“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.


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.

That’s Numberzwang!

Chess has a term called Zugzwang. German for “compulsion to move”, it refers to a game state where someone is in trouble because they have to move a piece every turn. If they could pass and leave a strong board formation, things would be peachy, but no: Zugzwang.

This is a very interesting philosophy to apply to tabletop games in general, and I’d like to explore two games in particular that use zugzwang as a major source of conflict: Condottiere and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar.


In Condottiere, players lead armies of Italian mercenaries fighting over the country’s city-states. Each player has a hand of mercenaries of varying strength, as well as other cards with special effects. The game takes place over a series of battles, where players play cards from their hand to earn the most points. You win by either conquering most of Italy or by controlling a contiguous line of city-states, meaning that some battles are going to be more important than others to you.

There are two rules here that are very important to our discussion:

  1. You don’t draw cards between battles unless all but one player has an empty hand.
  2. On your turn, you have to either play a card or pass. If you pass, you can’t play cards for the rest of the battle.

This means that maintaining a secure lead in a battle means continually playing your powerful cards – cards that you might have wanted to save for later. If you pass, you’ll save some of your mercenaries, but your opponents will be able to surge in with cards to which you can no longer respond. This momentum – being forced to continually play cards if you want to stay in the battle – is zugzwang in action.

This creates some very interesting strategic and mechanical situations. Players will often be forced into tough choices where they either must overcommit to maintain a secure lead or take a gamble on passing. This also means that “worthless” cards with low point values have their own benefits – by throwing them away, you can force your opponents to show what they’ve got.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

Speaking of revolving!

Tzolk’in is a firm believer in zugzwang as well, but uses it in a different framework. Condottiere is luck-based, with significant hidden information and bluffing components, while Tzolk’in is a grindy worker-placement Euro with perfect information that requires a lot of forethought.

Though there are a lot of spaces and fiddly rules, the available actions in Tzolk’in are about as simple as it can get: Either place workers into the collection of plastic gears on the board, or take them off. Placing workers costs corn, the currency of the game, while removing workers gives you the effect of whatever space they’re currently on. Each turn, the gears rotate, moving placed workers to spaces with more powerful effects. You must place or remove workers, and you cannot pass.

To illustrate the challenge this gives, imagine you have three workers, the amount you get at the beginning of the game. You place all three of them on gears. Now, what happens on your next turn? Even though you wanted to wait for your workers to reach a stronger space, you have to take one of them off for something weaker. Because you have to do something, because you can’t pass, you now have some significant sacrifices to make.

When doing something on your turn, you have to think about the options that you’re providing yourself on the next turn. With no workers to remove, you’re costing yourself corn by placing them; with no workers to place, you have to make a decision about what track you want to temporarily give up. It’s a brain-melting puzzle and one that only gets harder as your and your opponents attempt more ambitious strategies over the course of the game.


Mandatory actions as a driving force mean that everyone has to make a decision on their turn, even if they’re choosing between a bad result and a terrible one. This leads to a stronger sense of engagement with the game as opposed to games where not taking any significant actions might be the best strategy. When applied correctly, zugzwang can be one of the most compelling mechanics possible in tabletop games.