“Designer” Spotlight: Noboyuki Fukumoto

In case that you didn’t already think I was a cool jock, I read a lot of manga. One of my favorite manga artists is Noboyuki Fukumoto, who commonly writes series about human psychology and people at the bottom of society. Another thing almost all of his series have in common is gambling – mostly mahjong (Akagi and Ten are entirely about riichi mahjong), but he also invents several original games.

Fukumoto’s gambles are designed mostly to create something exciting for a reader, and not necessarily something that would be fun to play in real life, but I wanted to examine these systems under the eye of a designer and see what lessons could be drawn from them. In this article, I’m going to look at some of Fukumoto’s most interesting games and how they work.

One Poker (Kaiji)

Kaiji, running since the mid-90s, is a series about an unlucky loser who is forced into numerous underground gambles by the corrupt Teiai Group. One Poker is Kaiji’s most recent gamble and the one with the most enticing real-life gameplay.

Game summary: One Poker is a poker game played with one-card hands. Each player is dealt two cards and must announce whether the cards are “up” (eight or higher, aces high) or “down” (seven or lower). They then secretly play one of their two cards and raise, call, and/or fold as in normal poker. Higher cards beat lower cards, with one exception: A two beats an ace. Ties result in no money changing hands. After each round, players are dealt one new card and the next round begins.

I originally didn’t understand the brilliance of One Poker until I realized that you keep the card you didn’t use for the next round. This creates a level of strategy that regular poker doesn’t possess: The ability to bluff with a lower card so you can save your high one for future rounds. Of course, if you think too much about saving your high cards, your opponent can quickly crush you with powerful raises.

Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors (Kaiji)

Restricted RPS is the first game played on Kaiji, and although it’s not incredibly viable except at conventions, the strategy and politics are fascinating and definitely have applications at a smaller level.

Game summary: Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors is played using several hundred people in a large room. Each player is given three stars and fifteen cards, five each with “rock”, “paper”, and “scissors”. Over five hours, players bet stars against each other on the results of rock-paper-scissors games played using the cards. Once a card is used, it’s discarded. Once a player has five stars, they win. Players may also borrow money from the house that they can use as they wish.

Over the course of this arc, a lot of fascinating strategies develop. Several people attempt to hoard all the cards of one type so they can control subsequent games; others create blocs of people who have run out of cards, but still have stars. It’s a brilliant lesson in how to create something intricate with simple rules. Giving players tools to win games through lateral thinking is something that separates great games from good ones, and is something to keep in mind.

Counterfeit Game (Gin to Kin)

This game has tormented me for a long time. I know there’s a brilliant concept hiding here, but multiple attempts at capturing the mechanic have ended in failure…so far.

Game summary: The Counterfeit Game is a game played with three Cezanne paintings: One the real deal, one a convincing counterfeit, and one an amateurish hack job. The room is dimly lit, so it is difficult to tell which painting is which; adding to the difficulty, one of the paintings is covered with a cloth. The challenger (in the comic, a greedy art dealer) must decide which painting is the real one. They start a far distance away but can pay additional money to walk closer to the paintings.

There are two interesting gameplay concepts here: Paying for information and a choice between three options, the third of which is concealed. The former is something I see on a lot of game shows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s lifelines, for example) but hasn’t found a lot of fertile ground in board games. This might be because it’s hard to balance in a game reliant on information.

Even more surprising is that, to the extent of my knowledge, no game has used “three choices, one concealed” as a mechanic before, assuming the concealed choice is given by another player and isn’t merely luck of the draw. Allowing players to weight their opponent’s choices is fascinating, and dividing it like this creates a very interesting tension.

Conclusion

One of my major design philosophies comes from Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. He wrote a piece in the excellent Kobold Guide to Game Design calling for all aspiring designers to observe as many games as they could: Not just tabletop games or TCGs, but sports, video games, and reality TV. Games in fiction, especially fiction as focused on psychology as Fukumoto’s work, are also a rich mine: Separating what can be used in the real world from it is one of the responsibilities of the designer.