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Ro Sato plays games in Tokyo - Part 2

We last heard from Ro in this interview in May of last year. Since then I've been hearing of a number of interesting developments in Japan so I thought I'd see if Ro was willing for a return engagement. Lucky for us he was! I started out by asking Ro the usual question that gaming buddies ask one other ... so what have you been really enjoying playing lately? October 23, 2005

Ro Sato head shot
Ro Sato
Good to hear from you again. =) I've been dying to play Lost Valley. I have a copy, but no chance to play it. Saboteur, Ingenious, Tichu are favorites too. I played Shadows Over Camelot and I think it's okay, but since I have less interest in the theme and RPG aspect of the game, it has not struck me as the great game that everyone is raving about (same goes for Lord of the Rings).

Since I have been very busy, I have been playing lots of two-player games, e.g. the new series from Queen, especially those by Michael Schacht which I play a lot (Architekton, Ratten Scharf). They are both casual to play and also have enough tension due to sudden death rules. I also play Fjorde from Hans im Glück. It's sort of like simplified GO with a modular game board. The best two-player game I've played this year is micropul. by Jean-Francois Lassonde. It's actually a web-published free game. It's a totally abstract game, but a really good one. Sort of like Carcassonne, but with more strategic options.

As for multiplayer games, my recent favorites are Manila, Piranha Pedro, and Patrons of Venice. Manila is sort of a gambling game so everyone loves it and as with all Zoch games recently, the components are gorgeous. Piranha Pedro is a plotting game where you try to steer idiot Pedro so as not to fall into the water. Light gameplay and little mindless, but fun. =) Patrons of Venice (publisher) is more of a gamer's game than either of the previous two. It's a small house published game from Canada. The game plays like a hybrid of Puerto Rico and Catan, so it's got to be good. I feel that there may be some game balance issues, but the game is fun enough.

So these are games I like recently and I am preparing to open some storage space so I can fit new games from Essen. =)

Q2. Thanks for the tip on micropul which looks quite interesting. What new interesting games or gaming developments have occurred in Japan since last we chatted?

I've recently played the Japanese version of Fluxx. I was surprised to see Japanese game makers interested in porting such a language dependent game. It comes in a really nice thick card stock and the price is like $12 so it's not bad at all. Some foreign board game makers such as Da Vinci, Kidult and Face 2 Face, now include Japanese rules in their games so that is a great change. I also did a Japanese translation for Frantic Frankfurt (Kronberger Spiele). =)

As for purely Japanese games, Bandai (the large Japanese toy company) released an abstract game called Simpei. It's sort of like Tic-Tac-Toe, the twist being, that there are two sides to both the marker and board, upright side and downside and players have to match their marker 3 in a row on the right same side. As with Tic-Tac-Toe, the game ends immediately if you make a stupid move, so that's not fun, The components looks cute, and it's a short game to play, so it's worth a try.

Independent Japanese game designer Taiju Sawada won the Hippodice Game Contest of 2005 in Germany with his game, Square On Sale. It's an area control game with a very unique bidding system. In this game, multiple bidding takes place simultaneously, much like an EBay auction. What you bid for is a property or estate on a street square and its acquisition may result in flipping other parts of the street in your favor (plays like Reversi).

One of my friends, Toshiki Sato, has been developing some light board games and card games. His newest card game is Tekeli-li, (BGG) a trick-taking card game with Cthulhu theme. Players want to avoid taking tricks because most cards represents monsters and too much exposure to these results in the player going nuts.

Q3. What can you tell us about a related area? I hear that now in Japan there are something like CCG's combined with computer games?

Rick, this is very interesting topic. As you have pointed out, this trend of merging trading card and arcade games has become very popular now. Early ones included one featuring a huge machine for 20 players which simulated a complete football league. The player uses collected and traded cards representing various actual players, placing them on a kind of digital mat that interacted with the computer screen. It is possible to train your players, give them tactical commands, then send them off to battle other players, all in real-time. There is also a similar fantasy game where one pitches armies against other players.

These two are for limited audiences, but now we have Mushi King (Insect King) and Love and Berry, both from Sega and targeted towards kids. In Mushi King, mainly for boys, you pit one insect against another in a duel. Each insect comes in the form of a trading cards and you scan them in to the arcade machine for data input. The duel itself is based on Rock, Paper, Scissors with some small strategy elements added to it.

Love and Berry is a game for girls about witch apprenticeship in modern days. Each trading card features fashionable items of clothing and other supposedly magical items. So it's basically like a virtual Barbie Doll where everything comes in cards and it gets visualized on an arcade machine.

Both of the games are huge hits among kids. Each card does not cost that much, so kids can afford them. I think the arcade game industry in general is not doing so well due to vast improvements in console platforms and people are simply not going to the arcades as much. So now, they are targeting small kids and this style of game is ideal. It doesn't cost that much to produce, it has addictive replay value (at least for kids), and offers a different business model which is quite successful. Sega was able to do this because they are both an arcade game vendor and a toy manufacturer.

The game value or actual game content for both of these games is really non-existent. I guess it is acting as a communication catalyst for kids. It's hip to have cool insect or good looking sneaker cards; kids talk about it amongst each other or even involve their parents. Since Mushi King was released prior to Love and Berry, boys were having all the fun and girls had nothing that interested them. So Sega was smart enough to release something for girls too.

The communication aspect of these games is really welcome, but I don't think it's a good thing for the game industry (arcade or board game) to rely too much on trading cards or a character-based business model. These systems allow temporary easy money for manufacturers, but do not offer new game play or new ideas that would benefit in long term. I think this is the main reason why Japanese toy makers do not produce new board games any more.

Q4. Another development out of Japan that's made a lot of news is the phenomenon of the Sodoku puzzle. There are now even some games based on this. Can you tell us anything about the origin and creators of the phenomenon? What does the word mean?

I was unaware of this until I saw the list of games from Essen. Since then I became curious about it because of its Japanese name and I did some research. Sudoku's origin is actually not from Japan; it's one of a group of classic puzzles called Latin Magic Numbers. The name "Sudoku" is actually a registered name for a puzzle from Nicoli, a most popular puzzle publishing company in Japan. These are also called "Number Place" puzzles. Sudoku was originally a name of the puzzle titled "Suugaku wa Dokushin ni kagiru" meaning "Math is suited best for singles (bachelors)". So the title was shortened to Su (meaning numbers) and doku (meaning alone). Sudoku was first published as part of compilation of puzzles in book form in 1988.

The recent worldwide phenomenon was started by Wayne Gould, a judge in Hong Kong, who first converted it into PC software and then later introduced it to the London Times. Since then it has become very popular around the globe.

I think Japanese weren't in this bandwagon till recently. Since the puzzle has been around for so many years and has been always popular, we didn't think it was something new or special. =) Puzzles are very common in Japan and there are quite a few magazines just about puzzles or even specifically related to numbers.

I am curious as to how German board game companies have incorporated this puzzle into board games. =)

Q5. Interesting, thanks! This leads right into the last question: which games are you most looking forward to from this year's Essen Spiel?

Well, there are tons of games to choose from and I am waiting to see what people have to say. Since Oltremare was pretty good last year and I have the original tiny version of the game, the souped up Amigo version seem very nice to have. I am also interested in Il Principe, by the same author just to see how he lives up to everyone's expectation. Zauberstauber (Kosmos) was listed last year but was never released until now. I am very intrigued by the Heinrich Glumpler's past games. His games so far are very unique and always feature some well disciplined mechanisms. I'd love to get my hands on Jenseits von Theben from Prinz Spiele, since it's been getting good reviews on BGG, but never is available due to its limited production. Oh and I've got to get Timbuktu from Queen. I been trying to get an out of print game from db-spiele, so this reprint is definitely a welcome. Looking at pictures and information, I will probably shop for these games too: Mesopotamia, Tempus, Caylus, Red Planet Mission, Aloha, Punct, Festival beim Pferdestall, and Ark.

Wow that's already a long shopping list. Too many games, not much time to play. But thinking and doing research about these games and making shopping list is just as fun as playing them for me. =)

Thanks for asking these questions. It was fun! Will be looking forward to read it on your website and also read about the other people's recommendations.

Fascinating as always, Ro, many thanks for your time and wisdom!

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