Boardgame Bushido: 13 Games With A Japanese Theme
[Originally published by www.tabletoptribe.com]
The world of tabletop gaming has a few well-worn themes. Zombies and Cthulhu obviously make more than their fair share of appearances, but another is an entire country: Japan.
The West has always been fascinated by the East, in particular shiny samurai swords and black-clad ninjas. But as we’ll see with the following thirteen favourites, our love affair with Japan doesn’t stop there.
On the face of it Tokaido is about a leisurely stroll , taking in the fifty-three “stations” of the famous Tokaido Road from Edo (modern day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Along the way travellers can paint majestic panoramas, stuff their faces at taverns, visit hot springs… it all sounds jolly nice and with little room for conflict with other players, right? Wrong.
The problem is there’s only so much room at each of the stations, which leads to about the most enjoyable passive-aggressive gameplay you’re likely to experience in a game. Want to paint that lovely panorama? Shame I’m standing in your way spoiling the view. Only have one coin for food at the tavern? Sadly I got here first and ate all the cheap stuff, despite being minted. I guess you’ll be going hungry.
It’s a point-to-point race game without the race. There’s no dice rolling for movement — you can go as fast as you like, and the player in last place always goes first. However, travel too quickly and you’ll miss out on the fun (and thus the points). Go too slowly and all the good stuff might be gone before you get there.
This is Zen gaming at its best. Tokaido is a visual feast that’s best played at the same leisurely pace as its protagonists, preferably with some accompanying sushi titbits and lashings of sake. It’s not for everyone, but probably like the pilgrimage of the Tokaido Road itself, it’s worth experiencing at least once.
Wrangling a voracious panda whilst managing your bamboo crop might not sound like the most riveting of gaming experiences, but if you give Takenoko a miss, then you’re passing up on a title that plays as good as it looks: with its cute minis, gorgeous hex tiles and colourful stacking bamboo segments, it’s a stunner on the table.
There’s both dice and card randomness here, but victory and defeat will hinge more on the actions you take each turn (of which there are five possibilities) and, surprisingly, how well you can read the actions of your opponents: the hex-based playing area is communal, along with the gardener and panda that inhabit it, so its important to surmise your opponents’ strategies to not only thwart them, but to get them to do your work for you!
Whilst Takenoko can support up to four players, it’s also an incredibly enjoyable strategic endeavour to two, but regardless of the player count, you’ll struggle to find gamers that aren’t won over by this bamboo-driven delight.
This simple dice-roller had made appearances in several of my articles, for its conveniently pocketable size and its use as a gateway game. Obviously if you’re after in-depth strategy then look elsewhere on this list, but for some filler fun then Age of War hits the mark.
The premise is simple: choose one of the available fortress cards, roll your dice and try to match one of the rows of symbols. Can’t match any? Lose a die and roll again. You either match all the rows and win the fortress card or lose all your dice and end your turn.
The conflict comes from the way that it’s possible to steal a fortress from another player, which requires a single additional symbol rolled. As the available fortresses dwindle, and with the game ending as soon as the last is won, the rolls rapidly become more about theft than neutral acquisition.
Once your players have outgrown Age of War’s relatively simple nature, then perhaps they’re ready to switch feudal Japan for 1920’s Arkham and move on to Elder Sign, which uses the same row-matching mechanic.
Strangely the only title on this list with a Japanese designer, Hanamikoji (named after the street in Kyoto’s most famous geisha district) is a beautiful card game for two, where the players vie for the favour of seven geisha masters. This favour is achieved by acquiring items crucial to performances such as music, dance, the tea ceremony etc.
There’s plenty of unknown variables here, from a random card discarded at the start of the game to your opponent being able to select cards to play for both of you, so strategy can be difficult with often very limited information available to you.
Hanamikoji can sometimes feel more like a competitive logic puzzle — the strategy lives on many levels, but the compact box dimensions and stunning artwork should see it make reasonably regular trips to the table, particularly if your convergent thinking needs a workout!
Kanagawa is another title, like Hanamikoji, that focuses on the arts. In this case, painting. Players take on the roles of art students, who must balance their time (by playing cards in one of two orientations) between completing their panoramic painting and studying to hone their skills.
The most obvious thing about the game is how pretty it is. As with many Iello games, the artwork is stunning and the production quality is top notch: the little paint pot markers and bamboo card drafting mat are extra touches that make you feel that the developer really wanted to polish their product.
But this isn’t a case of image over substance. There’s plenty to love about Kanagawa itself — there’s a good range of choices to make, play time isn’t too long, it scales well with varying player counts — which makes it a joy to play and a hit with a variety of gamers.
There aren’t many dice games where the position of your dice on the table is as important as the faces you roll, but Ninja Dice is one of them, and it carries off the concept with aplomb.
One player attempts to overcome guards, residents and locks in the House each turn (rolled up on black dice by another player), whilst the others attempt to thwart them in their endeavour. With a cry of “Ninjas… ready… ROLL!” the players simultaneously cast their dice, figuring out by their positions where shuriken fly, who sneaks successfully and what locks get picked.
As can be immediately surmised by the cutesy component pouch, Ninja Dice doesn’t take itself too seriously and you shouldn’t either (either the game or yourselves when you’re playing it), but it’s a great game to pocket for some fun at the pub and it makes a nice change to be as concerned about the where as the what in your dice-rolling.
Raw fish. It’s the obvious candidate for a game isn’t it? If geeks are keen on Japanese themes in their games, then it’s fair to say that the population as a whole can’t get enough of sushi and sashimi.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some bright spark has fused this enthusiasm in the card game Sushi Go! which also fuses card drafting and set collection mechanics (along with some cute artwork) to create what for many is the next Family Fortunes (the old card game rather than the hideous TV series) for gamers of all ages to enjoy.
There’s not much more to say really. You try to play sets or combinations of cards to score as many points as possible. It’s colourful, fun, age-inclusive and there’s a party version too. Just writing this has made me want to go and play it. And eat lots of sushi and sashimi.
This is actually more of a generally Eastern rather than strictly Japanese themed game, but it’s so darned pretty I had to include it.
Don’t be fooled by the pretty flowers and cutesy little bugs though, because Lotus is all about set collection monopolisation and cut-throat botanical area control. Well okay, perhaps it’s a little (or a lot) more Zen than that, but there’s still plenty of competitive conflict to be had, and it looks bloomin’ (sorry) gorgeous on the table.
Points are scored by either laying down the last petal card to finish a flower, or by having control of a completed flower with the dominance of insect guardians, whether they’re printed on the cards or placed there by players as tiny wooden bugs.
Lotus is simple, beautiful and a joy to play and see on the table. Go try it already.
Many older gamers grew up watching TV shows featuring grown men in unrealistic monster suits stomping about on equally unrealistically modelled Japanese cities. And it looked awesome to us.
King of Tokyo gives you the opportunity to take on the role of one of those B-movie bad guys and trash Tokyo in a huge dice-rolling monster-fest of destruction. You’re either an also-ran milling around outside the city (or at best in Tokyo Bay) vying for top dog position, or you’re the King elect smashing up Tokyo City and fending off the pretenders.
The dice rolling follows the familiar Yahtzee mechanic, supplemented with cards from your hand that are paid for with energy cubes. It’s simple enough for youngsters to grasp and can get a whole family around the table.
If you’re grumbling about the random nature of it all, and the lack of strategy, I suggest you take a look at the premise again and get yourself a sense of humour and joie de vivre.
Hanabi is Japanese for “fireworks”, and in this game of the same name you have to work with the other players to create the best display you can.
In theory it’s simple, as all you have to accomplish is to place five cards for each of the five colours of fireworks in ascending numerical order, but there’s a catch: your own cards face outwards to the other players, and they can only supply hints as to the colour and numbers of the cards you hold.
Errors will cost everyone dear on your final score and you’ll need to get things right before you run out of cards and time. If you still think that sounds easy (fool!) then there’s an extra rainbow coloured firework set for advanced play. Good luck!
Despite the difficulty in creating a flawless display, Hanabi is an easily-taught game that a whole family can enjoy. Get them around the table and find out if you’re firecrackers or just damp squibs.
The only game that I know of that has a cube-eating dice tower. Seriously. And I love it.
Actually that’s a lie, as Shogun is a reskin of the popular Wallenstein which also featured a similarly voracious tower that’s used to resolve combat. But it’s no lie to say that I really like it, despite its capricious nature. You dump the combatants (represented by wooden cubes) in the top, and… some… come out at the bottom, with the others turning up (or not) at a later date potentially affecting future resolutions.
Sure, it might not be the most realistic method of fighting in a game, but it’s a mechanism that adds spoonfuls of tension and ‘fog of war’, and I love it to death.
By today’s standards of art style, Shogun won’t win any beauty awards, but as an engrossing and entertaining game of area control, resource management and conflict in feudal Japan, it takes some beating, even after a decade, and it’s just been rereleased as a Big Box that includes the Tenno’s Court expansion.
If you thought some of the games on this list were a little light, then Sekigahara certainly isn’t. Literally. It’s got several pounds of wooden blocks in the box.
It’s also heavy on the strategy, being a wargame about one of the most pivotal conflicts in Japanese history (as you might surmise from the subtitle: The Unification of Japan), but even so this game often finds favour with those not accustomed to playing wargames. It’s even been described as a Eurogame wargame (in an affectionate way).
That said wargame purists love it too. There’s varied set-up for good replayability, hidden information on blocks and cards which adds to the tactical shenanigans, and best of all for those that hate to see their best laid plans fail in a flurry of appalling dice rolls, there’s no dice involved in the combat at all.
Sure, it may not have funky miniatures or a tower that eats cubes, but it doesn’t need them. Sekigahara is elegant and sophisticated without becoming bogged down in the minutiae of other wargames.
There’s nothing quite like it, and you’d be a fool to pass it by without a look.
If little wooden cubes or blocks are just too dull for you, and you’re desperate for some chibi on your table, then Ninja All Stars might be right up your dark, assassin-ridden alley.
At first glance this game might seem like a light ninja skirmish game with cute miniatures, but this is more strategic than you’d think, and more about optimal positioning of your warriors in a way to maximise their chance of success. The fate of the dice can always treat you badly, but this is more than simply a game of roll-to-hit.
It is, however, a game that you’ll either love or hate. The elemental nature of the dice faces are confusing to some new players (although they become familiar after a while), and many feel that the combat mechanic is flawed (although usually by mistaking the game for a pure skirmish game rather than a strategic placement game.) Miniature lovers sometimes mothball the game and just revel in the awesome minis.
There again millions love golf, whilst for others it’s “a good walk ruined”. My advice? Like any game on this list, get to the table, play it and make up your own mind.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m sorry if I missed out any of your favourites. For reasons of brevity I couldn’t include everything that I would have liked, but do check out Honshu, Wasabi!, Yedo and the rest!
*Quoted prices are recommended retail prices (RRP) only and do not represent the real world prices available in stores and online. Shop around for bargains!