We all love new games- at least that seems to be the case for the vast majority of board gamers. There's a thrill of being amongst the first to enjoy a new experience; your opinions and feedback seem that much more valuable because there isn't a long list of people who have been there done it.
In this golden age of designer board games, the output of publishers seems to be growing almost exponentially. The advent of Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing platforms means that games that wouldn't have seen the light of day can now be made, brought to life by strangers investing in a common goal. Then there's hype. This isn't a dictionary definition by any means but in board gaming terms there seem to be a few games each year that get the hype bug. It's often after a particular game has been announced for upcoming release at Essen Spiel, or a highly anticipated Kickstarter campaign is launched. 2016, for example, witnessed huge interest in games such as Scythe, A Feast for Odin and Terraforming Mars. 2017 has been the year of Gloomhaven, Clans of Caledonia and Pandemic Legacy: Season 2.
I'm susceptible to the Cult of the New; not many board gamers aren't. However, I have an even stronger inclination to find older games that still stand out from the crowd. I do believe that board game design has evolved over the past few decades, but that doesn't mean that every new game is great and every older game is bad.
Recently I was introduced to Shogun, designed by Dirk Henn and published in 2006 although it's very largely based around Wallenstein which was published in 2002. 15 years is considered ancient history by many gamers who I believe are missing out on some unbelievably brilliant games by bizarrely ruling that anything published more than a few years ago is unworthy of attention. Welcome to The Anti-hype.
What is it about?
Shogun is an area-control game set in Japan during the Sengoku period (approx. 1467-1573). Unlike many 'dudes on a map' combat games, the winner is the player able to earn the most Victory Points. The game is split into two years with four phases in each. In the first three, players take actions such as assigning troops, invading territories, earning money, collecting food and erecting buildings. In the fourth, players feed the people in the provinces they control, attempt to quash rebellions by disgruntled citizens, and finally score points.
At the core of the game is a fantastic action selection mechanic which I have not come across before or since. In the action phases- Spring, Summer and Autumn- every player has precisely the same ten actions available to them:
- Build a castle
- Build a temple
- Build a theatre
- Collect rice
- Collect taxes
- Deploy five armies
- Deploy three armies
- Deploy one army, then reinforce an adjacent friendly province
- Battle A
- Battle B
Players have a card that corresponds to every province they currently control and their own individual boards with the ten action spaces laid out in front of them. Placing a province onto a particular section means that when the action is resolved, it takes place in that specific area. Taxing or collecting rice upsets the citizens who may revolt in future rounds if they're victimised too often.
The order that these actions will be performed is randomised and set for all players at the beginning of each round. If that wasn't dynamic enough, only the first five actions are revealed at the start of the round: the order of the remaining five is therefore hidden. This simple idea is a master stroke; it creates uncertainty and means you cannot plan every last detail in advance. It also helps to level the playing field a little bit. The best player will still win the game but it may not necessarily be the best combat strategist. This is because while attacking provinces is important, it does not win you the game on its own. It is a delicate balance of managing your resources, predicting what your opponents will do and undermining them, and planning where and how you're going to score points.
Shogun comes in a large box; it has to accommodate lots of wooden components and thick cardboard tokens but the chief user of the space is the cube tower for which this game is famous. I shan't deny the attractiveness of the tower, nor the effectiveness of using it to resolve battles fairly, but it is not why I love this game.
FYI, if the box actually isn't big enough for your taste then check out the Big Box version which includes several expansions and upgraded components!
As noted above, 2/10 of the actions a player can perform in each round are attacks. This differentiates it from the majority of other area control games where so much of the emphasis is on combat. But does this deliberate limiting of directly aggressive actions negatively impact the levels of interaction? My opinion is not at all; it arguably increases it yet further. Every single action requires thought and careful evaluation because one unpredicted decision by another player could impact on your round.
Player A ideally wants to collect 5 rice from Shimosa because Winter is coming and he doesn't have enough to feed all his provinces. However, he's worried that Player B might intend to attack from Hitachi beforehand. If she takes control of Shimosa then he won't get any rice at all this round which could spell disaster in Winter. Player A decides to collect rice from Sagami instead thereby sacrificing one rice. Player C takes advantage of Player A's distraction to build a Castle in Totomi which gains him 3 points in the scoring phase.
This example demonstrates one scenario where decisions by other players can dramatically affect your game. Bear in mind that there will likely be multiple situations such as this every round and you can start to understand just how much interaction is packed into this game.
The game comes with recommended starting setups which you can use, particularly when new to the game, to ensure a balanced starting point before the chaos begins. After using these the first time, we have since used the optional drafting variant where players get more say in where their armies are deployed. It adds some time to the setup but is totally worth it; you have more control, it's exciting and it will lead to huge variations in how games start, let alone how they end up. It also has a double-sided board with slightly different maps- this again provides variety. However, I have absolute confidence that neither of these factors are that important in terms of ensuring replayability over a large number of games because of the sheer number of different ways in which the games develop. Indeed I can't recall many games that evolve so organically over the course of 2-3 hours.
It's big, it's not cheap, and it takes a good few hours to play. These are not some of my favourite characteristics in a board game which just proves to me how good Shogun is. While others will assume that the game is more or less defined by the use of the cube tower, it takes a back seat in proceedings for me. Front and centre is the absolutely stunning design by Dirk Henn, a perfect meld of mechanisms and theme that create an experience that few other games have ever matched. I recommend it unreservedly. It is one of very few games where I have broken my golden rule and bought a copy when 2 of my friends already own it...it's that good!
Copies available from Chaos Cards for £44.95.