Aug 30

IGS: Shogun Play Report/Review

During the last IGS session in which I participated we played Shogun, by Dirk Henn.  The game is set during the Sengoku period of Japanese history and 2-5 players take on the role of a daimyo with ambitions of becoming Shogun.

In pursuit of this goal players will conquer provinces, construct buildings, see that their people are fed, manage their finances, deal with unruly peasants, and do all of this while the other players try to destroy them.  Starting provinces are assigned via a semi random drafting procedure and players place predetermined quantities of troops in each.  Players will manage their holdings by assigning provinces under their power to perform one action during the present game round.  There are ten different actions that can be done but the order in which they will be taken is only partly known at the time of planning.  The players must weigh the consequences of the action order as well as how the actions taken by other players may impact their planning.  Provinces are assigned their actions by placing their card on the chosen action face down on the players boards.

When it is time to perform an action players reveal the province they have assigned to the current action and then they resolve in turn order.  The turn order in which all actions take place during the round is determined by auction and then by perk selection.  The auction determines what order players select the perk which they wish to have during the round and based on its position on the track at the top of the board, play order is determined.  For a simple action such as constructing a building or recruiting troops, a player simply pays the appropriate amount of gold to the bank and takes the related resource.  If players are taxing the peasants or confiscating their rice in a province, they gain the resource but also add a rebel token to show the displeasure of the locals at their cruel acts.  The peasants in Shogun are quite an uppity lot and a player must be careful of angering them too greatly, as revolts will begin to crop up and disrupt his well laid plans

The last type of action that a player may take are attack actions.  These result in combat with farmers or the soldiers of other players.  Combat in Shogun is without a doubt the most unusual system I have ever seen in over three decades of gaming!  Soldier cubes are tossed into the battle tower and the cubes that come out the bottom are traded out on a one for one basis.  The player who has any remaining cubes in the bottom is the victor and they are placed in the target province.  I say whatever cubes emerge from the tower, because it is not a straight shot through and cubes will get stuck by design.  There are no sure things with the cube tower, and it can produce extremely counter intuitive results. There are times where the player who began the battle with fewer cubes going into the tower knocks out some of his that were already in it and not only wins the battle, but now has more troops than when he started.  Battle in Shogun is absolutely brutal, because the economies of players can not afford endless warfare as conquest only provides limited victory points.  A player will grind his treasury to dust long before his enemies and a different player who avoided prolonged conflicts will be the winner.

The winner in Shogun will not be primarily by battles, but rather the construction of buildings for a majority in the different colored provinces.  During each winter (scoring phase) players will gain one point for each building the have total and bonus points for having the most theaters, temples, or castles in a colored region of the map.  The player with the most castles in a colored region receives 3 points, temples 2 points, and theaters 1 point.  Each player also gains one point for each province he controls. In theory, a player would like to make a few strategic territorial gains to consolidate his position or production, and then construct buildings that can be successfully defended until the end of the game.

The game takes place over two years, ending after its second winter phase.  Players score their provinces, buildings, and regional building majorities once more and the player with the highest total of victory points wins.  It seems fairly common, as in many similar games, that the leader at the half way point will not be the leader at the end of the game.  As such, it is wise to strengthen your position for a strong second year while staying within striking distance, as not to draw the aggression of the other players.  It requires a diverse mixture of military might, economic planning, and cunning diplomacy if one wishes to ascend to the title of Shogun.

IGS Play Report

The IGS played Shogun on 8/7/12.  The players in attendance were Steve, Rich, James, and myself.  We played using a modified setup in which a player has three face up provinces to draft from rather than the original rules where players are only shown two at a time.  This was due to concerns over the potential for grossly unequal starting positions that seemed to crop up during the practice game one week earlier.  Apparently this is a common concern in games of Shogun.  There are numerous player created setups posted on the net, and after testing some of the others, we opted to try this method.

The initial setup found Rich strongly consolidated in the middle of the map running north to south from the eastern green provinces, down through the western red, and in the purple on and off of the island.  James was well entrenched in the far west holding a majority of the green with a small presence on the island.  He also had a very minor holding in the far north-eastern brown provinces.  My provinces were fairly close together, if not firmly consolidated, with all of my holdings spanning from the south-eastern tan up into the eastern part of the red region.  Steve, on the other hand, was not so lucky.  He was scattered about the board with small strongholds in the middle of my tan areas, James’ green, and the western most dark brown territories in the north pinched between Rich and I.  Most certainly not an envious position in which to begin the game.

During the first spring actions players attempted to firm up zones of control while recruiting the maximum armies possible.  This resulted in James, Rich, and me all attacking Steve, as his territory represented bubbles in our strongholds.  This was no collusion, but rather just commonsense behavior by the three of us much to Steve’s misfortune.  I also tangled with James in an effort to lockup control of the far eastern edge of the map.

During the first summer it was more of the same with slightly less pummeling of Steve.  We all dabbled in buildings somewhat with Rich having the most success in constructing his own and capturing those of Steve.  I once again tried to pop my Steve bubble in the southern portion of my territory, but the battle tower was having none of it.

In the first autumn, we all attempted to position ourselves for the scoring in winter.  Rich was looking like an unstoppable juggernaut at this point.  He had the most building and the most armies.  His position was somewhat perilous as he was in the center of the map and could potentially be ganged up on by the three of us, but for the time being, we continued to squabble amongst ourselves.  I finally succeeded in removing James from the eastern end of the board and looked to be well positioned for the second year.  Despite being removed from the east end of the board, James turned the western end into his personal fortress completely dominated by his forces.  Translation, “He popped his last Steve bubble.”

First Winter Scoring

                           Chris   James   Rich   Steve

Provinces            11         10          11        6

Buildings               3          2            7         2

Control Bonuses

Theaters                 1          –              1       1

Temples                   2          2             4       1

Castles                    –           –              –        –

Total                         17        14            23     10

I was reasonably comfortable with my position at this point.  I was a little concerned about Rich, but I figured everyone would reach the obvious conclusion that he had to be smashed and my goal was to aid in this, but do so with the minimum exertion of my resources towards the effort.

At the start of the second spring phase I could already hear talk of getting Rich.  I eagerly joined in the conversation and the witch hunt began in full effect!  I recruited as many troops possible during the spring action as I hoped to spend all of my future gold on buildings.  This meant that I would be committing to finishing the game with only the troops I ended this turn with.  This is where I believe my position on the edge of the board paid dividends.  I was quite literally too far away for my unsuspecting rivals to get to my buildings even if I had zero troops.  As my troops were essentially no longer required for defense it was time to throw as many of them as possible at Rich.  The only construction to take place during the spring was done by Rich and myself.  I built a theater and he added another temple.

As we entered the second summer I had already done the math to ensure the construction of the maximum number of buildings possible for the remainder of the game.  The onslaught against Rich continued and he was slowly but surely losing territory.  The biggest example of this was when Steve attacked from Kaga to Echizen.  The battle resulted in a tie which means all buildings are destroyed and ownership of the province reverts to the peasants.  This was the best possible outcome from my point of view as Rich would be unable to just recapture the building next turn as surely would have happened if Steve had won the battle.  He still managed to construct a theater, but I added a castle, temple, and theater.  His having to spend gold for troops while fighting a two and a half front war was tilting things in my favor.

As second winter began we placed our final actions of the game.  I only engaged in one but it hit Rich hard. Sadly for me it resulted in a tie, but at least Rich would not be receiving the points he would have.  On the other hand, Steve slipped in and took the province that I had attacked Rich form as it was down to one unit.  This was fine by me, and I had actually hoped he would do it as I needed to be rid of a province or two as I did not have enough rice for the winter.  The last thing I needed was some unruly peasants rising up and destroying my buildings.  Once again, I built all three buildings.  James and Rich both built one castle each and that was the game.

Second Winter Scoring

                           Chris   James   Rich   Steve

Provinces            11         11          9          7

Buildings               9          5            6         2

Control Bonuses

Theaters                  2          1             1        –

Temples                   2          3             2       1

Castles                     6          2             2        –

Total                         30        22           20     11

Final Scores            47        36           43     20

I was able to squeak out a narrow victory over Rich, with James finishing a competitive third.  Steve was a distant fourth and it seemed a victim of his poor starting position.  It was a very tight game, and I will say this for Shogun, “you can definitely feel the tension building as the endgame approaches!”  Rich played very well, but fell prey to the classic trap of being the early leader, and even worse, had a very centralized position on the board.  These two factors certainly combined to bring about his downfall.

All in all, I enjoyed the game quite a bit.  There is a lot of chaos to manage, but with cautious planning it is possible to mitigate its effects somewhat.  While I was glad to win. I was uncomfortable with the seeming tendency for starting territories to have such a huge effect on the outcome of the game.  Given that the players only have limited control over the situation, I believe that its impact may be a little too great.  Hopefully, further plays will show the ability to overcome a difficult starting position.  It did not seem to be the case during this game of Shogun.

  My Review

Shogun, Shogun, Shogun, you are great in so many ways, but may just be a flawed masterpiece.  Among the really good things are the unruly peasants, exceedingly tight economic concerns, the action selection process of assigning provinces a task, and of course the cube tower!  Sadly, there are also enough serious concerns to dampen my enthusiasm such as:  The severe repercussions of a player’s starting position, the way in which a player can be virtually eliminated, but still stuck in the game, and of course the cube tower.

I found the interaction with the farmers in Shogun to be one of the most interesting aspects of the game.  Take their rice and they will try to revolt.  Take their gold and they will try to revolt.  Have insufficient food come winter and you will have to deal with revolts.  Try to conquer an empty territory and you must face the wrath of the farmers.  Attack a player who has treated the locals well and the farmers will aid him.  Attack a hated tyrant, and he will find the farmers sitting on the sidelines.  The armies of mighty daimyos mutually annihilate each other on the field of battle and the farmers rejoice at the destruction and regain control of the land.  All of these things happen with great regularity in Shogun and the game is better for it.  Unlike many games of conquest, Shogun forces its players to consider the ramifications from the actions they take and the current state of their relationship with the peasants throughout their holdings.  I had to deliberately lose provinces that I could not feed out of fear that the peasants would rise up and destroy my buildings that were needed for the win.  I find these considerations to be an interesting challenge presented by Shogun and I greatly enjoyed it.

I found the idea of using your provinces as part of a worker assignment mechanic to be an intriguing idea.  Some provinces are better than others at certain tasks and this creates a sense of greater or lesser value to players who are facing different challenges.  A player who is flush with rice may not seek to heavily defend one of many food-producing provinces, but to the player in need it becomes a crucial target of opportunity.  Understanding the needs of your enemies lets one better predict where defense is needed most or where an attack can be most devastating.  Truly a great addition to the game!

The cube tower is something else.  It is simultaneously the best and worst part of Shogun.  I love the novelty.  I love the sense of excitement as the cubes are thrown in to the tower.  I love the drama it creates about whether one should even engage in combat due to a player’s hidden strength.  I dislike the insanely unpredictable outcomes.  A player may only plan at most 12 attacks over the course of the game and must therefore make everyone count.  It is extremely difficult to do that when one has no idea how many cubes will fall through and ho many others will be knocked out.  I could literally attack one army with ten and wind up losing.  Sure, I have cubes stored up for later, but what if that was the battle I had to win and the one later is irrelevant?  It creates outcomes that are impossible to plan for and that is not something to be praised in a strategy game such as Shogun.

I am not afraid of player elimination games.  Most board games I grew up playing had it as one of their primary tenets.  What I do dislike are games that make it quite apparent that a player will not win, but he is still stuck in the game.  This is not out of some misguided sense of sympathy towards the defeated player, but a concern for the players who still have a chance.  A player with no chance may just decide to play kingmaker, randomly attack a player who is within range because watching cubes go into the is more exciting than awaiting your fate patiently.  A defeated player who remains in the game will definitely have some impact on the game and this can prevent the best player from winning due to no fault of his own.  I prefer games that give a player a clean death and prevent the temptation to impact the game one way or another.

Lastly, are the dreadful rules for starting set up.  The base rules are far too random, and many of the alternative ones that payers have invented are not much better.  In our game Steve was pretty much eliminated by his starting position and fortunately was a good enough sport to simply try to do the best he could for the remainder of the game.  Unfortunately, many gamers are not so noble and could easily ruin the entire game by their unhappiness with their starting position.  Sadly, I do not know how to fix the situation.  Too little randomness and players all turtle along the edges.  Too much randomness and some players start with an awesome power base while others are domed.  I strongly feel that if someone were able to solve this issue then Shogun would be one of my absolute favorites,

In conclusion, I rate Shogun a 7.5 out of a possible 10.  Despite its flaws, Shogun remains a high quality game.  If only it cold deal with the set up situation it would climb into the upper echelon of my games.  Shogun presents its players with a diverse array of challenges that force them to make agonizing decisions with far less than perfect knowledge.  It is good fun of the variety that makes your brain sweat!


If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Shogun please consider Circle City Games.

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