I was slightly familiar with the Japanese tabletop gaming scene upon heading over there. I knew that one existed, because I was aware of some of the games that had made their way over to the States. A few Japanese tabletop RPGs have been translated to English, most notably Ryuutama, the above pictured Golden Sky Stories, and Tenra Bansho Zero. Japanese board games have found a bigger foothold in America, with games like Love Letter, Machi Koro, and Kobayakawa.
A question I had about this hobby in Japan was one of space. I stayed in four apartments over the course of my time in Japan, and none had suitable space to host a group of 4 to 6 (an average amount of people for a tabletop gaming group) for a long gaming session. On top of that, having a table big enough to host a Dungeons and Dragons game, let alone a larger board game like Dead of Winter or, god forbid, a Warhammer game seemed unlikely.
The response to this problem, it seems, is threefold. The first factor in the survival of tabletop gaming in the cramped space of Japan is that the scene has evolved to make games easily played in a small amount of space. I spent a decent amount of time perusing Japanese tabletop hobby shops, most notably a chain called Yellow Submarine, and judging by what those stores kept in stock, it seems like trading card games are definitely the number one tabletop game genre.
From what I could tell, Cardfight!! Vanguard definitely seems to be the “in” game in Japan right now, although card shops always seemed to have large sections of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and even Magic. On top of that, bargain bins had collections of tons of games past their prime that I didn’t even recognize, indicating a fairly long history of games at least attempting to take the spotlight for the local card game scene (after all, Cardfight!! is only about six years old).
The prevalence of TCGs makes sense. They require relatively little space to play, and also tap into what seemed to be the innate otaku drive to collect stuff. TCGs are, by their nature, super collectible and, if they take off, super profitable. TCG decks are pretty easy to transport, and if Friday Night Magic is any indication back home, pretty easy to cultivate a scene around.
Japanese board games are still a thing, but the games that seem to be popular, or at least, the design trends that seem popular, are for minimalism. Most of the shops I went into sold big box games like Dead of Winter or Arkham Horror, but looking at what was stocked the most, and most interestingly, what games were made in Japan, the games that were most prevalent were very small games, many of which were in boxes no bigger that a TCG deck box. I ended up picking up a few of these, partially because they packed really easy, and partially because the minimalist design seemed to also translate to their components, rules, and art style.
With minimal design as the first factor, the second factor contributing to the Japanese tabletop game scene is the prevalence of public game spaces, where people could go to play assorted games. Yellow Submarine, as well as most of the hobby shops I went in to, dedicated as much as half of their floorplan to tables for people to play games on. This isn’t terribly uncommon back in the States, but the premium put on square footage in Japan makes this more significant. Clearly, providing this space must be important for a shopkeeper to devote that much space to it.
This is probably similar in social construction to the arcades I talked about in my last post. There’s no real room to host a bunch of people in your apartment, nor will social norms allow you to get really rowdy at home around a game, so a public space like this lets you meet up with your friends and really let loose playing a game. This ties back to the first point: if you’re playing your tabletop games at a shop, not at home, games that you can easily throw into a bag and take with you on the train are probably going to win out over big box games.
The third factor in the Japanese tabletop game scene is that, whenever Japan does take on a game or a genre that orginates from the West, they do so on their own terms to better suit their needs. Take tabletop RPGs for example. When I saw my first shelf of Japanese TRPGs, I was surprised by two things. The first was that Japan appears to call them “Tabletalk RPGs”, which I have to wonder is just a mishearing that accidentally propagated through the subculture, and the second was how small the books were.
I know “the books are small” is basically just a rehashing of the first point, but small RPG books are just sort of not a thing in the US. We can make small board games (see Coup), but western RPG rulebooks are, as a rule, generally enormous. The classic D&D triumvirate of books are three, fairly large, hardcover books, and even “small” games like Dungeon World or Fate are still noticeably larger than the Japanese standard book size. They do tabletop RPGs, a most-decidedly Western invention, but they toss out the standards that don’t suit their needs, like the devotion to ridiculous books.
I think it’s worth nothing that this “we took it, but we changed it to fit us” mentality actually goes for a lot of things in Japan. With very few exceptions, I noticed few things from “home” that made its way to Japan did so unchanged. This rang especially true in Amerikamura, a neighborhood of Osaka that’s sort of like if you shoved hip-hop streetwear, post-Cold War Cuba, and modern Manhattan together? Japanese culture takes what it wants and ruthlessly modifies it to its own ends, rather than paying reverence to any sense of “authenticity”.
Some things that just can’t be easy “Japan-ified” just seem like they straight up do not do well in Japan. I actually, by accident, found a Games Workshop store in Japan, but frankly, there were not a lot of people in it, and I wasn’t able to find a lot of GW merch in other hobby shops around Tokyo and Osaka. That makes sense: Warhammer and other miniature wargames require a lot of space, not only to play, but to store armies and paints, and space required to assemble and paint your units. Combine this with the fact that I don’t think any tabletop wargames really capture Japan’s aesthetic tastes (except maybe Infinity, which I expected to see more of, honestly), and it’s understandable that tabletop wargames aren’t terribly popular in the land of the Rising Sun.
So, yeah, make games small, play them in shops, and take big games and make them smaller. Those are the three tenants that seem to drive the Japanese tabletop game scene. It’s working, too: despite going in at weird hours, there were always a good number of people in the hobby shops alongside me, and there were always games going at the tables. I’m happy, too: seeing the industry adapt and thrive in this very different social and economic space forces creativity, and designers hoping to see this hobby from a different angle can easily do so just by looking elsewhere.