Hisashi Hayashi, you magnificent bastard.
Trains. Edo Yashiki. String Railway. Sail to India. Four great games, all designed by the same guy, Hisashi Hiyashi, that I’ve played plenty this past year or so, and will continue to do so for a good long time. Now I can add a fifth game into the rotation, Rolling Japan, that at first appearance seems to be the lightest of the bunch. In reality, this one might end up being the most brain-melting of the five, despite being little more than some paper maps and a bunch of dice.
Any number between one and eight can play, though that eight is only down to the fact that’s how many little pens are included in the box. In reality, Rolling Japan is a single player game at heart where each time you play, you’re looking to score as low as possible. Of course, that extrapolates to a larger game with more people where you’re ALL trying to do that, but yes – this is essentially solitaire dressed up as multiplayer. Not that it’s a bad thing in any way, not at all.
To play, everyone is given a small sheet with an abstract map of Japan on it, split into six different coloured zones, themselves segmented into sets of smaller boxes. Rather than go into ludicrously in-depth description, here’s a picture. Much easier.
Also included in the package is a bag of seven dice, six of which correspond to the colours of the areas on the map; so, white, black, green, yellow, red and blue. Played out over the course of eight rounds, three pairs of dice will be pulled from the bag and rolled; the numbers that appear must be written down in the boxes of the same colour on the map – so far, so simple. Oh, if the purple one comes out, it’s treated as a wild, so you get to put that number in any coloured area you like.
Once the six dice have been drawn, they’re thrown back in the bag. There’s a helpful Round Marker to strike off, then you move on to do the same thing again… but there are a couple of things to consider. First of all, no more than one number can be put in a single box. Second, if you’re looking to put a number in a box next to one that’s already been filled in, it has to be either the same or one above or below. And, immediately after realising quite how awful those restrictions are, you swiftly get quite how great this little puzzle is.
If you’re unable to place the rolled number(s) onto the map, you have to choose a spot to fill with an X – Rolling Japan‘s mark of shame. It’s these Xs that are tallied as your score at the end of the game – remember, the lower the amount, the better – but there are thankfully three lifelines in the form of Color Changes available to you. Instead of being forced to throw down an X, filling up a space and potentially screwing yourself over later in the game, you can take the number and drop it into another colour region. Sure, you still have to follow the rules of placement as detailed previously, but it’s way better than having to scribble down a dreaded and terrible X…
Pretty soon, things start getting very busy on your map. At around the halfway mark you’ll realise that you’ve probably made a mistake in at least one region that has messed up things royally. Numbers start squashing up against each other quickly and you’ll be letting out a few curses when, yet again, you’ll be drawing in another pair of Xs because you simply don’t have any legal placements anywhere. Sure, there’s probably a perfect game out there in probability-land, but with the numbers being provided by those damned dice, perfection simply isn’t going to happen. This is a game, not a jigsaw puzzle, and a truly challenging game at that. While you may be feeling pretty confident in early rounds that everything is going fine, just you wait until the end when all you see is a parade of Xs dotted about your map. Oh, did we not mention that every empty space is filled up with an X at the end of the game? Thought you were cocky holding off on marking those spaces weren’t you? Yeah – here’s what happens:
Now, I know that the usual complaints will begin – because the game revolves around dice, the whole thing is too chaotic for players to have any control over. Really, I’ve found it better to consider the chaos as an intrinsic part of playing Rolling Japan; the main meat of the game is reacting to what’s been rolled and just desperately trying to not screw up too badly. If I had any gripes, there’d be my usual one that the included pad of maps will run out pretty quickly especially if you’re playing with a larger group on a regular basis. Oh, and why the hell isn’t this on my iPad? Of all the games that I’ve played recently from Essen 2014, this one feels ripe for a conversion to tablets and phones. It’s a highly entertaining way to kill fifteen minutes, either with friends or by yourself, and I can only think that Rolling Japan‘s popularity would increase if transferred to a digital platform. Plus, with future maps planned to appear in the near future – there was talk of Rolling America amongst others – you’ve got instant and easy to introduce DLC expansions! OKAZU Brand take note! Oh, and print more copies ASAP.
Rolling Japan was designed by Hisashi Hayashi and released at Essen 2014 through Japon Brand / OKAZU Brand. Between one and eight can play though, as mentioned, it’s essentially a single player affair. Copies are somewhat hard to find (as with most Japon Brand releases) but some have popped up on BGG and eBay. Here’s hoping for a wider release from another company in 2015!