Game Spotlights

Published: November 6, 2023

Adam Knight

Board Games Set in Japan

Island Adventures

Cherry blossoms, anime, Akihabara, Nintendo, and so much more make Japan a lush place to visit both in real life and, for a far more reasonable sum, your tabletop. In a future piece we’ll look at games exclusively by Japanese designers, but in this one, let’s look at a few board games set in Japan, good choices for whether you’re new to tabletop gaming or have a collection too large to fit in a capsule hotel.

A Walk From Kyoto to Edo

Grabbing a map is a good way to get to know a new country, and Tokaido, along with its 2-player counterpart Tokaido Duo, is one of the prettiest maps you’ll find. Taking players on a journey from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), the game tasks your table with a cultural journey. You’ll be painting, bathing in hot springs, scarfing delicious food, and visiting idyllic farms, all while trying to block your buddies from enlightenment.

Tokaido throws out the usual turn structure, with the player furthest from Edo generally going first. That player can move as many spaces as they want between the inns marking catch-up spots, the challenge being to hit as many spaces as you can without getting locked out from the ones you sorely need. Most spots only have one or two options for players to park their unique characters, making blocking a constant threat.

Let’s say you want to get started on the biggest painting, one worth gobs of points if you complete it—and even more if you’re the first to do so. Tackling this artistic feat means stopping on the right spaces to take a brush to your easel, at least five of them, before you hit the game’s end. Do you want to skip over the farm, the shopping trip, and the hot springs to guarantee you get a chance to do some brush work, losing the coins or points from those skipped spaces, or are you going to bet other players won’t take your needed paint spot if you amble?

Making those bets gives Tokaido’s endgame a funny flair, as players scramble to finish paintings or amass clothing collections, inevitably falling short with haphazard art or wild wardrobes. Cash is a concern too, as donations to the temples might mean points, but you could also starve, unable to buy the expensive dinner left for you by swifter pals. Endgame bonuses can tip the balance in close games, though there are rarely complete blowouts because Tokaido simply isn’t a hard game to learn. Taking spaces and blocking other folks from landing on them goes back to games like Monopoly and Sorry!, so most players glom on quickly.

Doesn’t hurt that it’s just satisfying to complete a painting or snag the best sushi dinner. Couple the great art, sense of place, and a fast playtime even with larger groups, and Tokaido ranks as a wonderful intro game.

The recent Tokaido Duo takes its sibling’s theme and ups the tactics for a 2-player culture quest. You’ll each get three characters, a pilgrim, merchant, and artist, who score points in different ways as you move them around the island of Shikoku. Every round starts with three rolled dice, with the first player getting prime choice, but also being forced to use the last dice. These chance cubes let you move your minions around, earning cash, passing along art, and scoring points, with the finale triggering when any one of the six characters hits their maximum.

As with all good, swift two-player games, Tokaido Duo puts interaction at the center while keeping turns short, ensuring you won’t spend more than a few seconds between your own actions. Coupled again with simple rules, beautiful artwork, and a travel-friendly size, Tokaido Duo is a solid pick for anyone looking to try Tokaido’s style for the first time, or slim down the big box experience for your own international trip for board Games Set in Japan.

The Himeji Castle Courtyard

Joining Tokaido Duo on the small box front is The White Castle, a new euro from the designers of The Red Cathedral. The White Castle is a combo-rific board game, tasking you with placing dice and workers amid, well, a White Castle in hopes of impressing the local Daimyo. The game invites you in with those simple meeples, spread across a luscious, how-did-they-pack-it-all-in board where, over a measly nine rounds, you’ll find your score quickly climbing.

What gives The White Castle its depth comes from timing, angling to turn those nine actions into many more. Say, for example, you place a die on an action to bump up a courtier, earning some coin in the process. That courtier lands on a higher space, giving you a card which replaces one you already have, that act triggering an effect on the old card to let you mess with the gardens, which in turn . . . you get the gist. It’s like running a Rube Goldberg machine every turn, but one you’re designing on the fly. If you’re big on combo generation, or even Vital Lacerda-style worker placement games where dropping a piece on a space is but a small part of every turn, then this is an easy recommendation.

The White Castle presents, too, as something more than the sum of its parts: while this isn’t a crunchy game, stuffed with rules or convoluted scoring, it does offer depth in that combo chasing. Sitting across from one another, daring each other to set up ever more elaborate combo chains, makes for an addictive urge beyond the usual set up and score dance so common to euro games. It’s rare to find score chasing as tasty as it is here.

The art, the board, the little dice bridges, all combine to squeeze a pleasant picture into The White Castle’s small box, bringing you to Japan without bogging you down in extra fluff. If there’s a downside, it’s that after you’ve spent so much time coming up with clever combos, you’ll handily trounce any newcomer. So, when breaking The White Castle out to family and friends, play to teach for a game.

You can always combo-crush the next go’round.

Samurai Block Party

Tokaido and The White Castle give you euro-style trips around Japan, either its countryside or within one of its most famous castles. Sekigahara throws you back a few hundred years and tells you to fight over the places you’ve come to love.

Based on the battle of the same name, part of a military campaign lasting less than a couple of months, Sekigahara is a 2-player war game for savvy vets and curious newcomers alike, with slim rules leading to taut conflict tinged with just enough luck to keep things from getting predictable.

First and foremost, Sekigahara is a block wargame, a style that abandons more familiar hexes and counters for sturdy, er, blocks. In Sekigahara, these chunky markers give an easy look at the forces laid out on the board, letting you match up the symbols on those stones to the cards in your hand.

See, Sekigahara eschews dice, letting cards drive the conflict. Each player has their own unique deck, stuffed with cards bearing symbols matching units on the board (or in your reinforcement pool). Those cards aren’t just fluff: they’re the literal loyalty of the various clans making up your faction’s army – like calling in favors or sending messengers, you’ll play those cards to get the matching units to move and fight, with those same symbols boosting strength in battle. Similar to pulling chits or other fog-of-war systems, the cards simulate the fractious time and need to adapt that made up conflict in that era. What’s more, certain cards allow your opponent to challenge a clan’s loyalty, potentially halting an assault or turning a unit against you, unless you have more matching cards in your hand.

Think of it as favors, blackmail, and persuasion, all rolled into a single system, one that pours tension into even the simplest attacks. You’ll find yourself sweatingBoard games set in Japan when you press your much-needed assault on a castle, locations that hold the greatest points for victory, with only a single matching card in hand, hoping your poker face can keep your opponent from turning your own attack back on you.

Coupling with the slim rules is an afternoon playtime, at less than a couple hours for experienced players and only a little more for a first time through. The board, cards, and blocks are evocative, drawing you into the history, bolstered by the wonderful designer’s notes included in that rule book.

If you’re looking for something a little different, with fewer details to parse and fast turns, built for trash-talking, bluffing, and all-in plays, Sekigahara is a wargame worth checking out for board games set in Japan.

A Different Spirit Island

A tight two-player contest is all well and good, but what if you’d prefer your battle over board games set in Japan with a few more friends, armies, and . . . demons?

Rising Sun is bombast incarnate, published by CMON and overflowing with gorgeous minis, big boxes, and beautiful art. While it plays with as few as three, five is great for this back-stabbing battle across Japan to score the most victory points over several seasons.

First off, every player picks a clan, all of which have different starts, different bonuses, and a unique ability. From there, you’ll set off into each season’s several phases, including the aptly named Tea Phase, wherein you’ll decide which of your pals you’d prefer to decimate, which to tolerate, and which to trust (none, if Board games set in Japanyou’re being honest). You can bribe and barter forces, promises for action, and just about anything else. Deals are both encouraged and non-binding, putting both parties on edge and mimicking the oft-shifting alliances of Feudal Japan.

Once opening negotiations are over, players take turns picking tiles, the actions driving what every player gets to do. Bonuses are dished out to the tile-laying player and their allies, adding another element driving deals: will the buddy you’re palling around with this round pick tiles good for you? If they don’t, as all alliances dissolve peacefully after round’s end, assuming you didn’t stab them in the back, you can always turn around and find a new friend, one who understands the only worthwhile move is flooding the board with units.

They call games like this ‘dudes on a map’ for a reason, right?

After everyone’s bolstered, bumped, or bought their units across the provinces, it’s time to smash’ ‘em together and see who comes out on top. Each of the map’s eight territories goes off in a random order, which matters as success in battle comes down to coins bid, not dice rolled. You’ll have to decide whether a win in an earlier battle is worth not having sway in a later one. Toss in Honor, a tie-breaking stat that grows and falls with your actions, and you have a tangled web of player interaction, perfect for those groups that want to play together rather than solve their own puzzles.

Rising Sun is a narrative generator, a big, bold game that’ll have you discussing those backstabs, those key bids to win a battle, and whether winning is worth losing all your friends.

It is, folks. It is.

The Island Awaits

Japan is as rich a setting as any, regardless of what game you’re looking to play, so take a vacation from the Mediterranean and do some trading along the Tokyo road. Build up some armies and assault Kyoto instead of Mordor, or find hidden powers by befriending Kami instead of some eldritch horror. Board games set in Japan are full of fun, strategy, and wonder, so next time game night comes around, take a trip to the island and enjoy the magic.