There are many analog game conventions around the world and these feature thousands of new designs every year, all of them have something subtly unique about them whether it be a slight change on a well-known mechanic or an interesting new theme.
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In Japan, the idea of a game is taken to a level that is astonishingly abstract, quirky, and unbelievably entertaining. The best showcase of this is an exhibition called: Is This a Game? and it features unique exhibits from Japan’s best analog game designers. The best way I can describe the exhibit is: 50% game, 50% art, and 100% experiment. I know, that doesn’t equal 100% but you get my point (I hope).
In December, 2019, the 2nd annual Is This a Game? exhibit was held and went on for 10 days, and the attendance and reception was so high, the organizers needed to push back the closing time by 2 hours everyday, just to give people a chance to enjoy it in all it’s glory.
I personally attended the exhibit on opening day and I just had to come back again to bring my wife and friends to see it. Let me explain why it is a bucket list exhibition for anyone interested in games and game design.
Exhibitors at “Is This a Game?”:
There was a total of 17 exhibitors plus a large number of events/games from the inaugural Is This a Game? exhibition were on display. Here is the complete list of exhibitions created for this year.
Many of the designers participating in the exhibition were featured on my list of anticipated games at Tokyo Game Market Fall 2019.
Caramel Column Inc.
This work consisted of 8 unique (and entirely made up) record covers hung on the wall. Like a blast from the past, these records each feature a Side A and a Side B with room for 6 tracks on each. Attendees look at the art of the records hanging on the wall and write down an interesting song title on a paper slip. They place it on a bottom of a pile and then grab a song title from the top of a pile and place it on Side A or Side B of the album most likely to have that song.
Tanaka Hideki (ASOBI.dept)
ASOBI created a really interesting remote viewing game. There was a massive wall map consisting of a grid of locations each with a plethora of subtly unique buildings, rivers, trees, dogs, aliens, etc. 2 agents take turns entering 2 different remote viewing stations which show a zoomed in version of specific coordinates of the gridded area. The person in the remote viewing station has 30 seconds to describe everything they see, then their partner needs to guess the location, B7 for example. After both players have done this, you take the cross-section of your two answers and that is the location of a suspect you are trying to find, unless of course, one of the agents made a mistake.
Jun Sasaki (Oink Games)
Oink Games had two very simple and elegant exhibitions. First, a beautiful set of artworks in which they opened up boxes upon boxes of their games and pasted the components together to make 3 pieces of artwork. They pose the question “is it a game?” quite literally, after all, it was a game when it was in the box, how about now?
The second exhibition was called Ghost and featured a set of clear traffic cones. The rules were that the cones can be picked up, moved, and placed as you please. The interesting thing about this is that there is a certain anxiety about going through things blocked off by cones and so it was neat to see how often people avoided these areas subconsciously.
The masters of unique and quirky designs had another brilliant one to showcase at the exhibition. It was a large scale 3D cityscape with lots of nuance, including people, vending machines, houses, roads, etc.
Then there are 7 wheel like pieces, each with a tiny hole in the center. This exhibit is all about perspective. What you (and your mates) need to do is place one wheel at a time somewhere on or in the cityscape. Each subsequent wheel must be looked through to assure that you can see the previously placed wheel.
The catch is that the last one needs to see both the one placed previously and the very FIRST one too. To boot, they had a Mega sized version of one of the wheels smack dab in the middle of an exhibition area to look through.
Fountain created two exhibits, one looked like a normal board game called In the Forest that had a bunch of unique components in the box but no rules. Players are attempting to figure out what the rules are based only on the notes left from previous players.
The second one was essentially a set of party style curses that turn the exhibition into a quintessential mad-house. Some of the curses included zombie walk, wearing weird glasses, yawning, walking like a crab, pushing a broom, etc. When you get the curse, you are to do as was stated on the curse until the course is lifted by someone giving you a coin of courage.
Literally the first thing I saw when I entered the exhibit was a group of people walking towards me like a herd of the undead, it was both terrifying and hilarious all at the same time.
This interesting exhibit involved a set of 3 large ladder chairs spaced throughout the exhibition hall, each with a bell and an interesting sensory rule about seeing, hearing, etc that you could only see by climbing up it and sitting at the chair. There was a fourth station that featured another bell and a black and white computer monitor which you could use to watch other people climb up into said ladders and play.
Jordan created an interesting storytelling game revolving around what is arguably the most commonly shared human experience, eating. His exhibit was called I’d Eat That! and it featured over 100 cards with food items, seasonings, preparation methods, and even some mishaps such as “expired”.
Each player draws a hand of 9 cards and uses all of them to prepare a 3-course meal, first a starter, then a main, and finally a dessert. Players take turns revealing their cards for the meal and tell a story of how and what they ate. The other players then respond with “I’d eat that!” or “I wouldn’t eat that!.” If everyone at the table would eat it, then the storyteller gets another card which must be used in a subsequent meal.
Daitai’s exhibition featured three items. A couple of familiar games with slight variations that made playing those games vaguely recognizable. For example, the ever-popular game Reversi was mimicked, but instead of using black and white colors as Reversi does, there was black and white and a number of very similar tan and brown shades in between.
Determining which player the chip belongs to was difficult to decide. This led to a number of people creating their own rules for the game (myself included) but more often than not, people played the game normally which is very intriguing bit of psychology.
There was also a very unique and artistic hand exhibition that gave attendees vague prompts to replicate with their hands but without much instruction to do so. The only information attendees had to work from was hands positioned uniquely on the wall and silhouettes of where your feet should go.
Issei Asado (TansanFabrik)
Tansen had a top secret video exhibition that philosophically poses the question “is this a game?” Saying anything more than that would be spoiling it.
This exhibit presented a set of mundane household tasks as games. These tasks involved dusting and throwing out leaves, moving a round bean with a pair of chopsticks, and hanging a towel with clothes pins.
IKE featured a dexterity activity involving a pair of cups and a fluorescent bar. You could enter a blackout booth to let the florescent bar glow and move the cups in a circular manner to do tricks and score points. The points were based off a scoring system consisting only of the name of the moves and the points earned for doing them, but no true definition of what the trick is.
Nilgiri (Surume Days)
Surume Days featured 2 really interesting exhibitions, the first one is called the 1 Year Game. This is a game where players create a scoring rule and seal it into a tiny numbered box which will be anonymously exchanged with another player. All players play the game throughout the course of 1 year. After 1 year, players meet at a party and tally the points scored.
The 2nd exhibition is similar but is called Post Life Game and is definitely one of the most intriguing entries on this list. The game only begins when an owner of the game passes away. Prior to that, the owner designates 21 players to play for 1 year, each player playing under a specific and unique rule set defined by the deceased.
This was a serious memory exchange game that took the form of a seance like ritual where one person communicates an emotional memory which then becomes another person’s memory and vice versa, posing the philosophical question of “who’s memory is it now?”
Do you remember those vending machines where you put in a coin, turn the knob and get a toy? Well those are hugely popular in Japan and Chocolate Inc. used it as the feature of their exhibit. You pay 100 yen to receive a capsule from the vending machine. Each capsule features a rule to a game, the rule could be played at the exhibition or saved and used for future development. There was a total of 30 different rules created and placed inside the capsules, most of them having a large amount of social interaction with your playing partners.
This exhibit was a true attempt to quantitatively measure “Is This a Game?” You first draw something and write something on a piece of paper. You then crumble it up into a ball and attempt to throw it into trash cans using two different methods.
Freestyle, from anywhere but just for fun. OR by a set of rules: Sit in a chair and if you make it into the small bucket you get 3 points, the medium you get 2 points, and the large you get 1 points. THEN after that you take a sticker (red for “not a game” and blue for “a game”) and place it along two axes that represent how original the game was and how much fun the game was. There is a sheet for each method of play and the differences are compared at the end of the exhibition.
This was a very tactical and visually stunning exhibit called Space Domino in which metal circles dangling and rotating from the ceiling could be lined with magnetic dominoes and then you could knock them down or leave them for the next person to come and enjoy your colorful arrangement.
Satoshi Takahata (Korokoro Dou)
The game he created for the exhibition was a sprawling game spanning the entire 10 day exhibition length. Each player picks a wooden block and places it onto a large grid, and then places one brown or black figure on the board. The figures are either walking, standing, or sitting.
A standing figure will score 1 point for the height (how many blocks it is standing on), a walking figure will score 1 point for every empty square between it and the nearest obstruction, and a sitting figure will gain points based off height and a bonus if they have a back to their seat. At the end of the exhibition, points are tallied to see which team wins, either the red team or the black team.
Want more? Check out our list of board games set in Japan.Or check out some of our top picks right here…
I am really hopeful that the brilliant minds behind Is This a Game? have the opportunity to extend their reach beyond Japan because it is truly an exhibition unlike any other.
So, what do you think? Do these qualify as games? Feel free to comment below and please share this if you want to help the project advance going into year 3.