Japanese board games are not exactly synonymous with Japanese culture, at least not to foreigners anyway. However, before the time of Nintendo and Mario, what do you suppose people did to pass time?
That’s right, board games were right up there in terms of entertainment! Today, it’s still a super popular way to wind down and relax to the Japanese people, believe it or not.
Whilst there are many games that we can list here as being enjoyed for eons by Japanese people, note that most games did not originate in Japan. Over the centuries, game imports came from places like China and the western countries, and the Japanese people have cleverly and creatively adapted it to their own playing style.
Games such as Go and Japanese Mahjong will have basic rules very similar to its original form. However certain rules would have to have been tweaked or introduced to add a little spin to it. If you think you know the game simply because you’ve played a version of it before, think again!
TOP 10 Japanese Board Games
Below we’ve listed 10 popular Japanese board games people love in Japan, and we hope you love them too!
- Japanese/Riichi Mah-jong
- Tokyo Highway
- Jinsei Game
Enjoy this article and don’t forget to tell us which one you would like to try in the comments below!
Shogi is a game that resembles the layout of a cheese board, and much like the latter, it is a game of strategy, patience, and schemes.
In terms of similarities with chess, with Shogi, everyone starts off with 20 pieces on their side of the board. The players will take turns making a move using one piece on the board. Each piece has a special name and move they are allowed to do. The game is over once the King of the opposing player is captured. This is where the similarities end.
In Shogi, you are allowed to capture an opponent’s pieces and revive them on your side of the board. Also, once your piece reaches the back third of the board, they can be promoted. Being promoted means that the piece is flipped over to reveal a new character underneath and thus becomes an entirely new piece altogether.
It’s easily one of the most popular board games in Japan!
If the top game is similar to chess, this game could be likened to Snakes & Ladders. Much like the latter, Sugoruko is a board game where players roll a dice and move their piece on the board as many times as indicated by the dice until someone reaches the end.
When it was first introduced to Japan, it was strictly an adult’s game. It quickly became a popular way to gamble whilst traveling.
However, sometime in the 17th century it developed into more of a kids board game, with the actual playing board depicting colourful pictures. The name e-sugoroku was adopted.
Nowadays, it is played by the young and the old alike. Given its simple rules and attractive board illustrations, it’s the perfect game to wind down and relax to.
Karuta is a fun and entertaining game that can cause quite the ruckus!
It consists of a deck of special cards displaying images and writing on them. One set of the cards, called yomi-fuda, is held onto by the assigned ‘reader’. Another set, called the tori-fuda, is laid out on a flat surface in disarray.
The aim of the game is to listen to the reader as they draw a card from the yomi-fuda pile and read it out loud. The rest of the players then have to find the corresponding card in the tori-fuda pile and be the first one to slap it.
In terms of the cards themselves, there are various versions. For example, some famous karuta cards have the first part of a poem or a proverb, and once read aloud, the players have to find the corresponding part to the card. There are also iroha karuta cards which teach basic Japanese reading skills.
Go is considered one of the oldest board games in global history. However, it only arrived in Japan during the 7th century, after which the country put their own spin to it and made it what it is today.
Go is a long and strategic game that requires deep concentration and planning from both parties. Two players will take turns placing their stones on the board’s intersecting gridlines. The aim of the game is to surround their opponents and form territories larger than that of the opponents’.
Much like chess, this game rewards patience and forward-thinking, however, many people prefer this over chess for its creativity aspect.
This board game uses the same pieces and board as the previously mentioned Go. However, it is more similar to the game ‘Connect Four’.
Both players in this game alternate turns placing their piece on the board at the intersecting lines. The aim of the game is to be the first person to create a consecutive line of five pieces of your own colour. Once the pieces are placed down, they cannot be moved. You can place offensively to try and be the first to achieve 5, or you can play defensively and try and block your opponent’s path.
This is a simple yet fun game that could be played and replayed for hours! Why not play this whilst giving yourselves a break from Go?
6. Japanese / Riichi Mah-jong
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning riichi mah-jong, the Japanese version of the original mah-jong game from China. This is one of the most popular tabletop/board games in Japan, after all!
The rules of riichi mah-jong are highly synonymous with Chinese mah-jong, with some added Japanese flair and with 136 tiles instead of 144.
Basically, you can score and win with the same strategy and sets as the original mah-jong, but there are additional rules and requirements to heed. A winning hand can still consist of four groups of three tiles and a pair, but a yaku is also required to call it a victory.
If you’re into strategic games that require you to slowly draw out your moves and plan ahead, or if you just enjoy playing mah-jong, we highly recommend giving this a go!
Surprise, daifugo is the first (classic) card game on this list! We assure you though, the wait was worth it. If you are familiar with the card game President, you will find these rules quite similar. President was, after all, modelled after daifugo!
For this particular card game, you will need three or more players. All the cards are initially dealt out evenly to everyone. One person is appointed as the ‘daifugo’, or grand millionaire. Another person is appointed as daihinmin, or grand pauper. Everyone in between is given the label of fugo (millionaire), heimin (commoner), and hinmin (pauper). However, you can remove the heimin if playing with four people or remove the fugo and hinmin if playing with three people.
Before starting the game, the daihinmin must give the daifugo their top two cards and the daifugo will give back any two cards they like, usually their bottom two cards. The game will then begin.
The aim of the game is to get rid of your cards as soon as possible. The rank of the cards starts with 3 being the lowest, and it rises consecutively up to J, Q, K, A, and then 2 being the highest. The daifugo will start the game and place down any number of cards of the same rank from their hand. The next player must play the same number of cards of the same rank or higher. For example, a pair of 4s must be followed by either another pair of 4s or 5s or higher, but not 3s.
The appointment of roles changes as people finishes playing all the cards in their hands. The daihinmin (last person to finish the round) must be the next person to deal the cards, and the next daifugo is the first person to play the next round.
This is quite an easy-to-understand game, and you can have as many players as you like! It’s a great way to pass time on a lazy afternoon.
8. Tokyo Highway
Originally released as a two-person only game, it is now also available as a four-person game as well. It’s a game of dexterity, where players carefully need to build an interconnected system of highways. It’s one of the more popular modern Japanese games.
At the beginning of the game, every player is given a number of cars and building materials. Before starting, every player must place a starting section of a highway and one building down.
From then on, players will take turns placing one highway segment to build the roadway. Scoring in this game happens when you place one of your cars onto the highway roads, but there are conditions that need to be met. These conditions include both ends sitting on a pillar, a road cannot cross over any other pillars, and a pillar can only have one road going in and one road going out, just to name a few.
To win, you will need to be the first person to place all your cars on the highway.
9. Jinsei Game
The Japanese Jinsei game was based off the popular US game ‘Game of Life’, where players take turns spinning a wheel and following its directions along the board. Much like its predecessor, there are good tiles and bad tiles to land on, some of which will make you rich and others that will have dire financial consequences.
Jinsei game differs in that there is a storyline behind the board; you initially start off as a toddler and then you make your way through life!
The aim of the game is pretty much to end with the most amount of money. Overtime, variations of jinsei game have been developed, with the themes and descriptions of the tiles becoming dramatic and crazy but still a lot of fun. Examples include catching a cold and paying 3,000, or finding an oil field and winning 80,000!
This bright and colourful multiplayer board game makes it an easy choice for families and groups of friends.
This Japanese board game is definitely one of the most aesthetic games. It is designed to be played by 2-4 players.
The aim of this game is for each player to develop their own city which has to include four major landmarks. The first player to do so wins!
To start, each player assumes the role of mayor of their city. When it is their turn, they have three phases to complete:
- Roll one or two dice
- Collect income
Note that you can only collect income from others when that building(s) is activated. This happens when your dice rolled matches the building card’s activation number and it is on the appropriate turn for the card colour.
This is a fun and leisurely game that can be enjoyed by the young and the old alike, even though it was only released less than 10 years ago!
Japanese board games are definitely worth the money spent and time learning them. Whilst understanding the rules may take a little longer, the intricacies of the game, as expected by games created by the Japanese, make the game a lot more fun than you’d initially think!
From games adapted in the 7th century to games introduced only a few years back, there are so many options and variations that you simply must give them a go. With the world turning to ways to entertain themselves at home and indoors, Japanese board games are the perfect solution to your boredom!
If you are interested to know about how Japanese people live, feel free to read this blog post: Lifestyle in Japan.