There’s no shortage of retrospectives about tabletop wargaming in the 1980s, but most of them are focused on the U.S. or U.K. markets and rarely, if ever, touch on Japan’s wargaming scene. In the West, the tabletop gaming hobby often overlapped with anime fandom, and the result is a long history of anime-licensed, or at least anime-derived, wargames that date back to Battletech in 1984.
Things weren’t dissimilar in Japan, and companies like Tsukuda Hobby and Takara churned out games based on popular anime series throughout the decade. While miniature gaming became a big deal in the West on the heels of games like Warhammer, the vast majority of theseJapanese games were in the style of Avalon Hill’s iconic Squad Leader: hex-grid maps with small cardboard counters for playing pieces.
What we’d refer to as “wargames” in English are called “simulation games” in Japanese, written in katakana. I’ll be using both terms interchangeably throughout this article. Furthermore, much as it was in the West, these anime-licensed games made up a tiny minority of the wargaming industry; the vast majority of games focused on World War II or more modern, real-life conflicts.
Certainly one of the most prolific publishers, if not the most prolific, was Tsukuda Hobby. Part of the Tsukuda Group, Tsukuda Hobby focused on tabletop simulation and role-playing games while other divisions focused on toys, models, and mainstream board games. In fact, the Tsukuda Group had made a name for itself thanks to the success of importing the board game Othello and the Rubik’s Cube to Japan. They were also unintentionally responsible for helping create Mobile Suit Gundam, as one of the primary sponsor of the original 1979 TV series was the toy company Clover, a company that had been formed by ex-Tsukuda executives.
Coincidentally, Tsukuda Hobby kicked off its simulation series with a game based on Mobile Suit Gundam, titled Mobile Suit Gundam: Jabro, released in 1981. That was the same year the first two Gundam compilation films hit theaters, so Gundam mania was just kicking off. Jabro was designed by a man named Atsutoshi Okada, who had already made a name for himself in fan circles by designing and releasing his own Gundam games at conventions. These games were popular enough to receive attention in magazines like Hobby Japan, so Okada was a natural candidate for Tsukuda Hobby’s new project. Interestingly, Tsukuda Hobby was actually the second company that attempted a Gundam simulation game; an earlier company had begun a tabletop adaption based on Squad Leader but cancelled the project.
The success of Jabro lead to two more Gundam games, Fortress and Newtype, before Tsukuda Hobby branched out into adaptions of other series with Space Runaway Ideon. Throughout the ‘80s, Tsukuda Hobby created games based on a slew of popular TV anime, including Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Giant Gorg, Armored Trooper VOTOMS, and Heavy Metal L-Gaim. In fact, if you can name a major TV mecha franchise from that decade, there’s a solid chance that Tsukuda Hobby created at least one game based on it.
They released plenty of non-anime games as well, including wargames based on Star Trek, Star Wars and the expected World War II topics. While most of Tsukuda’s games were traditional wargames, some weren’t, like their Maison Ikkoku boardgame or a strategic diplomacy game based on Orguss. But perhaps the oddest of all games in their catalogue was a wargame, based on Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura of all things.
Given the popularity of some of the titles that Tsukuda Hobby licensed, and the lengths to which Western collectors have gone to collect anything based on them, it might seem a little surprising that these games have largely flown under the radar of Western fandom. But, not really. All of Tsukuda Hobby’s games feature drab cardboard counters and with none of them getting official releases in English, it’s easy to see why they were largely ignored by Western collectors. Furthermore, I’d speculate that most are pretty rare— prices are typically over $100 on both eBay and Yahoo Auctions. While a reprinted version of Jabro was released by Bandai in 2011 for the game’s 30th anniversary, it seems to be the only one of these games to receive that treatment.
As for Tsukuda Hobby, it survived until 2003 when it finally went out of business, not long after other parts of the Tsukuda Group had been gobbled up by Bandai. For what it’s worth, the Tsukuda Games left a legacy that may be more recognizable to modern fans: the Giren no Yabou (Giren’s Ambition) series of Gundam games, released on a multitude of video game systems ranging from the Sega Saturn to the Sony PS2. In an interview, Okada mentions that the original Giren no Yabou game was actually based on a tabletop game he had been designing for Tsukuda Hobby that was never released.
With its hand in both VOTOMS and Fang of the Sun Dougram, the kit and toy manufacturer Takara apparently thought it was a good idea to jump into the simulation game as well. While decidedly less prolific than Tsukuda Hobby, the three games Takara did release stick out as being quite unique.
Those three games, Dougram: Battle of Stanrey, Dougram: Battle of Kolnock and VOTOMS: Plotter’s City Woodo are unusual for the era because they include actual metal miniatures. The game was still played on hex grid maps and used cardboard counters, but miniatures were employed for the iconic mecha combatants, giving these games a bit more of a visual impact. The two Dougram games also included plastic trees, to provide visual cover for the giant robots.
But what makes the Takara games really stand out, and not just among anime wargames, is that they each included a pair of small periscopes. The accessories allowed players to get a mecha-eye view of the battlefield and determine line of sight or whether or not a tree was blocking a shot. Probably unnecessary? Sure. Kinda cool? You bet.
A major rival to Takara in the ‘80s and a sponsor of numerous TV shows, it’s not surprising that Bandai also jumped into the simulation game. Released as a series titled (awkwardly, in English) “Game for Adult,” these simulation games included properties like Arcadia of My Youth, L-Gaim, Godzilla, and of course, Gundam.
Unlike Tsukuda Hobby’s offerings, most of Bandai’s games came with plastic miniatures, making them look at least a little more like what we’d think of as wargames today. Arcadia of My Youth had gorgeous painted game boards, while Bandai’s Gundam game offered a large selection of plastic mobile suits, including the lowly RB-79 Ball. The games that really stand out among Bandai’s lineup included a rudimentary digital device for resolving combat dubbed a “MyCom.” Released as part of the “Computer War-Game” series, two notable games featured the MyCom accessory, one based on Godzilla and the other on L-Gaim.
Takatoku Toys was yet another toy manufacturer in the crowded ’80s marketplace. Their claim to fame was the iconic 1/55 VF-1 Valkyrie from Macross, but subsequent toylines weren’t quite as successful as they had backed relative duds like Orguss and Special Armored Battalion Dorvack. They went out of business in 1984, but not before producing the generic robot anime simulation game, Great Robot War.
The same people behind the popular modeling magazine also got their hand in the simulation market, although most of the games they published were World War II-based and originally published in the U.S. by companies like Games Designers Workshop (not the same company behind Warhammer) and Simulations Publications, Inc. For the scope of this article (although not actually anime), their notable releases were a couple of wargames based on Kow Yokoyama’s S.F.3.d universe.
S.F.3.d was a big hit for Hobby Japan in the early ‘80s, and the model kits produced by Nitto eventually made their way to the U.S., as did the games themselves. They, like the limited U.S. releases of Takara’s Dougram games, were translated and released by Twentieth Century Imports.
Twentieth Century Imports (TCI)
TCI was where the worlds of Japanese simulation games and U.S. wargames came crashing together.
In the 1980s, TCI built up a business for themselves importing and reselling Japanese model kits. Prior to the Plaza Accord rebalancing the exchange rate, this was a pretty lucrative thing to do, as evidenced by larger companies like Revell that released their own line of kits, borrowed from the likes of Macross and Dougram, re-branded as Robotech. What concerns us, however, is TCI’s foray into wargaming.
TCI released both Takara’s Dougram games and Hobby Japan’s S.F.3.d games in the U.S., in English, with little changed in the packaging except the inclusion of English rules. In the case of S.F.3.d, the background was changed substantially (leading many to believe, for years, that S.F.3.d was some sort of sci-fi WW2 rehash featuring space nazis) and the rules changed, omitting rules present in the original. Today, both TCIs original ruleset and a newer, more accurate ruleset, are easy to find online.
What makes TCI’s release of the Dougram games interesting is that TCI also had a connection to the anime-inspired wargame Battletech. FASA, the publisher of Battletech, used mechanical designs from Macross, Dougram and Crusher Joe in its original release, all supposedly licensed via TCI. Of course, around the same time, Harmony Gold had licensed and produced the Robotech TV series, which included Macross, and that overlap (and FASA’s illegitimate rights) would eventually come to a head in the 1990s involving a lawsuit between FASA… and the toy manufacturer, Playmates.
While it’s easy to assume that Takara’s games may have influenced the creators of Battletech (though, to my knowledge, they’ve never admitted as such) it’s also worth pointing out that both Battletech and Battle of Stanrey came out in 1984–meaning that the window for overlap would have been narrow, at best.