I enjoy playing board games from all over the world. Japanese board games have developed quite a following, and they offer a lot of entertainment.
I like Go because it has a strong strategic element without being heavy. It’s an excellent game for two players and can be played almost anywhere. Plus, those black and white stones just look super cool.
But you may want a game for younger children or more than two people. Don’t worry, though. There are plenty of Japanese board games for you to choose from for your next game night.
Which Japanese board game will make it to your table? Read on to learn more.
About Japanese Board Games
While you may not automatically associate Japan with board games, the fact is that playing board games is a popular pastime in Japan. Many of the games on my list have been enjoyed by Japanese people for decades or even centuries.
Most of the board games did not originate in Japan. Rather, they were developed in other parts of the world and imported to Japan from places like China and western nations. However, the Japanese have put their own creative flair into these games.
These fun flourishes have made the Japanese versions popular all over the world. Read on to learn more about some of the favorite board games in Japan.
Best Japanese Board Games: Reviews
Go: Best Overall
Playing Time: Approximately 1 hour
Go (Igo) originated in China and is considered to be the world’s oldest board game still played with its original rules. Its history in Japan goes back to the seventh century when the country put their own spin on the game and turned it into what we play today.
Go is not for the faint-hearted: It’s a long, strategic game that requires deep concentration and long-term planning. This is a two-person game, and the ultimate objective is to surround opponents and form larger territories.
The first player to go is the one with the black round stones, followed by the person with the white stones. The players take turns placing their stones on the board’s intersecting gridlines.
To play a stone, there must be a spot with an adjacent intersection open, called a liberty. If a space doesn’t have a liberty, you cannot play a stone there. Players attempt to surround opponents’ stones in order to capture their pieces.
When a player cannot play, they pass a piece to their opponents. When a player makes two consecutive passes, the game ends. Players count points from prisoners and captured intersections they control. The player with the most points wins.
There is a handicap in this game for less experienced players and for players who play second. These points are called komi points.
This particular Go board is magnetic and has a 19×19 grid. It’s a travel-sized version that folds in half, so you can carry this board game with your wherever you go. It comes with two plastic containers to store the Go stones.
Buyers liked the portability of this Japanese board game. They enjoyed the game, as well. Some people struggled with the tiny pieces, and several said the magnets were weak.
Many customers said their game did not include a rule book. If you’re unfamiliar with Go, that’s a problem. Fortunately, they were able to Google the rules or watch a Youtube video, like this one:
- Magnetic pieces
- Tactical depth
- Lengthy playing time
- Does not always include rule book
- Some magnets are weak, fall off
Machi Koro: Best for Families
Players: 2-4 (I recommend 4)
Playing Time: 30-45 minutes
Build your own city, roll dice, and collect money in Machi Koro by Pandasaurus games. The game’s colorful aesthetic, large chunky dice and simple rules make it fun for kids and adults.
This deck-building board game is designed for two to four players, although playing with two players is not as fun. I recommend four, instead.
There is not much learning curve to this game, so you can begin playing immediately. The game’s objective is simple– the first person to finish their four major landmarks wins the game.
In Machi Koro, each person takes on the role of mayor of their city. For each turn, players roll one or two dice, collect income, then complete construction.
Each card tells the player what number they must roll to collect income, as well as how many coins they receive. Players can only collect coins from activated buildings.
With the money they collect from the dice roll, players can decide to construct a new building or landmark.
Customers had overwhelmingly positive things to say about Machi Koro. They liked the bright artwork and colorful dice. They especially liked how easy it is to set up and play. Several people recommended this as a family game.
That being said, the gameplay can get repetitive after a while. There isn’t much depth of strategy required to play Machi Koro, and it can leave you wanting if you are looking for a challenge.
But for those who get a little bored, there is an expansion available. Many buyers enjoyed the expansion, although some complained that the cards were a different size than the base game cards.
- Lighthearted, quick gameplay
- Easy to learn
- Great for kids and adults
- Bright artwork
- Expansion available
- Reports of misprinted cards
- Can get repetitive
- Expansion cards are a different size than base
Takenoko: Best Miniatures
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Can you grow bamboo across your plantation as a mischievous panda eats wherever he can? In the Japanese game Takenoko, players take on the role of gardeners who must care for the Emperor’s giant panda and grow a bamboo plantation.
Players must farm and irrigate parcels of land growing green, yellow, and pink bamboo. The goal is to complete objectives and win the Emperor’s favor.
For each turn, players complete two phases:
- Determine weather
- Take actions
To determine the weather, roll the weather die, which has sides that include sun, rain, wind, storm, clouds, and a question mark (wild). Each of these has an effect, which the player applies before taking two actions.
Possible actions include getting a new plot of land, digging irrigation channels, growing bamboo, feeding the panda, or drawing an objective card. Unless getting a special weather effect, players must choose two different actions each turn.
At the end of the game, whichever player has earned the most objective points wins.
Buyers found this game to be charming and fun to play. They found the pace of play to be just right, as well as the balance. They also liked the beautiful artwork on the hex tiles and colorful miniatures.
But some people found the game to be a little boring after a while. They didn’t see themselves playing this one over and over again. Others had issues with missing or damaged pieces.
While the instruction manual lists a minimum age of 13, the box recommends a minimum age of 8. Customers felt that 8+ was more accurate since younger players could handle the game.
This game is more expensive than comparable options, but worth it.
- Easy to learn, basic rules
- Good pace & balance
- Charming game pieces
- Beautiful aesthetics
- Reports of missing pieces
- Some found it boring
Onitama: Best Quick Strategic Game
Playing Time: 10 minutes
From Archane games comes Onitama, a two-player abstract strategy game where players take on the role of a Master guiding their monk followers to defeat their opponent.
This game has very straightforward rules. According to the manufacturer, this Japanese game only requires two minutes to learn.
In Onitama, each player is dealt two move cards, face-up. A 5th card is also placed face-up, to the side of the board. When it is their turn, players may choose to move one of their pieces using one of their cards. They then exchange the card with the 5th card, which allows their opponent access to that move.
While the move card deck contains 16 cards, only 5 are utilized in each game. This adds a high level of replayability.
There are two paths to victory in Onitama. The first is to capture your opponent’s Master, by landing on it with any of your pieces. The second is to move your Master across the board into your opponent’s Temple Arch space.
The board game models martial arts, but there is also definitely a chess-like feel to the play. Don’t worry if you’re not a master chess player, though. Several said this game is easier to learn and fun for everyone.
Buyers loved Onitama. They liked that the game balances abstract strategy with simple rules and quick gameplay.
Some customers felt the 5×5 grid was too constricting in movement. But the available expansions help alleviate some of those limitations.
The biggest complaint was the quality of the game pieces. The neoprene mat is non-slip and the miniatures are plastic, but several people weren’t impressed with the look or quality.
In spite of that complaint, however, many people enjoyed actually playing the board game. If you want an abstract strategic game for two people, this is at the top.
- Easy-to-learn game rules
- High replayability
- Strategic depth
- Quick play
- Expansion available
- Only for two players
- Game pieces lacking quality
Karuta: Best Speed Game
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Karuta is a speed contest that requires you to listen to the reader and be the first player to slap the corresponding cards. The deck consists 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.
There are different versions of the cards. 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.
This version comes with a CD to be the reader. It has colorful cards with parts of Japanese poetry. The only problem? It’s not in English. If you don’t have any Japanese language skills, there are English versions available.
- Quick gameplay
- Easy to learn
- Portable, card-based
- Comes with a CD
- Must have basic understanding of Japanese
Ticket to Ride Japan: Best Expansion
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes
You may know Ticket to Ride as the widely popular railway-themed board game. In the Ticket to Ride Japan expansion, you can zoom across Japan in a bullet train admiring Mount Fuji, or ride the subway in modern-day Tokyo to reach your destination.
Obviously, this is not technically a Japanese board game but is rather a board game set in Japan. However, the popularity of the Ticket to Ride board games, as well as the clear cultural nod to Japan, earned this game a spot on my list.
To play this Japan expansion, you will need the original version or the Europe version. But the good news is that the reversible map includes Italy on the back, so you’re getting essentially two expansions for the price of one.
In this Japanese version, you face a dilemma between investing in the Bullet Train network, routes that can be used by all players to complete Destination Tickets or focusing on your individual tracks.
With straightforward gameplay, there isn’t much of a learning curve. This board game can also accommodate up to 5 players, making it great for families or game nights.
While there are some differences between this version and the other TTR games, they’re easy to understand and apply. At each turn, a player can choose one of three actions:
- Claim a route
- Draw Train Car cards
- Draw Destination Tickets
As the game progresses, players contribute to the bullet train, which everyone can use. This adds a cooperative element to the game. Due to the addition of the bullet train, each player only receives 20 trains at the start of play.
But don’t fear, Ticket to Ride Japan is still a competitive game. At the end of the game, the player who contributed the most to the network wins the biggest reward.
Customers enjoyed this expansion, especially the bullet train and the interconnectivity of the cities within Japan. They liked the inclusion of Italy, too.
But be forewarned, some people didn’t realize it was necessary to have a starter game. This Japanese version does not come with trains, so you will need the original to play.
- Cooperative & competitive elements
- Includes Japan & Italy maps
- Good for families, game nights
- Easy to learn and play
- Requires base game to play
Shogi: Best Classic Game
Playing Time: 30 minutes to 2 hours
Shogi, commonly dubbed the Japanese equivalent to chess, is a game of strategy, patience, and scheming. I think of this as a cross between chess and checkers. It’s one of the most popular board games in Japan.
In Shogi, everyone starts off with 20 pieces on their side of the board. Each piece has a special name and can move in designated ways. To achieve victory, a player must capture the opposing player’s King.
Shogi has a long history. In fact, its predecessor, chaturanga, originated in India in the sixth century. And it likely passed to Japan vis China or Korea sometime later and became what we now know as Shogi.
Over time, a drop rule was added that allowed capturing players to return captured pieces to the board. Shogi has been played in its current form since the sixteenth century.
Also, once your piece reaches the back third of the board, that piece can be promoted. That involves flipping over the piece to reveal a new character underneath, thus the piece becomes an entirely new character.
This particular board is made of MDF and covered in a wood veneer. It comes with a magnetic drawer to store game pieces. The game pieces are maple wood, traditional Koma pieces that feature kanji characters in painted running hand script in black on one side and red on the other.
Customers enjoyed this Shogi board game. They liked the storage drawer for the Koma pieces, and several people were happy with the artwork on the pieces. Some did say the ink was faded in spots, but they used a Sharpie to fill in those spots.
A common problem was that the board was too small for the pieces. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for most people, but it was a nuisance.
Several people said that while the quality was good enough, this definitely isn’t a collector’s Shogi board. It’s meant to play on and get some mileage. With that said, some felt it was pricey considering the construction.
- Strategical depth
- Includes storage drawer
- Maple wood Koma pieces
- Some pieces had fading ink
- Game board is small for pieces
Riichi Mah-jong: Best Mah-jong
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Riichi Mah-jong, or Japanese Mahjong, is the Japanese counterpart to the original game from China. This is one of the most popular Japanese board games.
This ready-to-play set includes four trays for tile storage, four dice, a set of betting sticks, and an east wind tessera to determine seating placement for each of the four people. The compact black vinyl case makes this the perfect game to play on the go.
The rules of riichi mah-jong are quite similar to Chinese mah-jong, with with 136 tiles instead of 144, along with a few additions.
You can still score and win with the same sets as the original mah-jong, but there are more requirements. A winning hand can still consist of four groups of three tiles matched and a pair, but a player must also have a yaku to win.
A yaku is similar to a book in card game. It’s a combination of tiles that has a corresponding han (point) value. Obviously, you want the yaku with the highest value.
A common opinion among buyers was that this is a good budget mahjong set. The quality of the tiles is not the best, and the carrying case is pretty flimsy. But it’s inexpensive and a good set if you’re wanting to learn the rules of riishi mah-jong.
- Portable carrying case
- Japanese mah-jong rules & tiles
- Includes betting sticks and wind tessera
- Very small
- Lower quality pieces and case
Tokyo Highway: Best Building Game
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Tokyo Highway was originally released as a two-person only game but is now also available as a four-person game. It’s one of the more popular modern Japanese board games. It’s a game of dexterity, where players carefully need to build an interconnected system of highways.
Every player starts with a number of cars and building materials. Before starting, every player must place a starting section of a highway and one building.
Players then take turns placing one highway segment to build the roadway. Players score by placing their cars on the highway road. But not so fast! There are certain conditions that must be met before that happens.
This is sort of like a cross between Ticket to Ride and Jenga. The components are minimalistic but aesthetically pleasing. Customers liked this fun game.
Be forewarned, however. Availability is limited, so if you have your eye on this game, you’ll want to jump at the first chance.
- Easy to learn
- Good for kids & adults
- Building game of dexterity
- Difficult to find
- Simplistic design
Daifugo: Best Card Game
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Daifugo is technically not a board game but a card game. This game can be played with your average deck of 52 playing cards. If you played “President” in elementary school or junior high school, that game was modeled after this Japanese card game.
This is a card-shedding game. The first player to get rid of all their playing cards is the winner. To start the game, all the cards are dealt out to everyone. There are special titles for players: the grand millionaire (daifugo), the grand pauper (daihinmin), and everyone else is a millionaire (fugo), commoner (heimin), and hinmin (pauper).
The grand millionaire begins the round by playing all the cards of the same level. The other players must play the same number of cards of the same rank or higher. For example, if the first person plays a pair of 5s, the second person can play a pair of 5s or 6s or above, but not a pair of 4s. This continues until the round ends.
For the next round, the roles get reassigned. Play continues until one player has played all their cards. The grand pauper is the last person to finish the round, and this person must begin the next round.
This Japanese card game is a great way to pass time with friends on a rainy day. I should note that the linked product is a deck of playing cards.
You can play Daifugo with any deck of cards, but this Bicycle deck is good quality. It’s made in the U.S. and has a foil and embossed tuck for a premium look.
- Quick gameplay
- Lighthearted, laid-back feel
- Easy to learn
- Doesn’t require special board
- Not for one or two players
- Not as challenging
What is the Best Japanese Board Game?
Which of these games is the best Japanese board game? I like Go for its creative, tactical, and classic feel. But any of these Japanese games would make a good addition to your board game arsenal.