Where most modern American and Euro Games trace their lineage back to Prussian Kriegsspiel influenced heavily by WWII, Japan’s board gaming history pulls from Weiqi (Go), Hanafuda (card game), and Shogi (a variant of Chaturanga, the common ancestor of all chess variants). All of which are games that were invented elsewhere and integrated into Japanese culture, how does that affect Japan’s portrayal of game in pop culture? Let’s look at 10 board game references in Anime.
Naruto – Shogi
Ubiquitous with Anime in the United States, Naruto spiraled totally out of control. But early seasons introduced a pessimist named Shikamaru. Considered apathetic and lazy, Shikamaru attempts to live life with minimum effort. To contrast his personality, he is an expert Shogi player. Spoilers.
When Shikamaru plays with his mentor, he gets dragged into a debate about who the king represents. If not their leader, then who? Later in the series when Shikamaru’s mentor dies, he utters on his dying breath that the king represents the unborn children of the future, whom must be protected even unto death.
Black Butler – Chess
Black Butler follows Ciel, a child bent on avenging his parents who sells his soul to a demon butler. The series follows a ton of Sherlockian tropes as the boy and his butler solve macabre mysteries in Victorian England.
The show is rife with Chess motifs, throughout, and is often used as a parallel metaphor to Ciel matching wits with whatever villain of the week they happen to encounter. The show builds on the metaphor as the story progresses, with Ciel making sacrifice after sacrifice in pursuit of revenge.
Yu Yu Hakusho – Taboo
Our ragtag protagonists enter a mansion to fight a bunch of nerds with access to unnatural dark energy. Each nerd has a realm where they can impose their own rules and if anyone fails to obey those rules the nerds get to harvest their soles.
So the linguistic nerd sets up his realm as a game of taboo, where people can’t speak certain words or letters. Kurama, one of our protagonists, makes a wager to beat the nerd at his own game. Each minute they add the next letter of the alphabet to the list of taboos.
The twist comes at the end. After the episode builds intense tension of the villain is undone by Kurama making him laugh with a funny face.
Full Metal Alchemist – Chess
Full Metal Alchemist is very much a story of chess; characters become the unknowing pawns in the grand machinations of a battle they don’t understand. As a result, Chess comes up more than a few time.
Colonel Mustang makes a habit of communicating through secret messages, including by way of a chess game. Mustang has his hands tied by a nefarious government, and treads the delicate line of trying to bring the government down from the inside.
When dealing in political intrigue, you have to play the game.
Hikaru no Go – Go
A young boy, Hikaru, finds an old Go Board possessed by the ghost of a Heian Era Go master who loved Go so much that he cannot rest until he has played the perfect game of Go. Hikaru is totally chill with just being straight up haunted by a board game ghost, who helps him become a Go master.
Otherwise, the show follows a pretty standard “sports anime” formula. Spunky kid with supernatural help rises through the ranks of the Go world. He makes a powerful rival, and develops an unhealthy obsession with minutia surrounding the game.
Sailor Moon – Chess
Sailor Mercury joins a chess tournament at the local “chess tower”. She works her way up the tournament ladder to fight Bertie the “evil” “negamoon sister” at chess. They reveal their secret identities, and Bertie traps the Sailor Scouts in an ice bubble, forcing Mercury to play.
Also, lets be clear, the villain just straight up cheats. She freely manipulates the board, and freezes Mercury each time she captures a piece. How do the Sailor Scouts escape this mess? Tuxedo Mask just randomly drops in and throws a rose at the chessboard to break the ice spell. That’s how I solve all my problems.
Shion no Ō – Shogi
Shion’s parents were killed when she was very young, and the only clue was a Shogi piece the killer left behind. The trauma rendered her mute, but she became fascinated by Shogi in trying to solve the mystery surrounding her parents. Shogi becomes how Shion comes to terms with her trauma and the world around her.
The mystery and Shogi take a back seat to the interactions between characters, and the personal growth that Shion achieves as a young girl coming of age. It is a weird concept for an anime, but the writing is surprisingly good.
Hunter x Hunter – Gungi
A monster slowly takes over a region, and decides to put the humans in the region to death. To show his superiority to humans, he challenges the top players of a local game called “gungi”, and plans to beat them all before he has them all killed.
Things look grim for mankind, until he comes across a blind girl who is incredibly meek, but also can’t be beaten at “gungi”. The monster is intrigued by the girl, which grows into a fondness, and we start to see mercy grow within him. This becomes a problem as the regions are thrown into conflict and the monster’s advisors see his mercy as weakness.
Tonari no Seki-kun – Shogi
In grade school did you ever have that kid sitting next to you who was super distracting? Like, constantly distracting you with ridiculous drawings, peeling glue off their hands, or eating paper? Well they made an anime about that.
In the second episode “Seki” sets up a game of shogi for himself, while “Rumi” is innocently trying to pay attention. The solo game of Shogi goes hilariously off the rails. There’s a betrayal, a lower piece becomes the new king, pieces are “killed” when the new king activates trap doors in Seki’s desk.
Durarara!!! – “Checkers”
Durarara follows a handful of unsavory characters in an area of Tokyo, and weaves an interesting web of crime, intrigue, and more than a little magic. One character, Izaya Orihara, is an information broker with a bit of a wildcard streak. Often playing the trickster archetype, he manipulates information and people, mostly for a laugh.
As a manipulative puppet master, he invented a totally indecipherable board game that roughly represents the characters and events that surround the plot.
Of course, being an agent of chaos means that sometimes your plans go up in flames.
. . .
. . .
. . .
So that’s all the board game anime out there. Yep, no other game based anime out there. . . But WAIT!
YOU’VE ACTIVATED MY TRAP CARD!!!!!
Yu Gi Oh – Yu Gi Oh
I don’t think there is much that needs to be said about Yu Gi Oh. Ancient Egyptian artifacts . Children’s card game. Dark Magic. Eccentric Billionaires. Throw a bunch of children onto an island in the card game version of Battle Royale. Honestly I could do whole article just about Yu Gi Oh and the ridiculous permutations and spin offs.
Enjoy this article? Notice any board game references we missed out? Tell us in the comments below! If you want to be notified when the latest articles come out, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.