Battle for Rokugan Review

MattDP     
 
5.0
2161   1

The first counter goes down on the board, sliding off the owner's thumb with a satisfying thwack. Its arrowhead points at my capital like an accusation. Besides that, I'm clueless. What is it? Given that it's sat on a territory border, it's either an army or a bluff. But if it's real, how many samurais are rolling in my direction? My palms begin to sweat. What do I need to do to defend myself? 

Helpless, I look up at the owner of the piece, who smirks the smug smirk of someone in the know. And I am empowered by the truth. Whatever I pick from behind my screen to defend and slide face down on the board, she'll be equally clueless as to what it is.

The opening few placements unfold with similar hesitancy, blind players feeling our way around a new world. It's called Rokugan and it's obviously a generic take on fantasy Asia. But aside from the brush art and pastel colours, I couldn't care less. I am absorbed in trying to work out what's likely to be underneath those sinister little discs threatening my territory. The land could be anywhere. In particular it could be Westeros, seeing as there are a bunch of mechanical similarities with the Game of Thrones board game.

But where that buries players in time and complexity, Battle for Rokugan is light and fast. It abstracts all the fussy raising and movement of troops away in favour of a blind selection of five counters per turn. You can then use armies to attack from any province you own, navies to attack any coast and Shinobi to attack anywhere at all. It abstracts asymmetry down to a single player power and the counter mix. You can teach it in minutes and play in an hour or two.

After we've each placed five face-down counters we sit, looking at them like they're manholes into a terrifying underworld. No one wants to be first to flip and start the resolution. The stakes are too high to cope with and it's only the first round. We agree to start at the north and work down.

The first reveal is the threat that opened the game. I could have placed a counter to defend, but I decided not to. Capitals get a default defence, so I guessed the attack was a bluff, a blank counter: we all get one each turn if we want. Instead, I used my precious forces to push elsewhere. I find my breath caught at the counter turns and ... I was right. My city stays safe.

And so we collapse the board like a set of dominoes, winners determined by simple majority of strength. Empty territories get conquered, others change hands with a whistle of breath and a tightening of arse cheeks. And so we set up for the second round, re-inflating the tension like the rising whine of a set of bagpipes. I don't know how I'm going cope with five full turns of this.

At the start of the second turn, a couple of us have conquered whole sets of territories. These will be worth bonus points at the end, in addition to the individual honour value of each province we own. But right now they're worth something more valuable: a card. These are like gold dust because each province set only has one, picked at random from a pair, and once it's played, it's out of the game. So it's on me to play mine as soon as possible. It makes one of my provinces worth another four honour, so I put it in my capital with its default defence.

After one turn, we've all turned into Machiavelli. Now, as we slap down each counter with a threat, a tease, a winsome smile. Yes, of course it's a bluff! No, that's not a raze counter that will reduce the entire province to worthless ash! Yes, of course we won't attack each other until one of us is in the lead! All as worthless as the air they're uttered with ... or are they? 

Swirling chaos, peppered with islands of social guesswork. Except that Rokugan doesn't want that to be the whole of the game, so it teases us with information, a twinkle in its cardboard eye. We all have two cards that we can use to look at hidden at units on the board. Two, for the entire game. Whoever has the disadvantage of the first turn gets a similar power. So valuable, yet so scarce: choosing when to play one is like deciding between fingers to cut off. And what do we do with the detail when we have it? Set up elaborate double bluffs, of course.

Three turns of fluid brutality flow by in what seems like forever and no time at all. At the end of it, I'm sitting pretty. Everyone went for my extra-honour province like bees to honey, of course, but that was my plan. It left me with a strongpoint to defend. And in Battle for Rokugan, a successful carries its own advantages. The province gets an extra default army and becomes worth an extra point. After two defences, plus the capital, it looks impregnable.

Then, the player on my left flips down her newly acquired card. It exchanges ownership of two provinces, just like that. She gets my strongpoint, I get a lousy 1-honour province in a territory whose card has long gone. It dawns on me that although the rules are easy to teach, it would be useful to know what all the possible cards in play might be. But there's no reference to help.

Over the course of the turn, one turn, my world collapses. I've drawn and used most of my strongest counters. I've drawn and used the only territory cards I'm likely to be able to get over the game. But I'm not out yet: I have a secret objective. I need to conquer a bunch of coastal provinces for a sweet basket of bonus points. Plus, there's always the bluff. If I smile and wink and nod to the right people in the right places, I might get away with it.

The final turn is just the placing of five counters, just like all the others, but it's a bloodbath. Those who have cards left play them, gobbling up information like the information-starved warlords they are. No-one uses their bluff counter in the rush to grab territory. And when the dust settles, I'm left one province short of my objective and my points total is paltry.

As others turn over their own secret goals, a shock. A couple of the players have cards tasking them to own the capitals of their own clans. Given that capitals get that defence bonus, this is likely guaranteed. One of them wins the game, which tastes a little sour until I remember how delicious the main course was. 

I throw counters into the box and head into the night, full of excitement and beer and plans. Next time - and there will be many next times - I'll print out a card reference to teach. Next time - and there will be many - I'll ask anyone dealt their own objective to hand it back for another. Next time - and there will be very many - I'll keep the right counters, time the right cards, guess the right guesses. I never do, of course. But that's okay: what fun would life, or Battle for Rokugan, be if we knew the future?

Battle for Rokugan Review There Will Be Games

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Editor rating

MattDP
Rating 
 
5.0

Summary

Game Name
Battle for Rokugan

All the abject terror of fighting and negotiating over territory, crammed into one tiny, sweaty package.


Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Posted: 06 Aug 2018 06:12 by WadeMonnig #279298
WadeMonnig's Avatar
Excellent review. This has been on my radar and your breakdown makes it all the more appealing to me. And it has a low MSRP.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 07:04 by Shellhead #279299
Shellhead's Avatar
This review did a great job of capturing the visceral experience of playing Battle for Rokugan. For those familiar with Legend of the Five Rings, Battle for Rokugan does a nice job of distilling the setting down into a compact game while still retaining the flavor of the seven clans. Aside from the setting, I agree that this game is a very sleek and efficient version of the Game of Thrones DOAM game from years ago. Each time I have played Battle for Rokugan, the entire game has clocked in at about an hour, including setup, teaching and takedown. The game moves at a brisk pace, even though players are constantly making meaningful decisions within the fog of war. Dollar for dollar, this game is an incredible value and certainly worth consideration as Game of the Year.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 08:29 by Hadik #279314
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I have a game group that has enjoyed playing conflict games such as Dune. Lately though, we’ve been drifting into “not in Kansas anymore” territory. Last session we played the Bob Ross Art of Chill game (actually fun).

I’d like to return to martial games and feel like this could be a good one. I was thinking about Shogun, because: cube tower.

Which of the two would you recommend?
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 09:04 by Shellhead #279316
Shellhead's Avatar
Hadik wrote:
I have a game group that has enjoyed playing conflict games such as Dune. Lately though, we’ve been drifting into “not in Kansas anymore” territory. Last session we played the Bob Ross Art of Chill game (actually fun).

I’d like to return to martial games and feel like this could be a good one. I was thinking about Shogun, because: cube tower.

Which of the two would you recommend?

I haven't played Shogun, but I have played Wallenstein, which is essentially European Shogun. The Shogun map is less ideal for a multi-player game. The cube tower was a moderately fun gimmick, but the rest of the game was too euro for my tastes. Wallenstein isn't really a conflict game so much as a building game with some conflict added in. The game runs too long for what it is, and the pace drags.

While Battle for Rokugan isn't as dynamic or deep as Dune, I think that Dune fans would like Battle for Rokugan more than Shogun. The conflict is direct, and there is a lot of potential for bluffing and player interaction. Each clan has a special power and and an extra token, which is just enough to give a different feel to playing each clan, though the differences are mild compared to the differences between the factions in Dune.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 09:08 by Stormcow #279317
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Excellent, underrated game, the kind of complete package that I was afraid FFG would stop making. Some guys on TOS claim that the game is better with the secret objectives just stripped out entirely; might be true but I'd still need to try it out myself.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 09:29 by BaronDonut #279319
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Hey, great review! I feel lukewarm about the GoT game, so didn't think there would be anything here for me, but now I'm interested.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 10:34 by Shellhead #279326
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I have just a few mild complaints about Battle for Rokugan, though I have found solutions for each of them. None of these issues detract from the game play as designed.

1. Even though the game has seven clans, it only scales from two to five players. I made a few extra scout and shugenja cards for two more players, plus there is a variant posted at TOS that reduces tokens played each turn in exchange for one or two extra turns to accomodate the extra players.

2. Flipping all your combat tokens at the start of the game and shuffling them around for randomization is less than ideal. I got some small felt dicebags and did iron-on transfers of clan symbols, for use as token drawbags.

3. Box storage is a mess unless you add in some bags. Each of the 7 factions needs two small bags, one for combat tokens and one for control tokens, plus one more bag for other game tokens. If you don't bag those tokens separately, setup time will be much longer, though putting away the game would be just a quick box sweep. Really small ziploc bags are good enough, like 1" x 2".

4. The box and insert are perfect until you punch out the tokens. If you bag the tokens (see #3 above), you will need to take out the insert to get the lid closed all the way.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 10:38 by Ken B. #279327
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Nice review.

I've thought it over and realized...I'm not in the market for a shorter or lighter version of Game of Thrones. When I want to play GoT, it's because...it's GoT.

It's nice that there is a faster playing alternative for those who want it and don't mind (or who actually relish) the theme change.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 14:34 by MattDP #279338
MattDP's Avatar
Hadik wrote:
I have a game group that has enjoyed playing conflict games such as Dune. Lately though, we’ve been drifting into “not in Kansas anymore” territory. Last session we played the Bob Ross Art of Chill game (actually fun).

I’d like to return to martial games and feel like this could be a good one. I was thinking about Shogun, because: cube tower.

Which of the two would you recommend?

What Shellhead said. Shogun/Wallenstein are "Waro" games: economic euros with a mild conquest element. That might be what your group is looking for - and the cube tower is a neat gimmick, a way of evening out the swings of randomness through the game - but it's not really a conflict game as such.
Posted: 06 Aug 2018 14:40 by MattDP #279340
MattDP's Avatar
Stormcow wrote:
Excellent, underrated game, the kind of complete package that I was afraid FFG would stop making. Some guys on TOS claim that the game is better with the secret objectives just stripped out entirely; might be true but I'd still need to try it out myself.

They're the weakest element, certainly. I think the easiest fix is just to hand back own-capital cards on pain of them being worth zero if you don't. In fact, I'm surprised this isn't an official rule, to the point where I did a lot of head scratching, wondering if I'd missed something before making it a house rule. But no, it really does seem to improve the game.

Some of the others are very "swingy", difficult but worth a lot of points. Like the one I mentioned in the review for conquering coastal provinces. There's another really weird one that's worth ten - the most in the whole deck I think - but you actually have to conquered fewer provinces to get it which is a bit topsy turvey. Does kind of make me feel that they could have evened the objective deck out a bit better with a little more imagination.

The only major critique I have of the whole package is that it helps a lot if everyone knows what cards might be in the game, objectives and province bonuses included. It helps you plan and to look for patterns, otherwise you can be blindsided out of the game. Some of them are very powerful.