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A Complete Guide To Traditional Japanese Board Games.

8 Traditional board games from Japan.

As an Amazon Associate I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. At no extra cost to you! ^_^

I won’t lie, I love a good board game.

In fact, it surprised me when I realised I haven’t yet spoken about Japan’s history with these tabletop marvels.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan and are looking for a few ways to connect with the locals and soak up the culture, try finding an opportunity to play a few classic and traditional board games.

You’re likely to find these opportunities in parks, game parlours, or if you stay with a host family for a few days (Highly recommended).

Board games are, for the most part, a universal language. (Especially once you’ve learnt how to properly play.

About the list:

Just because these games are classed as traditional Japanese games, doesn’t mean they’re popular. In fact many of the games on this list did not originate in Japan but have since become extremely popular around their time of discovery.

This is a list of 8 of the most influential and famous traditional Japanese board games throughout the countries history.

But first, a commonly asked question about traditional Japanese board games:

What is the most popular traditional Japanese board game?

According to Buyee Blog, the most popular traditional board game in Japan Is Shogi. Slightly similar to chess in some ways, Shogi is a timeless board game that’ll undoubtedly stick around for a long time.

However, if we’re talking about the most popular traditional Japanese board game based on my own experiences of visiting Japan then I’d have to say Mahjong. Over the many times I’ve visited the country, Mahjong has been the prevalent board game of pretty much everyone in Japan.

Most Ojiisan (Grandpas) are partial to a game or 20, and whilst it may not be as popular with the younger generation, they don’t tend to play board games all that much anyway.

When I visit my partners childhood home in Japan, If I don’t see her grandad smoking in the courtyard you can bet anything you like he’ll be in his room playing Riichi Mahjong!

So to sum up, Shogi is the most popular game according to what I could find on the internet, but Mahjong is the most popular from my own experiences.

Are traditional Japanese board games hard to play?

As you read through this article, you’ll likely come across some boardgames you have heard of and some you haven’t.

Some of those games, like Sudoku, are as simple as they come. But others like Riichi Mahjong may well take a little longer to learn.

Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily suggest all traditional Japanese board games are hard to play, from the first and second hand research I’ve conducted it seems quite a few of them are very hard to master.

GO for instance, is a Japanese game you’ll find that’s easy to learn the basics but will take years and years to call yourself a master (if ever).

A final reason you may assume that traditional Japanese games are hard to play is because of the language barrier. The Japanese language is formed of three separate alphabets, making it an intimidating language at best.

The truth is, few of these games actually require you to know any Japanese. And even in those cases there are English versions, so you can be sure you won’t miss out on any of the fun!

Contents:

1. Shogi – Japanese Chess / Game of generals

2. Japanese Mahjong (Riichi Mahjong)

3. GO

4. Gomoku – A Japanese variation of Go

5. Sudoku – The game you all know

6. Daifugō – The Grand Millionaire

7. Karuta – The Japanese poem game

8. Sugoroku – The Japanese propaganda machine?

1. Shogi – Japanese Chess / Game of generals

shoji board game japanese chess
By Oliver Orschiedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Number of players: 2

Average game time: Up to 2 hours

Fun fact: The longest known game of Shogi was 538 moves long between Piket and Lautier

How do you play Shogi?

Basic rules:

As with a lot of the games on this list, Shogi is rather complex to sum up in a few brief sentences.

But I’ll do my best!

Players start with 20 pieces with the main aim of the game being to capture or kill an opposing teams king.

Each piece on the board can only move in a specific way. (A lot like regular chess)

The players take turns moving their pieces and attempt to place the king in a position where he cannot escape. (Again, much like the regular variant of chess)

Where Japanese chess, or Shogi, differs from the chess that you or I may be more familiar with is that pieces can be captured and turned into an ally to accompany you on your quest for victory.

Though the western version of chess and Shogi do share a few similarities, it’s this espionage ‘esque’ element that truly sets the games apart.

I’m yet to play Shogi, but after figuring out the rules it’s definitely on my to-do list!

Incase my rules aren’t in-depth enough for you (or lets be honest, if I’ve totally butchered them) then you should take a look here for the written rules or underneath for a video explanation.

Commonly asked questions about Shogi:

Is Shogi harder than chess?

To learn the basic rules of it? Probably not.

But to master? Technically, yes.

To put this into perspective, a Shogi professional told the New York Times in 1999 that chess has around 10^120 moves whereas chess has 10^220 moves.

That’s the number 10 followed by either 120 or 220 zeros depending on the game. So whilst chess is clearly a tough game to master, Shogi takes it one step further.

A final way Japanese chess could be deemed harder than regular chess is that pieces can swap side which might make for a pretty confusing end game.

But if you ask me, that’s all part of the fun.

Is Shogi older than chess?

old photo of men playing shoji
Men Playing Shogi in Japan (1916-1918) By A.DaveyCC BY 2.0,

Unfortunately this isn’t such a simple question to answer.

Records state that chess is the older of the two, but not it’s current form.

It wasn’t until around the 15th century that both games become the recognisable versions we see today.

Where can I buy Shogi?

You can grab a simple Shogi board from amazon here!

2. Japanese Mahjong (Riichi Mahjong)

japanese riichi mahjong

Number of players: 3-4 (Though can be less with slight game variations)

Average game time: Up to 2 hours

Fun fact: After more research, it turns out there is a factual backing to my original assumption about Mahjong being the most popular game in Japan. As of 2008, there were around 7.6 million Mahjong players in Japan with another 8,900 mahjong parlours to satisfy their cravings. In the same year, these parlours did over ¥300 billion in sales. Then in 2010, it became the most popular board game (or table game) in the country according to Metropolis, a monthly Japanese newspaper and guide.

About Japanese Mahjong

Japanese Mahjong is a variation of the original Mahjong that was first brought over in 1924.

It was at this time that a soldier named Saburo Hirayama introduced Japan to the game of mahjong by starting a club, parlour and school.

To make the game open to the most amount of people, a few of the Chinese rules were removed and as time went on, a new set of Japanese rules were added to further develop the game.

This formed the basis of what we now know as Riichi Mahjong. (Japanese mahjong)

How do you play Japanese Mahjong?

The answer to this question is extremely specific to the variation you’re playing. As such, we’ll stick to the basic version of Japanese Mahjong. (A variation in itself from standard mahjong)

As I may not do justice to the game, it’s best you hear the instructions from someone with a little more knowledge.

Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to eloquently write out my own set of rules, but that day is not today!

Though it might be a little tricky to pick up at first, I urge you to stick with it!

Take a look at The Cool Old Games explanation if you’d prefer not to watch a video.

Commonly asked questions about Mahjong:

Is Mahjong hard to learn?

I downloaded a simple variation of Mahjong onto my Nintendo switch in the hope to play it during journeys or just before I fell asleep.

Immediately, I was bombarded with thousands (that might be an exaggeration on my part, but you get the idea…) of unending rules about how to play the game.

Now whilst I don’t entirely blame the traditional game of Mahjong for what was probably the video games fault, it still didn’t seem like an easy game to get into.

Bear in mind, that’s all the experience I have with properly trying to learn the game. If you were to get taught by a competent player or learn from another source then I’m sure you’d be absolutely fine with a little patience.

Is Mahjong harder to win than chess?

Let’s compare it to chess. Just like most of the games on this list probably will be, haha!

Technically chess would be considered the harder of the two games to win, and this comes down only one reason.

Luck.

Whilst Mahjong does have an element of luck involved, there is absolutely none in chess.

That means if you have a good grasp of the rules of Japanese Mahjong, you’ll likely stand a better chance defeating more seasoned players than you would in chess.

Where can I buy Japanese Mahjong?

You can grab a basic Mahjong board from Amazon!

3. GO

japanese go board

Number of players: 2

Average game time: 20-90 minutes (A lot longer for professionals, and a lot shorter for someone as bad as me…)

Fun fact: Go is the oldest game in the world to still be played in its original form. It’s at least 2,500 years old, with some estimate putting it as high as 4000.

About Go

My Favourite traditional Japanese game! (That’s technically Chinese, but I’m still counting it.)

‘Go’ or ‘Igo’ is a traditional Japanese tabletop game that originated in China, but found it’s way over to Japan in the 7th century CE.

By the 8th century it became extremely popular in the Japanese court, and by the 13th century it was finally popular with the general public.

How do you play Go?

Go is a game that pits one player against another in a battle for territory, victory, and the ultimate bragging rights.

Players will start on a 19×19 board, one will take the roll of black and the other white.

The player using the black stones makes the first move by placing his or her stones at an intersection of two lines.

The aim of the game is to capture as much land as possible. This is done by touching two separate sides of the boards, interrupting enemy chains, and capturing pieces.

Once again, below is a video example of how to play Go.

Commonly asked questions about Go:

Is go harder than chess?

It’s a game that’s pretty easy to learn, unlike some of the other entries on our list, but that doesn’t mean for one minute it’s an easy game.

It’s incredibly hard to master and one reason for this may be the simple movement of the pieces and large board size. It means more experienced players can still be challenged by amateurs meaning they’ll always have to keep on their toes.

I like to think of it as the dark souls of board games, haha!

Is Go a fun game?

That really depends on your personality.

If you struggle to keep your attention in one place for more than half an hour, then it may not be for you. Check out these video games set in Japan for something that may be more up your street!

If however you enjoy meditative experiences and challenging your brain over an extended period of time, then it might just be for you!

I like to think of each game as two armies going against each other in a battle for territory. It helps me stick with it through the slow games…

What is the hardest boardgame in the world?

Technically this isn’t a question asked about Go, but it’s one with Go as the answer!

When you’re talking about a game that has more moves than there are atoms in the universe, you know you’re taking on a beast.

Where can I buy Go?

Your friendly neighbourhood amazon should have you covered here! If not, just type in ‘Go Board’ on the amazon search engine and you should be good to go!

4. Gomoku – A Japanese variation of Go

Gomoku

Number of players: 2

Average game time: 20 minutes

Fun fact: Gomoku translates to ‘Five Pieces’ in Japanese. ‘Go’ meaning 5, and ‘Moku’ being the counter word for pieces (Oh how we love Japanese counters!)

About Gomoku:

‘Gomoku’, sometimes known as ‘Five in a row’ is a strategy board game commonly played with the same pieces as the previously mentioned ‘Go’.

Unlike Go, Gomoku is traditionally played on a 15×15 board instead of a 19×19.

Gomoku has been played in Japan since the Meiji Restoration, an event that restored the imperial rule to Japan in 1868.

emperor meiji and the procession
The palanquin (where the emperor sits) and procession of Emperor Meiji.

Since then, the game has become popular in Korea, China (unusually for the games on this board, after it was introduced in Japan as it is a Japanese variation), and also Britain where it was named Go Bang.

How do you play Gomoku?

Finally! A simple traditional board game that I can explain!

The basic rules of Gomoku are as follows:

1. One player is assigned to black, the other is assigned to white.

2. Players then take it turns to place their pieces one by one on the intersections, similarly to Go.

3. The winner is the player who manages to place exactly 5 stones in a row either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. It must be no more than 5, otherwise the game continues.

Commonly asked questions about Gomoku:

Is Gomoku harder than chess?

Similarly to Go, Gomoku is relatively easy to learn but near enough impossible to master.

In fact, the game is so new that many of the top players are easily able to beat the best computer programs out there. Something chess players could only wish to be able to do.

Where can I buy Gomoku?

As Gomoku is a variation of Go, you’re unlikely to find any dedicated boards. I would instead advise you to buy a Go set from here, and then section off a 15×15 area to play Gomoku!

5. Sudoku – The game you all know

sudoku on window

Number of players: 1

Average game time: 10-30 minutes depending on skill and difficulty

Fun fact: There are 6670903752021072936960 possible Sudoku grids. Good luck trying to solve all of them!

About Sudoku:

Sudoku is a Japanese… Well, is it Japanese?

Technically (unfortunately for Japan) it isn’t.

Modern Sudoku (The type you and I know) was actually originally created by a gentleman called Howard Garns.

Howard was a 74 year old retiree from Connersville, Indiana, who designed and published the first ‘Sudoku’ puzzle in a 1979 Dell magazine.

By 1984, the puzzle had made its way over to Japan through Maki Kaji, the then president of the Nikoli puzzle company.

It was in April of 1984 that Sudoku was first shown to the Japanese people and become a nationwide hit.

How do you play Sudoku?

Another game that I personally know the rules to, who would have thought!

A standard sudoku board is formed of 3×3 big squares, with 3×3 smaller squares within them.

To win the board and complete the game, a player must fit the numbers 1-9 in each 3×3 square, along the horizontal rows, and the vertical rows.

All small squares must have only one number in them, and no number must be repeated in the medium squares, the verticals, or horizontals.

Commonly asked questions about Sudoku:

Is sudoku good for your brain?

Anytime you challenge your brain, you build up it’s mental reserves. Just as you would exercising your body, exercising your brain should be no different.

But can Sudoku help with that?

Well, yes!

A 2007 paper titled ‘Exercise on the Brain‘ by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang suggests that practicing Sudoku can certainly ‘Make people better at sudoku puzzles or help them remember lists more accurately’.

Where can I buy Sudoku Puzzles?

It’s likely you can buy a simple Sudoku book from any of your local convenience stores.

If you’d prefer to stay at home to work on your Japanese, you can find a whole range of Sudoku books on amazon.

6. Daifugō – The Grand Millionaire

playing cards pile

Number of players: 3-8

Average game time: 10 minutes+

Fun fact: Daifugō also translates to ‘Very Rich Man’

About Daifugō:

Daifugō (Grand millionaire/very rich man) is a traditional Japanese card game that is played with 3-8 players.

It falls under the category of a ‘climbing game’ meaning each player must beat the previous player by playing a higher (or better) card.

The game was introduced from China in the 1970’s and became popular in Japan around the 80’s and 90’s.

How do you play Daifugō?

Another Japanese board game (or card game in this case) that I dont understand!

Here is my extremely basic understanding of the game.

The end goal of Daifugō is to get rid of your cards as quickly as possible by placing an increasingly better hand into the middle of the table.

For instance, if I am to play second and my opponent has just placed a single 5 then to stay in the game I will have to place a higher number card.

You must play the same amount of cards as the leader (the person who goes first). For example, you must play a 2 of a kind or more if that’s what the leader has placed.

Jokers can act as any card, meaning it can trump any card placed on the table and help you get two of a kind (or more) in situations where it’s needed.

If you cannot place any more cards, you must pass the round.

Incase that description of Daifugō made absolutely no sense (don’t worry, I won’t be offended… much…) then here is a great little video that goes over the rules of this traditional Japanese card game.

Commonly asked questions about Daifugō:

Is Daifugō hard to play?

Nope.

Contrary to my diabolical explanation, Daifugō is a simple and easy traditional Japanese card game that everyone in the family can understand. Well at least, the parts that I understand of it anyway.

It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if there was an entire other part to this game I’ve never heard of…

Where can I buy Daifugō?

No need to buy it, Just use a regular set of playing cards and you should be good to go!

If you don’t have a set of playing cards, these guys should absolutely be on your wishlist!

Yep, that’s right. Studio Ghibli playing cards.

I don’t need them, but damn, do I want them!

And if Studio Ghibli isn’t your thing, how about a set of playing cards that help you learn Japanese whilst you play? Again, I absolutely don’t need them, but I have to have them!

7. Karuta – The Japanese poem game

Karuta cards

Number of players: 2+

Average game time: 5-10 minutes

Fun fact: There are both Portuguese derived karuta, and original Japanese Karuta.

About Karuta:

Karuta stems from the introduction of playing cards to Japan by Portuguese traders in the mid-16th century.

It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that the initial version of Karuta was born in the town of Miike in Chikugo Province.

How do you play Karuta?

One nominated player will act as the reader of the Yomifuda ‘Reading cards’.

The others will all be going after the appropriate Torifuda ‘Grabbing cards’.

Shuffle both the reading and grabbing cards.

The reader then reads the reading cards which in turn give the grabbers a clue as to which card to grab!

If a player grabs the wrong card, they must forfeit the next turn by placing their hands on their head.

The person with the most cards at the end of the game is deemed the winner!

Commonly asked questions about Karuta:

Is there an English version of Karuta?

Yes!

Ogoola offers two versions of Karuta for English speaking players:

Ogoola English Karuta – A fully original English style Karuta with English poems and quotes.

Hyakuninisshu English Karuta – An English version of Japanese Karuta that has been translated

Where can I buy Karuta?

You can buy this version of Karuta called ‘Whack a Waka‘ which is both English and Japanese, and original Japanese versions (for helping you improve your Japanese in a fun and unique way) from amazon.

8. Sugoroku – The Japanese propaganda machine?

suguroku painting
Ban-Sugoroku (The one similar to Backgammon!)

Number of players: 2

Average game time: 5-60 Minutes

Fun fact: Ban-Sugoroku is pretty much identical to Backgammon, and e-Sugoroku is almost identical to snakes and ladders.

About Sugoroku:

‘Sugoroku’ is a term that refers to two separate traditional Japanese board games.

The first is called ‘Ban-Sugoroku’ meaning Board-Sugoroku, and the second is ‘e-Sugoroku’ which translates to Picture-Sugoroku.

Ban-Sugoroku was brought to Japan through China (surprise surprise) around the 6th century.

It was actually made illegal several times during it’s introduction because of the luck elements in the game which pretty much categorised it as gambling.

E-Sugoroku surfaced a lot later in the 13th century and featured picture block cards with things like religion, politics, and actors on.

In todays day and age, Ban-Sugoroku is near enough obsolete. So if you ever hear the word ‘Sugoroku’ being mentioned, it’s almost always referencing E-suguroku.

How do you play Sugoroku?

Ban-Sugoroku

The first of our two games is Ban-Sugoroku, and it’s practically identical to Backgammon.

To that end, you’re best off first learning how to play backgammon properly and then following the 4 differences as set out by this wikipedia page (Yes I know, not a great source, but it’s the best I can find at the moment!)

E-Sugoroku

e-suguroku board
A 1925 E-Sugoroku board.

To play e-Suguroku, players will need access to a die and figures or characters to play the game with (think similar to monopoly characters).

Everyone participating in this game will start on a square called the furidashi and aim to finish on a square called the agari.

Each platform on the game board stipulates where a player must move to next which may include rolling a specific number.

If a player fails to roll the stipulated number, they must miss that turn out and wait until the next one to try again.

Commonly asked questions about Sugoroku:

How did the Japanese government distribute Sugoroku games?

As we’ve previously learnt, e-Sugoroku games can cover all manner of topics and this is something the Japanese government used to their advantage.

During the early 1900’s, the Japanese government released e-Sugoroku games free in the daily newspapers which served the educational purpose of instructing civilians how to be good members of society.

This would also have included games about national pride, war propaganda, and any other messages the government wanted to release to a large proportion of Japanese society.

Where can I buy Shogi?

Possibly the most illusive board game on this list!

Other than a few handmade options on Etsy (one for e-Sugoroku and one for Ban-Sugoroku), your options are fairly limited.

One way to have your pick of e-Sugoroku boards is to take a look at the Japanese Amazon. They have absolutely loads of them, but the language barrier may be a bit intimidating to some.

To find out what options you have when ordering from Japan and other Japanese stores that might be of interest to you, take a look at this article where I discuss the 7 best online Japanese stores.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it!

A pretty thorough look at the traditional Japanese board game landscape. Let me know below if you’re planning on learning one of these old games, or maybe you’re already a master at them all!

Until next time, またね! ^_^

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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