Designer: Shimamuranao (シマムラナオ)
Artist: Yamauchi Rock Boy (ヤマウチロックボーイ)
Publisher: ハレルヤロックボーイ (Hallelujah Rockboy)
Times Played: 7 on a purchased copy
四畳半ペーパー賽系 is a game about how you’ll spend your last year of college life. Balancing romance, schoolwork, friendships, hobbies, and a part-time job. Who’ll have the most fulfilling time, as they fill in their four-and-a-half tatami mat room with memories.
For me, it was just a final semester. Romance was a fiancee 13 hours away. Schoolwork was, well, I should’ve followed through better in that computer science class. Friendships were subleasing Mike’s room while he was in Bulgaria for the semester, meaning Vinnie and Casey as roommates with Sunday trips to the Urbana farmer’s market and friends for dinner. The ceramics work that had started as a hobby had become school work too, and was expanding in both of those arenas. The part-time job was in the “RBX”, the rare book room.
…but that’s not the intro to this review.
I can’t focus and the words aren’t coming to me.
Let’s watch a little something.
There are many things that get lost in the translation of games from one culture to another. Here it happens on many levels. The name of the game is 四畳半ペーパー賽系. The boardgamegeek website requires some Latin characters in order for the system to function properly, so some games are entered with their name as JP (EN). If there is an official translation of sorts, that can be used for the EN name. Other times there isn’t, and the “romaji” is used, a translation that attempts to maintain the pronunciation of the original language, rather than imprecisely translate the meaning.
Some games have cultural aspects that are less familiar when played afar, such as the kotatsu here.
But also the name –it roughly translates as “Four and a Half Tatami Mat Room”, and that’s what I usually refer to it as colloquially, but there’s an allusion in the title that was lost on me until I saw Saigo refer to the game as “The Tatami Paper Dice Galaxy”.
Huh. That seems far removed from the title I would’ve expected, but Saigo is a treasure and always a font of information. In a further tweet, he linked to the Wikipedia page for the Japanese novel, anime, and film, 四畳半神話大系 (The Tatami Galaxy).
Let’s take a break back to the game. How about a cover photo:
Huh. Look at that. Maybe this is what I needed for where to start. I’ll watch the anime, find a translation of the novel, and look for connections to the game. Whew. This article was going to take a bit of work and dedication. Providentially, I contacted the designer, who told me that it wouldn’t be necessary: there was no content or mechanical connection between the materials.
Anyway, like I was saying at the beginning, it’s a game about filling your dorm room with memories in your last year of college. It’s a flip and roll and write where you’re coloring in polyominoes on a floor plan of your room, and the different colors represent the different aspects of your life: green is your friends; purple your hobbies; red is romance; yellow is your part-time job; and blue is your school work.
The player with the most points after 12 months (turns) will win, and points will come from a selection of end game scoring cards and static color-specific scoring criteria. (Some of the color-specific criteria are a bit wonky to explain, but each makes sense once you parse it.)
This is one of those 1 to 100 player games, so we don’t need to worry about whose turn it is or different rules for active and passive players. It is simultaneous, but not real time, so you also don’t need to worry about any sort of pressure from the pacing.
The shapes you will draw come from a conveyor of polyomino cards (both 4 and 5 square shapes). Each month, any player will roll the dice, and then assign them based upon their value to the 5 face up cards: 1s to the first card, 2s to the second, and so forth. Any 6s go to the face down discard pile. The combination of the dice and the corresponding card determines which shapes can be drawn in which color, with each card showing any necessary chiralities on the back, and each card providing the option to draw a 1×2 square shape instead.
As an example from the row above, you could choose to draw the “W” in yellow or green, or the 1×4 straight in red.
The first shape you color can be anywhere, and future shapes will need to be adjacent, though two shapes of the same color cannot be adjacent. As you would expect, don’t try to squeeze shapes in the room in a way that they hang off the edge or overlap the printed black squares (though it is permissible to cross the mat edges.)
Once each player has drawn a shape, the card in the 5 slot is turned face down on the discard pile, the other cards are slid down, and a new card is revealed. There are just enough cards, so once you reveal the last card of the deck, that’s your last shape.
For each mat that you fill in completely, you’ll earn some points and 1 yen. Each time you collect money, you’ll add it to your wallet on the score sheet. During the game you can spend 1, 2, or 3 yen for various special abilities. Each time you draw a yellow shape you’ll also earn another 1 yen.
For green scoring, you’ll check off 1 box per shape you’ve drawn, and earn the next amount of points that you have not checked off.
Purple is your hobbies, and you want to share them with your friends. Purple scores 2 points for each purple square (not shape, square) that is adjacent to at least 1 green square.
Red rewards drawing the shapes you’ve drawn in red in other colors as well. For each square (not shape) that you draw in a shape that you’ve also drawn in red, you earn 1 point.
Blue is your school work, and you need to make sure not to have been a super-slacker. You can cross off 1 blue box per mat, provided blue is not the least populous color on that mat. (Have a little bit of blue everywhere.)
Players will lose 1 point per empty square on the mat with the most empty squares, and some end game scoring cards will double any negative points if a player hasn’t met a certain criteria.
It’s a puzzle. The scoring cards will dictate some of your strategy –possibly rewarding filling two mats completely, without any yellow squares; or two complete horizontal rows and vertical columns filled. Four times, color in 4 square polyominoes.
But the die rolls will as well. You need this shape, but not in that color. You want that color, but not in this shape. The conveyor lets you plan a bit, as you know how many turns the shape will be available. It’s just a matter of will the color you need land there. (Or did you hogtie your own plans if you need such a specific combination!)
Our scores have varied wildly. -2 to 104. Every few games I think I cracked the code: I need to make sure I don’t do X or that I focus on Y. Each game, though, turns out to be a bit more idiosyncratic than that.
You never quite know if you’ve made the best decision, but that’s the game. I talk a lot about how I like games that are at a certain spot on the tactical/strategic spectrum, and this one feels almost quantifiable. I know that I’ll have (essentially) 5 choices of shapes to draw each turn, and while the possibilities of where to place them are important, those decisions are generally move straight-forward than which die to choose.
Strategically, I know I want to work on those scoring cards, but how do I value and how do I prioritize which shapes I draw when? Do I have a plan to try to maximize red points by drawing any red shape when I can in the 1 or 2 slot, as those will be on the conveyor for a bit and I should be able to repeat in other colors. Do I focus on hobbies with my friends, as it counts 3 times: once in green and twice in purple! For 3 yen, you can draw a second shape on a turn; you start with one, and surely you’ll get at least one from filling in a mat, so do you draw a yellow shape to get one more? That one should be free, as it earns you an extra shape and took up some squares that otherwise would be empty….right? Do I focus on drawing 5-square polyominoes whenever possible, as over the course of the game, 25% extra filled squares can add up.
Sorry, that paragraph got away from me! What I wanted to get to was that in triaging what shape to draw each month, you can mostly get it down to 2 or 3 without much trouble, and it’s never just 1. So many shapes aren’t in the right position, or would be an illegal placement. Your tactical decisions for the turn (color/shape and location) are delightfully and directly influenced by your strategic goals (discussed above).
But you don’t know what the future holds. Is it a time to pivot. A time to throw in the towel. Or is it more of a doubling down situation. These decisions are treasures.
Turns out I have one more thing to say.
Sometimes in the research I do for these posts, I surprise even myself. In tracking down the connections to The Tatami Galaxy, I ran across this tweet, showing an early cover of the game:
Hey, that cover looks familiar. When I was still trying to see if I should track down The Tatami Galaxy to read or watch, I found this cover for a guide to The Tatami Galaxy
But our mystery here is not a second cover for the game with strong allusions to material from the series already alluded to in the title. No, it’s the second cover. Why (and how) was this previous edition of the game? The dates too: this game came out at the Fall Tokyo Game Market in November 2019, but this tweet with the brown cover is from May 2019.
I had mostly written off this mystery. Must have been a prototype cover that was never final.
But then I went to write these words. I dug back through the tweets to find the one above with the brown cover. Then I clicked through the replies, just a little curious about…what was this edition?
That’s when I found it:
Wait! That’s me?! I had tried to have somebody buy this game for me before? It all started to come back to me. From my DM’s:
I love Gossip and the City from the same publisher, but this is before I had it. My friend Jason, who I’m eternally grateful to for picking up many many games for me over the last several Game Markets, had picked up my pre-order the day before and I was frantically somehow still burdening him with more things, as I had seen a tweet where the same design group would have a new game available around noon, for around $5.
Designed on Saturday and sold on Sunday!? I didn’t need more ways to fall in love with Tokyo Game Market.
But alas, it wasn’t to be. I of course told him I would not be heartbroken, and, as we’ve seen together, I had put it well out of my mind. (Besides, he ended up grabbing it for me a few months later, it’s just that neither of us even knew it was the same game!)
I reached out to the designer once I realized the situation this week. The main mechanic of the dice, card conveyor, and coloring shapes has been consistent, and the designer admits that the Spring version could have used some work. That version did not have the event scoring cards; only the first player to fill each mat was awarded points; and the red shapes were scored differently.
While I love the version I have, I’d still give that Spring version a try someday. :)
(Did I just throw myself a surprise review?)
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum (1 play):I am a little tired of roll-and-write games, but this one is better than most of the recent crop; until you get near the end of the game it’s always possible to do something positive on a turn, it’s just a question of what, and what consequences that play has for future turns. (I have played other R&W games where there are too many turns where you can’t accomplish anything.) I hesitate to say “I love it” after just one play, but I do like it and would happily play more. My only quibble is that, while in theory you can play with any number, playing with more than maybe three players seems as if it will require a bunch of extra colored pens or pencils to avoid slowing the game down.
Jonathan F. (1 play): I knew nothing about this game and am not a fan of Roll/Flip & Writes. That said, I quite enjoyed Cartographers within this genre and this game has a nice and somewhat similar feel to it. The theme is as thin as a tatami mat, but there are moments of satisfaction when you notice a high scoring play that you had somehow missed before.
Dale Y. (1 play) I really liked this one. It was a delicate balance of having some foresight of the shapes available on the conveyor belt, but tied to the randomness of needing the right color to come up with that shape. If you got the right color/number combination early in the life of the card on the conveyor, do you risk choosing something else and hoping you get lucky again later? Who knows. Also, be sure to remember that each card is the conveyor is unique; once a shape is gone, you’re never going to get to draw it again. I have only played once, but I want to play this one more. Perhaps when James Nathan gets the other version, he’ll have an extra one to sell to a friend.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it! James Nathan, Dale Y
I like it. Dan Blum, Jonathan
Not for me…