Tokyo Game Market, At Last

I made it.

It’s Saturday morning and I couldn’t sleep. I generally can’t sleep but today I’ll finally make it to TGM.

So I was up early. This shot is time stamped 5:48 AM. I saw a few people fishing – and what I think is called microfishing. Otherwise, no one was around. I sat by the bay for a few minutes and finished whatever I had just bought at the conbini.

I’ve seen shots of Tokyo Big Sight and the queue to get in for years, but I was not prepared for how awe inspiring the complex is in person. The section with the four upside pyramids is the conference center, and represents about 55,000 square feet of the complex’s 1.1 million square feet. That’s not where TGM is, but you pass under it to get to the exhibit halls. In one of the photos below, you can see that they appear to be growing a replica of the conference center out of trees on the plaza.

I’m generally a constant low-level anxiety person, and one of the ways it manifests itself is that I plan a lot for things. I like to know what I’m getting myself into.

That’s another reason I’m up at 6 AM walking the complex. I want to experience the space.

I’d arranged to help one booth with their setup – both to be kind and help where I can, but also it would allow me to get into the space early. Any type of picking up games would be strictly forbidden until the halls opened, but that was fine. I just wanted to be able to walk around and take it all in before it was time to start. I’d been warned by several people that it is strongly frowned upon to abuse exhibitor badges for general attendance, so when we were finished setting up, I left, put that badge in my pocket, and waited until I could pick up my press badge which would grant me 90 minute early admittance and some photo privileges.

But we’re still 2 hours early for even the exhibitors. Soon I’ll head back to my hotel for the breakfast buffet – but wait. What’s this. Folks were queued to enter later – 11 AM at the earliest – we’re still 5 hours before that! And it warmed my heart. Each TGM when I post an “anticipation” article and schedule it to post around 7 AM Tokyo time…I always say that it’s for people to read while they are waiting in line, and there’s certainly still language and exposure variables which mean they aren’t necessarily, but it could be true! These were my people.

Breakfast complete, we headed over to set up. You can see the queue growing behind the barrier in the lower left, and behind me on the right, that red arrow points to another show going on at the same time – a reptile show. I’ve rolled my checked bag over to the Sight, still unclear if I’ve prepared enough for the task ahead. My wife says I look like a kindergartener, ready for their first day of school, who hasn’t grown into their backpack.

Here you can see what one area of the convention looks like before setup. Two publishers to each of these small tables. In other areas, one publisher would have a whole table, and later still, two tables per publisher – with one for demos. The larger publishers – like Oink, itten, Taiwan Boardgame Design,, Arclight, and so on – have booths quite a bit larger off to the right of the photo below. Behind the front tables you can also see where some booths have had product pre-delivered for later setup.

Here’s a view from the far end, with the smaller booths in the left half of the photo (here, the ones with demo tables), and the right side the larger publishers. It was a lot of space! One thing I’ll note about the sparseness of the smaller tables and general lack of booth superstructure – it was very enjoyable being able to see what was a few rows down. I loved being able to grab a friend and say “hey, I need to show you this title I just saw” and visually hunt for where that booth was a few aisles over, without visual obstructions.

Let’s go back to my preparation a bit. Here I am, 1 AM the morning of, but realistically the night before, planning out my efforts. Just a wild ball of stress that I’ve made huge mistakes and won’t have enough time in my day to acquire all of the titles I have reserved – let alone the luggage space.

I had considered pre-apportioning my cash for each booth into exact change envelopes, but abandoned that idea. I had bought a few pens at a department store earlier in my trip and was currently using them to color code my map. A few publishers had offered I could stash by luggage at their booth, so I was taking that into account as well. I wouldn’t roll my large suitcase around the space, but could I strategically position it so that midway through picking up titles that day, I would arrive near the suitcase, unpack the bag I was carrying with me, and then make a second pass through the hall for the remaining titles. That just might work.

Using the map which is provided in the Game Market Catalog, I marked a place I would start, in a certain color, and the booths which would be part of the first leg – including which direction I would go up or down certain aisles for the most efficient route. Then, in a different color, the same process for a return trip – my luggage staged at the end of the first leg and start of the second. Titles were prioritized by when their reservation expired and if reservations were possible at all. (Some titles were also outsourced to a friend.) While the map only had the booths and which pass I’d scheduled them for, I had re-sorted my spreadsheet by which day the publisher would be present and by booth order. I would still need to reference my spreadsheet to get the details of which game I was picking up and what I owed.

So that’s the plan. Suitcase strategically positioned; large shopping bag on my shoulder with my map, spreadsheet, an envelope of cash, and my coin purse.

Our setup was finished in around 45 minutes, so it was time to find my press pass. I walked the halls a bit, as I tried to find where I would get the pass or someone who could point me in the direction of where to pick it up. That’s somewhat of a boring process for you to read about, but it did mean a chance to walk the hall.

Things were still far from set up. Some booths would still be setting up as the doors opened, and one booth which I stopped at on the second leg was still assembling copies as folks came to pick up their reservations.

(I need to level with you for a moment: this is a hard post for me to write. It’s a lot of personal stories which it doesn’t necessarily feel right to tell. This is your reminder that I largely write these posts as a diary for myself to look back on – so my apologies if it’s not interesting enough.)

As I looked for where to get the press badge, the surrealness of the trip truly began: a publisher came up to me, recognized me, knew who I was, and referenced a DM I’d sent them more than two years ago. I’m tearing up just thinking about the moment. What is my life. I’m half a world a way from home, wandering in a land I’ve never been to before and not able to understand any of the conversations happening around me – but the connections of the Japanese board game community on twitter are strong enough to induce this moment to precipitate from nothing.

After that interaction, I stumbled down a few more aisles, bewilderedly, as I processed what had just happened. I’d be lightly crying on and off for the remainder of the day.

The place you get the press badge is outside the main hall. (Which I suppose, in retrospect, makes sense. Why was I looking inside?) There was a Google Form where you could pre-register or you could sign up on the spot. One thing it required was a business card. Well, two. One, you attached to a registration form and one you inserted into this yellow arm band which identified you as having a press badge.

It was here, outside the press badge stand when it opened, that I ran into Leon, Matthieu, Yannick, and Ono for the photo at the bottom of the TGiW report.

I had extensively practiced the introductory speech I would say to a booth to let them know I had a reservation, in Japanese: Hello/Good Morning. Nice to meet you. My name is James Nathan. (Another phrase which is a variant of nice to meet you). I have a reservation. But I didn’t have such a phrase prepared for picking up my press badge and it was the most trouble I had on the trip finding someone who could help in English. We got through it with the Google Translate app, but I’ll work on my Japanese for this piece more before the next trip.

The reservation phrase worked most of the weekend. It stopped working Sunday when I just couldn’t get the phrase out of my mouth anymore. I could hear the words in my mind and new what to say, but couldn’t get the rest of my speaking apparatus to go along with all of this Japanese. The piece which worked almost none of the weekend was my name. I’d say my speech, there was a sense of recognition that I had introduced myself, said my name, and had a reservation, but there was a glitch on my name. Maybe it was phenomes to which their ears were unaccustomed, so this is one of the times the yellow arm band came in handy, and the insistence of a friend that I have my name printed in katakana on my business cards. I could simply lean forward, lean in, and point to the business card: immediate recognition on their faces. (I stole a glance at a few reservation forms and my name stuck out. Whenever I reserved a game, I put my name in latin characters, my Twitter handle, and my name in katakana in the name field – inevitably, it looked like the only name in the latin alphabet on the sheet.)

After a bit of conversation with the other fellows in that photo, we headed into the hall. It was still too early to pick anything up, but it was perfect for meeting so many designers I admire, delivering omiyage, and getting introductions done without the crowds and mercantile pressures of an open exhibit hall floor.

Many booths were still getting set up, but I had already found a few items to buy which I hadn’t seen in my preparation – such as the top middle photo below, the three Game Market characters as figurines on the right hand end, or below that, a game with an inflatable globe where you’re marking your private jet’s path with tape.

But soon the halls opened. They have two opening times – once at 11 AM for people who paid extra and a general admission at noon. Before each admission, there was a series of announcements and we all applauded. It’s something I’ve noticed this year in playing games with Japanese friends – there’s a lot of clapping! Your opponent does something great? Don’t bemoan the moment, as that’s not your opponent, it’s your friend: clap! The game is finished and someone won? What fun we had: clap! It’s stuck with me.

How was the actual transactional process of the buying? Great. The sentences I had practiced worked well with the aid of my armband. The cash situation worked out. Most booths were excited to see you, but a few seemed oddly uninterested. At one booth where I had reserved around a dozen titles I had reserved two of one but meant to reserve two of another. Another booth gave me a bonus game for being the first to reserve any of their titles!

One designer seemed to bottle up all of the excitement and passion that was missing from any other booths. I had met her at the Japon Brand event, and while I had hoped to be able to buy her new game, it turned out to be a word game that is structurally dependent on Japanese and won’t work in any other languages. She and I weren’t able to communicate much at all, as she couldn’t speak any English and I can’t speak much Japanese. But! The electricity of her personality is infectious. She so strongly wants to tell you about everything and is a joy. At one point Taylor and I were lost and couldn’t find a booth he needed, but I saw her a few booths away: I knew who I wanted to ask for help. Between her excitement, my limited Japanese, and the map, we found what we needed.

Sometimes I have to be careful with what I think are simple questions. It’s another cultural thing. At home, a person more readily says “I don’t know” or “Ask over there”. In Japan, the person you ask seems to be indebted to helping. I asked one person who I knew spoke a little English if they knew were something was – and they left their booth to find it! There was no one staffing their booth – I urged them to come back as I momentarily stood in front of their booth as if I would be able to help somebody who approached. I’m so grateful for everyone’s endless kindness, but have to watch myself.

At noon, the halls became noticeably more crowded, but I was focused, and it was hard to take in much about such changes. Even with the additional visitors, I only encountered a few booths with lines. The Hobby Japan booth had a line – two in fact, one for games and one for the Cat in the Box gachapon; the Mimaru Board Game Hotel in Osaka had large shopping bags you could get and always a line (when there was stock of the bags); and The Game Gallery’s printed and bound copy of board game reviews. (On Sunday, when the halls are more oriented towards children’s games and RPGs, there were several long lines for RPGs booths I know nothing about – so much to still explore.) There were likely lines at the Oink and itten booths in the morning, or some of the other “A” booths, but I wasn’t in that area until much later in the day.

I also waited in one short line at the Bungu booth to pick up a variety of their creative stationary games, such as the literal roll and write Coropenquest – a roll and write game where you roll your pencil over the game board and the area the tip of the pencil is above is where you mark and the side of the pencil facing up is what you get to mark. How fun! (While in this line, another dreamlike moment: a person called out to me, having recognized me, and thanked me for highlighting Coropenquest in my anticipation post that morning – they were in line to buy it because I had mentioned it. Wha—how…🥺. Lightly crying. All day.)

Then it was somewhere between 1 and 2 and…I was done! Waiwaiwaiwait. Wait. All of this fretting about would I have time to complete my tasks and I was finished. Huzzah! I returned to where my luggage was, loaded things up, and returned to my hotel to unload, cool off, and return without so much baggage. There were a lot of capacity lessons here for next year.

But was I done? An account I didn’t recognize sent me a twitter DM around 4 PM saying I needed to pick up my reservation. Huh? I checked my map. Checked my spreadsheet. I had picked everything up. Unsure what this was about, I stopped by the booth. We tried to have a conversation, but there was too much language barrier, so I showed them the DM – a glint of understanding suddenly in their eyes. One person reached under the counter and handed my a ziplock bag of around 10 cards and now the understanding was in my eyes. I had messaged them 4 months earlier that a game a friend had picked up from them at a previous show was missing a suit of cards and I asked if I could pick one up at the next Game Market. I was so touched that they remembered and embarrassed that I did not.

I found a few titles to buy which had escape my preparation: the joys of wandering in the afternoon with my checklist complete. Twice, I found myself curious about the components I saw, and needed less than a minute’s explanation in a language I didn’t understand before pulling out my wallet. One was a game which involved most of the player’s having their eyes closed while holding a red string aloft with their pinky fingers and doing something until another player grabbed their wrist.  The other is a game about shaking two velvet bags and trying to determine the material of their contents based upon the sound.

But then I saw this game.

First, I saw the game on the left.  Maybe I saw the tablecloth first, but I think it was the blocks. It already seemed inevitable that I would be buying something. Then I saw whose booth it was. Ages 10 and 7, these sisters had their own booth.  The block game came in multiple sizes, from the 10 year old.  The 7 year old had a sort of make-your-own e-sugoroku game. But the joy on their faces when I stopped at all, and I’m sure they could see the admiration in my eyes. 

The 10 year old sold me one of her smaller games – I’ve got the softest heart for everything about this booth, but when the 7 year old saw I was buying her sister’s game and not hers? She held up a copy and gave me such a sullen look.  I melted. I’m the proud owner of both.

With this unexpected free time in my convention schedule, I enjoyed myself. Taylor arrived shortly after his plane landed at 2 PM, and I showed him around, helping with navigation and background on some of the titles I thought he would enjoy. I liked being a concierge – as if I was an expert- 4 hours into my first day of my first time.

And I had a favorite thing to show people when we needed a shopping break.

I mentioned in a preview post somewhere that the size of the hall was close to the size of the Gen Con exhibit hall, and while it is, the density is different. The booths are well spaced, but all fairly centrally located. There’s a lot of unused space around the perimeter, and a large seating area in the middle just to rest. And while the show somewhat explicitly forbids electronic games, there were two exhibition booths – in the sense that nothing was for sale – off to one end which had electronic games of a sort. One of them is deserving of its own post, and maybe an interview, but we’ll have to do that next time. For now, we’ll talk about that booth, but just from my experience hanging out and having _fun_. That small-child-pure, silly, stress-relieving, joyous fun: make. ctrl. Japan 4.

First up, this reverse whack-a-mole game. It was a come-and-go game where you could exit or enter the game as you’d like – it just continued as a single take throughout the convention. You’d climb under those astroturf topped tables, and occasionally poke your head up. There were cameras around the openings which would detect when you were out of your hole. The screen showed a mallet which would head towards any of the people with their head sticking up – and you had to duck before it got there. There was a running counter for each person showing how many seconds you’d been able to stick your head through without getting smashed. So fun.

Next, this washboard game. For some of the games, you had a sense of how the controls worked, but many of the games stunned you with how their electronic interface operated. Here, the child is rubbing the towel back and forth across the washboard to splash water on the monster in the game! The monster sometimes tries to throw a grenade – and if you angle up the washboard, as you would if you were the woman at the river trying to use it as a shield to reflect the grenade back, well, that’s what would happen in the game! So clever.

Now we’re in a dessert factory. We’re operating a robot whose sole purpose is to top desserts with a strawberry. The controls? A pedal you push with your foot to advance the conveyer and a bicycle pump you use to raise and lower the robot’s arm. Some desserts had a high center of gravity and the strawberry would need to be placed exactly centered or the parfait would topple. Others needed three strawberries and you had to hurry. So creative!

I’m not sure I have the video game background to appreciate this one, and I couldn’t quiiiiite follow what was happening from watching, but there’s something about it…. The game appeared to continually “glitch”, but on purpose. The controls for the game were smacking the pretend console, as you might a vintage system when it was acting up. So meta.

But this is the one we need to talk about. It’s a platform scroller, where you are the last person in a band of four. The first three are controlled by the system, and they will vanquish all ghosts and slimes and other enemies which they reach. You are some sort of gravedigger at the end of the line. When the corpses reach you, inter them.

But it’s also a rhythm game. Bury them to the beat.

And the controls are popsicle sticks.

That you’re stabbing into a trough of sand.

I mean…WHAT!! Sugoi!

(And I can’t get over that it doesn’t matter how many popsicle sticks are there. Maybe I could wrap my head around how it worked if you were simply taking one popsicle stick and putting it in and out and in and out. But that’s not this. You just kept jabbing.) So rad!

Here’s something else which was going on. Masato Uesugi had released a game that morning to play while you were at Game Market this weekend! Known as DUEL BOY, each copy comes with a unique pack of 7 trading cards, a divider card, and a sticker. It is a trading card game designed to be played without a table, as you wait in line at such an event. The sticker says DUEL BOY and is there so you can affix it to yourself and find opponents.

Eating and drinking. I thought I had been under the impression that there wasn’t anywhere to get food at Big Sight, but that wasn’t the case (though I only experienced this wing.) Upstairs from the hall was a sort of food court and there were vending machines for drinks (and I bought an ice cream bar from one) throughout the space outside the hall. I had taken snacks in my bag, so I didn’t try out any of these, but should note that they seemed to close around 5, so they wouldn’t work as a dinner or later snack plan.

What did the final haul look like? Well, I don’t have a photo of that. Through gifts, errands, and my own purchases, there was a steady stream of additions. Here’s what they looked like packed. The white suitcase (49.9 pounds) would be checked, and the other two (blue/red 24.6 pounds; green 15.9 pounds) would be my carry-ons.

Well, that’s not entiiiiirely true. Check this out. There’s a shipping station at the back of TGM! (I say back here, but in context, I only ever used the exhibitor/press doors – which are actually the back. What is the back to me is the front for most attendees.)

One of the mistakes I made, and surely that’s not the right word, but one place where I thought I was optimizing but actually made things a bit worse, was I didn’t order anything online to be shipped from booth, etc. I was basing my luggage needs and pickup volumes on what I had previously had friends acquire for me – but I was always supplementing those in the background with online orders to ease the burden on them.  Now I had much more than I could reasonably take home. A few times I apologized to a designer that I would not be picking up my reservation, but would order from booth at a later date, as I had run out of space.

So I visited the Yamamoto Transport booth. I’m actually there to mail two packages – one to myself in Tokyo, as Yamamoto only ships intra-Japan, and one to…stay with me: a friend’s mom in Okinawa to pass to someone she knows to mail from the local military base to a friend who is stationed at a US Navy base in Italy. Still there? The cost to ship from a military base abroad to another one?  Free! Hot dog!

But. I had waited until the end of Sunday and they were out of boxes large enough.  That is not “they were out of boxes which had enough volume for the games I wanted to ship to myself”, but rather “no box available had a single dimension large enough for the single game I was laundering through the military bases to Italy”.  It was a big one!  

I talked to the person staffing the first half of the Yamamoto booth (there were two phases – packing, then shipping), who had reasonable enough English, and suggested I use what appeared to be some boxes discarded behind a booth, but no.  He was adamant I not use those, and started pointing down the way and saying “trash box”.  “Trash box, use trash box.”  He got out a map of the hall and pointed down the way to the dumpster.  Perfect I thought.  That’s exactly what I need!  

I returned with 2 trash boxes and packed up my games.  It was 50 yen for a meter of bubble wrap – roughly 38 cents.  In a piece of cultural exchange I haven’t figured out yet, the staff was very hesitant to give me much bubble wrap and wanted to confirm each time, as if 50 yen was a lot of money – was I sure? Did I really want more? Yes.  Keep it coming. 

So you pay the person who helps you pack, they can help you fill out the shipping form, then you take your box down to the shipping station where they’ll determine the shipping costs and take your money again – pay twice: once for packing and once for shipping.

Though…those weights I gave you above were after I’d shipped two boxes 🫣.

Alright, but anyway here’s most of what I picked up.

This has been mostly Saturday stories. I have a heart-ful of Sunday memories, but not many stories. Just one more to tell.

A friend I had met earlier in the week – not a designer, not a publisher – but who I’ve talked with on and off on twitter over the years, through machine-translated messages, asked if I would be attending on Sunday. They wanted their child and partner to meet me. 😭

These relationships… It’s about so much more than the games and the playing and the collecting and the licensing. Forming these connections in spite of so many barriers is simply magical. 💛

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4 Responses to Tokyo Game Market, At Last

  1. Valerie says:

    Such beautiful story telling! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Great article! Any hot tips for good games that came out this year?

    • xitoliv says:

      Great question! It’s getting hard for me to comment too much on specific releases, as I’m probably keeping those close the vest, hoping to license them (or having already licensed them).

      I have really been enjoying Nuts a GoGo though, and I posted a review today for Roll & Write Railroads which is pretty special. The new version of Chicken Domino, now called Judge Domino, is even better than the original. Make the Difference has been fun too.

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