Japanese Potluck – Capsule Reviews of a number of different Japanese games

[For the Wednesday of Japan week, I thought it would be a nice change to just offer up snippets of thoughts about a bunch of different games.   There are so many games from Japan which are hard to find – so they don’t fit into the usual OG review pattern… as it’s hard to find games that many of us have played!   Jonathan Franklin was entrusted to write up a nice introduction to this piece, and then the different OG writers were asked to add their thoughts in on these Japanese games!   – Dale]

Dōjin (同人 dōjin?), often romanized as doujin, is a general Japanese term for a group of people or friends who share an interest, activity, hobbies, or achievement. The word is sometimes translated into English as clique, coterie, society, or circle (e.g., a “sewing circle”).  In Japan the term is used to refer to amateur self-published works, including but not limited to manga, novels, fan guides, art collections, music and video games. Some professional artists participate as a way to publish material outside the regular publishing industry. [Wikipedia]

Many Japanese games are created by doujin and as such are harder to find than games with more widespread distribution.  They also have very different styles, from the physical Hau La to the classical Let’s Get the Lion, to the Euroesque Inotaizu/Kaigan.  Frankly, the only thing all these games have in common is their country of origin.

Of the games in wide release, the best known Japanese games are probably Fairy Tale, Traders of Carthage, Shadow Hunters, Inotaizu/Kaigan, and R-Eco, however, there is far more to Japanese doujin games than meets the eye.

We tend to think of Japanese games in part by who we buy them from.  Many of the games on this list are purchased from Japon Brand at Essen or thereafter.  In reality, there are numerous publishers who all sell through Japon Brand.  One of my favorites is One Draw..  — JF

Jonathan Franklin – Grimoire  (One Draw/Japon Brand/Z-Man 2010)
Designer: Hayato Kisaragi
Artists: Matthias Catrein, Keita Komiyama, and Shusaku Kondo

Grimoire is the latest from One Draw (Essen 2010) and will be released in the US by Z-Man even though the original version is bilingual (Japanese/English).  In Grimoire, the players take on the role of magicians. The core of the game is that each magician simultaneously selects a spell to cast by placing their bookmark (a card) into their spellbook.  Everyone reveals which spell they chose.  Those who chose unique spells get to go first, while those who chose the same spell as another player go later.  Along with the benefit of your spell, you also get to choose a Quest card from the tableau.  The end game condition is when someone has 10 companions from the Quest card deck or 10 treasures from the Quest card deck.  Another nice element of the game is that you start with only the first six spells in the book, but as the game goes on, you get more and more spells, so there is a nice arc, rather than boring repetition.

The game is not complex, but if you like Citadels and doublethink, this game will be right up your alley.  Another benefit is that it does not overstay its welcome, lasting about 20-30 minutes.  The art is that evocative and baroque style that appears in Japanese games.  It is definitely more popular than men in Renaissance garb for families.  Some complain about the quality of the components, but they are fine for their purposes.  If paper mats and non-linen finish cards ruin your day, wait and see how the Z-Man edition looks.  I definitely like it.

Jonathan Franklin – Greedy Kingdoms + expansions (One Draw/Japon Brand 2009)
Designer: Hayato Kisaragi
Artists: Keita Komiyama and Minat’s

Greedy Kingdoms is a nifty light two player game.  You are each building up your city by buying buildings and upgrading your characters.  Again, every character and building gives you a nice special power or benefit of some sort and things are quite balanced in the base game.  The heart of it is that you accumulate chips in different colors.  You then spend those chips to make more chips/different chips/build buildings.  Although it takes maybe 30 minutes, you go from spending a single chip on a small building to gaining some powerful characters and buildings close to the end.  If you can build a second palace, you win.

The heart of the game, doublethink again, is that you each simultaneously select three characters.  The active player is selecting those characters to use their special powers.   The non-active player is choosing characters hoping to pick the same ones as the active player.  For each case where the two players chose the same character, the two cancel out and the active player does not gain the benefit of their card.  Often the cards chain, so the non-active player might think that if the active player selects a 2, she will also select the 5 and the 7.Do you try to knock out all three cards by defending with 2, 5, and 7, or do you pick a 2 and two different cards to potentially disrupt other natural chains.

Special powers plus double think plus the same great art style as Grimoire makes Greedy Kingdoms another winner in our household.  There is an expansion for Greedy Kingdoms, but I have not gotten a chance to play it yet.  If you are a completist, this might be a tricky one, but the base game is a good beer and pretzels game where one game can easily become best of three.  Greedy Kingdoms is a good lunch game or opener.  I like it.

Jonathan Franklin — RRR (formerly RR) (One Draw/Japon Brand 2010)
Designer of RR: Seiji Kanai
Developer of RRR: Hayato Kisaragi
Artists: Keita Komiyama and Noboru Sugiura

RRR is a totally different beast from Grimoire and Greedy  Kingdoms, even though it is also a One Draw title.  RR is a two player abstract game with thoughtful placement rules.  RR has narrow tiles with an arrow at one end.  Players start with identical pieces and place tiles with the arrow facing towards their opponent.  Each tile has the ability to flip certain tiles to point the other direction.  Once the 3×3 board is full, the winner is the player who has more arrows pointing toward their opponent. Due to the perfect information and abstract nature, the game is very good, but can start to feel scripted, as certain ‘openings’ seem better than others.  One fine feature is that the first player must place a certain tile first,  which is not particularly powerful, so the game nicely balances the first and second player positions.

Even though the special abilities in RR are very good, RRR adds another dimension.  It adds fifteen special one time pieces that can be used by either player by having them in a general pool. The trick is that there are five available for each of the three games.  The winner is the person who wins two games.  Since the fifteen tiles always come up in different combinations, no two games of RRR are likely to be the same or ever get scripted.  I feel this gives the game great replayability while retaining the depth of RR.  The tiles are thick and beautifully illustrated cardboard.  The icons become clear quite quickly.  I really like RRR.

Valerie Putman – Hau La

Publisher:  Japon Brand
Designer:  team SAIEN

Japon brand offered a very interesting looking game at their 2010 Essen booth.  Players use foam pieces to build a structure, trying to place their final foam piece and their flag higher than anyone else.  When the game is over, the structure can be left assembled on the coffee table or fireplace mantle as a great conversation starting work of art.

As a game it seems to have some issues with turn order advantage and a runaway leader problem (since the tallest player each round gets to place an additional piece), but it is fun enough for a few plays.  If you leave it on display at your office or home, it might result in an impromptu game in the middle of the day and that’s always a positive point in my book.

(Dale Yu – if it isn’t obvious – the idea of Hau La is fairly simple. At the end of the game, you want your colored piece to be the highest one on the board – in the example above, Orange wins.  You have a number of different shaped black foam pieces, and on each turn, you must place on of those pieces to the board.  When you are done placing your piece, you then put your colored arrow piece in a hole.  Each player does this, and then the board is evaluated. Whichever player has the highest colored piece gets to place an extra black piece as a reward, and also becomes start player next round.  Repeat this until all the pieces are done, and then do a final judging on height.  From my 2 games, there was a slight runaway leader issue, but this could have been due to my extremely poor spatial relationship skills!)

Joe Huber – Gateball?

Most of the interesting games coming from Japan are small press games, with nice production values given that but not the level of production one might expect from, say, Fantasy Flight.  Aeronaut released a series of games in the past decade with fantastic production values (albeit in much smaller containers than typical), but most of the games are very simple, and unlikely to appeal to gamers.  A notable exception is Gateball?, a boardgame implementation of – essentially – croquet.  It is not a heavy game – for each move, players roll two dice, and either use the sum to move orthogonally or either single die to move diagonally, receiving an extra shot if they clear a gate.  Gateball? is intended as either a two player game or a team game – though oddly enough there are a total of 10 “balls”, and the teams are designated by color, so unless you have either 2 or 10 players precisely players won’t control the same number.  Overall, it’s a very enjoyable little game, very light but with only six turns it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Joe Huber – Mine Out
Designer: Muneyuki Yokouchi

The central concept of Mine Out is an interesting – but problematic one.  Whenever any of the gems being mined _or_ the bank runs out, a “mine out” occurs and players score for what they have – save for the player with the most.  This sometimes has the effect of creating games of chicken, which is unfortunate, as otherwise the game is fairly interesting.  Players use actions to move, draw cards, play cards (for either victory points, by making the abilities publicly available, or for their own use), mine gems, and sell them.  I enjoyed my first play of the game, but successive plays offered more of the game of chicken and not as much variety from play to play as I prefer.

Joe Huber – Deeku
Designer: Kenichi Tanabe

In addition to Kaigan, Tanabe has designed and released a number of different titles, some of them quite interesting.  Deeku is one of the best of the other games, as players act as carpenters, repairing castles in 17th century Japan.  It is a classic limited-funds game, as while it’s easy to make enough money to keep going, it’s much harder to make enough money to achieve a real freedom in one’s actions.  And of course the game utilizes the classic trade-off that earning money and earning prestige are largely at cross-purposes.  Some welcome uncertainty – besides that offered by one’s fellow players – is added by road closures; these will make some actions more expensive and sometimes even impossible.  This might mess with planning too much, save that the same road is never closed twice in the game, and there are two turns with all roads open.  Overall, Deeku feels different enough to stand out – there’s an obvious comparison to Saint Petersburg, but while the underlying environment is similar the board play in Deeku is far different, and the trade-offs don’t feel particularly similar.

Joe Huber – Chronicle
Designer: Seiji Kanai

Trick taking card games are a dime a dozen.  There are good ones and bad ones, but more-so than anything else there are a _lot_ of them.  As a result, I don’t tend to be very excited by a new trick taking card game.  But I’ve been pleased enough by Japon Brand’s games that I was intrigued by Chronicle – and I’m glad I picked up a copy, as it’s a very pleasant little game.  The twist on the usual trick taking rules is most similar to Cosmic Eidex; each card has an effect upon the play of the game.  Here, however, the range of effects is somewhat more limited, making the game more readily adapted to casual play.  Players score by best meeting the goal for the round without collecting any evil in the process, or by collecting _all_ of the evil, add a nice “shoot-the-moon” option to consider or guard against.  This has recently been re-released by Z-man Games, at a very reasonable cost, and while I’m not convinced that it’s a _great_ game, it is good enough to be worth trying.

Joe Huber – Origin of Failing Water
Designer: Takuya Saeki

Another Japanese trick taking card game, here with the hook that tricks are played in reverse order – you play the last trick first, and then the penultimate trick, and so on back to the first trick.  I was taught this game by Friedemann Friese, and quickly appreciated the absurdity of the setup – but over time I tired of the limited control available, and it fell into the “just another trick taking card game” bucket for me.  _Very_ much worth trying at least once, though – it’s inspired a design of my own.

Joe Huber – All kinds of flowers Profusion
Designer: Ryoto Okuna

Still another Japanese trick taking card game – and with one of my favorite names for a game _ever_.  Unfortunately, it’s JATTCD (somehow, I don’t think this name will catch on as well as Brian Bankler’s JASE); without the lead, there aren’t enough options to be interesting, and scores are _so_ close that it’s not at all clear that good play really matters.

Joe Huber – The Master of the Marchants in the Sakai
Designer: Kenichi Tanabe

After trying Kaigan (in its Inotaizu iteration), I picked up three of Tanabe’s other designs.  This was my least favorite of the group – but still interesting enough that I’ve played it four times, and still have it in my collection.  In some sense, this is JASE – Japanese Approximation of a Soulless Euro – as players are simply collecting cubes (via a process that is not necessarily fair, one of my objections to the game) and then turning them in for cards, with sets of cards scoring points at the end.  The cards are very nice, but the theme is less well carried off by the mechanisms than in most of Tanabe’s designs, making for a well constructed but not heavily engaging game.

Joe Huber – Kassen
Designer: Kenichi Tanabe

Having been so pleased with my early exposure to Tanabe’s designs, I was very pleased to get a chance to try Kassen, even though I had intentionally not ordered it myself because of the apparent similarities to Auf Heller und Pfennig (Kingdoms), a game I greatly tired of.  And I was right to do so – while I found Kassen a little more enjoyable, as there are opportunities for shifting pieces not present in Auf Heller und Pfennig which help matters, it’s still at the core a very abstract tile laying game that’s simply not particularly enjoyable for me.

Larry Levy – Square on Sale
Designer:  Taiju Sawada

Photo by Jason Matthews

Square on Sale, which won the Hippodice Game Designer award in 2005, is a simultaneous auction game with elements of Othello, as well as block-stacking games like Focus or Manhattan.  That’s quite a mouthful, but the combination works and makes for an interesting and challenging game.  As the title implies, there are 25 squares in a 5×5 checkerboard available for sale.  You can bid on a square by placing some of your chips there; if an opponent’s bid is there, you have to exceed their bid.  If your bid hasn’t been topped in two turns, you win the square.  That means you get to place a block of your color on the square; if there are other blocks already there, you place your block on top of the stack.  Your chips stay there to make it harder for opponents to steal the square from you.

Okay, those are the auctions and the block stacking–what about Othello?  Well, as anyone who’s played the game knows, the corner squares are the easiest to defend, followed by the edge squares, and then the squares in the center.  SoS works that way also.  That’s because every turn, you must remove one chip from each of your center squares and add it back to your supply.  This is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it replenishes your chip supply, so that you have more to bid with; on the other, it makes your square more vulnerable to a takeover.  The only way you can get back chips from edge squares is to devote an entire turn (i.e., no bidding) to taking a chip from each of your edge squares.  And once you put a bid on a corner square, you can never take those chips back (unless someone outbids you, of course).  That makes corner squares harder to take over, but also makes them a drain on your chip supply.

At the end of the game, you score one point for each block in every square you control and most points wins.  So there’s a lot to think about, with the give and take of the auctions, maintaining a decent supply of chips, and dealing with the waning strength of your central squares.  The game is all about timing:  arranging things so that you have enough chips to win key battles just when the strength of a square makes a takeover possible.  Coming to grips with the dynamics of your chip supply (the steady income from the central squares, plus the occasional mass infusion when you are outbid) is the key skill.  This is a clever game with a different feel and recommended to those who enjoy bidding games.

Larry Levy – Asakusa
Designer:  Taiju Sawada

Asakusa used to be the commercial heart of Tokyo; in our more modern age, it’s now a popular sightseeing area.  Designer Sawada uses it as the location of a 2009 game that also tries to modernize an old classic:  a no-luck version of Monopoly!

The “gameboard” consists of 17 cards, which are placed in a circle in a set order (although experienced players are encouraged to shuffle the cards around for a greater challenge).  Each player begins with 9 chips of their color in their supply, with each players’ remaining 9 chips beginning in the bank.

The players each have a pawn which is used to move around the cards.  The player whose pawn is behind all the others has the next turn (so consecutive turns are possible).  On your turn, you can move your pawn forward to any unoccupied card you wish.  If the card is unowned, you can buy it by placing any number of chips from your supply on it.  If it’s owned, you must buy it by placing more chips on it than the owner has, with the previous owner’s chips going back to his supply.

There are four types of cards.  The starting card can’t be landed on once the game begins, but when a player passes it, she must add one of her chips from the bank to her supply.  Then there are 5 Temple cards which kind of work like the Railroads in Monopoly.  When you land on a Temple you own, you earn points and the more Temples you own, the more points you earn (each Temple has its own schedule of point values).  The 7 Shops are more complicated.  The points you earn when you land on one of these depends on the number of chips you have in the Bank.  For example, one Shop gives you points equal to twice the number of chips you have in the Bank, up to a maximum of 10 points.  However, there’s a way of getting around that maximum.  Each Shop has a bonus value and every time you land on one of your Shops, it’s bonus value goes up by one step.  So for the Shop card I mentioned earlier, when the bonus reaches the fourth step (the highest one on that card), the points earned are multipled by 3, meaning that the card can now earn a maximum of 30 points.  If, instead, you buy a card owned by another player, the bonus value goes down by one level.

The remaining 4 cards each give you a useful ability when you land on one you own, like increasing the bonus on one of your Shops or adjusting the number of chips you have in the Bank by 1.  These give the game a strategic element.

When you land on a card you own, instead of taking points or using its ability, you can add or subtract to the number of chips on it.  The game ends when a player takes his last chip from the Bank.  Whoever has the most points, wins.

The ideas here are really intriguing and I requested it at one of our play sessions.  However, our game…just…did…not…work.  I suspect we may have got caught up in a vicious circle of groupthink, because all we did was visit our own properties, scoring and improving them, until the game came to an end.  There were few takeovers and when you did take a card over, the end result was that the previous owner now had enough chips to take the space back on their next spin of the board.  It was really pretty tedious.  However, the reason I think this was groupthink is that the game has some solid ratings, so I suspect we were the ones at fault.  Besides, when all the players are following the same strategy like this, it can only be a good strategy for one of them (the one who’ll wind up winning).  So the other players need to realize that maintaining the status quo won’t work for them and recognize it early enough to do something about it.  That didn’t happen in our game, which is clearly the players’ fault.  So even though my one game didn’t play well, I still think this is a promising design; if you have the chance to try it, I’d recommend you give it a shot and see if you do a better job of figuring it out than we did.

Patrick Korner – Cheaty Mages!
Designer: Seiji Kanai

Released in 2008, Cheaty Mages! (I will henceforth dispense with the ! in the title because it’s annoying to type) offers up gameplay that is a twist on Reiner Knizia’s Colossal Arena (originally published as Titan: The Arena). Each round, a set of various fantasy creatures fight it out. Depending on their size, they are worth different amount of gold (i.e. points) at the end, assuming they emerge victorious.

Before play starts, each player gets to wager on which monster they think (hope) will win. If you want, you can hail mary and bet on just one monster for maximum payout – or you can back three horses and be satisfied with a little less cash. You can also back only two monsters for that middle-of-the-road feeling.

Each player gets a hand of cards – these cards are spells that the players (the eponymous cheaty mages, you see) can use to affect the battle’s outcome. Some spells are straightforward weakening / strengthening spells, and some are rather more elaborate in their effects. Some cards get played face-up so that all can see what you’ve done, some get played face-down so that their effect is only visible at the end of the round.

Adding to the mix is that each round (battle) is played with a referee on the table – and some refs will let rather more go than others. Some spells are “Forbidden”, which means that they may not be played when certain refs are in play. And exceeding other limits may result in a monster / creature being banished (each spell has a strength, and no more than a certain amount may be spent on any given monster lest the ref notice that they are getting outside help!).

Fast, fun and more than a little chaotic, I like to describe this as Colossal Arena with all the fun put back in. You can try and play this with as much strategy as possible, but eventually you’ll get hosed by someone fireballing your prime monster, getting him disqualified. Better to just have a blast and see what happens. Highly recommended game as long as you don’t mind a little random violence.

Patrick Korner – Fairy Tale
Designer: Satoshi Nakamura

Fairy Tale is one of my favourite card games and one of several Japanese designs to get a US release (in this case by Z-Man). Ostensibly about creating a fairy tale, with characters and chapters, Fairy Tale is a nice mix of card drafting and cardplay.

Each round, each player gets dealt a set of cards. They must choose one to play and pass the rest along to their neighbour. Cards, when played, sometimes have effects that force other cards to get turned face-down (which makes them not count). Others have very nice synergistic effects with other cards you may or may not already have in play, scoring lots of points.

Play continues until the cards have run out, you then do it again (but going in the opposite direction). Repeat one last time in the original direction, then count up the point and see who won.

Fairy Tale uses the ‘booster draft’ mechanic from Magic: The Gathering as its base, and it works tremendously well. You can see what others are doing and either ‘hate draft’ the stuff they desperately need away from them or concentrate on trying to make your own tableau as point-rich as possible. The various colours in the game have some differences in their effects too – especially Black, which as some very unique cards.

The only downside to the game is that the iconography can get lost in the gorgeous artwork, making it a bit tricky for new players to pick up, especially if they’ve never used drafting in a game before (although with 7 Wonders being out now, that’s less of an issue I think). Overall, though, Fairy Tale is a fantastic little game and well worth picking up.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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