David Hamaker is customer service manager for Japanese – The Game, a card game that actually teaches players the Japanese language.
G: How did you come up with this idea to make this card game?
Hamaker: My brother came up with this game because he was tutoring a dude who was putting in two hours a day on his Japanese studies, and not passing his tests. We couldn't figure out why he wasn't learning – it's not like he wasn't trying. So my brother started studying learning styles, and he figured out the guy was a kinestetic learner. If you have to learn with your hands, then how do you learn language? Verbal learners can speak, and visual learners can read and write. But kinestetic learners are kind of screwed. So what he did was he took his flash cards that he put together so you could string them together in sentences, and the guy was able to build sentences with his hands.
G: What was the play testing like for this? Was it tough to come up with an actual workable game from the concept of flash cards?
Hamaker: It was actually a six year development process, where people would play some stuff and we got feedback. Once we got it into a workable format, there was an alpha testing group which I was a part of, and we all got to pick a word that went into the game – "spatula" is mine. My cousin chose "penguin," but that didn't stick because we had too many animals. This is our first edition revised, where we took a bunch of feedback and changed some things, like at the top of each card will say if it's a noun, what type of verb it is, is it a particle, and color coding bars at the top are clearer. Before, it was just kind of thematic. We also have a bar code at the bottom that you can scan and it will say the word for you, so if you're a verbal learner, you can still get that. The color codes are for visual learners. So we've combined all the learning styles into one game.
G: How hard was it to translate the sentence structure into how the cards lay out for the game?
Hamaker: That's why it took years of development! (laughs) Because turning a language into an easily codafiable rule set is not an easy thing to do, even with one as consistent as Japanese is. It's one of the beautiful things about Japanese is that it follows its own rules, unlike English which really doesn't follow its own rules. The joke around the office is that, if we ever made "English – The Game," it would consist of us just throwing random cards at each other. Customers ask for it all the time, and we're like, "No, that's literally never going to happen. There's no way to do it."
G: What is the future of expansion for this? Other languages? Other subgroups?
Hamaker: Both. What we have here is our first Kickstarter set. We have the core deck, which is 72 cards with 63 unique words because there needs to be some overlap for the particles. We've got six different expansions out now. There's Business, Food, and Travel, which are practical, we've got Anime and Kaiju, which are fun, and one that gets you two years of college-level grammar. We also have the Wooden Box set which gets you all the cards from our first and second Kickstarters. We have ten more expansions coming, like a Children expansion (because you don't talk to children like you do to adults, it's grammatically incorrect to do so). We have a Counting expansion, because counting is really complicated in Japanese, to the point where most Japanese don't even count in their own language anymore, they count in English because it's easier. We also have Martial Arts, Anatomy, Animals, Household Objects, there's even going to be a Caligraphy expansion. In development is our third Kickstarter, which is our Storyteller set. The core deck is bigger, and it's like Once Upon A Time so that you can tell stories instead of just making sentences. Some of those expansions will include a Fantasy expansion so you can play D&D, and we have Yokai expansion, which is the traditional folk monsters. We have a Bushido expansion, a Weapons And Warfare expansion.
G: Are you going to be experimenting with other languages, too?
Hamaker: Yes. As soon as we do the fulfillment on Tokyo, we'll be running the Kickstarter for Mandarin – The Game, which the core deck is done, and we're just sorting out the stretch goals now. And after Mandarin, we're doing Korean. And Korean is going to be easier because it has the same sentence structure as Japanese, just the words and the alphabet are different. It'll be work, but it'll be worth it. We also looking at things like German – The Game – there's a guy working on it independently, he's licensing through us. We're also looking at French and some other things, but want to keep a lid on that for now.