We’re all probably familiar Japan’s tendency to produce awesome animation, music, games, food, bizarre headlines etc. But we’d like to introduce you to another industry where Japan has been making waves worldwide: tabletop games. The list of Japanese board games and card games that have been translated into English is surprisingly long and constantly growing. And some of these games have become immensely successful. You may have seen or even played one of these without being aware of its origin country.
We’ve got a list of Japanese board games and card games we think many will enjoy. Whether you’re looking for more stuff from Japan to love, or are just looking to be convinced that Monopoly and Uno do not represent the peaks of Family Game Night fun, you’ll find something that’ll bring loads of fun to your gaming table. We’ve also done our best to make sure that English editions of these games are still available at major retailers such as Amazon and won’t be a pain to track down — niche board games tend to have conservative print runs, and it’s pretty often that demand exceeds supply.
Especially with brilliant games like these.
(Some of these games are for sale on Amazon as part of International Tabletop Day, 29th April. Don’t miss out!)
1) Machi Koro
Game Designer: Masao Suganuma
Number of players: 2–4
Machi Koro is a light card-and-dice game that you really should be playing instead of Monopoly. It’s family-friendly, easy to learn and only takes about 30 minutes to play. It’s also less cutthroat than Monopoly, so you’re less likely to come out of games with grudges (unless you’re hyper-competitive or something). And the artwork is pretty cute.
In Machi Koro, players build up their own little “towns”. They use play coins to buy cards that represent establishments. Each establishment card gives an ability to its owner, such as allowing them to collect more coins from the bank or forcing other players to pay them. To activate the ability some establishment cards, the player needs to roll the dice and obtain the number shown on top the card.
Blue cards activate no matter who rolls the number and gets everyone with that card coins from the bank. Green cards get you cash only when you roll the number on your turn. Red cards let you extort another player when they roll that number. And purple cards…Those let you really annoy the other players, but you have to roll a six yourself to get them to work.
The aim is the build a town than earns you coins efficiently. Some people think it’s better to get cards with many different numbers, while others buy multiple cards with the same number hoping for a big payoff. There’s quite a bit of luck involved, so don’t get too caught up in strategies or master plans. But adjusting your game according to what the others are doing can help.
Each player has four landmarks that they need to build by collecting and paying the required amount of coins.
Building landmarks grants players with additional abilities too, such as allowing them to roll two dice or make a re-roll. The first player to build all four landmarks…
…wins and ends the game.
There’s an excellent run-through of the rules on YouTube, if you’d like more details.
Machi Koro is now incredibly popular even outside of Japan. Before it was available in English, board game nerds were already buying up Japanese versions and relying on fanmade translations. It was no surprise that the initial print of the English edition sold out pretty quickly. But don’t worry; it’s been reprinted and can be found quite easily on Amazon and many board game retailers. We’ve even seen it in Singapore’s department stores.
Expansions that add more cards and allow you to play with up to five players are also available (we highly recommend the Harbour expansion).
If there’s one game on this list that should be the new Board Game Night staple, it’s definitely Machi Koro!
Game Designer: Seiji Kanai
Number of players: 2–4
Love Letter is another Japanese card game that’s been phenomenally successful overseas. Apart from the standard English edition (AKA the Tempest edition), it’s been re-themed and adapted for many popular franchises. There’s Adventure Time, Archer, The Hobbit and even, um, Batman Love Letter (it’s much better than it sounds). The Tempest edition (above, left) is the most readily available. However, Japanophiles may prefer the samurai-themed Love Letter: Legend of the Five Rings.
There are only 16 cards in the entire deck. Each round takes less than 5 minutes, and the overall winner is the first player to win four or five rounds (depending on how many players there are). But trust us, you’ll be floored by how entertaining Love Letter manages to be.
The game’s story is that you are a suitor trying to woo the princess by getting her to read your handwritten sappy prose. You need to get someone close to the princess to deliver the letter, while trying to get rid of your rivals’ love letters. But really, it’s all about making sure you don’t get eliminated and have the highest numbered card at the end of the game.
You can watch this game being played on Wil Wheaton’s YouTube show, Tabletop.
Gameplay is incredibly simple, though. Each player first gets a card from the deck; they don’t show it to the others. Each card has a number from 1 to 8 and an effect, such as letting you see another person’s card or forcing someone to trade cards with you.
On their turn, a player draws a second card from the deck. From the two cards they hold, they must play one and activate the effect stated on that card if applicable. The other card stays in their hand. And that’s it; their turn ends.
When (or if) the deck runs out, the winner is the remaining player holding the highest numbered card. So, it would seem like a no-brainer to keep the card with the higher number on your turns. But that only helps if you’re not eliminated first. Some cards, like the Guard, let you eliminate other players from the round. From our experience, most of the time, a player wins by default because everyone else has been kicked out. So, before playing a card on your turn, you need to weigh whether the card’s number or its effect is more helpful to you.
And that’s only the beginning! Keep your poker face on so no one knows which card is in your hand (especially if you have the Princess; it makes you a ripe target). Watch what cards the others play to guess what they’re choosing to keep. Keep track of cards that have been discarded so you know which cards are still in the game — it might just give you the winning edge.
The amount of excitement and suspense Love Letter evokes is especially amazing given how simple it is. We’d go so far as to call it ‘genius’. It’s such an easy game to fall for, and it’s pretty affordable too. From the bottom of our hearts, we implore you to discover for yourself why Love Letter is one of Japan’s most popular gaming exports.
Game Designer: BakaFire
Number of players: 2–4
(Warnings: Dark themes, violence, character deaths. For ages 13+ only.)
While “BakaFire” totally sounds like a weaboo’s username on an anime forum, it’s actually the pseudonym of a Japanese board game designer otherwise known as Itou. As it is, due to its art style and dark themes (Bad Things to happen to characters in this game), Tragedy Looper may appeal to fans of certain anime or visual novels (Type-Moon fans, I’m looking at you). It’s way more complex and much heavier than the other games on this list, though, so you might have to set aside a few hours to fully understand and enjoy Tragedy Looper. Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t like think-y or creepy games.
We can’t get into details without taking too long or revealing spoilers, but here’s the gist of it, adapted from Board Game Geek’s website:
Tragedy Looper is a scenario-based deduction game. One player is the Mastermind, while the others play cooperatively as Protagonists. There are 10 scenarios to choose from, of varying difficulty. In each scenario, there are a number of characters with hidden roles (e.g. serial killer, conspiracy theorist, friend), and certain pre-determined tragedies (murder, suicide).
Each turn, or a “day” in the game, the Protagonists and the Mastermind play three face-down cards onto the characters. They then reveal the cards to move the characters to the game’s locations or affect their Paranoia or Goodwill stats. At the end of each day, if the scenario has a tragedy set for that day, it happens if the conditions are met, i.e., certain characters have certain stats or are in a specific location together (or not) with others. When a tragedy unfolds, players loop back in time, replaying the scenario from the beginning (sounds like an anime or VN plot, doesn’t it?). The Protagonists then need to deduce which character in the scenario is responsible for the tragedy, and why it occurred. Meanwhile, the Mastermind seeks to trigger the tragedy, forcing time to loop back.
The Protagonists win if they can prevent any tragedies from occurring to the key individuals, for a set number of days, within a set number of loops. If not, the Mastermind wins.
You can watch this playthrough of Tragedy Looper, which uses a fanmade scenario to avoid spoilers.
It’s basically an interactive murder mystery. You’ll find yourself scrutinising scenarios over and over and wracking your brains trying to make sense of the situation. You might even resort to letting some characters die just because it might reveal more information
you monster. So…That’s fun?
Definitely! Well, maybe not for everyone. Things can get pretty grim and creepy. But if you enjoy solving mysteries or like the idea of being immersed in a thriller, Tragedy Looper will provide you with an absorbing and exhilarating experience.
Tragedy Looper has a fairly high price point, but it will be worth your money. Apart from the 10 given scenarios, the game also comes with guides for creating your own; some fans have shared their scenarios online for others to try. But if you prefer official content, there are several expansion sets (such as Midnight Circle) with additional scenarios (also available in English).
Game Designers: Akihiro Itoh, Kwaji, Daichi Okano, Kito Shinma
Number of players: 4–8
Insider falls into a game genre called ‘social deduction’. Games like these typically involve assigning hidden role(s) to one or more players e.g. a “traitor” with his own secret mission. Think games like ‘Polar Bear’ and ‘Werewolf’ that you used to play at school camps, or the popular card game, Resistance. Meanwhile, the other players work together to fulfill the game’s winning conditions, which usually involve identifying the “traitor”. Deception is an important part of such games, and most of the excitement comes from the actions and interactions of the players.
Insider seems like it’s a Twenty Questions-style game, but there’s a clever twist that makes it one of the best social deduction games available.
At the start of a game, role cards are randomly assigned. Roles are kept secret, except for the Master.
The Master has a key word or phrase that they want the others to guess. While everyone else closes their eyes, the Master obtains the key word by flipping over a card from a deck. (They can try again if it’s a word they don’t know.)
The number on the next card, ‘6’, indicates the key word. So, in the example above, it’s ‘karaoke’.
However, among the guessers (the Commons) is an Insider who will get to see the key word. While the Master closes their eyes, the Insider gets time to discreetly peek at the card. The Master then removes the card from view.
The Commons need to find out the key word within five minutes by asking the Master questions. The Master can only reply with ‘yes’, ‘no’ or “I don’t know”, and say nothing else.
The Insider needs to lead the Commons towards the correct answer (in this case, ‘karaoke’) without revealing their role. Maybe by asking questions like, “Is it an object/person/place?” “No.” “Is it an activity?” “Yes.” “Can you do this at home?” “Yes.” and see if the others pick up from there. Avoid getting too specific at the start, like “Does it involve music?” or “Does my neighbour do this every evening with no regard for musical keys or safe volume levels?”
If no one gives the correct key word within five minutes, everyone loses. If someone guesses the answer, the game moves to a voting phase. The players get another five minutes to discuss, accuse and vote on who they think the Insider is. The Insider loses if they are correctly identified by the majority. Otherwise, the Insider wins, and everyone else loses.
The game makes it a point to give words and phrases that can be pretty hard to guess without the Insider’s help:
There’s gonna be a lot frantic debate over what the key word is, and then over who the Insider is, with players picking at this one thing this guy said and why it was totally suspicious. And if you’re the Insider, well, you’re in for an exciting time. It’s thrilling if the Insider does their job well, and hilarious if they’re terrible at being subtle while having to deny their role.
Original Title: (エセ芸術家ニューヨークへ行; Ese Geijutsuka New York e Iku)
Game Designer: Jun Sasaki
Number of players: 5–10
Like Insider, this is a social deduction game. But it’s practically the opposite in one way; the player with the hidden role (the titular “fake artist”) knows nothing, but has to pretend they do. And everyone else is trying to deceive the fake artist, but they don’t know who it is. The confusion that ensues is glorious.
The game box is very small and portable, which makes it another perfect game to bring to gatherings. It consists of some markers, a notepad, and dry-erase title cards. And yes, you have to draw, but you don’t need to be good at it — in fact, it’s much funnier if you aren’t.
One player becomes the Question Master, who is on the fake artist’s team. The QM chooses a theme e.g. ‘animal’, and a word related to the theme e.g. ‘cat’. The QM then takes the title cards (one for each other player) and writes down the word on all of them, except for one card, which the QM marks with an ‘X’. The QM then distributes the title cards to the others; the player who gets the ‘X’ is the fake artist. Of course, roles are kept secret.
The QM announces the theme. Then, each player (except the QM) gets a coloured marker and takes turns to draw on the same notepad; they get to make one stroke without lifting the marker off the paper. They are supposed to work together to make a drawing of the chosen word i.e. a cat.
But the “real” artists don’t want the fake artist know what the word is. At the same time, they need to show the other real artists they’re legit, so they try to draw parts of a cat as vaguely as possible. Seriously, have fun figuring that out. The fake artist needs to act like a real artist while trying to guess the word; until they figure it out they’re stuck making random squiggles on their turn and hoping nobody calls them out. All the while, players are free to discuss or throw accusations at each other or lament the utter lack of artistic talent on display.
After two turns, the players quickly point to who they think the fake artist is. If the majority gets it right, the fake artist gets one chance to guess what the drawing should be. If the fake artist guesses correctly, the fake artist and the QM win.
This is one of those games where you shouldn’t get hung up on winning; it’s mostly just silly fun. You’re all just gonna split your sides laughing at how you failed at not being obvious or how nobody had any idea what was going on and if you weren’t fake, Bob, what the heck were you drawing, it’s your fault I got the wrong guy. That kind of fun.
This list is by no means exhaustive — there are so many great games just from Japan alone. But for those new to non-Parker Brothers board games, we hope we’ve provided you with new ideas for having face-to-face, interactive fun with your friends and family. Let us know in the comments if you’ve found this article useful, want more suggestions on where to buy these games or know some games that you think should be on this list.