Best Euro-Wargame of 2011? Move over Halifax Hammer, here comes the Kyoto Katana!
Last year saw the release of a card driven wargame which brought together the strategic conflict of a wargame and the tactical decisions of a Euro card game. While cards are certainly not new to the wargaming hobby after such hits such as Hannibal and Paths of Glory, we are beginning to see games where the cards not only provide historic events and tough choices, but provide a shape and character to the conflict in the very manner they are used. The result is a game with rich historical flavor, tense confrontation and very minimal rules overhead. No, I'm not talking about A Few Acres of Snow here. I'm talking about Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan, a game that with any justice will be remembered as a keystone in the evolution of conflict games.
For a moment, let's enter feudal Japan in the year 1600. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the one man with the strength to end decades of heated civil war, has died. A power vacuum that only one of two men can fill has split Japan in half. Opportunity is in the air, but it is not only these two giants who intend to reap the rewards of chaos. Every warlord in Japan likewise seeks to leverage the crisis to fulfill their own petty ambitions, and it is through these webs that the powers must navigate to achieve victory.
You have both been planning for this, and know exactly where the battleground will be. But the preparations have been hasty, the men behind you are uncertain, and the bonds of loyalty so fragile that the war might collapse into petty rivalries at any moment. The man who wins this war will not only be the one who raises the largest army, but who best channels the vendettas and aspirations of the independent warlords to his purpose.
The Date clan has long wanted to end their feud with the Usegi and petitioned for the resources to strike on a distant holding even as you are a day's days march from complete victory. Failure to comply with these reasonable demands could cause dissent at a critical moment, though it may give your rival time to reinforce Kyoto. Do you dare risk the uncertainty of both offensives?
These decisions so central to the conflict are handled through a card driven mechanism which minimize rules overhead to such an extent that the game flows as naturally as water. The cost of that simplicity is that the potentially thrilling political narrative has been abstracted to card draws and must be sought by imaginative players to appreciate. Like a piece of modern art, the simplicity of the design must be scrutinized to reveal it's treasures.
Components and Gameplay
At a quick glance, Sekigahara resembles a block wargame made typical by Columbia Games. Two players take sides over a battleground with full view of their own military and very limited knowledge of the composition of their rival's forces. The gameplay, as discussed below, varies so significantly from these past designs that I would not consider the game to fit into the same genre, though the respectful nod to Hammer of the Scots and it's family are clear. For those who are unfamiliar with wargaming, Sekigahara is an excellent introduction to the drama and tension of a direct conflict game with very few rules to fuss over. I would strongly recommend this game to experienced wargamers and newcomers alike.
The aesthetics of Sekigahara are not to be ignored; the game is quite striking when set up and in play. Each player is given large, bold blocks to represent military forces, each set with heraldic symbols which represent both unit strength and the loyalty each block has to a member of a player's coalition. The map is point-to-point, typical of a block wargame. The simple presentation of the region around Kyoto is quite fitting to the art of the time period, and still manages to contain all the information required to play out and track the progress of the game. Finally, each player has a deck of cards which match the heraldry of the blocks, allowing players to activate their units in combat. The cards are my one complaint about the components; while functional, they don't match the aesthetics in a way that is a bit jarring to the otherwise fantastic presentation. Overall, the game doesn't just look great, it fits the conflict in a way similar to Napoleon's Triumph at no cost to functionality.
There is one more component which demands criticism aside from the cards, and I would like to make special mention of it: the rulebook. Despite the simple rules to this game, the rules as presented are not only difficult to decipher but notably incomplete. I would strongly suggest anyone to do a little online research to find a good FAQ for this game and using the movement, battle and siege summaries alongside the book. Hopefully a second edition will correct the glaring issues and omissions in the manual.
The theme of this game is tremendous, but not in the manner typical of a wargame. The chrome, special conditions and unique units of the genre have largely been discarded in favor of the stark and simple aesthetics of the culture and time period. It is instead the sum of simple mechanics which contribute to placing the players in the mindset of the personalities central to the drama. Again, the cost of using core mechanics as the thematic component is that many of the details will be lost in abstraction. I feel that the playability this simplicity affords the experience is well worth the sacrifice, and comes at absolutely no expense to the strategic depth of the game.
Each turn, a player will have a set of cards, each allowing the activation of a single block from one of the four supporting warlords in his coalition. Managing this hand of cards to allow necessary attacks must be balanced with the demands of fate, which may temporarily suggest certain attacks while planning for the critical offensives . While abstract, the system works very well to represent the political challenges central to the war with no excessive overhead or complication. In addition to representing the politics, the cards give a fantastic bluffing element to the game: a large stack of blocks may not be much of a threat if few cards are held to activate the units, and a small group may be far more dangerous than it appears. And here's the real catch: each player has some cards which can potentially flip a unit to the opposing side during a battle. The way it works is this - if your opponent plays a loyalty challenge, you must respond by showing you have one more card in hand matching the heraldry of the block you just fielded. Press your luck anyone? Hell yeah.
Each round, each payer will bid a card to decide who will take starting player initiative for the next two turns. Well, there goes one card. On each of these turns, a player will have a single action which can be used to muster additional reinforcements to certain locations or to activate all units in a location. Sacrificing one or two more cards will grant additional actions, but your hand is getting rather slim at this point. These units may then battle on the fields or siege the castles to take resource locations, castles, and place pressure on the opponent. Thankfully, the cards spent to activate units in battle are replenished from the draw stack at the end of each combat, though this introduces the need to again start collecting desired cards.
At the end of the second turn in a round, half of a player's hand will be discarded and five new cards drawn, allowing a player some control over which units will activate but demanding a certain flexibility. The cards create little strategic arcs of opportunity in the narrative of the game, while still allowing each player strong influence over their hand for critical engagements. As the game progresses, the hand size of each player will increase, allowing larger fights and an overall escalation in activity.
Field battles are handled simply on an impact track. Each activated unit, ranging from one to three points of strength, will add to the strength of a conflict. Activation of units will pass back and forth as players will either exceed their opponent or concede defeat. Bonuses from clan cohesion or special attacks from cavalry or guns add an interesting tactical layer to this process by acting as force multipliers (the cost being increased demand on unit composition and hand management). At the end of a battle, casualties are inflicted one each side as determined by the total impact from unit activations and bonuses, with the defeated force suffering an additional loss. Casualties must be taken from activated units if possible, which adds some excitement to timing the use of critical units.
Sieges of castles are more grueling affairs than field battles. The defender of a castle with a maximum of two units may hide inside the fortifications, creating a test for the attacker to muster enough force to breach the walls. Due to fortifications, cavalry and guns will offer no additional bonus, and the defender will suffer no attrition for the defeat itself. While these garrisoned units have no hope of inflicting losses on the attackers, the delaying tactic can swing the game by tying up cards and units.
The game will end at the end of a set turn, where the player controlling the majority of key locations will win the game. The game might end sooner if a specific castle is taken by Tokugawa, or if either leader is killed in combat. These sudden-death victory conditions are what give a real shape to the game by introducing the need to mount pressure against a single location and protect the key blocks. It's also here that the major asymmetry of the game comes into effect. The player of Tokugawa has no specific area to defend, but his reinforcement locations are scattered throughout the map with fewer leaders to allow movement bonuses to the disperse forces. To turn these dispersed forces to his advantage, he must put himself at higher risk on the field. Ishida has a very defensible position near the capital Kyoto, and must defend it at all costs. Any projection of forces outside of this area will weaken his defenses of the capital, but is necessary to secure victory.
How It All Comes Together
The gameplay of Sekigahara match the aesthetics of the game well. It is beautiful, simple, and a little cold. Wargamers may be disappointed in the lack of grand tactical choices; you will not find the pressing demands to protect the flanks of a collapsing formation or defend a specific ridge. If that is what you're looking for, I would strongly suggest Napoleon's Triumph over this.
What Sekigahara has to offer is a very deep and enjoyable strategy game that has abstracted the minutiae of battle to focus on the fun of leading a campaign of independent and sometimes disloyal assholes. The coalition of each player has as much control over the leader as the leader does over the coalition, but at no time will a player feel like there is no option but to stall and wait for better circumstances, as in Combat Commander. The tight time frame gives a sense of urgency to each action, while the limited map allows no action to feel trivial. Each troop movement and spent card will ultimately matter through the course of the campaign, but there is enough flexibility and chance that a player will not feel recovery is hopeless if an error is made. That fluidity makes the game more fun than frustrating, but still rewards skilled play and provides enough aggravation to keep the experience tense . Without this tightness, a lot of the drama would be missed.
The card play itself is a little on the cold side at first, but with repeated play I trust most people will come to love it. First, there's the obvious - those damn loyalty cards. This introduces the press-you-luck element that is needed to make a wargame fun without using dice. Not that there's anything really wrong with dice, but using straight cards keeps the system simple. The degree of future planning that the cards allow over dice is the scheming and planning for future moves by hoarding cards. This level of control will make a player feel like a skilled strategist rather than being completely held to the whims of fate, and gives a strong nod to Sekigahara's Euro heritage. I'm sure it took the designer some work to give such strong, conflicting feelings of uncertainty and control, and the results are well worth it.
Less obvious to the cards are the way in which they represent the tension of the war. At the beginning of the conflict, not much is known. The initial probing attacks are small and isolated, and things will be fairly unpredictable. Bluffs will be common and bold. Once players are familiar with the game, they'll start to get a feel for how much support of any given clan is left for both themselves and their opponent, but that won't help much until the mid game. The skirmishing and probing done, the game will settle into a more certain path and experienced players will get a good sense of where an opponent might be strong or weak. Bluffing here is tougher to pull off and might require a bit of setup, but if successful will give a great advantage. So far, so good. The real magic of the game is that, without fail, the card decks always seem to be reshuffled once, right in the last few turns of the game after some climactic battles. Suddenly, at the critical moment, the time of heroics and uncertainty comes up again as the great armies are reduced to smaller bands. The timing couldn't be better to inject some raw drama and fun into the game. It's a great narrative arc which seems to be completely emergent to each game.
Cards aside, the spatial element from the blocks and map have equal importance to the outcome of a game. The composition of each stack certainly matter, with tight unit composition having greater strength through force magnifying bonuses, but far less flexibility in activating units without a similarly well groomed hand. The placement of units can make the difference between the timely arrival of reinforcements and disaster. Stacks of blocks must be managed not only for composition, but size; a large stack of blocks may have greater strength, but this comes at the cost of greatly reduced mobility. Inversely, too many small stacks requires more actions to activate and decrease overall control. An interesting twist is given to the game with ability for a stack of blocks to exceed normal movement limitations at the cost of a card. Strategic use of this ability will likely increase with player experience and can provide some unpleasant surprises to an unaware opponent. The small map and limited point-to-point areas may seem to simplify the spatial element of the game too much, but I can assure you that I have continued to find command decisions challenging after scores of plays.
Sieges have traditionally been a tricky area to cover in wargames, and Sekigahara offers a unique take on this challenge. The castles are not only vital from the perspective of victory points, but strategic use of these locations will serve as speed bumps to an offensive. The attacking player must decide how many blocks to leave behind to attack the castle, and the restriction on special unit activation can make the impact requirement of a successful siege costly in units. If too few units are left, the attacker runs the risk of a counterattack from the besieged blocks, especially if reinforcements are nearby. If too many units are used, the aggressor may lose valuable tempo in a tight game. The implications of sieges are critical to the outcome of a game, and again, the rules are so simple that they do not bloat the experience.
It's these little things that add up to a great game, and Sekigahara is all about the details. As I said in the beginning, the generals knew where the big battles would be fought, but it's all the dynamics that happen outside of the expected that make the experience consistently fresh and entertaining. A small band of samurai who fight their way to the front lines can turn the tide of the larger war in a heartbeat, and it is through these small stories that the spirit of the game is best captured. While the big picture of the campaign may seem a bit scripted, it will never happen in quite the same way twice. Managing these little details and knowing when and where to take initiative give the game a ton of replay value that mirrors some of the best abstract games I own.
Sekigahara is a beautiful game that I will keep right beside Napoleon's Triumph as a model of how great a game can be when the designer takes effort to sculpt the essence of the system to match the specific conflict rather than safely using well-tread mechanics. With it's depth and simplicity, I would strongly recommend Sekigahara to Euro and Wargamers alike, but would be hesitant to pigeonhole the game into one category or the other. And at the end, it's great fun to push giant blocks around while playing cards.
Simple rules that keep the focus on play
Deep strategic play with a gentle but long learning curve
Great sense of tension and urgency to the conflict
Narrative is too abstracted and cold
Not much room for bold, sweeping strategic decisions
Rulebook has few examples, critical omissions, and poor terminology
Two to three hour gameplay is too long for some players
Card driven play may feel too restrictive, players do not have absolute control