Amid the COVID-19-induced stay-at-home requests, an age-old pastime is experiencing a renaissance: tabletop games.

Take Nanja Monja, a Russia-born card game featuring colorful illustrations of strange but adorable monsters that was introduced to Japan in 2016 by Sugorokuya, one of the nation’s largest game publishers.

While the game, also known as Toddles-Bobbles in English, has grown popular thanks to influential YouTubers praising its addictive simplicity, sales skyrocketed in April when the government issued a state of emergency over the rising number of coronavirus cases.

“We sold about 190,000 sets that month alone,” says Koji Maruta, a former video game developer who founded Sugorokuya in 2006. “That’s compared to around 20,000 sets we sell in a typical month.”

With corporate Japan promoting remote work and municipalities advising residents to refrain from heading out to cramped and crowded spaces, board, card, tile and other “analog” games are back in vogue.

Maruta says easy-to-play classics such as Uno have been in high demand as families look for ways to entertain themselves during self-imposed quarantines. Sales at physical shops have plummeted, however, while gaming events are being canceled.

“Thanks to the growth in online sales, we’ve managed to log strong revenue during the pandemic,” Maruta says. “And while the number of visitors to our shops has declined, we intend to keep them open. Physical stores are integral in letting customers see and touch the games.”

Board games have been experiencing a resurgence over the past several years. According to Statista, their global market value was estimated to be around $7.2 billion in 2017 and was forecast to reach $12 billion by 2023.

Thousands of games are being produced every year, while crowdfunding campaigns have allowed new developers to release a variety of titles. The internet, meanwhile, has provided platforms for fans to exchange information while popular YouTube shows and podcasts have helped publicize the allure of the genre.

The global trend applies to Japan as well. Tokyo-based gaming company ArcLight Inc. operates Game Market, the nation’s largest convention for so-called “analog games” that don’t require electricity. While the event was canceled this year, the number of visitors to the last convention, held in November, reached 29,300, compared to just 2,200 in 2010.

Ken Watanabe, general manager of ArcLight, says that while the company specializes in more complicated hobbyist games, it intends to shift some of its focus to entry-level gamers in light of the surge in demand for family-friendly games.

Sales of Ito, a card game created by Japanese illustrator 326 for ages 10 and up, for example, have nearly doubled compared with pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, retail outlets that previously weren’t keen on stocking up on board games have been placing orders, Watanabe says.

“Japan has a long history of playing tabletop games at home, such as go and hanafuda (a style of Japanese playing cards),” Watanabe says. “But that changed when computer games became mainstream. Perhaps the coronavirus is drawing families back to the charm of spending time and interacting with each other over physical games.”

Mizuki Awano, a Tokyo office worker and mother of two, became immersed in Catan, a blockbuster multiplayer board game from Germany, when her family curtailed outdoor activities during the state of emergency.

“We played monopoly during our voluntary quarantine but became tired of it and picked up Catan,” she says.

“We got hooked and played it to death, and I’m afraid our kids won’t touch it anymore,” she says.

Takuya Ono, a Buddhist monk and a board game journalist, says Catan has remained a popular title since it was first released 25 years ago.

“Back then, board games were mainly for hardcore hobbyists who wouldn’t mind investing hours in playing them,” Ono says. “But the Great East Japan Earthquake prompted families to spend more time together at home, creating demand for titles that could be played in a relatively short period of time like The Game of Life and Blokus,” he says, the latter referring to the strategy game for two to four players.

And starting around 2015, Ono says so-called board game cafes began to flourish, providing experienced players with a place to meet and compete while also introducing younger generations to the appeal of the games.

But public gatherings are shunned now, making it difficult for players to assemble. “In the long term, the pandemic may be detrimental to the hobbyist board game market,” Ono says. But fans have begun congregating online via video conferencing services including Zoom, he adds.

Ono himself had been hosting regular gaming sessions at his home in Yamagata Prefecture before the pandemic. After halting the events during the state of emergency, he recently resumed the tradition, albeit with fewer players and a rule limiting participants to those from prefectures with relatively low counts of COVID-19.

He says he is now playing an aptly titled game called Pandemic Legacy.

“It’s a game where we work with each other to stop the spread of diseases that threaten Earth,” he says.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.