Type: Area Control

Time to play: 90-120 minutes (Teaching 10 – 15 minutes)

Best played with: 5 Players (3-5 Players)

I have generally found that war games and games focused on area control split the audience quire distinctly – those who hate aggressive player interaction and those who are happy to stab a player in the back to win the game! So when I bring a game like this to the table it’s always interesting to see the small variations within this structure and how it effects the game play – specifically in this instance programming actions!

Shogun takes place in imperial Japan with each of the players competing to control the key regions of the map. Control of provinces will score you points, but also control of the most of each type of three different buildings will score points. However, the map starts with no buildings – you will build them, and then defend them. The overall strategy therefore is to take control of key areas, create a defence and build up the points through development. Of course with every player developing in different spots and with different types of buildings, there are opportunities to sneak in and capture the buildings after they have spent the money to get them. This is the key to good play.

However, unlike most area control games you aren’t taking turns where you have a free choice of actions, the actions here are dictated by a pre-drawn set of cards. So, there are 10 action types that you can take in a turn and before the turn has even begun these 10 are drawn into a particular order. This means that you might get to build armies before moving or you might have to move before you can build…. the impact of the card order is huge! Interestingly the game knew this and only shows you the next 5 of the cards – so you will have to react to the order after having committed to certain actions you have already choosen.

Also, before the actions are revealed you will have to select in which regions you want the actions to occur! That doesn’t sound that difficult right? You move troops from where you have lots of troops, and build in regions that are harder to attack…. sure but the map is very open and people can pre-empt these optimal choices. Also if your opponent invades the region you were going to tax before you tax it – you won’t get the money you need for next turn!!!

This combination of turn order, and region selection is really different. It also means that all players plan at the same time at the start of a round but then the actual turns are faster. This is a real advantage, but it is possible for players to get completely paralysed with the difficult choices at the start. It’s also possible that when a player’s turn goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong – actually so badly that this game can feel frustrating. You can be locked in to a now clearly suboptimal set of outcomes.

There’s more to the strategy as well though – there’s the farmers. This is not just a game between you and your opponents. This is a game between you and the locals! If you invade a neutral region you must clear out the locals. If you control the region peacefully then you get the support of the locals in the fights and if you tax/ take rice from the locals but don’t feed them in winter (don’t have enough rice) then you will have revolutions which could unseat you from key provinces just before the points scoring moments.

It’s also time to talk about the fight mechanic. This game is differentiated from the typical dice chuckers by adding a tower. A tower that you will throw the troops in along with the farmers and the opponents. The tower is made up of levels which prevent the cubes just falling through. The cubes that come out though will determine the winner. This is a very interesting way of showing war – losing troops even in the most basic fights and having big swings in the battle. It’s also a tactical mechanic though – a way that if you keep track of the cubes that are in the tower you can know whether you have an inherent advantage – from cubes left from previous battles. Not only can this help you win fights but also move armies across the map (via the tower!).

At first to me this seemed like a much fairer way. After all, the dice forget between turns who was lucky and who was unlucky – pure randomness that leads you to just get frustrated if things don’t go your way. However, the tower remembers. If you suffer in one battle you will have an advantage in the next. This sounds much more balanced – but not every fight is even. Dominating a small battle is less helpful than having half your army left in the tower during a key defence. Good players will use this to attack in less important areas when the opponent is building up troops in the tower, or to chance the big attack when that player has more troops in the tower. For other players though this can feel like an unfair advantage being transferred across time and suddenly their assault on a province can backfire to the loss of a key territory.

So, like most war games I find myself thinking that this is a clever game and a real challenge, but one that has a frustrating amount of randomness. The advantage here is that this is randomness you can use / manipulate and the space exists for genuinely skilled play. The question is whether you are willing to go through the cube counting, planning and strategic thinking to be unwound by the occasional time that the 65% probability ends in the 35% bad outcome! That’s the type of margins we are probably talking about.

The advantage though of this war game is that it is full of strategic thinking. This can be a fast play game with lots of analysis / planning in the start of the turns. Also, this is a very open map where players can be pushed back and still recover. Lastly, it’s important to get points here – this is an area control with intermittent scoring. You need to be in the right place at the right time. This means that a player can lure another player into a trap and then watch all the players round the table target the leader.

Last notes,

  • If you like war games then this is different enough to merit a place in the collection
  • If you hate games that encourage the players to attack the leaders, then this has a lot of that mechanic
  • If you win, try again as there will be random variation in the game