Japanese Board Game Design
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
There's a lot to unpack when it comes to talking about the growing industry of Asian board games and their design. In any scenario, you won't be able to escape the influence of Japan (and this probably applies to ANY type of design). This post will bring you on a quick journey through the captivating world of Japanese board game design, and their influence on modern board game mechanics.
Firstly, Japanese design is clean. Just like in the previous sentence where each word had a key role in determining the meaning of the sentence, there is no padding, no fluff, no meaningless chatter. In the Japanese language, the same word means both 'clean' and 'beautiful', and this aesthetic pervades the packaging, graphic design, and of course the game mechanics. Japanese board games usually revolve around one central innovative mechanic, with little else in its orbit space. Japanese visual designers know how to make use of white space to accentuate their main features, and Japanese board game designers know how to do the same. When you view a beautiful bonsai, you perceive the presence of an expert hand that trimmed away all the extraneous fat. Playing and experiencing a Japanese game gives you the same feeling. And like a Marie Kondo-infiltrated room, everything left in the design framework has intentionally been left there to give you joy.
In games like Love Letter, R-Eco, Parade and many others, you play a card on your turn. That's Uno-level simple. Yet, your decision space never feels restrained like Uno, even in a game like Love Letter where you pretty much are always playing the lower numbered card. And therein lies what is unique about Japanese board game design. The elegance of the game system comes from the narrative and complexity it creates from the interplay of its different branching pathways, and not from the complexity of its rules or interlocking systems. A monochrome splits into two, then again and again, and suddenly a kaleidoscope of parallel universes shimmer in the distance.
This live-or-die approach with which the designer wields their featured mechanic is not unlike that of a sushi chef whose confidence comes from the freshness of a select few ingredients. As you get familiar with a Japanese game, you can retread the well-worn alleyways where the designer passed through and visualize where they put down their rules as signposts to make sure you don't walk over the edge. In any given Japanese game, each divergence point feels like it is carefully mapped out, and you should never stray into an unfamiliar territory where rules cease to govern and Google needs to intervene. And that is why Japanese games, like Japanese products in general, rarely feel underdeveloped.
Conversely, this may also explain why there haven't been any Euro-style strategy-heavy behemoths that have emerged from Japan, even though there are many capable Japanese designers who love heavy games. Game designs of this ilk require overlapping and converging systems and mechanics, which is a fundamental difference in style and approach. Even Yokohama's gamer-level complexity is derived from a single core mechanic, except that this core mechanic has the heft to carry a heavier engine-building load than other lighter games.
Another hallmark of a Japanese game is the level of abstractness. Granted, all games are abstract to some degree, but in Japanese games, you can almost see and feel the metal skeleton through the dress. When you strip a game down to its bare functioning essentials, there is no charade, no bells and whistles left to distract you from the core game mechanic (coincidentally, this is what American games do so well). And that's entirely fine, because many Japanese games have embraced this themeless vacuum, verging on the edge of minimalism.
Oink games are the classic example of games that love their minimalist identity. Their games don't necessarily feel themeless, especially in games like Deep Sea Adventure where the mechanics link back up with the theme, but they do not make any apologies for the absence of any non-vector-based illustrations. For example, Kobayakawa has more theme in its name than in any other aspect of the game (which you may miss if you don't know much about Japanese culture). The components are just 15 cards, one less than Love Letter. And the cards have nothing printed on them but literally the numbers 1-15. Kobayakawa is no exception; all games in the Oink line share the same minimalist aesthetic, fit into a pocket-sized box, and proudly stand as an antithesis to loud, brash and overproduced American games.
Yamato games are another example of board games that are pared down to their essence. Playing Yamato games feels like you're consuming the work of a master chef who's travelled the world and has distilled the experience for you into a flavour-packed amuse bouche. In Bird of Happiness, designer Iida-san has taken all the white noise of deck-building and vacuum-sealed us into a soundproof bubble, where we only hear the chirping of three different bird cards. Animal Village is a family version of the family version of Agricola, if the family in question had a much reduced attention span and spends all their time in Ikea. Aquarium Designer is an even more streamlined version of possibly one of the simplest Western game designs, Kingdomino. And yet, Iida-san has managed to bring even the most jaded gamer new experiences through these deconstructed meals, making us appreciate the ingredients (game mechanics) in front of us in a different light.
Japanese board games are truly a unique experience, even for the seasoned gamer. I haven't even managed to squeeze into this post the sheer audacity and ambitiousness of Bakafire games like Tragedy Looper and and Code of Nine, the quintessential quirkiness of Saashi & Saashi games, or even the delicious depth of Hisashi-san's games such as Word Porters and Metro X. And because they are so streamlined and easy to learn, Japanese games are a perfect entry point into the hobby for non-gamers, or humans who just enjoy great design in general. Here at Origame, we hope to emulate what makes Japanese games so brilliant, while still infusing the games with our own local spice. One thing is for sure - we will always enjoy playing board games from Japan.