This digital board game’s only been out a few months, and yet in that short period of time, Momotaro Dentetsu: Showa, Heisei, Reiwa mo Teiban! has utterly dominated the Japanese charts and sold over 2 million copies (digital and physical sales combined). It topped the Japanese multi-format charts when it launched at the end of November (beating Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity to number one), and, at the time of writing, is still there.
Although now owned by Konami, the Momotaro Dentetsu series was initially created and developed by Hudson Soft (of Bomberman fame) and began life on the Famicom way back in 1988. It’s been consistently successful in Japan ever since, popping up on every major format (and several minor ones, too) for over three decades, from the Game Boy to the PlayStation 2 and beyond.
This latest entry follows in the popular footsteps of all that came before it: 1-4 players (local or online – AI opponents will fill in any empty slots) throw dice so their adorable little trains can choo-choo around a board game representation Japan’s railway network, the aim being to make more money than anyone else before the pre-agreed number of in-game years passes by landing on money-giving squares, using cards to either help you or hinder others, and buying various businesses and properties at any locations stopped at along the way.
The most familiar comparison for English-speaking gamers would be to say “It’s a bit like Monopoly“, but to leave it there would sell Momotaro Dentetsu short, as this game’s actually fun to play and doesn’t involve endlessly trudging in circles around a bland rectangular board until everyone’s forgotten why they agreed to participate in the first place. In Momotaro Dentetsu, there’s always a randomly-selected train station to head for if you’d like to secure yourself a huge cash windfall and avoid getting followed around by the God of Poverty, and as session length can be set to anything from 1 to 100 in-game years before starting (there are slightly different fixed 3 and 10-year modes available as well), full matches can be over within a mere half an hour, if that’s all the time you wanted to spend on the game.
After a few quickly-clicked-through setup menus, you’ll be officially introduced to your game type and given your first random goal to head to, your colourful little train sitting at Tokyo station and all ready to go. Momotaro Dentetsu is a relentlessly chipper game: text is energetic and positive, character animations are effortlessly charming and the game is packed with wonderful regional details that turn stations from simple named tiles on the board to loving reflections of the places they’re based on; stop at Akihabara and you’ll be able to invest your money in maid cafes and anime merchandise shops, whereas Nara offers the chance to buy up one of their famous deer-cracker selling outlets.
Crucial to the game’s easy-going accessibility is that it knows it’s a board, rather than a video, game: There’s nothing to unlock, no “right” length of time to play, and no “correct” mode to pick – you simply choose the way you want to play the session and then get on with having fun. Anyone from complete novices to those just needing to brush up on a half-remembered rule can easily access a digital manual filled with useful screenshots and bite-sized portions of helpful text from the main menu, and while playing everything’s clearly labelled and explained to avoid any potential confusion or arguments.
For the first few turns of play, it may feel uncomfortably unpredictable as you have no say over where any of the goal stations are, dice throws determine a lot of things, and all sorts of events pop up with little rhyme or reason: but as you get the hang of using cards to give yourself more dice, think to head off to an air/seaport to help you quickly dash to a distant station, and find yourself with enough cash to buy up every available property at one location to boost your income even further it soon becomes clear the randomness is there to try and keep things close and exciting over a longer game, rather than spoil someone’s tactical play or make winning purely down to luck.
Nobody is so far behind they may as well stop playing, and nobody is so well insulated against failure they can afford to mess around. The biggest playfield-leveller of them all is the virtually ever-present God of Poverty, who appears behind whoever was furthest away from the most recent goal station at the time the first player reached that location and then follows them around, often dishing out money-draining effects or sending the unlucky player’s train off in a direction they didn’t want to go.
As much mischief as this being causes, the good news is the troublesome bum-wiggler (as well as their even more income-devastating variants like Big Bonbi and King Bonbi) can be passed on to someone else like a game of hot potato – just pass through the same space as another player to immediately transfer this bad luck charm to them. If things get really out of hand a lagging player will more than likely be visited by the God of Wealth or another kindly spirit, perhaps resetting this unfortunate souls’ money back to zero (your total cash can – and will – go into negative millions if you’re not careful) or even giving them some extra coins to help them get them back on their feet, ensuring there’s always a chance for anyone to claw things back even if they’re dead last.
It’s easy to see why Momotaro Dentetsu has become such a hit in Japan (especially with everyone made to spend time indoors or socially distancing): It’s a well-designed board game with virtually no set up time, no tiny pieces to lose or break, and no cards to tediously shuffle or count out – the game’s ready whenever you and your friends and family are, and online play means you don’t even have to be living together to join in.
It’s a pleasant and engaging game, but sadly, if you can’t read Japanese then you’re going to struggle. It’s a shame that Momotaro Dentetsu’s audience is so limited in this regard because in many ways it’s the perfect lockdown game; easy to pick up in a few turns, yet capable of stretching to accommodate a whole rainy afternoon or squeezing itself down into a quick round before dinner – no two sessions will ever play out the same way, either. By the end of our first session, all we wanted to do was to play some more, and by the end of our second, we thought it’d be a shame if we stopped there so we just kept on playing, making sure every game was longer than the last and only putting the game down when our Switch’s remaining battery percentage was in the single digits.
Any chance of a translation, Konami?
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