Interview with Kaz Kobayashi

And the game that originally drew my attention was Soccerchess. The young woman presented a chair to me and my friends, and brought a very different game to the table; Warumono2. She told us in limited English that she couldn’t explain Soccerchess to us, but we might play Warumono2 while we waited for someone to ease us into it. Anyway, 45 minutes and 3 rounds later, we thought we had found a hidden gem, and didn’t bother with Soccerchess. With this in mind we figured it would be nice to learn something about the Japanese board gaming scene and possibly the industry in that far away and exotic country. Who, then, would be better than Kazutoshi Kobayashi of Grapac.

Warumono2 really hit me and some of my fellow Norwegians as something fresh and new. Not to say a deep and highly strategic game, but a true family, light filler, with a twist. What’s the background for this game?

When we started planning for original Warumono(which means Villain in Japanese), our goal was to make a nice game that not only kids but also mature people can enjoy since in Japan there are few, if any, board games that an adult plays.
So we organized a team with several staff for a new board game production.
The best way to produce a game for mature people, we assumed, is to make one that we want to play.
We enjoyed playing games where players communicate, bluffing here and there, telling jokes to others to make them get confused, and finally when the game is over, everybody, I mean not only the winner but also the losers of the game, laughs. The theme of the game was easy to choose; all the staff loved movies especially film noir, so why not make game noir!
After release of the original Warumono, we received nice reviews and some helpful hints for making the game more fun in Japan.

Meanwhile, we learned about Spiel, the biggest board game event in the world, and first visited Essen in 2004. You know the enthusiasm of people there. I was quite shocked to see so many people coming to the show. We needed no time to decide on making new products that people visiting Essen can play, and participating in the show next year (2005 that is).
In fact, don’t you think it’s exciting to see players with different languages spend time together enjoying the same game!
We chose Warumono and Soccerchess since we expected European people also enjoy these subject matters, in addition to the fact that these games are best known and selling from Grapac in Japan.

We could simply translate original Warumono for this purpose, but our love to this game forced to reconsider the game design. With some new rules and components, furnished with English, German, and Japanese, Warumono2 was born.
I bet you feel like you are one of the main characters in film noir as you play Warumono2.

The excitement of the visitors at Essen, is absolutely phenomenal. It is really nice to meet people from all over the place and talk about, discuss and definitely play board games for a whole weekend. But before we venture more into that, was Grapac releasing other titles, focused on children, before Warumono?

Grapac has released 4 board games before Warumono, and 10 (including Warumono) before Warumono 2.
Altogether we have 12 board games available at this point. All of these games are designed for people over 12 years old. As of Warumono, we started planning as early as any other games, but spent more time for production than others. As a result, Warumono became the fifth product for us.

So, you are a relatively new publisher then. Could you give a brief description of the other titles?

With my pleasure! Our games can be categorized into 2 groups: sports games and cinematic games.

Our sports games deal with the following sports.
Soccerchess – soccer
Gekishin K. O. – kick boxing, wrestling, and martial arts
Oval Trick – motor racing
Gouwan Strike – baseball
Fun Dive – diving
Gateball – Japanese unique sports "gateball"
Dunk Jam – 3 on 3 basketball

Cinematic games are as follows.
Warumono 2
Inga – fantasy horror battle between vampires and humans

All the products except for Soccerchess and Warumono 2 are only available in Japanese. But you may enjoy the cool graphics that we offer from our Japanese website.

You seem to be true sport fans as well with so many games revolving around those themes. And even diving! Is Grapac just a game publisher or is it a part of another business? And are these game themes popular in Japan?

Baseball and soccer are the two most popular sports in Japan. Other themes we chose for our games are quite unique. In fact, I have never seen any other Japanese diving games beside Fun Dive. We chose this subject since we were confident that this theme would allow us to make a beautiful game board as well as an intriguing game rule.

The main business of Grapac is actually printing and package manufacturing. In addition, we have several service bureaus in the central Tokyo, produce stock photos and clipart, and as you know make exciting board games. Grapac is one of a very few companies in Japan which has full capacity to manufacture board games with in-house game directors, producers, planners, and graphic designers. The new business field we are working on right now is 3D image printing. If interested, please check our website at Don’t worry it’s in English.

So that is the reason why your games look so stunning! How is the game market in Japan? Is there an increase in new publishers like yourself or is it mainly established distributors?

When we say ‘games’ in Japan, people refer to it as video games. Video games overwhelmed board games in the recent few decades. Unfortunately, the board game market in Japan is not that big, and most of the games are released from established publishers. But we are not pessimistic about the future. We have some nice momentum going since the beginning of 21st century.
One thing for sure is that after release of Catan by Capcon in 2002, the number of board game players is gradually but certainly increasing. Bandai, one of the leading toy publishers here, is releasing new games every year. Their latest game is Ticket to Ride. It’s fully translated into Japanese with a nice package that fits to the size of the shelves in Japanese toy stores. Game of Life is continuously popular here since 60’s and has some Japanese original versions. Oh, and of course, we have introduced some nice games!

Understandable Kaz, I think referring to console games as games and not board games is common for most of the world these days. So Settlers of Catan seems to open yet another market for board games! That is really interesting. Why do you think that game in particular is making such an impact in nearly all markets? Which publishers are the main players in the Japanese market? And to what degree do they develop their own designs?
Most Japanese people are not exposed to recent board games. It is inevitable in order for a new board game to succeed in Japan that the game is easy to start. Settlers of Catan is sophisticated and at the same time easy to learn how to play. Once you play it, you know how exciting the game is. In addition, necessity of negotiations among players is quite fresh for us since Japan is a country of harmony and we hardly face need for negotiations.
Some of the main players in Japan are Bandai, Takara Tomy, Epoch-sha, and Mega House. Although most of the games they develop are targeted for children, they do release new games regularly as well as publishing standard games. In addition, Game Republic could be a name to remember. It has been introducing new original games in the recent years.

Interesting. Are there any commonalities between the games that have been/are popular? And in what do they differ from the euro-games? You mention that negotiations are unfamiliar for the Japanese, but what about conflict?

In general, conflict is not that welcome, either. But in games, it is essential to have some conflict, competition, and negotiations among players.
Many popular board games for kids are based upon TV animation programs. Publishers release new games with new anime characters every year.

So there are more or less no titles for the adult market? No party games? Or Trivia? There has to be a Japanese version of Trivial Pursuit!

Unfortunately, the market of games for adult is very small right now. Popular games among the adult are Game of Life and Uno. In fact, there are numerous versions of Game of Life.
Trivial Pursuit was aired on TV several years ago, and there was a Japanese version of this game at the time. But as much as I know, it is not in the market any more.

That, to me, is really amazing. I thought Hasbro had cornered the world with Monopoly, Yathzee, Risk and Trivial Pursuit. Anyway, our view of Japan is of continuous development, and an important legacy in the gaming world with contributions like Go. Although the Japanese public at large have not seen that many euro-style games, what do you think of some of the titles using Japan and Japanese culture as a theme? I think of games such as Samurai (Hans im Glück), Shogun/Samurai Swords (Milton Bradley), Shogun (Queen) and Honor of the samurai.

Well, quite frankly, the first thing that pops out in my mind when we talk about European games on Japan is the graphic of them. Illustrations in many of the games are, I hate to say it but… strange. Especially wardrobes are far from historical fact. Among them, however, I think Shogun (Queen) has relatively accurate graphics. You may find similar awkward visuals when you watch Japanese anime depicting about Europe. My colleagues like Samurai and Shogun (Queen). What do you think of us making a game on Japan?

I would love to see a Japanese made game about Japan! We experience some of the same when foreigners are taking a chance on portraying our Viking culture. Lots of historic inaccuracies and very weird costumes. They did NOT have horns on their helmets! Anyway, you say earlier that games with conflict were not well received. I guess that would then mean that games with historic basis and conflicts are off limits? This has also been the case for the German market and designers, which does not want to be reminded of WW2. Would that also be the case for Japan?

Generally speaking, yes. I imagine that the situation here is very similar to that in Germany. However, according to my colleague, there are a few simulation games which deal with WW2 for game maniacs, but these are not for the mass market.

Have you been able to secure any distribution in Europe, so our readers might get a hold of Warumono2? And do you have any new surprises in store for us this year?

Following page introduces the websites that currently carry Grapac games:
I strongly feel that we need to find more distributors and stores in Europe and America. Inquiries from distributors and game shops are much appreciated.
I plan to concentrate our resource for sales of the existing products this year. But who knows… We may give you some surprises towards the end of this year. I bet you’ll be one of the fastest persons in Europe to know such info, Remo.

Thanks, Kaz 🙂 May this include any translation work for some of the other titles? I’m personally very curious of the diving game. How would you describe the game in brief?

Just like the actual diving scene, two divers dive together to help each other in Fun Dive: one as a guide and the other to shoot photos. The objective of the game is to shoot good photos of tropical fish as a team.
I would very much like players to enjoy the nice photos on the cards as well as the beautiful game board.

We are planning to upload translation of other titles on our website. Please allow us to take some time for that. I would like to prepare them before the season of cherry blossoms.

You are heading for another exhibition, Kaz, so thank you so much for your time and insight. Hopefully we’ll meet again in Essen this year!

Appreciation is mine, Remo. It sure was very interesting to talk with you.