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Zipang Portable: A New Card Game Set In Pre-Unified 16th Century Japan

Zipang Box

Zipang Portable

Set in the late Sengoku Period (1467 – 1568) of Japan, Ko Sasahara’s card game “Zipang Portable” allows players to experience the political upheaval, constant military conflict, and social unrest common at that time. In the game, 2-6 players will take on the role of Samurai warriors trying to gain the title of Shogun by participating in successful campaigns until someone is left with nothing. In true Samurai spirit, players need to not only carefully manage their resources but also maintain their honor in each of their actions. Prototype copies of Zipang Portable are currently available through The Game Crafter but will also be published this year by Engine ID.

Zipang Characters

I really love the ukiyo-e style art of the Edo Period.
(All photos of Engine ID products were taken and edited by KristaG)

In keeping to the historical Japanese theme, the game is filled with ukiyo-e style art. While the paintings and block prints that make up the genre are well known, easily recognizable, and beautiful, they didn’t actually begin to show up in until after the unification of Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600. Though I absolutely love the artwork, the game is set in pre-unified Japan so it irks me a little bit as a history buff that the art is from a later time period. The art and graphic designs included in the game were created by Issey Kunogi and Tsutomu Araki.

Zipang Set Up

All set up and ready to play a 3-player game by the pool!

Zipang Portable is a “pick one, play one” style of game that can be played in about 10-20 minutes. Due to the range in player count, the game does scale. This is especially important as it affects the set up for the game. Each player begins with a set number of Mangoku coins and 2 cards from the shuffled supply deck. Once the starting player is chosen either at random or by being the youngest, the game is set to begin. There are 14 different characters in the game and each of them has their own unique ability. For example, there is the Tea Master who will allow a player to draw a card from another player’s hand and play it immediately or the Bandit who enables a player to steal a Mangoku coin from another player. These abilities, as well as those of the other characters, are all explained individually in the rules and on reference cards.

Zipang End Game

An example end game photograph from a 3-player game (I ended up losing this one!)

The game itself is played over a series of quick “campaigns” where players duel against one another as well as vie for military victory and Mangoku coins. At the start of a campaign, each player puts one of the Mangoku coins into the center of the play area in order to start building the coin pile. One of the coins, however, is removed from the game (we usually just have the starting player discard their coin back to the box to make this step easier and more uniform). On a player’s turn during a campaign, they will draw a card from the top of the supply deck, choose one of the 3 cards, and play their chosen card face up on the table. As stated above, each character has a different effect, which will then need to be resolved. Many of the cards, in my opinion, do an excellent job emulating the types of interactions that I can imagine would actually transpire on the streets and in the towns of pre-unified Japan. Some characters, however, like the Warlord, Commander, Captain, or Peasant (2+ must be played to initiate a revolt or “Ikki”), go beyond the day to day interactions and thievery and result in a military attack against another player or players. When such a battle occurs, all defenders involved add up the total number of Battle Points they have using all of the Character cards currently in their hand. Should the total meet or exceed the attacking card’s Battle Points, they are able to successfully defend against the attack. If they fail to defend themselves, that player is eliminated from the current campaign. When a player is eliminated, they discard all of their cards but keep their remaining Mangoku coins (if any) to use in the next campaign. Eliminated players, it should be noted, can still be targeted by players who play cards that allow for Mangoku coin manipulation such as the Princess, Merchant, or the aforementioned Bandits. At the end of the campaign, the surviving player gets to take the Mangoku coins from the center of the table to add to their stash. There are a few specific rule exceptions that are explained in the rules, but otherwise, the game continues with campaign after campaign until one or more players are out of Mangoku coins. However, just because a player is the last to be eliminated from the final campaign, it does not guarantee their victory. Instead, the player who has the most Mangoku coins at the end of the game is the victor and new Shogun.

As someone who has now played Zipang Portable several times at various player counts, I am confident in saying that it took me by surprise and I’m a little sad I missed the Kickstarter campaign back in September of 2017. Sure, there are a few timeline inaccuracies on their Board Game Geek page and with their artwork that may break the game for a few fellow history buffs, but the game itself is amazingly solid at most player counts. Personally, I am thrilled that the game is both portable and scales for large and small player counts – making it perfect for my game nights. However, I found that Zipang Portable is far more enjoyable at larger player counts than at the smaller ones. At low counts such as 2 or 3, there simply isn’t enough dueling, targeting or other chaos going on to get a real feel for the game. Many of our 2-player games, for example, ran well under 10 minutes with each other the campaigns lasting for mere seconds before they ended. Without the more chaotic elements, I felt that the desired ambiance and vibe of Japan’s Sengoku Period is lost and the game breaks down to its bare mechanics. Though this doesn’t affect physical gameplay, it does lose some of the interactions that can be had at higher player counts. During another one of our games, for instance, we had 5 people playing and they were able to forge brief political alliances to take down the forerunner for the new Shogunate before making their own move for power as well as a less clear-cut victory for much of the game with Bandits robbing the eliminated players and active players alike. Zipang Portable is really easy to teach to others and can be picked up fairly quickly. The part that really takes the longest is learning what each individual card does without having to look it up each time since the cards themselves don’t give any implication of their effects. For some people, this wasn’t a problem, but for my Player 2 and being partially blind in one eye, this wasn’t an easy feat and the print is a little small on the reference card. Would I recommend it? Absolutely if you have a decent sized group or like games with a traditional Japanese feel to them. Otherwise, I’d probably tell you to hold out until there is more information on Engine ID’s next project: a board game of the same name! Personally, I’m really intrigued and excited about the board game project and can’t wait for more information to be released so stay tuned to their website!

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