Photo:Olaf Eichler on Flickr

Board Stupid: A Guide to Traditional Japanese Tabletop games

“I love gaming!” What images enter your mind when you hear this phrase?

Perhaps you see characters like Mario or Sonic. Or maybe you have an image of Scorpion or Sub Zero, rage burning in their eyes as they prepare to bring their latest “Mortal Kombat” to a gruesomely lethal conclusion. Or maybe it’s something more distinctly Japanese like hitting the next character evolution for your favourite “Pokemon” or blasting away the zombies with gusto as you try to survive the latest “Biohazard”.

It wasn’t always like that however. When I was child, I actually didn’t get my first video game console until I was around 9 years old. Before that, it was all about board games for me and plenty of them. “Guess Who?”, “Monopoly”, “Mouse Trap” I had them all.

For many kids in Japan also, Board games were and indeed still remain to this day an important part of childhood. Of course, like most things in this country, the board games are also just a little bit different from what we are used to. Japan has its own variations of Chess, Checkers and even more modern games like “The Game of Life”.

So join me today as we take a stroll through the best of traditional Japanese board games.

Here is my top 5

1.  Go (Also known as Igo)

Game of Go (碁)

Game of Go (碁)

Photo: Marcin Bajer on Flickr

Although this game finds its origins in Confucian China, some 3,000 years ago, Go has long been a popular past time for generations of Japanese, going back hundreds of years.

Like most great games from history, Go is very simple to pick up, but takes a lifetime to master. Professional players can sometimes play games which last over 16 hours.

Defined as an “abstract strategy game”, Go combines elements of classic western games like Othello, Chess and Checkers into a unique and highly addictive experience. The premise is quite simple. You need to capture as many of your opponents pieces as you can by totally surrounding them from 4 sides on the board. Each player starts with an equal number of stones, and takes turns at placing them on the board.

The traditional Go game board has dimensions of 19 x 19, however beginners and intermediate level players may also play with a board of 9 x 9 or 13 x 13. Like most of the great strategy games out there, Go’s simplicity belies the huge levels of thought and concentration required to play the game well.

2.  Gomoku

Gomoku or “Five in a row” is a very different type of game from Go, but played with the same stones, on a similar 19 x 19 grid board.

Unlike Go, to win in Gomoku the aim is not to surround your opponent, but to instead form an unbroken row of 5 stones. If you’ve ever played “Connect 4” as a child then you’ll have a rough idea what I am talking about.

Connect 4

Connect 4

Photo: PlayCity on Flickr

Since the stones cannot be moved once they have been placed, it’s also possible to play Gomoku as a pen and paper game too. Intricate, strategic, and also at times frustratingly deceptive, Gomoku test not only your grey matter, but also your common sense.

3.  Shogi:

Ok, I’m not going to lie, this game is a little complicated. Sometimes known as “Japanese Chess”, Shogi is a variant on the more commonly known western game, with similarly western origins.

As games evolve and different cultures cross over, games and cultural ideas inform and influence each other. As such, Shogi is credited with setting the precedent for the now common idea in certain forms of chess for returning taken pieces to the board as your own.


Photo: BlueAndWhiteArmy on Flickr

This idea game about from the common idea in Japan’s feudal period whereby mercenaries or foot soldiers would, as needs required, switch allegiances to other warlords, as an alternative to summary execution. This idea proved popular and was later adopted by certain chess and checkers variants.

Some of the pieces have the same names as those of chess, for example the king, the rook, the knight and the bishop. However Shogi also incorporates other, less familiar names for its pieces, such as lance, gold general and silver general. Given that Feudal Japan was a male dominated society, there is no queen.

The pieces move as follows; The king can move one space in any direction, same as conventional chess. Likewise the Rook and the Bishop move left right or back forward, and diagonally, respectively. The Gold general moves the same way as the king, with the only exception that it cannot move diagonally backwards, as traditionally, generals would never retreat from an attack.

The Silver general can move forwards one space, and in any diagonal one space, but it cannot move left or right or diagonally backward.

Beyond that, it gets very complex, with the notion of promoted pieces having extra movement abilities further complicating things. Despite its seeming complexity Shogi is a great game and every bit as engaging as conventional chess once you get your hear around the fundamentals.

4.  Jinsei Game:


Photo: ryo katsuma on Flickr

Released in 1967 in Japan, the Jinsei Game is a Japanese adaption of the North American classic the Game of Life. Starting at as infants, players have to progress through childhood, onto elementary school, middle school, high school and eventually into a career.

The game has consistently proved popular with school kids, and has been ported to numerous video game consoles down the years, the most recent of which have been for the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii consoles. The playstation version reconstituted the rules of the game into a role-playing (RPG) format to give it a more video game like feel.

5.  Sudoku

No list of Japanese games and pastimes would be complete without this mind-bending number cruncher.

Like so many great games, a wonderfully simple premise conceals a fiendishly difficult challenge. Using a board divided into nine grids, each containing nine smaller boxes into which the numbers 1-9 can be written.


Photo: Jerry Knight on Flickr

The rules are that each of the nine individual grids must contain the numbers 1 to 9 but there can be only one instance of each number in each grid. Also, the numbers cannot be repeated along any vertical or horizontal lines.

Definitely a good one to pass those long train or bus journeys, sudoku has also transitioned well to modern smartphones and tablets, much like crosswords and other such puzzles.

With so many games to choose from, be sure to check out your local toy or games shop next time you are in Japan, you never know what you may find.

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