Like any creative work, board games are universal. You’ll find them anywhere, including Japan, emerging with the unique bent of their designers and the world they live in. Exploring Japanese board games, then, is a chance to put a new twist on familiar mechanics, awesome art to go with classic play. If you’re looking to refresh your collection with a touch of Japan, or find a striking game from Japan to pull out at the bar, a party, or in your dining room, take a trip overseas to Japan.
You’ll like what you find from Japan.
Small Box Party
A treasured small box game from Japan is a delight multiplier: short setup time, quick rules, and low impact on storage space. OINK and Jun Sasaki from Japan are a killer combo for games like these, starting with known party classics like A Fake Artist Goes to New York, in which real artists must confound a hidden ‘fake’ by drawing poorly enough to disguise the end picture, thus catching out the fake when they scribble the wrong thing. Fast and great for artists and non-drawers alike, this little pink box from Japan is perfect to toss on the coffee table for casual pick-up plays.
Sasaki also dives into unusual themes to create unique experiences, like Hey Yo, where you and your pals work to play cards in time with a song’s rhythm. Literally. As in, slapping the right cards down every few seconds or so to keep the song going. Simple to learn, difficult to master, but so easy to reset and give the beat another go, a true testament to Japan’s game design.
Insider Black, another OINK game from Japan, alongside its progenitor Insider, puts you and your pals into a ‘20 Questions with a Traitor’ setup. The ‘insider’ attempts to get the rest of the group to guess the word, which only they and the master know, but must do so while concealing their own identity. In other words, ask the best, out-of-nowhere questions and you’ll lose. Give the other players too little help and they might not guess the word in time. A tricky balance, and an easy one to play just about anywhere, showcasing the versatility of Japan’s board games.
Dexterity games are like fine scotch or a special release beer: perfect for special occasions. Naotaka Shimamoto from Japan has designed arguably the craziest one out there with Crash Octopus, where you are trying to save your cargo from, yes, a ridiculous octopus. Every turn sees you flicking your ship or some choice cargo around the board, trying to avoid the octopus, which gets its own chance to move by, yes, dropping dice on its head.
Does it sound crazy? Of course. Is it hilarious? Absolutely.
Shimamoto often works with Itten Games, a publisher of quirky titles from Japan like Judge Domino and Stick Collection that play well with all ages. Stick Collection challenges players to identify stick lengths from distance, giving an instant win to someone able to snag 4 of the same length by sight alone. A great choice to start game night or your next eye exam! Judge Domino is similar, asking you to set up a domino line, except you can call out players who drop their domino in a spot that won’t let the whole line fall.
Sure, we’re not talking Twilight Imperium here, but part of board gaming is the quick filler, the frosting on the cake. Any of these make for fifteen minute starters to ease into your evening with a Japanese flair.
Towns and Trains
But it’s not all small box starters. Hisashi Hayashi from Japan brings heavier designs with a Japanese flavor, like Yokohama, a game where you and your pals are merchants amid a flourishing Meiji-period city. In a realistic version of worker-placement, you’ll be dropping assistants on various tiles, scouting them out for their potential, before sending your president (or the main worker) to those places to perform actions. Naturally, two presidents can’t share the same tile—can’t be seen with rivals, after all—so you’ll get that classic blocking flavor while you all scrabble for the best spots.
But, if it starts with a familiar, competitive core, Yokohama builds on worker placement by adding variety to those spaces. If you choose to concentrate your assistants all in one spot, you’ll sacrifice flexibility for added power when your president stops by, letting you build shops or trading houses to earn bonuses, including those coveted points (it’s all about the points, people). Or maybe you spread out, leaping from spot to spot and hoping your empire is worth more than the sum of its parts. Adopting a point salad mindset, Yokohama gives you chance after chance at fulfilling contracts, snagging one of several random achievements, and earning majorities in several areas.
What makes Yokohama a more satisfying points buffet is the planning and adaptation needed to swing victory in your favor: different achievements, a modular board, and a balance across various routes mean you can’t decide on a single strategy and deploy it every time the game hits the table. Instead, you’ll need to play off your opponent’s moves, find efficient ways to place your assistants and your president, and try to snag the right spot on the church and customs track.
In the crowded world of worker-placement games, coupling a neat theme with variability is a good way to keep people coming to the table. Pair this with a lead-in like Crash Octopus, some sushi and saké, and you’ll get a great Japanese game night.
All that said, I’d be remiss mentioning Hayashi without dropping Trains. This game, about building a train network around Osaka and other cities, solves a particular complaint around Dominion, the popular deckbuilder. In Dominion, you’re given a variable set of cards to buy for your deck, all in service of creating a point generation engine. There’s no real board, no real connection between the deck you’re building and what, say, is happening.
Just playin’ cards, gettin’ points.
And that’s fine! Obviously, given its many expansions, Dominion’s gameplay is beloved (and it is pretty great, especially once your group starts counter-buying and smashing into one another). Trains, though, seeks to tie all that deck work into something tangible, and succeeds at, perhaps, the cost of sheer volume.
In Trains, you’ll be adapting your deck to better build those rail routes, place stations, and take over the map. It’s not complicated, but you’ll find yourself immersed in dropping track, blocking opponents, and deciding how to handle waste cards that can clog your deck if you go too fast. If you like Dominion or other deckbuilders like Clank!, Trains is going to offer you a familiar flavor with some great new features.
Should you prefer a puzzly solo outing, consider Coffee Roaster, by Saashi. A small box title with a playing time perfectly matched to a strong brew, Coffee Roaster presents you with a challenge faced by every would-be cuppa crafter: turn those beans into something beautiful.
Roasting coffee varieties into delicious drinks requires drawing beans from a bag, advancing their roast level. Smoke tokens and burnt beans get in the way, while flavors grant you bonus actions or special effects. Choosing when to use those bonuses, or when to stop drawing because it’s all bad beans left in the bag, is crucial to getting great coffee (and a better score).
Like most effective solo games, Coffee Roaster leans into its strengths: simple rules bolstered by tight decisions and just enough luck to keep things interesting. The sub-30 minute playtime is ideal for the weight, and its minimal setup means you could probably settle down at your local cafe and break this one out between emails.
With 22 different bean varieties to roast—a full game tasks you with tackling three at once—there’s plenty of combos to try and score to beat. If you’re digging a fun challenge, pour yourself another espresso every time you fail to top your previous high mark and see just how wired you get.
To the East
Japanese board games break the Euro-and-American mold in ways that make for an easy add to your collections: they often don’t shatter conventions, but instead fit mechanisms you know into hilarious or intriguing new themes. You’re not just acquiring cards, you’re building a rail network. You’re flicking ships to steal treasure while a giant octopus attacks. Or you’re sitting down for a quick game of 20 Questions, but with some social deduction on the side.
All of the designers listed here (and there are plenty of others) have more titles in their catalogs too, so next time you’re looking for something new, take a glance in Tokyo’s direction. You’ll like what you see.