August 30, 2016 by dracs
Hey everyone! After a year and a half living in Japan I’m finally able to share with you some of my experiences of gaming out here. So welcome to Tabletop Otaku, where I will hopefully get to look at some of the weird, wonderful (but mostly weird) stuff that goes on here in the Land of the Rising Sun.
First up, let’s check out a particularly Japanese approach to card gaming; combining them with arcades!
Game Center Geekery
The first thing you should know, a Japanese arcade is not like the small and often sad affair we might be used to from the seafronts of the UK. Rather, they are glorious, over-the-top collections of games of all kinds, where plenty of Japanese people spend their free time.
They are also home to some of the most professional English translations ever.
A lot of Japanese people take their gaming at these places very seriously and going into one you will often find suited salary men queuing up to play their favourite game. The rhythm game players in particular sometimes even bring their own drum sticks, special gloves, or what have you (seriously, just type in Japanese Rhythm Game into YouTube to see some of the incredible skills some players have with these games).
Many of these games have online or network play, with occasional tournaments run by the game center, as well as associated collectibles and loyal fanbases. So it is that arcade gaming in Japan can be viewed as less of a casual distraction and more of an in-depth hobby.
Collectable Cards Meet Arcades
While tabletop gaming in general isn’t as big here as it is in the west, collectible card games are very popular. There are plenty of dedicated stores where people meet up and play, many of which even stock some cards in English. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to see why Japan thought to combine the two hobbies.
These games come in many different styles and formats, but in general they can be summed up like this: Players collect a deck of cards, dispersed randomly by the machine at each play through. These cards represent game assets and characters, which can then be used in the computer game itself.
Hitherto, I have been unable to play these due to the fact that my Japanese is… abysmal (my language gaffs include asking where my tomorrows should go, asking for a letter in my ramen, and declaring myself an umbrella).
Battleships & Samurai
The first game we looked at was the newest addition to the game center’s selection, called Kantai Collection.
Kantai Collection is… well, it’s very, VERY Japanese. It’s a game about WWII battleships personified as Japanese school girls fighting weird, abyssal monsters that look like whales. Why? Because Japan has yet to find something it can’t personify as a school girl.
Players collect cards, each one representing a character which they can use in the game itself by placing the cards in a scanner.
After assembling a team, they explore a large map in search of enemies. Engaging sees the players directing their team in fast paced naval combat, where careful maneuvering and timing are all important. The arcade machine itself uses a fun, ship-style interface to help give you the feeling of directing battleships. That happen to be Japanese school girls.
After each round, players can have the option to buy new cards for ¥100 (£0.74) each. These are completely randomised, with players trading their duplicates among themselves, but there is an option to “build a ship”, where you input a recipe in the hopes of getting a specific card.
Of the three games I looked at, Kantai Collection seems to be the closest to a regular video game. It could function perfectly fine without the cards, but their implementation does add to the game and gives a cool look at how else the model of a collectible trading card game can be used.
Having said that, I will say that this game in particular left feeling a bit… for want of a better word, skeeved out. After all, you are playing as school girls blowing up whale monsters, which, given Japan’s track record with whales, is not great. And did I mention that the girls’ clothes get torn, becoming more revealing as they take damage?
The next one my friends showed me was a strategy game called Sengoku Taisen.
Set in the Sengoku Jidai, the warring states period of Japanese history where we get all the coolest stories of samurai and ninja, players control large armies and attempt to lay siege to one another’s fortresses. The twist here is that your troops are all stored on collectible cards.
Gameplay is simple. Each card has a points cost, allowing you to assemble your army according to the limitations of the scenario. You choose your troops and deploy them by placing the cards on the field in front of you. These then appear on the screen as animated figures.
Their position in the game all depends on the position of their cards. Troops are moved by moving the cards around the field, with special abilities and attacks being activated by positioning the card or covering it with your hand.
As with Kantai Collection, new cards are distributed randomly at the end of the game by the machine itself. You don’t have to pay again for Sengoku Taisen, but at ¥600 (£4.49) it is more expensive to play in general. A particular feature I liked was that the game will occasionally reward you with digital cards. These can later be used by placing any other card face down on the battlefield to represent it.
The cards of Sengoku Taisen are far more integral to gameplay than those of Kantai Collection. Whereas Kantai’s cards only featured artwork, Sengoku’s also show their stats and detail their various abilities. The game is like a hybrid of collectible card game and tabletop strategy.
While played out on the tabletop, the action itself happens entirely on screen, which does speed up the action and make for some pretty intense situations, especially when playing online against a human opponent.
Lastly, we come to Code of Joker.
Code of Joker differs from the previous two in that it doesn’t feature any physical cards. Nevertheless, I wanted to talk about it to give you a good idea of the variety of card style gaming that has been mixed with technology at Japanese game centers.
Code of Joker is technically referred to as a digital trading card game. The gameplay is closer to a more traditional trading card game than the previous two. Players draw cards from a deck and use them to summon monsters, cast spells, set traps, or whatever their strategy calls for, in order to damage the opponent.
The players choose a pair of characters to represent them in game. These function in a similar way to the concept of Planeswalkers in Magic the Gathering. Attacks are aimed at them and, when they die, you lose the game, but they have special abilities that charge up and can then be used to seriously mess with the other player.
Being entirely digital, this one wasn’t quite as interesting as the other two, from a mechanics perspective. It looks and plays a lot like a fully animated Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh video game, but it is noteworthy due to the fact that its online play style and popularity could represent a new aspect for collectible card gaming to explore. True, there are existing online card games, like Magic Online, but Code of Joker is particularly well polished and implemented, even if having to play it at a game center might be off putting for people in the west.
One interesting point, despite being digital, Code of Joker still allows for physical card trading with a machine set up so players can transfer data between their memory cards.
A Glimpse Of The Future?
It was a lot of fun to finally experience a part of Japanese gaming that has previously been locked behind the language barrier, especially as these games are so different to anything we have back home. Seeing the different ways card gaming has been combined with technology got me thinking, could this be a possible future for tabletop gaming?
We have discussed before on the site various ways in which technology and tabletop gaming could be combined, and now I have found that many of the ways we talked about are already being used in Japanese arcades.
Sengoku Taisen is probably the best example of this as it does play out very similarly to a tabletop strategy game. Of course, things are somewhat simplified for the player. All the maths and randomisation is worked out by the computer, so there is no need for dice rolls or constantly looking up rules. It is still very much a video game, with not much room for scenario variation due to the limitations of the machine’s set up. Nonetheless, I could see this being something tabletop gamers would take to, especially with the online aspect.
Just as long as we don’t personify anything ridiculous as school girls. I mean, what next, tanks?
… God damn it Japan.
Thanks to Seb and Matt for taking me through this confusing side of Japanese gaming. If any of you guys want to see more about video gaming in Japan or watch a few Let’s Plays, check out Seb’s blog Identity Gaming where he raises money for the Alzheimer’s Society.
Do you like the idea of combining card games and arcade machines? What bits of Japanese gaming life would you like to learn more about?
"[Japanese arcades] are glorious, over-the-top collections of games of all kinds..."