Indie designer Kanai carves out niche with analog board games

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

In an age when every toddler fiddles with electronic game consoles and smartphones, Seiji Kanai says his passion lies in creating analog board games.

The 33-year-old Kanagawa native is among the rising ranks of young independent game designers in Japan who market their handmade works at consumer-to-consumer events such as the internationally popular Comic Market (Comike) and the Game Market, a nonelectronic game expo held two or three times a year in Osaka or Tokyo. There are at least 300 amateur board game designers around the country, Kanai says.

And they are also getting noticed internationally, though at home board games to many people mean ages-old types such as Othello, shogi and go, as well as Jinsei Gemu (Game of Life).

“In Japan, when people think of board games, they think of Game of Life,” Kanai said in a recent interview. “Creating new board games is considered an ‘otaku’ (nerd) thing to do.”

But it was through a grass-roots expo that one of Kanai’s works reached international audiences.

His Love Letter card game, which he unveiled at a game show in May 2012, grabbed the attention of the president of the Alderac Entertainment Group, a major game publisher in the U.S., who happened to drop by his booth. Featuring only 16 cards, each bearing the illustration of a character such as a princess, a clown, a wizard and a soldier, the game’s ultimate goal is to deliver a love letter to the princess in a castle via the hands of the castle’s servants.

AEG liked the game so much it bought the rights to sell it with its own design in the United States.

The U.S. version hit the market in October 2012, followed by a German version that was released last October. Altogether, tens of thousands units have been sold, Kanai says.

This has even led Love Letter to be named the Dice Tower Award’s best family game of 2012. The award was announced by a U.S. hobbyist website that reviews new and innovative board games.

Kanai, who started making simple “sugoroku” (a Japanese version of Parcheesi) before he reached his teens and has shown off his creations at game shows over the past decade, says his dream is to one day make a living solely through creating new games.

Having dropped out of graduate school, he now lives with his parents in Tokyo and supports himself through odd jobs.

But the fundamental motivation for his game designing is not so much financial gain but the joy of offering entertainment to other people, he says.

“The fun of (board) games is that you battle someone and you get excited when you win, just like shogi,” Kanai says, noting that he plays computer games as well but sticks to creating analog ones because he has no programming skills.

“But your victory cannot be determined entirely by your ability, because the shuffling of the cards means randomness is part of the game. Even if you have good cards, you can lose; no matter how low-ranked your card might be, you can win sometimes. That’s the fun of these games.”

And despite the obscurity of original board games in Japan, he sees hope for amateur board game designers. Some of them are getting recognized at international venues, including at Essen Spiel, the biggest game market in Germany, where 300 new games are introduced every year, he says.

“Japan is unique in that there are a lot of individuals who, even though they don’t belong to major game publishers, have lots of ideas and are trying to infuse their own sensibilities into games,” Kanai says. “Little by little, they are getting noticed.”

  • pekein

    It would really be wonderful if Mr. Kanai’s games could reach the US market more easily.

  • zekkenz

    I totally agree that his games deserve more attention, and I sort of feel that he may be missing out when he says “Japan is unique in that there are a lot of individuals who, even though they don’t belong to major game publishers, have lots of ideas.” He’s a great designer and I think well placed to ride the recent boom of tabletop games, and crowdsourced funding (that really hasn’t made much of an impact in Japan yet).