It has been some years since I was here last, and I know things tend to change. Yet I still have fond memories of gaming in bygone days in Kyoto while I worked as a teacher. Gaming then consisted of alternatively cramming into a friend’s tiny apartment on weekends for tabletop RPGs and struggling through the menus of Koei’s Pacific Theatre of Operations 2 (Teitoku No Ketsudan II)and Nobunaga’s Ambition (Nobunaga No Yabo) on a secondhand Super Famicom after work. That may not sound fun, but those memories hold a special place for me as a formative part developing the hobby. Back then I never had the time or resources to really break into Wargaming beyond used games at a second hand shop and books brought from home. This go around, I’m a little better situated and wanted to at least scratch the surface of wargaming in the much more expansive capital, see what was popular, how the hobby had developed since my last time here, and of course, pick up a game or two to bring home.
Like anywhere else, wargaming is a niche hobby here, even if there are some dedicated fans in Japan. Military affairs, including wargaming and scale modeling, do find space in many of the larger book and electronic stores, though often sharing that space with other niche hobbies. Let’s take a look at both computer and tabletop wargaming, as each occupies its own world, and each is just as interesting to investigate.
Wandering around Akihabara, Tokyo’s neighbourhood for tech and geek culture, you’ll no doubt come across a few businesses stuffed with all the snazziest pro-gamer loot imaginable. Rows of neon tinted cases, keyboards, and other accessories line the floor while monitors display trailers or gameplay vignettes for new releases. I saw a lot of Final Fantasy XIV, for example. Yet I feel that snapshot of an overemphasis on MMOs illustrates one of the long-standing trends in Japanese PC gaming. PC Gaming remained niche, while console and handheld gaming became more mainstream. Only very recently, by my own observation and a few casual conversations, has PC gaming’s popularity as part of mainstream video gaming began to grow here, influenced in part by the explosion in popularity of Esports and the surrounding culture.
The niche origins of PC gaming are still fairly evident if you go looking for some physical copies of games. Wandering through some larger stores like Yodobashi Camera you’ll find wargames sitting alongside simulation games and mahjong franchises. Or, you could be like me, see a sign for “WINDOWS GAMES” on the 4th floor of a tiny gaming shop, wander up only to be overwhelmed with the bright colours of a more ‘romantic’ genre of niche gaming. Whoops.
In any case, you’ll be likely to notice that some games that have long since disappeared from shelves in the west, like Paradox’s Hearts of Iron 3, for example, are still comfortably sitting in a prominent place on a Tokyo shelf, complete with astronomical price tag. Beside these are the most recent games from proud and ancient houses. Koei-Tecmo’s Nobunaga’s Ambition series hold court alongside Systemsoft’s Daisen Ryaku series. Both companies have been making these wargames since the 1980s. Koei-Tecmo’s drama driven strategy games about Japan’s Warring States period are always good fun, and some are available in English through Steam. Systemsoft, though, have been developing detailed hex wargames on the PC and other systems for decades, though very few see foreign shelves. Two of their latest releases caught my eye, for different reasons.
Daisen Ryaku Perfect 4.0, a modern era hex wargame, seems to include a great deal of Japan’s Self Defence Force, an organization that doesn’t get a lot of attention from foreign game designers. The second game, Moe Niji Daisen 3, involving anime-style girls leading (and maybe serving as combat vehicles?) in the Second World War, looks just absurd enough to warrant further investigation.
It’s still a detailed hex wargame as far as I can tell, liberties with dimensions of an aircraft carrier aside. The problem for hobbyists is that the niche aspect of PC Wargaming is still reflected in pricing. Both of Systemsoft’s titles were going for over (100CAD/57GBP) While the latest Nobunaga’s Ambition was just under that. The same applied to online designers and distributors. General Support’s Taiheiyo Senki 3, a hardcore simulation/ spreadsheet game about the Pacific War, is at a similar price point despite being first released in 2012.
Luckily, Japanese Steam users have access to the same stable collection of wargames as the rest of the world’s Steam users, and digging around a little led me to discussion groups for most of the more ‘popular’ PC wargames and even a fan translation of Slitherine’s Field of Glory II’s manual. So it appears to my laymen’s eyes that a divide in Japanese PC wargaming still exists, the old guard keeping their lofty position while the continuing popularization of PC gaming brings new interest and cheaper popular games. With things changing so rapidly, it will be interesting to see how the hobby fairs in a year, or five.
Exploring the Shosen book tower, I was fascinated to find a sprawling section dedicated to all kinds of militaria, from magazines specializing in modern equipment to translated foreign history works to an entire section of doujin, or self-published books, on military topics. Sidestepping the ever present, if thankfully few, military conspiracy books, I was happy and surprised to see a new issue of Command Magazine sitting prominently at the top of the escalator!
Command Magazine, for those unfamiliar, used to ship with a complete wargame (or 2!) alongside features detailing the conflict and other relevant articles. It has long since gone under, but Command Magazine Japan is still going strong, translating and including games from the old line and other similar magazines like Strategy and Tactics. Of course I snatched a copy, and had a great time reading through an AAR of a solitaire session of Fleet Commander Nimitz. This issue’s included game was an American Civil War venture, the same as that in Strategy and Tactics 305. I’ve yet to try it though, My tiny room does not offer the necessary space to lay out the map nor do I have the time for a full solitaire playthrough.
Space, or more accurately the lack thereof, seems to be a principal concern for tabletop gaming in general in Japan. It certainly was for myself back in the day. Consequently most wargaming, I’ve been told, takes place within clubs which will rent out a public space for a day and either organize games or else invite interested people to bring friends and something to play. There are groups and clubs for Japanese, English, and mixed groups, which are good fun if one isn’t fluent in one or the other language, but know a bit. As long as everyone is familiar with the rules! Some groups have meetings monthly, others at smaller intervals, but the principal is the same. Come by, play games, play a small fee to cover the rental, and enjoy the hobby together.
Alternatively, you can do what I did this past month, and check out Meetup to find some local gaming groups. Japan International Gaming Group (JIGG) were a great bunch, and I managed to try out the excellent Cataclysm: A Second World War from GMT. Give them a shout if you’re in Tokyo for any extended period! Similarly tackling the issue of space is the rise of board game cafes across the country. In Tokyo I’ve stumbled across Jelly Cafe in Shibuya and Dear Spiele in Nakano, but there are plenty others to choose from. However you want to go about it, finding people to game with is much easier than I thought, and while I enjoy a good wargame at home, the club atmosphere is welcoming, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a 9-hour game fly by with so few distractions!
Most board game stores I entered had a dedicated wargame section, with Yellow Submarine, again in Akihabara, standing out amongst the ones I visited. They not only had a stock of old but complete Command Magazines, but also a wide selection of both foreign and domestic wargames. It was wonderful to see miniatures alongside Avalon Hill classics and more modern wargames. I asked the staff about the hobby traffic in that location, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they said the games were popular, though their limited gaming space and the greater popularity of card games meant that people didn’t often bring them in to play, circling around again to the prominence of wargaming clubs and board game cafes.
Tokyo’s wargaming scene is as vibrant as it is venerable. The old guard of domestic wargame makers like Koei and Systemsoft still claim prominent shelf space while the well-loved copies of Avalon Hill classics rest easy beside Japanese card games on hobby store shelves. I only had a brief time to get to know the scene here, and I’m sure that more time would reveal more to the hobby, and I earnestly hope anyone currently living here or with more information offers their 2 cents, (or any corrections!) but my time talking to and gaming with some devotees was a blast, and I find myself curious to see what happens to our niche hobby as both PC gaming and boardgaming continue to grow in popularity.