The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
After School Dice Club
How would you rate episode 1 of
After School Dice Club ?
What is this?
Miki Takekasa is a timid homebody who doesn't find fun in the kinds of activities that most of her classmates do. In fact, she doesn't know what “fun” truly is for herself until classmate Aya just misses running her over on an out-of-control bike. During an ensuing exploration of Kyoto, they run across class rep Midori, who seems to be contravening her own rules about not being out in certain places in the evening, and follow her to Saikoro Club, an analog game store where she works. As Miki and Aya try out a board game, with some reluctant coaching from Midori, Miki starts to realize that maybe this kind of activity is where “fun” lies for her. After School Dice Club is based on a manga series and streams on Funimation on Fridays.
How was the first episode?
Though board games aimed more at adults have been around since at least the 1950s as one of the mainstays of geek gaming culture, they have exploded into the mainstream in the last decade or so, with a wave of games originating in Europe (especially Germany) at the forefront. Japan hasn't been immune to this phenomenon – I have personally seen such games in stores in Akihabara, for instance – but anime series which have featured these games have been sparse; about the only other one I can think of is A Sister's All You Need. Now there's one which looks like it will feature such games as its main focus rather than just a sidelight. But is the prospect of high school girls learning about board, card, and dice games enough to entice in a gaming aficionado like me?
Based on the first episode alone, the jury's still out on that decision. I was heartened to see that the Saikoro Club featured a large number of actual published board games, including a handful that I have actually played; any serious board gamer could probably have a field day trying to identify them all. Marrakech, the featured game this time, is also a real game (albeit one which has only a mediocre 6.3 rating on Board Game Geek). I'm guessing that future episodes will have their own feature games as well as the girls cycle through trying out different games on the way to what I'm presuming (based on the series title) is eventually making their own board game club at school. So yeah, this looks like a “cute girls do games” series.
And that's the main problem with the first episode: there doesn't seem to be anything more to the series than that. Sure, Miki gradually coming out of her antisocial shell as she discovers that she can have fun playing games might be something to look forward to, and it is hardly unrealistic; I have known people in real life who have followed progressions something like that. How intimidating it can be to break into these types of games without a gentle guide is also realistic. However, the first episode struggles to overdramatize the game play. The store manager's attitude is also problematic, even if it is meant somewhat as a joke. That's the kind of attitude which can scare off new gamers and would be heavily frowned upon by industry professionals.
Because of that, I can't give this series any more than a tepid recommendation. The technical merits are fine, the set-up allows for some potentially good character development, but the series needs to take a lesson from A Sister's All You Need on how to present games in a way that might actually get others interested in playing them.
Fun fact: this past summer, the museum I'm a docent at hosted a retro board-and-card game event where we had a rousing game of “Who Can Beat Nixon?”, a Monopoly-style board game from 1971. While I don't expect to see that particular title pop up in After School Dice Club (although an enterprising game designer could doubtless update it for today), it does bear mentioning that all of the games shown in this first episode are, to my knowledge, actual board games that you, too, can play. If you're an avid board gamer, that may be enough of a draw to get you into the show, because even if you aren't familiar with all of the titles, there's a good chance that you might learn about a new one to try, or at least be able to have a discussion of how they're shown in the anime.
The drawback here is that this episode, at least, doesn't do anything very exciting or interesting with how the games are played. This is meant in a visual sense; we're quite simply sitting around watching other people sit around and play a board game. While that absolutely can be interesting depending on the game and the level of intensity among the players, “Marrakech” is not a particularly thrilling game to watch, and we don't get any especially clear shots of the board to fully understand what's going on. The basic strategy is easy to figure out, but there's very little play-along appeal here. While I understand that the show is likely trying to show us, via Miki, the appeal of analog gaming, it honestly might have been a better idea to take a few liberties and show the gameplay as if the players were living the game.
Speaking of Miki, her trajectory may, if handled well, help to balance things out. This episode does a good job of showing her anxiety, especially in the scene where she has a panic over Aya's plan for them to explore without knowing where they are or where they're going. To Miki, not having a goal is terrifying, because the unknown is frightening – it's why she says she's never been good at playing and why she avoids social interactions. She's too busy overthinking every situation, and what board games can do for her is give her a safe, structured way to not know what's going to happen. There are rules, and that makes the whole thing much more palatable to her, even if that's not something she can vocalize. (Midori may be able to figure it out; she seems intuitive under that gruffness.)
After School Dice Club could get dull very quickly if it doesn't figure out how to make the game scenes more engaging, and it also runs the risk of just dropping Miki's anxiety as a plot. But if you like to play your games on a table rather than a computer, this is worth giving a glance. It isn't thrilling, but it may not have to be if it plays its cards right.
For me, After School Dice Club has exactly one thing going for it. Sure, the characters are the same gaggle of vaguely nice high school friends you see every single season, the art and the music are mostly generic mush, and the show generally thinks it's a lot more emotionally affecting than it really is. However, the focus of this after-school-hobbies slice-of-life anime is esoteric European board games, the kind of hand-crafted and adorably niche items that have really blown up here in the West in the past couple of decades, which will have you living out the dreams of a 15th -century merchant, or delivering goods across the galaxy in a space-truck, or constructing an empire of small-chain noodle restaurants out of hexagon tiles.
I love these kinds of quirky board games, with their eager and un-ironic love of rules and minutiae, and that gave me enough buy in to stick with After School Dice Club, even though most everything else about the show feels pretty forgettable at this point. For one, our protagonist, Miki, is the kind of overly-withdrawn heroine that I have a hard time buying in to – she doesn't just have a hard time making friends, she's the kind of wispy wallflower that has practically never even experienced the very concept of “fun” before. Likewise, Aya is such a Manic Pixie Dream BFF that she approaches literally everything she does with a blank-eyed enthusiasm that borders on mania. She can plunge-head first into a river, strip naked in front of a complete stranger, and wander her way into the lives of a whole mess of people without batting an eyelash, which isn't bad so much as it is flimsy and played out. Midori, the class president, fares a little better, because she at least seems like a real human person, but that also means that she comes across as a bit flat compared to her co-stars. The ensemble works best when they're playing games together, but that's mostly because the games themselves are pretty interesting; if they were engaged in any other kind of hobby, I can't imagine being anywhere near as invested.
At the end of the day, though, this is an anime about girls getting together to play neat looking board games, and I'd be willing to check back in with After School Dice Club from time to time just to see what kind of games the girls are getting in to week after week. That might not exactly be a glowing recommendation, but it means the show is just good enough to avoid the seasonal chopping block, at least for the time being.
Upon seeing the title After School Dice Club, my initial assumption would that I'd be entering into the high-stakes world of after-school gambling. Ultimately though, this slice of life production proved to be focused on a dice-adjacent but very different hobby: board games. Clocking in as the first slice of life anime of the season, After School Dice Club mostly sticks to the fundamentals of its genre, and offers a perfectly reasonable time.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised I haven't seen a board game-focused after school club show before now. The club-focused slice of life is an incredibly saturated genre space, and few hobbies take more natural advantage of a group of friends just hanging out than board games. The last few minutes of this episode take great advantage of the natural camaraderie developed through board games, as our shy heroine Miki is brought to greater self-confidence through her alliance with her rules-minded class rep Midori. Toss in the energetic Aya, and you've got a familiar but consistently effective mix of personalities, as well as a perfect gimmick for them to grow closer and express themselves.
Though this episode eventually settles on an engaging relational dynamic, it does take some time to get there. The first half of this episode hones in closely on Miki's personal anxieties, which is a fine choice in the abstract, but here suffers from the show's generally weak script. Miki, Aya, and Midori bounce off each other well enough, but Miki alone can only offer trite reflections like “I don't know what ‘fun’ is,” or later, “I know I had fun, because I'm smiling now.” Slice of life shows are generally more about a pleasant atmosphere than incisive characterization, but lines like that still make it a bit harder to see these characters as actual people.
But as I said, once the group gets together, they very quickly establish an easy rapport. On top of that, After School Dice Club is generally pleasant to look at, featuring appealing character designs, vibrant colors, and warm painted backgrounds. All in all, After School Dice Club certainly isn't breaking any new ground, but it's a reasonable example of its genre centered on a very appropriate gimmick. If you're a slice of life fan, I'd definitely give it a try.
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