20 Japanese themed Board Games.

Because A Board Game Set In Japan Is The Best Kind Of Board Game!

Jinsei Game
By Tam Tam from Shizuoka, JAPAN, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Any time I get to dedicate a large portion of my time to researching Japan themed things and call it work, is a flipping great time.

Today we’re taking a look at 20 of the most interesting examples of Japanese themed board games.

You can expect to see both board games set in Japan and board games that take inspiration from Japan. And then pretty much everything in between (this is Japan we’re talking about, after all!)

That reminds me, if you’re interested in finding a list of video games set in Japan, check it out here!

Modern vs Themed Games

Whilst the traditional Japanese board games could potentially be seen as coming from anywhere, the modern Japanese games all tend to have a theme involved.

Perhaps this is because the Japanese board game scene isnt that large, at least by European standards, or maybe it’s because the cult following of Japan themed products has grown exponentially over the last decade.

Either way, it’s a treat for any Japan loving board game enthusiasts like me! (And you, I hope!)

How popular are board games in Japan?

To be honest, not quite as popular as they are around other parts of the world. But the scene is still active.

Take a look at this graph created on the google search term ‘Board Games’ for people based in Japan:

'Board Game' Search Term In Japan
‘Board Game’ Search Term In Japan

As you can see, it’s not a sustained interest.

Compare that to ‘Shogi’ (A traditional Japanese variant of Chess) and you get a completely different result:

'Shogi' Search Term In Japan
‘Shogi’ Search Term In Japan

Though not consistently searched for, Shogi is still a far more researched search term in Japan than ‘Board Games’

So why is this the case?

Well from what I can gather, most of the games coming out of Japan are either relatively small scope and indie, or extremely experimental, even for the gaming community.

Whilst we do have some big publishers like Oink games that produced the astonishingly good ‘Deep Sea Adventure‘, the majority of games seem to stay local and off the international radar.

Even though the board game scene in Japan isn’t too huge (to the levels of Europe of America), it’s still worth a look if you’re interested in doing a few deep dives on the Board Game Geek Forum.

Plus, they have a whole host of children’s games that may be a great way to help you learn Japanese!

Without further ado, lets get into the list!

Here are the top 20 Japanese themed board games…

1. Tokaido – A Zen Experience

japanese theme board games - Tokaido
The next game on my bucket list!

Players: 2-5

Average Experience Time: 45 Minutes

Fun Fact: The Tōkaidō road was a real route in Japan during the Edo period. It connected the two biggest cities in Japan together, Kyoto and Edo (Modern day Tokyo). Commonly known as the ‘East Sea Road’ (東海道), Tōkaidō was by far the most important connecting route in the entire country.

Tokaido may just be the most beautifully designed zen board-game on the market today. And it’s quintessential Japan!

Players must travel through the famous ‘Tokaido Road’ whilst immersing themselves in Japanese culture.

Your chilled out and relaxed journey will include: Eating Japanese food, Relaxing in Onsen, Painting the landscape, collecting souvenirs, and becoming one with Japanese culture.

With no dice and little (on the surface) in the way of rules, it’s very easy to see ‘Tokaido’ as an experience rather than just another Japanese themed board game.

If you’re looking for an almost meditative gaming experience and miss (or massively want to) travel through Japan, Tokaido might just be for you!

2. Takenoko – Care For a Giant Panda

japanese board games takenoko
Ever wanted to care for a giant panda? Now you can!

Players: 2-4

Average Play Time: 45 Minutes

Fun Fact: Giant pandas have six digits on their hands. 5 fingers, and a thumb (that’s technically an enlarged wrist bone)

Sometimes I think my life is missing a certain element of cuteness.

Up until now I had no idea how to remedy it, but Takenoko is just what I needed!

No list of Japanese board games would be complete without at least one of them being about giant pandas, so here we go!

Takenoko (Meaning bamboo shoot in Japanese) is a game about building a bamboo garden with the help of the resident giant panda, a gift from the Emperor of China.

Players take turns moving the panda and gardener as well as choosing a number of different actions that affect the games trajectory.

These actions include laying down new garden plots, drawing objective cards, building new irrigation channels, and of course moving the characters. There’s also a separate die that controls the weather on each turn, also affecting what you can and cant do during your action stage.

The aim of the game is to keep your giant panda happy by building the three types of bamboo and keep them irrigated.

We wouldn’t want to disappoint the emperor now, would we!

3. Kanagawa – Paint the Japanese landscape

japanese style board game
Become one of Master Hokusai’s disciples.

Players: 2-4

Average Play Time: 45 Minutes

Fun Fact: Deer walk around freely in a town called Nara, very close to Osaka. Check out this interview I did a while back with photographer Yoko Ishii, aptly based in Kanagawa but often photographs this strange phenomenon.

Just like Tokaido, Kanagawa is another beautifully illustrated Japanese themed board game.

Kanagawa is a collection based game which sees players under the watchful eye of the legendary painter ‘Master Hokusai’ (Yes, the person who created that wave drawing you probably have in your head) all trying to prove themselves as worthy apprentices.

As the game progresses, each player will chose his or her preferred subjects to paint and begin collecting them.

But watch out for the changing seasons, and remember to increase the size of your studio to fulfil your dream of becoming Master Hokusai’s favourite apprentice.

4. Onitama – A Game of Martial Arts

japanese themed board games
Lead a group of monks to martial arts victory

Players: 2

Average Play Time: 10-20 Minutes

Fun Fact: One of the oldest temples in Japan is Hōryūji (法隆寺) Temple in Nara. It was found in the year 607 by Prince Shotoku and happens to contain the worlds oldest wooden structure. A definite must visit for anyone travelling near Osaka!

Deep in the ancient mountains of Japan lies the mysterious temple of Onitama.

Masters of martial arts travel across the country to prove their worth and be crowned the ultimate warrior.

Along the way, you’ll summon the power of animal spirits and apprentice monks to help them on their journey to defeat any opponent that comes their way.

A quick and simple game, Onitama is the perfect game to dip in and out of with a minimum setup time and easily explained rules to newcomers.

It’s also small enough to take with you if you’re travelling, unlike some of the more in depth themed board games on the list.

5. Machi Koro – The City Builder

Japan themed board games
Be the Mayor of your own city

Players: 2-4

Average Play Time: 30-45 Minutes

Fun Fact: With around 32.5 million people, Tokyo is the largest and most populated area in the world!

Ever fancied building your own city? Well, now you can! …Kind of!

To start off with, players cities are nothing but a wheat field and a bakery. It’s time to gather resources, steal some coins, and hope you manage to build four landmarks before your opponents.

And you thought building a city would be hard! 😉

7. Jinsei Game – The Game of Life

japanese themed board games
The Japanese Game of Life

Players: 2-6

Average Play Time: 90 minutes for both junior and standard stages, 30 minutes for Junior only and 60 minutes for standard ages

Fun Fact: If you’re lucky you might be able to find the PS2 version of the game on some Japanese auction sites. Take a look here to find out how to do it.

It’s that family favourite game, the game of life! This time however, it’s in Japanese.

Jinsei (人生 – Human life) game is the Japanese version of the North American classic ‘Game of life’.

Unlike many of its international counterparts, the Japanese board game starts when you’re a toddler and features Elementary school, junior high school, and high school, mirroring the paths of many children in Japan.

An example of some of the various events from ‘Jinsei Game’:

  • $3,000 for cold treatment
  • $25,000 for a lost mobile phone
  • $3,000 reward for repairing UFO

Pretty standard life costs… right!? Ha!

In the end, the format remains vastly similar to the original American version of the game and the player with the most money at the end of the game is victorious.

Unfortunately, the trickiest thing about this game is getting your hands on a copy of it.

My reccomendation is to either visit the Japanese Amazon, or attempt to find it on Rakuten.

For more information on both of these strategies, take a look at my guide on buying from online stores in Japan.

8. Shogun – Strategy Board Game

Japan themed board games
Take control over medieval Japan!

Players: 3-5

Average Play Time: 120 minutes

Fun Fact: The Sengoku period of Japan which lasted around 148 years was a period of pretty much constant civil war among the states at the time.

Take on the role of a Daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) and lead your armies to victory during the Sengoku period of Japan’s history.

And the victor? Become Shogun of Japan.

Shogun is an in depth ‘Risk’ like simulation of ancient Japanese warfare.

I won’t go into too much detail about the rules and instructions (there’s quite a few) but if you’re interested in learning more before you buy then you can take a look at the board game geek website here.

The most interesting and unique mechanic this game offers is how the victor is decided during battles. Cubes (which represent troops) from each opposing army are thrown into the tower and whichever has more is the winner, and fewer is the loser.

It’s a nice touch that helps differentiates itself from other war strategy games and makes the entire experience more interactive, which can’t be a bad thing!

9. King of Tokyo – Live out your Kaiju dreams

Japan board games
Fight your way to victory in the streets of Tokyo.

Players: 2-6

Average Play Time: 30 minutes

Fun Fact: The literally translation of Kaiju is ‘Strange beast’

King of Tokyo sees you play as monsters, giant chickens, and terrifying robots. And with a number of expansion packs, pretty much everything in between as well.

You must chose your play style (which may be offensive or defensive), whilst balancing your health, special abilities, and equipment choices.

Should you chose to take victory points over these other options, you’ll be on your way to becoming the undisputed king of Tokyo.

…Or if you like, you can just destroy every other monster.

The choice is yours!

10. Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Japanese monster board game

Players: 2-4

Average Play Time: 45 minutes

Fun Fact: There’s a Godzilla statue on display outside the Hibiya Chanter building in Tokyo.

From one Kaiju board game to another, Godzilla Tokyo Clash has you playing as the most brutal and formidable monster of them all, Godzilla!

And also his rivals: King Ghidorah, Mother, and Megalon, but if you have the choice and you aren’t picking Godzilla, your’e doing something wrong!

As a game of tactics and strategy, throw trains, destroy buildings, and dominate your opponents in an all out war.

11. OH! Sushi Game – Chopstick Jenga

Japanese themed board games
It’s time to play chopstick Jenga!

Players: 1-6 depending on variation played

Average Play Time: 15-30 minutes

Fun Fact: Sushi rice was originally not eaten. It was instead used to create Umami , a distinct Japanese taste.

Taking a trip to Japan?

Well, it’s about time you brushed up on your chopstick skills!

OH! Sushi Game is, at it’s core, a Japanese themed Jenga game.

Players must use the provided chopsticks in order to build a tower of sushi.

But the creators have also included another 9 variations of this game and others making it the perfect all in one Japanese board game.

12. Ticket to Ride: Japan Expansion

Japanese style board games
Ride on the best railway system in the world!

Players: 2-5

Average Play Time: 30-60 minutes

Fun Fact: Japanese trains are often exactly on time. Right down to the second!

While technically not a standalone board game, this is a Japanese expansion pack to one of the most renowned and famous board games ever made, Ticket to Ride.

Not only will you be able to play ticket to ride throughout the entire Japanese rail system, but the other side of the board allows you to play through Italy as well.

The aim of ‘Ticket to ride: Japan’ is exactly the same as the base version.

Claim as many routes as you can. Connect multiple cities to create longer routes and ultimately score the most points, leading you to victory.

13. Ohanami – Build a Zen Garden

Japan theme board games

Players: 2-4

Average Play Time: 20 minutes

Fun Fact: The original purpose of a Japanese zen garden was to help monks meditate and to encourage inner reflection. Whilst this is still the case, they’re often used purely for aesthetics though still deeply routed in Japanese mindfulness culture.

Sadly I’ve never had a space big enough for my very own Japanese zen garden (Other than my Japanese animal crossing island), but maybe this game can fulfil at least some of my garden dreams.

Ohanami is a card based points game in which players attempt to finish with the highest score and intern the ‘Most Zen’ Japanese garden.

Each game consists of just three rounds and only takes around 20 minutes each time making it the perfect game to pick up at a moments notice and soak yourself in Japanese themed goodness!

14. Sushi Go! – Sushi Card Game

Japan sushi board game

Players: 2-5

Average Play Time: 15 minutes

Fun Fact: Trainee sushi chefs go through many years of difficult and rigorous training. In fact, it takes on average 10 years before one can call themselves a ‘Master’ sushi chef.

A simple pick and pass card game with an extremely cute illustration style.

Collect a the most points by choosing the correct cards to keep each round and become the ultimate sushi master in only 15 minutes!

It’s simple, cute, and easily portable.

What’s not to love!

15. Yahtzee Cup Noodles

Japanese theme board game

Players: 2-5

Average Play Time: 15 minutes

Fun Fact: Trainee sushi chefs go through many years of difficult and rigorous training. In fact, it takes on average 10 years before one can call themselves a ‘Master’ sushi chef.

Here we have an example of a classic game with a modern Japanese twist!

Yahtzee, the dice shaking game has been repacked into the iconic Japanese Cup Noodle pot!

Fancy trying some instant noodles from all over Asia? These are my recommendation! This way you get to try 10 at once before you bulk order your favourite flavour.

…If you dont have a bulk supply of instant noodles, who even are you!?

16. Maki Stack – Sushi Stacking!

Japanese sushi game

Players: 2 or 4

Average Play Time: 15 minutes

Fun Fact: International sushi day is the 18th of June each year!

From one sushi themed board game to another, Maki Stack shakes things up.

Players must play in pairs where one describes the sushi to stack and the other must build the sushi tower whilst blindfolded.

It’s always nice when board games are slightly more interactive than a standard card game.

And Sushi stacking is a great idea for a Japanese theme!

…maybe I’ll be a little more successful at this than actually making sushi… …Maybe.

17. Miyabi – A Japanese Garden game

Japanese theme board game

Players: 2 – 4

Average Play Time: 45 minutes

Fun Fact: Traditionally the elements of a Japanese garden are rocks, trees, ponds (bodies of water) and waterfalls.

Back to zen gardens now with the next entry on our list, Miyagi.

Miyagi is a 2-4 player object placing game with a fairly intricate set of rules.

The aim of the game is for each player to collect the most points by placing the most elements of a traditional Japanese garden as they can.

It’s not just as simple as placing rivers and stones wherever you want, though.

Only the best designed zen garden with manage to accrue the most points to win the game.

One thing I absolutely love about this game is that it has a (small) height element to it. As I’ve said before, any game that attempts to break the mould of a 2 dimensional card game is always worth a look in my opinion.

18. Four Gardens – 3D Garden Building

Japanese board game

Players: 2 – 4 (Best with 2)

Average Play Time: 45 minutes

Fun Fact: Traditionally the elements of a Japanese garden are rocks, trees, ponds (bodies of water) and waterfalls.

A Japanese themed board game with a 3D rotating pagoda? Now you’ve got my attention!

Four Gardens is a board game that has you compete for the queens crown by creating the most pristine and beautiful garden around the base of the pagoda.

Collect your resources, lay the ground work, and build a beautiful panorama below the pagoda!

Only the gods can decide on the winner… Will it be you?

19. Niya – A Game of Conspiracy

Japanese game

Players: 2

Average Play Time: 10 minutes

Fun Fact: The imperial palace in Tokyo has around 379 acres of land including a moat, gardens, and a forest.

Help position your clan in the correct place at the imperial palace and win control of the garden.

Each turn of Niya has players replacing one of the tiles on the board with one of their clan tokens.

The player on the following turn will have to replace a tiles with a similar set of symbols to continue playing.

The goal of the game is to achieve 4 in a row (diagonal, vertical, or horizontal) or in a square.

It’s a simple Japanese board game for any aged player and can be picked up and set up extremely quickly making a great board game to have in your arsenal!

20. Sekigahara: Unification of Japan – Fight In The Most Pivotal War Of Japan’s History

Japanese game

Players: 2

Average Play Time: 2 hours

Fun Fact: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu were the three Daimyo (feudal lords)that eventually unified Japan by 1590.

It’s time to talk about the heaviest (literally and mentally) game on the list.

Sekigahara: The unification of Japan.

Sekigahara is an relatively in-depth war game based upon the unification of Japan. Playing this game will see you fight in backcountry skirmishes as well as all out war.

As there is no dice in the game, movement is decided through playing cards (110 of them).

The entire game is full of uncertainty but also sees gameplay mechanics like battles complete themselves fairly quickly.

This keeps the relatively in depth game constantly moving and keeps each player interested right from the outset.

Prices can be a little steep, but if you’ve got the cash and a fair amount of time to play this beauty then you absolutely won’t be disappointed!

Bonus: Traditional Japanese Board Games

Traditional Japanese Game
Traditional Japanese Board Games Are Fantastic!

If you’re looking for something truly different than the options I’ve given you, why not try some of Japan’s traditional board games?

They often offer low barriers of entry and are fairly simple to setup and play.

Take a look and let me know your favourite (mine is Go!)

Conclusion

So that was 20 (and a bonus) Japanese board themed and inspired board games that you might like to play!

I hope it’s given you a little bit of insight into the world of board games as well as Japan.

Until next time!

I’m off to put my hands in ice from all this typing….

Jonny Gleason

Photographer, Magazine owner, Matcha drinker. One of these is definitely the most important, just unsure which...

Instagram: @jonny.gleason

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