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Tokyo Game Market • May 2015 I: No Rest for the Restless

W. Eric Martin
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Whenever I visit a large city, especially one outside the United States, I want to walk it. I want to absorb all that I can about the landscape around me, not launching myself from one tourist site to the next but seeing all that lies in between, too, spotting every little difference from what I think of as familiar and natural to rediscover (yet again) that the familiar is familiar only because that's what you've chosen to surround yourself with, sometimes without ever knowing anything else.

This yen gets me in trouble on occasion, such as when my wife and her then best friend were ready to throw me in the Seine after hours on the streets of Paris, with me convincing them to keep walking by making claims that in practice turned out to be not true: "You can see the Arc de Triomphe right there! Just a bit farther..."

Even though I was in Tokyo for fewer than three days to visit Game Market, I indulged this desire as much as I could, walking an hour to a dinner gathering on the Monday evening I arrived, then again early the next morning on the way to Big Sight, the location where Game Market is held, although I grabbed the subway halfway there as I was encumbered with 1,800 dice as a favor to a Japanese designer and wanted to ensure that I could pick up my ticket early in order to record some of the show before it became covered by swarms of gamers.


Big Sight


The strange thing was that the more I saw of Tokyo, the more it reminded me of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where I lived for six months in the mid-1990s: the brick sidewalks, the tiny cars, the bicycle paths, the trim gardens sandwiched between canalish rivers and industrial-looking apartment buildings, the efficient use of every space imaginable due to space being at a premium, the countryside outside the city being divided into rectangular fields by irrigation ditches and narrow paths for farming vehicles. The land where Big Sight is located was land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, much as the Dutch have carefully managed the creation of one-quarter of their country from the North Sea. I even saw a windmill on the train to Narita Airport, so I'm not sure what other proof I need.

The most delightful thing about walking Tokyo is the layering of decades and centuries in nearly everything around you, like a canvas that's been worked on by generations of artists, with all of their work being visible to some degree. You take it in and marvel at the history that accretes like sand, embedding itself in everything, then (mostly) washing away the next morning and leaving you only with memories.



Gaming Buffet

I tend to approach game conventions the way that I do cities, trying to survey as much as I can to absorb the big picture, to see all that exists so that I can report on it for you, gentle reader, and answer your questions about this or that, but also so that I can try to grasp the breadth of creation. In the work that I do on BGG News, I endeavor to offer as wide a sampling as possible of the games being created, hamstrung though I am by personal weaknesses (e.g., next to no knowledge of wargames) and the harsh whip of Mistress Time.

That effort is sorely tested at game conventions. With every year that passes, and despite me knowing better, I'm still surprised by the number of games that come into creation and disappointed that I can't spend more time familiarizing myself with them. Each year at Spiel, I spend five days surveying the stalls, talking with designers, trying out prototypes of future game releases — and still come away with the feeling of having missed dozens of potential treasures.

The May 2015 Game Market turned out to be worse in this regard, with 365 exhibitors displaying hundreds of games, many in quantities of a few dozen, and everything happening in the space of seven hours. Everywhere you looked, something new and intriguing awaited, with the additional complication for some attendees — such as yours truly — that I could not read the text on most boxes, cards and rulebooks, leaving me to stare at the games as if they were Rongorongo tablets and I could possibly puzzle out their meaning if only I worked at it long enough.

The majority of releases at Game Market are card games of some type, partly because they're small and therefore can be displayed more easily at the minuscule stalls available for exhibitors and partly because they're easy to produce compared to a game with wooden pawns or punch-out cardboard tokens. Name cards — and the exchanging of them — are a cultural touchstone in Japan, and name card producers can just as easily be game card producers. Publisher Tagami Games, for example, released 原始人の晩餐 (Banquet for Early Humans), a game in an AMIGO Spiele-sized card box jam-packed with 160 half-sized cards.

While we all have some degree of familiarity with cards, designers keep finding new things to put on them or new activities to do with them, new ways to hold them or place them or stack them or throw them. One example of this: Six weeks prior to Game Market, designer Shimpei Sato challenged designers to create a card game that consisted of only two types of cards. You could have different artwork on the cards if desired, but if the artwork had a functional meaning, then you were violating the spirit of the challenge. A number of designers released new creations that fit these guidelines, such as Susumu Kawasaki's bluffingish deduction game 15 ○ 9 ×, just as years ago designers took on the ¥500 challenge — a price ceiling that required designers to think small, with Seiji Kanai's Love Letter being one such result (as detailed here), and with the chance publication of that game by AEG and the subsequent shift within the international industry in terms of what's viable making Love Letter the most important release this decade in my eyes.

(Curiously enough, Sato did not himself release a two-card design, instead selling a new start player die at his stand along with copies of Komodo's Jushimatsu and Nanahoshi. How do you use it? Roll the die and see to whom the triangle points. If you're stuck on deciding which game to play, roll it to determine a genre.)



Afternoon Delight

Certainly not all of the new releases from Game Market will be welcomed by everyone. Here's another werewolf spinoff, for example, or another bluffing game that recalls so many of its predecessors, or another game featuring cute manga girls who want to be pop stars. We all have topics and types of games that we can't stand or that we've just seen enough of for our tastes — yet here are still more of them for those fans who can't get enough, who want to see what creative take this particular designer might have on something familiar. What layers have you added to the past this time?


You look around the room at the hundreds of creations, and it's almost unfathomable that this many people have worked this hard to bring evidence of their artistic creativity to the world, to share something of themselves in small quantities that will be seen by 0% of the world population unless you carry out that percentage to eight decimal places — but you just need to start fathoming it because here they are, creating for the sake of creating with most of these publications being produced and sold at terrible margins — sometimes even at a loss — on a per copy basis. In the end, these aren't businesspeople, but artists eager to make a mark with their creations.


Ken Shoda plucks a branch from Mangrove


The designers at Saien, two of the four of whom were at TGM, made the biggest impression on me as I was, and still am, unable to stop thinking about their creations. Trying to express to them the feeling I get from looking at and playing their games, even with the help of gamer and interpreter Ken Shoda, was difficult because I didn't have a good explanation for it myself — but then I hit upon the term "sexy games" and it rang true. When I see their works for the first time, I can't fathom what to do with what they're presenting, yet I can't stop staring because they look so intriguing. The art of their games isn't only in the mechanisms used, but in the graphic design and choice of components — Katteni Shiguyare looks like a pile of children's blocks, Mangrove an office decoration, Hau La a bunch of mutated zipties, Hiyoko Drip a box of Jujubes, Zittia a pile of trash — leaving me dumbstruck by their Duchampian audacity and simultaneously eager to discover whatever the thing actually is.


Another aspect common among Game Market releases is the, shall we say, increased personality in the look of their games, which is likely due to the publisher also being the designer in most cases. You're making the game the exact way that you want it to look, regardless of the costs, so Ouyuuan's Hitohira includes a beautiful printed bag from which you draw the components (which appear to be plastic necklace beads), Power 9 Games' Sheep & Thief has lots of tiny white puffballs for sheep, Kawasaki's ギシンアンキノトウ (Towers of Conspiracy) has odd plastic bits that you plug into the base of a wooden box. The oddness of the components becomes part of the game's charm, something not always accepted in more mainstream publications, as with the potentially roll-y shell bits in Ravensburger's Orongo.


Handmade pottery bits in ダッタカモ文明の謎 (The Mystery of Dattakamo Civilization) from メイカーズポスト


I'll certainly confess to being seduced by the foreignness of the games, by their nature as the "other", with the games featuring a style unfamiliar and exciting to me that Japanese might view as old hat — yet I still believe that these games express stronger personality and a wider range of expression in their artwork and graphic design than can be found in releases from German, American and French publishers, gorgeous as I find all of the French releases to be.

Treasure Hunt

Game Market has grown tremendously from its birth in 2000, both in numbers of attendees, exhibitors and game releases and in its influence on the worldwide market for games. At the May 2015 Game Market, 8,500 people bought an entrance ticket in the form of a game catalog, up from about 7,200 in November 2014 and a far cry from the 400 who showed up for the first Game Market in 2000. The number of exhibitors has grown from approx. 30 in 2000 to 365 in 2015. Game Market started as a once-a-year event, gained a second date in 2010, then a third date in 2012 in Osaka at a show roughly half the size of the one in Tokyo. Ownership of Game Market passed from founder Zyun Kusaba — organizer of the longest-continuing gaming
group in Japan, according to Ken Shoda, with his group having met for more than 1,600 Saturdays(!) — to Japanese publisher Arclight Games in 2010.


Gamers queue in the hall outside the convention at 8:30 a.m.


The slot machine jackpot of Love Letter for Alderac Entertainment, followed a year later by Machi Koro mania, has encouraged non-Japanese publishers such as Tasty Minstrel Games and (Machi Koro licensor) Pandasaurus Games to attend the show in search of titles to publish, with TMG, for example, planning to release Taiwanese publisher Homosapiens Lab's Design Town as Flip City in 2015. (No, Taiwan is not in Japan, but Taiwan Boardgame Design has had a strong presence at Game Market in recent years, and airfare from Taiwan is peanuts compared to flying from the U.S.!)


From left: Chen Chih-Fan, TMG's Michael Mindes, Chen Chien-Tsun, a.k.a. Smoox (link)


French publishers Cocktail Games and Moonster Games were also on hand at TGM as has been the case at many past shows, and Moritz Brunnhofer from German publisher Hans im Glück showed up at TGM for the first time. Japon Brand translator Simon Lindström guided Brunnhofer around for part of the show and wrote about the experience on his blog:

Quote:
I have reasonably fun with King of Frontier, but playing it with Moritz of Hans Im Glück, he pointed out what he found was flaws with the game, and I was quite amazed at his developper ability. I told myself that sure, he should be – he's a pro – but I guess I don't auto-assume that everyone is so skilled at their job. He did like the game though, enough to say that taking a look and developping some parts in it might make it a hit...

After playing KogeKogeDo's The Little Witches and the Mysterious House,] Again, he pointed out the parts he liked, what he didn't like and how to improve them. If I were a game designer, I'd treasure the possibilities of letting him test my games.

From what I've read and from my own experience, thorough development is not something you'll find in huge quantity in most games released at Tokyo Game Market. In most cases the designers are the publishers, and they just have something cool that they want to share, and for most people that differentness is enough.


The line for Stone Garden crossed the width of the convention center


After all, game fans are treasure seekers as much as the publishers are, and they're eager to find and experience that something special. At 10:00 a.m., fans pour through the doors like water from a burst dam in order to queue in front of the New Games Order stand for one of the hundred copies of 枯山水 (Stone Garden) available at the show. This title has received unparalleled publicity in the Japanese mainstream media (for a non-mainstream game), with a celebrity endorsement pushing interest to a fevered pitch. New Games Order is apparently able to create and sell only 100-150 copies per month due to the handmade nature of the rock-like components, something that also pushes the price tag to a relatively astronomical ¥8,200 (approx. US$68), yet with only one hundred copies on hand, gamers paid the price because the only other choice was not to get it at all.


Perhaps not so giant-looking in my hands...


With permission of HABA, Japanese game retailer Sugorokuya had created a giant-sized version of its Rhino Hero that retailed for ¥9,800, and with fewer than twenty copies on hand (out of an entire print run of one hundred) they disappeared into fans' hands in minutes. I initially tweeted that this item retailed for $150, but I think it's closer to $100 — not that it matters since Sugorokuya is sold out for now with more copies due in June 2015 and the owner uncertain as to whether his license allows him to sell the game outside of Japan. Thankfully someone more thoughtful than me did take a picture of this game being played:



Takamagahara's 7 Symbols, and 7 Nations, which was named best new release of the Nov. 2014 Game Market, was in similar short supply. Within fifteen minutes all copies was gone, leaving chumps like me who didn't reserve one out to dry. Along the same lines, only twenty copies of ダイス 木 (Daisuki) had been assembled for the show, so distributor/seller ASOBI.dept had a lottery of sorts, with people queueing, then drawing from a bag to see whether they could purchase a copy. A loser on the draw, I was told that more copies will be available at the November 2015 Game Market. How many copies? We'll just have to wait to find out. (Brandon Bollom did manage to snag a copy of ダイス 木, and he details the game in this BGG blog post.)

Many Game Market publishers take reservations for their titles, but with print runs already being small — 200 copies being one average that I heard for doujin releases, "doujin" meaning something akin to amateur — the number of copies available for reservation is naturally even smaller. Manifest Destiny, for example, took sixty-ish reservations for its biggest release, My Fair Princess, and fewer than forty reservations for its smaller titles. (Unexpectedly Manifest Destiny also had a small English language supply of The Ravens of Thri Sahashri on hand, fewer than twenty copies, and I hadn't seen those announced anywhere beforehand. Yet another aspect of the treasure hunt!) While Manifest Destiny sold a total of 170 copies of My Fair Princess, the print run was in the neighborhood of five hundred copies, and my understanding is that this game will be available for Spiel 2015.

In many ways, this Game Market seems like a springboard for Spiel 2015, at least for some of the "larger", better known publishers at the show. OKAZU Brand was buried behind a stack of Minerva before the doors opened, and everything I've heard indicates that this game will also show in Essen. BakaFire Party had two new games — the real-time puzzle game Reidemiester in which you try to arrange different strings in assigned patterns and the card game Fram Rlyeh, with both titles having English rules and the latter one being a redevelopment of a title from someone other than BakaFire! Good heavens, perhaps this is the future of Game Market, although most likely not.

•••


Okay, I thought that I'd be able to wrap up the entire Tokyo experience in a single report, but I'll write up more about Game Market, as well as trips to Tokyo game stores, in a second post so that I can continue my so-far-failed efforts to rebalance the sleep meter.


What I saw outside Big Sight
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