Dale Yu: First Impressions of Nippon



  • Designers: Paulo Soledade and Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro
  • Publisher: What’s Your Game?
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: 90-120 mins
  • Times Played: 2, with review copy provided by What’s Your Game?


In Nippon, players take on the role of industrial magnates that are trying to help modernize Japan during the Meiji period.  By making shrewd investments, players try to have the most influence over the growth and industrialization of the new economy.

The board shows the map of Japan, split into 4 regions. There are 2 cities in each of the regions, each with a city tile placed on it. The top of the board has the action spaces, each with three randomly drawn workers placed on it.  There is also a box with rows of workers lined up, ready to move into the action space area.  There are 6 different types of factories (silk, paper, bento, lenses, clocks and light bulbs) which are separated by type.  Reward tiles are sorted and placed in the lower right of the board as well.  There is a Scoring track on the board which has 8 spaces on it, the Scoring Marker is placed on the first space.

The humongous board

The humongous board

Each player gets a player board which has are for his budget, ships, and trains.  There are also three tracks on the board where the player notes his coal, money and knowledge.   There is a track at the top of the board to store collected workers.  Each player also receives a set of the 8 different types of contracts.  Each player also receives a blueprint tile of value 1.

Player board

Player board

The game is played clockwise around the board which each player taking a turn consisting of either 1) choosing a worker or 2) consolidating.  Note that you must choose to consolidate if your worker track on your player board is filled with workers in all six slots.

If a player chooses to take a worker, he takes any worker from any of the five action spaces on the board.  This worker is placed on the leftmost free space of the worker track on his player board.  Then, you must do one of the actions depicted in the space where the worker came from.

  • In the first slot, you can choose from Knowledge or Production.
  • In the second slot, you choose from Exporting or Investing.
  • In the third slot, you choose from Mining or Shipping.
  • In the fourth slot, you choose from Machinery or Trains
  • In the final slot, you supply the Local Markets.
Action slots at the top of the board

Action slots at the top of the board

The actions will be described now in a different order as they build upon each other.

Choosing Knowledge allows you to move up the Knowledge track 1, 2, or 3 spaces for 1000, 3000 or 6000 yen.

Choosing Mining allows you to move up the Coal track 1, 2, or 3 spaces for 1000, 3000 or 6000 yen.

When you Invest, you build a factory.  You choose any unbuilt factory tile and place it in front of you – assuming you meet the criteria to build it.  You must have enough Yen to pay the cost and you must have a requisite amount of Knowledge to build it.  If you do not have enough Knowledge, you can discard Blueprint tiles to make up the difference.  You are also limited to only having one Factory tile that produces any particular good.  Each factory also comes with a Synergy bonus which can be either a one-time bonus or an ongoing effect.

Examples of factories

Examples of factories

When you choose Machinery, you are making up to 3 improvements, each at a cost of 5,000 yen.  Each factory can take a Machinery tile (baseline level 1), and each Machinery tile can be upgraded once to bring it to level 2.

If you want to Produce, you run 1 to 3 of your factories.  You pay coal from your player board for each Factory that you wish to run, and then each one makes a good.  Additional goods are made for each level of machinery that you have in that factory.

If you choose Trains, you build 1 to 3 Trains for 5,000 yen each.  Each region on the board has an area for 8 combined Trains or Ships.  You must place each Train built this turn in a different region.  These Trains will help gain you influence during the Scoring phases.

If you choose Ships, you build 1 to 3 Ships for 5,000 yen each. Each region on the board has an area for 8 combined Trains or Ships.  You must place each Ship built this turn in a different region.  These Ships will help you score VPs during the Scoring phases.

Examples of trains and ships

Examples of trains and ships

If you choose to Export, you fulfill 1 to 3 Contracts – each player started the game with a set of 8 different Contracts, each of which has different requirements of cubes to be fulfilled.  If you are able to pay the correct amount of goods from your factories, you score VP, yen and/or steps on the money track as depicted on the contract tile.



Finally, you can serve the Local Markets.  To do this, you choose to place your influence markers next to the city tiles on the board.  Each tile shows four goods, each with a slot next to that good.  For each influence tile you wish to place, you remove 1-3 goods from your factory which makes that good.  There is a chart on the lower right of the board which tells you which value Influence tile you get to play depending on how many of which good you discarded.  You can place your Influence marker in any empty space OR a space which has a lower valued Influence marker.  You can place up to three tiles, discarding the appropriate cubes for each one.  For each tile placed, you take the Region bonus (5000 yen, 2 Coal, 2 VP or 2 Blueprints – the specific bonus is printed on the board near the city).

Here is one player's supply of Influence tiles

Here is one player’s supply of Influence tiles

Once you take your action, you then check to see if the action space is empty (i.e. has no more workers).  If so, you then refill the space with the three workers from the uppermost occupied Worker row.  If all of the Worker rows are empty, you refill every action slot back up to three workers – taking workers at random from the bag.  The five Worker rows are then also refilled.  Finally, you move the Scoring marker one space to the right.  The Scoring Marker is moved ahead one space on the track; a Scoring Round is triggered after spaces 2, 4, and 8.  The last three spaces on the track are gold in color.  Once the marker is moved into the gold spaces, each player has three more turns left in the game – the marker moves forward after each player has taken a turn.

But let’s go back to the original choice – you can either take a worker (and do an action) or you could consolidate.  When you consolidate, you must first fix your budget.  You take all of your current Yen tokens and Coal cubes and discard them.  You then replace them with Yen and Coal equal to your current standing on the Yen and Coal tracks on your player board.  You then get an Emperor’s Award if you have three or more Workers on the track at the top of your board – you look at the number over the rightmost Worker in the track and then take a tile from the corresponding column in the Reward area of the board (in the lower right).  This award tile is then placed on an empty Achievement space on the player board – more on this in the Scoring section.  Finally, you have to pay for your workers – 3000 yen per different colored worker; losing 2VP for each color you cannot pay for.


Again, there are three scoring phases in the game, each triggered by the Scoring Track found on the board.  You calculate the player’s Influence in each region – numbers on the influence tiles surrounding each city as well as any Train tiles (as long as you have at least one Influence tile in the region).  You also calculate a virtual player score with the influence numbers printed on the board.  Then you rank the player’s influence (and the Virtual player).  VPs are awarded for first, second and third most influence – based on the chart found in the bottom right.  Furthermore, if you are in first or second place, you also score the VPs found on your ship tiles.

VP chart here in the upper right. Below it is the grid to tell you what sort of influence marker you can take

VP chart here in the upper right. Below it is the grid to tell you what sort of influence marker you can take

At the end of the game (after the 3rd region scoring), there is also a final scoring based on your achievements.  On your player board are 9 different achievements, and each of them could have a reward tile placed on them; this reward tile was received during consolidation.  On the reverse side of this tile is a multiplier ranging from 2x to 5x – the higher multipliers are in the column from having the most workers.

Two of the tiles have a 1x multiplier printed on them; if there is no other Award tile on them, you will at least score their simple value.  The other 7 areas do not have a multiplier on them, if there is no award tile – you will not score anything.  Otherwise, you multiply the base value of that area with the multiplier on the back of the award tile.

The bonus criteria are:

  • VP per 2 completed contracts
  • VP for knowledge track progress (auto x1)
  • VP for coal track progress
  • VP for each advanced factory built
  • VP for each +2 Machinery tile built on a factory
  • VP for each 6000 yen left over (auto x1)
  • VP for each star symbol seen on a Ship space on your player board
  • VP for each star symbol seen on a Train space on your player board
  • VP for each region where you have an Influence tile

My thoughts on the game

Like you would probably expect from What’s Your Game?, Nippon is a very complex game with many interwoven mechanisms.  This is the sort of game that I’d really recommend reading through the rules a few times before your first play because there’s a lot of things to figure out.  With all of the moving parts, you usually want to do three or four different actions on your turn – when, of course, you can only do one.

In the end, the game is very much about taking a lot of smaller steps that combine together to get you where you want to go.  In order to serve the local market, you need to have the right goods.  In order to have the right goods, you need to have built the right factories, and of course, to build the right factories, you would have had to have enough knowledge to get them on the board.  You may have also chosen to add machinery to that factory in order to make it more efficient.  But – no matter how efficient your factory is, it cannot make goods without having enough coal to power it – so you can’t neglect your progress on the coal track.  But, you’ll probably never get all of these different actions to happen in the order that you want (or if you do have them all, you’ll have spent so much time optimizing your engine that you’ll be behind everyone else in terms of production!) – so sometimes you just have to make the best of your current situation.  And then once you have the goods on the board, you may want to allocate more time to that region by placing Trains or Ships in order to increase your influence or make it a more lucrative region.  

Early on in the game, you really need to focus on getting your production issue set up – without goods cubes, it’s hard to do anything to score points.  Once you have your initial factories going though, you have a wide selection of actions/directions to go in – though there are plenty of things that could modify your choice of action.  You might choose a particular action because you need (or want to avoid) a particular color of meeple from the action selection area.

In my still limited experience with the game, the scoring from the region majorities seems to be the best way to gain VPs.  Though there are a number of different ways to score points, the values of the other VP sources do not seem to add up to those gained from the second and third round Influence scoring.  I would not say that this necessarily imbalances the game, but it does cause me to focus more on getting my goods to the board with the highest influence markers possible.  Until proven otherwise, I will stick with this approach to the game, and it has served me well thus far.

The other caution I’d give to new players is to fully understand the timing of the game – because if you don’t, the end game will sneak up on you and you won’t be ready for it.  The turn track moves along slowly at first, only being triggered by each refill of the worker area.  However, the final three spaces on that track each only last a single round!  Yes, those spaces are a different color so that you remember this important distinction – but it’s still something that can catch you off guard in your first play.  (I now use the analogy that this track is kind of like the gas gauge in my first car… it would essential be at full or three-fourths for the entire week, and then all of a sudden, my gas light is on, and I’m panicking for a gas station…)

The artwork and design is clean, and I have found all the information easy to read.  There is a lot of information that needs to be digested, and the summaries on the board as well as the clean iconography on the components helps reduce any confusion.  There are tons and tons of components, and it does take a little bit of time to organize all the bits in the setup of the game – but the rules offer clear instructions on how to get everything to the right spot.

Overall, Nippon is a solid game, but perhaps still a little more convoluted than what I’m looking for for a “usual” game night of mine.  That being said, it is among the lighter releases from WYG in the past years, and games should come in under two hours – also on the lighter end of recent WYG stuff.  Though I’ve only played twice, it does seem like the game wants to funnel you towards a fight for board majorities and leaves the other scoring methods (achievements and multipliers) to be more of a tie-breaker than a winner determinant.  I could, of course, be off base in that characterization of the game as I have only played it twice, but my readings online and conversations with other gamers have shown me that I’m not the only one who has considered this.  If you’re a fan of games such as Vinhos, Zhan Guo, etc – I think that you’ll like this game, it’s a bit less clunky than those as well as markedly faster to play.


Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers


Alan How –  This company produces games that I tend to like. This is because I like the level of complexity that they introduce into games, so I was predisposed to like this game already. As Dale has already highlighted, the game as many moving parts, which is a feature of this company’s style. My initial impressions of the game were favourable as I like the cleanliness of the game systems as they presented straightforward options. In particular, I like the way the workers are presented as there were sufficient choices that I allowed for the level of planning I like in the game. This particular game system did not allow the previous player to disrupt my plans too much, so no matter what they did I was left with options that were consistent with my earlier thoughts.


What really distinguishes this game for me, is the way the buildup of game systems allow you to plan what you might do for the game ending position. Not everything is perfect that this game though. I believe that the majority of the victory points, or a least a sufficient number come from the area majority elements. You need to be aware of this when you play your games. The main area that causes contention in my group is the displacement of influence tokens. If you know that this is a likely development within the game then this could change your opinion from liking the game to disliking it. While I understand this viewpoint, the solutions appear to be placing influence markers that cannot be replaced by other people’s markers by placing the level 7,5 and 3 influence markers. As you can see from my overall rating, I see this as part of the game rather than a weakness. However it is inconsistent with a game that allows personal build up and timing of actions and selections to be the main interaction rather than direct conflict.

Dan Blum – Nippon is definitely somewhat convoluted, but I found it to be much less so than Madeira (by the same designers) or some other What’s Your Game? titles. The different parts of the game seemed fairly well-integrated, and while I think Dale is correct that the local market scoring is the most important, I don’t think that’s a problem – it just means the game has a central focus, which is fine. I don’t think you can ignore other ways to score, particularly the end-game multipliers. Since I’ve only played once I don’t know how I will end up feeling about it, but I would definitely like to play again.


Larry (1 play) – My only game was largely a learning one, but I was favorably impressed.  It’s considerably less complex and interconnected than Madeira and Panamax, which are by the same designers, and for me, that is definitely a Good Thing.  The action selection system works well; it’s kind of a first cousin to Marco Polo’s, where you can always take any action, but it might wind up costing you money.  The game is multifaceted without being overwhelming.  Many of your points (maybe about two thirds) will come from the board play, which is based on majorities, but given the theme and mechanics, that doesn’t seem inappropriate.  You board placements can be dislodged, but overall, it didn’t seem that mean spirited to me.  There’s also a good chunk of VPs available from the endgame.  Nippon is definitely a good game; now I’ll have to try to get it played some more, to see if it can rise to greatness.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Alan H
  • I like it. Larry L, Dan B, Rick V
  • Neutral. Dale Y, Luke H, Lorna, Jonathan F, John P
  • Not for me…. Craig V


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.
This entry was posted in Essen 2015, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Dale Yu: First Impressions of Nippon

  1. How about only listing listing ratings from folks who provide at least some comment to explain their rating?

    • Dale Yu says:

      Curt – thanks for the comment – in general, we still list ratings from people who haven’t also written comments because it sometimes still helps to see what people rated things. Or, if you are familiar with the other games that particular reviewer has rated, just seeing the rating might still help you get some context.

      In any event, it’s no better or worse that the majority of BGG ratings which are simply a number without any other context.\

      (Personally, I’d love it if more of the OG writers gave comments on a game when they added a rating, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time/desire/etc)

  2. rprasadusa says:

    I played this twice at BGG.CON — loved it! There are enough moving parts to make it really interesting, but not so much that you’re totally overwhelmed. If I had this, I think it would be much easier to get to the table, too (unlike Madeira, for example: I’ve only played 2 half games of that one!).

  3. Thanks for the review Dale, also Alan How for loving Nippon ;)
    Cheers from Portugal

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