead to some killer combos in the late game. The bright colorful minimalist art looks great on the table and on the shelf. Luckily, this is one that is more easily found due to a reprint by a US-based publisher.