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Ro Sato Plays Board Games in Tokyo, Japan
We know all about Japan, right? Land of high tech video games and consoles with no time for board games, right? You may be surprised ...

This interview got delayed because in the midst of it Ro moved house. No problem. And because of it, Ro related his amusing experience, by which he can tell he is a true member of the species "gamer":

Still busy busy, unpacking my games and settling in to the new apartment. It was kind of embarrassing to see almost half of my stuff in the boxes were board games! hehe We hired movers for the actual move, so movers were calling out what's inside each box out loud and passing it over and it was like "board game coming!", then another "board game coming", "card game coming" ... LOL

May 23, 2004 Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.


Q1. Once again, thanks a lot for agreeing to do this. Let's start out by getting to know you. Can you share a little bit with the readers by introducing yourself, in which corner of the world you live, how you like to spend your time and also how you got started in games?

Ro Sato head shot
Ro Sato
Hi, my name is Ro Sato and I live in the heart of Japan, Tokyo. I am Japanese and my religion is soccer and I spend most of my time playing games or buying them. I have a little different background than a typical Japanese because I was educated in International School from kindergarten to high school. So my first gaming experiences are very much like those of any American. I've played Sorry, Clue, Monopoly, Diplomacy, and Risk. Aside from school, I've played Japanese board and card games too.

Now there are really not many original Japanese games. Japanese toy makers usually just localize games that sell well in the US. I think the most popular board game is The Game of Life or Monopoly. Both of these games are well liked in Japan because we are very familiar with the roll & move mechanism, which is also used in the traditional Japanese game Sugoroku. I've lightly played Shogi (Japanese Chess), Go and Hanafuda (a Japanese card game), but these traditional games are considered an old person's hobby, so they did not interest me as much at the time.

Then came the days of electronic games that wiped out board games entirely. We Japanese have a tendency to just go along with new stuff and disregard the existing cultures. So naturally I played Nintendo and Playstation and no more board games until real recently. About 8 years ago, I had a chance to play Scotland Yard at my friend's house. I was very intrigued and got really excited by the hidden routes and the "one vs. all" mechanics. I thought this is the kind of fun missing from Nintendo – why not get back to the basic? From then on, I started looking for more euro-games and have started playing them since. I think lots of Japanese are getting interested in board games again because of the same issue like me. We are getting fed up with un-creative console games that are just souped up with computer graphics. =)

Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?

I play games mostly with my family (wife and my brother) or friends at home. Funny thing is, I've found most of my board gaming friends via on-line. I manage a Japanese board game web site called play:game and lots of people contacted me through this web site. Also, some people contacted me by reading my profile on (BGG). My current partner in running play:game is Ken Shoda (aka no_where_dense) and he contacted me via BGG. After brief e-mail exchanges, I actually meet and play game with most people. It's fortunate for me that I live in Tokyo, very much the center of all things in Japan – it's real easy to meet people. There are also couple board game retail shops, cafés, game houses and board game groups in Tokyo. There are not as many of them as we wish, but it's a whole lot better than in other parts of Japan. I think Korea has a much better gaming environment in this respect. Most of board game cafés are part of an Internet café and there are only one or two board game specific cafés or game houses. The most public game house you will find in Japan is for Mahjong games. There are plenty of those smoky places for Mahjong. =) I think this is due to Japan prohibiting lots of gambling. The public Mahjong game house attracts some people an an illegal center for casual gambling.

As for board gaming groups, I occasionally attend JAGA (Japanese Games Association), probably one of the biggest gaming groups in Japan. They gather once every month at a public hall and about 50 people attend each session. There, you would see wide variety of age groups from both gender so it's quite a nice environment. As for conventions, I do not think there are any big enough to be called conventions. =) Most of board game conventions are minor parts of other genre such as Toys, Comics, Anime, or role-playing games (RPG).

Q3. How do people in your area acquire the games? Are there shops? Also, are the instructions translated from German or from English? Is there any kind of database web site supporting translations?

game shop by Tanya Chou
Examples of games found in a Japanese board game shop
There are three main shops/distributors in Japan. They are Moebius Games in Tokyo (one of the first euro-board game shops responsible for starting this hobby in Japan), Banesto in Nagoya, and Playspace Hiroshima in Hiroshima. They are the importers of euro-games and they sell them with Japanese translations of the rules. The prices of the games are roughly 170% more than the original sales price. This is due to high cost of importing these games and it also includes some fees to compensate work time used for translation.

So the average standard size board game (Alea or Kosmos big box) will cost like $45 to $55 which may sound quite expensive, but its really not by Japanese standards. For example, a copy of Mermaid Rain, made in Japan, costs about $40 so there is not much difference. Of course, some people such as myself buy games from Fun Again and Adam Spielt, but that is very rare due to the language barrier. The majority of people buy games from Moebius, Banesto or Playspace using online shopping because they provide quite a nice rule translation and after support just in case anything is missing in purchased games. As for other rules translations, there are couple devoted gamers who contribute by doing this work privately. Takuya Ono, who is the webs ite owner of Table Games in the World and one of the most devoted gamers, provides rules translations with proper permission from the manufacturers on his site. And as a BGG-like board game information exchange database, several other people and I are preparing the launch of playgame database, a Japanese equivalent of BGG. Currently this database is running at a test level and any registered user is able to add and edit most of the game information, including files, links,, and comments (all in Japanese though).

Well, that pretty much covers the buying aspect. One thing missing may be auction. We use Yahoo Auction, which is more common than Ebay here in Japan.

Q4. Do you have any ideas how many people in your country are playing new strategy games? Any idea what the demographics are like? What? the overlap with RPG, CCG, war games, computer games, video games, comic books, anime?

game shop by Tanya Chou
Examples of games found in a Japanese board game shop
Speaking of euro-games, a colorful board game magazine (which ceased publishing after the second issue) called Board game Paradise 01 (published by Takeuchi Publishing) sold about 5000 copies. Also, the board game shop Moebius has reported that their highest selling board game was Carcassonne and it also sold around 3000 copies. So I think 3000 to 5000 is a very rough estimate of Japanese who are at least interested in euro-games. From the statistics at my web site, there are roughly 300 visitors per day. I think those 300 people are hard core gamers who need up to date board game information. One of the main consumer targets for euro-games in Japan are adults over age 30. The generation younger than this has never been exposed to board games since Nintendo and electronic games took over the market and they also are not as wealthy as people that are over age 30.
The Japanese economy is not exactly in a healthy state, so buying expensive, foreign board games is not a first choice for entertainment. There are lots of people that overlap with the genres mentioned in your question. Comics, Anime, and computer games are pretty much a daily part of young Japanese life. One of the most common ways to sell toys and games is through exposure in comics and animation. For example, most robot animation series are co-developed with the toy maker Bandai, so they can make characters and robots as plastic models and other toys. Yu-gi-oh became a CCG and there are thousands of other products that are tied in very deeply with comics.
Hitoshi Yasuda of Group SNE, designer of Mermaid Rain, actually came up with a comic called Aqua Step Up and it's about how board games are played. So I think the majority of Japanese businesses rely too much on anime characters or comic characters. As with any anime or film-based board games, they are most likely pasted-on themes with shallow game play. And I think this is why there have not been too many good games developed in Japan.

Q5. Are there any traditional board or card games, perhaps even non-proprietary, that have particular popularity in your country and how have they informed the gaming scene?

The main two traditional board games in Japan are Go and Shogi. These two games even have TV program time slots in our national broadcasting channels (NHK) for both tutorial and coverage of pro-game matches. Yes, we have Go and Shogi professionals and game matches are quite often held in tournament style. The popularity of these games is mostly generated by the older generation. Recently, a comic book called Hikaru no go (Hikaru's Go) made an huge success in sales and the story is all about a young boy who gradually succeeds as a pro Go player. I think it gave a huge boost to the Go-playing population among kids. There are lots of Go and Shogi public playing game spots all around too. So I think there is a whole lot of potential for euro-games to make a success in Japan. We have enough people already playing these two abstract games and why not more, right?

Q6. What games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere?

game shop by Tanya Chou
Examples of games found in a Japanese board game shop
The Capcom version of Settlers of Catan seemed to help promote euro-games in Japan. They did a pretty big campaign to promote board games to the console game crowd. They are currently providing on-line game service for Catan which may also raise some interest for online crowd. The other games that seem to be doing well are Blokus and Apples to Apples, both imported by the same company, Beverly. Blokus received a Japan Board Game Award for domestic games in 2002 and Apples to Apples received the same one for 2003.

The Japan Board Game Award is an annual award given in categories of International Beginner's Game, International Freak's Game, Domestic Game and Children's Game. The award is decided by a nomination process overseen by U-more (a non-profit organization for the promotion of board games in Japan) and voted by board game fans both on- and off-line. The success of Blokus is kind of understandable as the game is abstract and doesn't include language-dependent components. It also looks interesting with different colors and shapes.

As for Apples to Apples, I have no idea why. =) All the text on the cards is translated to Japanese and some of the words have been totally replaced so it makes sense to Japanese. I guess Beverly is doing quite a good job of promoting these games.

Q7. We touched on it a little bit before, but can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing? Historically I think there were Hobby Japan, Tsukuda and also one or more war game companies (e.g. Six Angles)? What ever happened to these companies and their games?

This is a hard one. =)

Tsukuda and Hobby Japan used to make simulation war games and some board games based on real wars or on animation characters.
game shop by Tanya Chou
Examples of games found in a Japanese board game shop
Tsukuda Original was a toy company who had some success with Othello (the abstract board game) and some other toys. Hobby Japan is actually a publisher of a general hobby magazine in which the main topic was plastic models. They both made some board game and simulation war games because there was some interest in these genre due to role-playing games (Dungeon & Dragons) introduced in Japan and whatever the products were, TV animation themed products sold quite well.

Another toy maker, Bandai, holds most of the rights to other products, such as plastic models. Board games and simulation war games were not the main interest for Bandai so the rights remained opened for Tsukuda or Hobby Japan to release games based on the same animation. Now time has passed and they are no longer interested in simulation war games or board games. The main reason for decrease in sales is, of course, the rise of console and electronic games.

Since board game and simulation war games sales were only a minor part of the business for Tsukuda and Hobby Japan, they both dropped their lines and stop making them. After this, Tsukuda Original went bankrupt and was acquired by Bandai, so they are gone now. Hobby Japan still publishes several magazines and are the main distributor of Magic: the Gathering.

Q8. What has happened since and what are the important developments today?

There are small independent companies and designers who has been active and they are releasing great games every year. A company called Grimpeur is pursuing the "Grimpeur Project" in which they accept some game ideas from abroad and make it into product. They would only produce 300 copies per game. This is because their main purpose is to provide new designers a chance to enter to the industry. Products are Magical Athlete, Territory, Horse Racing Mafia, Cucco and Collectable Monster.

One significant step towards introducing Japanese board games and card games occurred at Germany's Essen Spiel last year. Yuhodo sponsored a booth at this convention and introduced their card games The Masquerade and Saga. They now have an English web site so that everyone in the world can find out what their games are about. I think it was good move for them to show a presence in Germany and I hope to see more of this happening.

Every year here in Japan there is a small convention or get together for board gamers called "Game Market". In this convention, independent game producers and designers have booth to sell home made games. Some are just clones of existing games, but there are few great games too. Susumu Kawasaki of Kawasaki Factory is one of the very talented designers. He released home made games Count Down and R-Eco and they are both quite unique in design. Wild Rush is the title of another of his games. I think the number of these independent game designers is increasing in Japan. It's because there are virtually no major market for boardgames or boardgame designers. Everyone is entitled to start one. =) There are many more talented designers in Japan, only problem is that they have less opportunity to present themselves out to the world due to language barrier. This interview is great occasion to introduce such talents.

Q9. Quite a few games have been set in Japan. What is your impression of them? Have any of them received special attention or popularity because of it? Are there any kind of recurring motifs, even stereotypes, in these games on which you would like to comment? See

Very nice geeklist by the way. I like it. =) I think handling any foreign culture or history as subject of games fails most of the time. Looking at this geeklist, I have only played Samurai by Reiner Knizia. I am not attracted by most of these games. I think authenticity is just not there, so we are turned off by those missing details. Kata-Kiuchi: The Raid on Lord Kira's House kind of interests me because it has real names and is about the real incident that took place. I personally would like to see more games about Japan from other time period than feudal age or about Japanese sports like Sumo.

Q10. Is there any mass media presence for board games there and what is the nature of that presence? Is there any mass market advertising for board games?

game shop by Tanya Chou
Examples of games found in a Japanese board game shop
There are no specific magazine about board games now. There was nice magazine (more like a book) called Boardgame Paradise. They published issue 01, 02 and it looks like 03 is not coming out at all. There is a Counter-like small publication called Spiel published by U-More (NPO) and another small publication called Ban Press Both are very small publications and are mostly sold at board game shops. I think the main source of board game information and advertising is on the Internet now. Japanese gamers are very eager to learn about new games or read reviews of game on the Internet. So we read lots of reviews on foreign board game web sites, such as yours, Rick!

And, of course, my web site play:game also introduces boardgame news around the world + has a BGG-like database. =)

Q11. Thanks for reading, Ro! What about advertising or articles in television, radio or newspapers?

Unfortunately, I don't think there are any advertising of board games on TV. There has been sporadic coverage about board games on TV, in newspapers and in magazines. Board games in this coverage are introduced as part of general hobby or topics. I think the media are mostly interested in the reasons why people are going back to playing board games. Like I said, some Japanese are getting fed up playing electronic games and they are playing more board games.

Also, media coverage on board games has increased due to Capcom promoting Settlers of Catan in various places. I think the introduction of Capcom Catan helped increase the euro-gamer population.

Q12. What is the societal view of board games and their players?

I think there is not enough recognition of the board games community in our society. Board games are most likely treated as children's games. European games in particular have generated some interest among non-gamers which is very good. Most non-gamers are interested in board games because they are very social, are foreign, and because they have a homey atmosphere to them. Japanese people generally think anything made of wood and foreign makes it either educationally good or culturally rich. =) So I think people generally find board games (European games in particular) and the board game community to be a culturally rich experience. There is not much negativity toward board game otaku (geeks) from the non-gamers view, because they do not know much about our hobby

Q13 Can you explain this idea/concept of otaku in more detail?

Otaku is a Japanese term referring to a person who is obsessed with a certain subject or hobby. It was mainly use to describe animation geeks, comic geeks, or an amateur idol photographer who is so obsessed with their hobby that they lack social skills. So the term otaku has a negative impression compared to enthusiast or fan. Nowadays, otaku is used more casually for any other hobby as well. A board game geek could be referred to as a "boardgame otaku" or Reiner Knizia fanatics as "Knizia otaku". Since board game players are naturally more social, the term otaku does not really apply to boardgamers. =) Lots of Japanese board game geeks refer to themselves as freaks, just as in the US, for this reason.

You can read a definition of otaku. Interesting, eh?

Q13. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites? What? your favorite game that few, or at least few around you, seem to like? Do you have a favorite type or type that you are best at, e.g. abstract, auction, bluff, business, tile placement, etc.?

I always like the social aspect of playing games. It is interesting to learn about other players through games. I also play computer games or console games, but playing against AI (artificial intelligence) isn't fun at all. I am also interested in game design. In my profession, I occasionally design educational personal computer (PC) games or tutorial software. So learning about board game design, since there is a lot of logic in its pure form, helps me to get back to basics. Whatever works as board game or card game will also work for my PC games.

I love Leo Colovini, Michael Schacht, and Friedemann Friese games [German game inventors]. Leo Colovini and Michael Schacht usually make excellent three-player games and those are my favorite (Kardinal und König and Carolvs Magnvs). Both of these designers and also Alex Randolph (Leo's master) make rather dry, but simple and elegantly-designed games. I am very fond of those games. As for Friedemann Friese, he is my current favorite designer. I love him for making unique games and also being all FUNKY! Finstere Flure and Fresh Fish are great games. His games seem to maintain both the funky and finesse quality and are also quite fun. =)

A few of us love to play Flaschenteufel, a very unique and addictive trick-taking card game. It was formerly a rare card game by Günter Cornett, but is now widely available in re-print. I have both versions of Flaschenteufel. I think the graphics on the old version are much better, but the new one seem to play better.

Genre doesn't matter to me as much. I do have some dislikes. Business, race and sports games are turn-offs for me. I'd hate to play games where you have to incur debt (like Tycoon) because I do that in real life. As for race and sports, I find not many games that capture the exact excitement of the actual things. I'd rather go see or play the real thing. Otherwise I love playing all games.

Q14. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there? And is there anything I?e left out that you would like to say? And finally, what are the words for game and board game in your language?

I worked on some card graphics for a game called Flagship by GMT. It doesn't have too much of a reputation, but the budget was tight and there is only so much you can spend per card design. I accepted the work because the art director is big friend of mine and I love working on any game. It's not bad to have your name on trading cards. I love designing games or working on graphics for a game. You can see some of my work on where I have uploaded a play aid for Edel, Stein, and Reich. (very large file)

Unfortunately there is no equivalent for the term "board game" in Japanese. So we use the English "boardgame" or "tablegame". If we were to specifically say it in Japanese, Banjoyuugi: Banjo- means "above board" and -yuugi means "play." But we never refer to board games that way.

That's it!

A riveting view, Ro – thanks so much!

Update: as of October 24, 2005, the interview continues in part 2.

Links Cited in this Interview: A Great Big Thanks to Tanya Chou for the board game shop photos featured in this interview!

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