By Matthew Baldwin
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s a warm April evening, and a group of friends have gathered for the Harvest Festival. They take turns placing floating lights upon the surface of a placid lake, collecting lanterns of various shapes, and making dedications in exchange for honor.
They are not celebrating the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, however. These participants are sitting around a table at Seattle’s Cafe Mox and playing Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, a contemporary board game. Like a mix of dominoes and rummy, the game has players placing lake tiles on the table, trying to match sides, and collecting a set of seven different cards. Sets of cards are exchanged for points.
The player who accumulates the most when the festival ends is declared the winner.
Lanterns is the creation of board game designer Christopher Chung. “From the get-go, I really wanted a game that was family friendly,” Chung explains. And so he created a game that feels less like a competition and more like a languid stroll through the park. When early players described Lanterns as “soothing,” “zen-like,” and “peaceful,” Chung knew he had achieved his goal. “I couldn’t have been happier about the game’s development and success in capturing these emotions.”
The popularity of Lanterns is part of a larger trend in the United States, where the board games are more popular than ever. In this era of mobile phones and social networks, the play of games is seen as an antidote to the over-stimulation and isolation of 21st century technology. And there is no better illustration of this trend than the booming success of gaming parlors such as Cafe Mox. The Ballard establishment is a board game store, it loans out games from its library, and encourages patrons to play as they eat.
When the owners of Card Kingdom decided to open the adjoining bar and restaurant in 2011, they were charting unknown territory. Now Cafe Mox is packed nearly every night. They’ve opened a second location in Bellevue, and more venues catering to “gamers” are springing up around the city. Patrons of such establishments appreciate the gathering and the opportunity to connect with others face-to-face, rather than online. “It’s very inclusive,” said Ginger Adams who frequents the restaurant. “They are always very welcoming.”
More and more board games are released every year. And an ever-increasing number draw on Asian geography, culture, and imagery for inspiration.
Those who play Tokaido, for instance, are “transported to the ancient Tokugawa dynasty, and travel along one of the most famed and beautiful paths in all of Japan.” Players visit villages, temples, and hot springs as they trek from Kyoto to Edo on the East Sea Road, meeting fellow travelers along the way, and stopping at inns to partake in meals. As with Lanterns, those who play Tokaido often describe the experience as soothing, an impression encouraged by the gorgeous art and simple rules. The game amply demonstrates that the journey is more important than the destination.
The designer of Tokaido, Antoine Bauza, has set several other games in Asia as well. In Takenoko, players collectively move a caretaker and a panda through a royal garden, the former cultivating bamboo groves and the latter wolfing them down. Taoist monks cooperate to defend their village from Wu-Feng and his army of undead in Ghost Stories. And in Hanabi, winner of the prestigious Game of the Year award, players work as a team to stage the most impressive fireworks show Tokyo has ever seen.
“I’ve been fond of Japan ever since I was a kid,” Bauza says. “I visit at least once a year, and it has become a major influence in my work as a game designer.”
Japan is not only the setting of many games sold by Cafe Mox, but also their country of origin. In 2012, a tiny game called Love Letter crossed the Pacific, and impressed many with its economy of design. With only 16 cards, designer Seiji Kanai created a game in which players vie for the affections of a Japanese Princess through the help of the royal staff, including advisers, jesters, guards, and samurai.
Nate Murray of IDW Games, who flew to the Tokyo Game Market in early April in search of new titles, is a huge fan of the pocket-sized Love Letter. “With gaming becoming so popular, portability is becoming important,” he said. “It’s great to be able to turn happy hour at a bar into an impromptu game night. And Japanese designers seem to have the edge in distilling a lot of fun into small packages.”
Murray knows what he’s talking about. In 2012, IDW games released Machi Koro by Masao Suganuma, in which each player becomes the mayor of a small but rapidly expanding Japanese city. As bakeries and cheese factories produce revenue, players can choose to build more businesses, or invest those funds into landmarks and theme parks.
Machi Koro was hailed as a near perfect family game, thanks to its simplicity and its focus on fun. Murray describes it as “a game that’s not just a total blast, but also focused and tight. There’s no fat on the design. That certainly seems like it’s emblematic to where it’s from.”
“There’s a lot of great stuff seeing U.S. publication,” Murray said of Japanese designs. “And even more being discovered every month.”
“They’re definitely more popular than ever,” agrees Christopher Chung. “Gamers have really opened up to the interesting themes that come with the culture of countries we embrace, from an international development and economic standpoint. China and Japan hold deep roots within our culture, and designers and publishers have really seen a boom of not just great themes, but also a whole new wave of tabletop gaming potential.”
Matthew Baldwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.