A review of Shogun

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A review of Shogun

Post  steveygee on Wed 12 Nov 2014, 15:54

Hello all. Taking up Darkmeeple's challenge, here's a review I wrote on BGG a while ago about one of my fave games.

Shogun is a game of conflict set in feudal Japan. Players will vie for control of the map and improve the territories they hold, whilst ensuring they can gather enough food to prevent the peasants rising up against them in their own territories during the 2 winter periods in the game.

Each turn, players will use each of the provinces they control to perform one of 10 actions. The more provinces you have, the more actions you can take but it’s not this simple as many of the actions also require gold, which is in short supply. On top of this, each province adds to the amount of food you need at the end of each year. To add to the brain burn further, if you have a province placed on an action and you can afford to take that action then you must do so. To make life easier you also have five bid cards that are used to bid for turn order, but can also be placed on an action to pass on it.

Roughly, the actions are divided into four types, building, reinforcing, collecting resources and attacking/moving . Building one of the three types of building costs gold depending on the value the building adds to the province. You build in the province whose card you used to take the action. Similarly, the three reinforcement actions will cost gold based on the number of troops you get and you get them in the province corresponding to the card used. You can collect gold and rice from the provinces you place on these 2 spaces, taking the amount shown on the province card. However this will add a revolt marker to the province. Raise taxes or collect rice from 1 province too many times and the peasants will revolt resulting in a battle against your own people. Using the attack spaces allow you to move troops from the province used to an adjacent province, resulting in a fight if it is controlled by an opponent or if no one has taken it yet.

The order in which these actions are resolved is random and determined by the shuffling and dealing out of 10 cards by the side of the board, 5 face up and 5 face down. This means that when players are planning their turns they know which actions will be happening for the next five turns but no further, resulting in some interesting decisions about how to order your turn.

Unlike most games in this style, fighting is not resolved by rolling dice or playing cards. Instead players will use The Tower. Each player will be recruiting and moving around the map a supply of coloured cubes. When a battle takes place, the attacker takes the cubes he’s attacking with along with the cubes his opponent has in the region to defend and throws the whole lot down The Tower. Cubes that make it to the bottom of The Tower are counted up and whoever has the most of their colour left wins.

The Tower stands at the edge of the board, a silent arbiter of victory, casting it’s dispassionate eye over each battle and pronouncing the success or failure of any maneuver. At times, you will be convinced The Tower hates you, as you pour more and more troops into its gaping maw and watch in vain for them to appear victorious at the base, only for them to remain hidden somewhere in its enigmatic interior. At the moment when you are most convinced of The Towers unending and undeserved enmity toward you, it will finally relent and pour your troops forth in a glorious shower of coloured cubes. What strange machinations are at work inside The Tower? Is it a portal to another dimension? Does it contain micro circuitry that instantly determines the optimum outcome to each battle? Is it a living thing whose mood swings are so frequent and unpredictable that one can never be sure if it is, at that moment, friend or foe? Or is it a series of small ledges placed in such a way that some cubes get stuck and some fall through to the bottom, perhaps knocking out others as they go, meaning that if you pay attention you can work out the best moment to strike based on the number of your cubes that have been put in the tower and not come out, adding an extra piece of information to take into account when making these decisions? Perhaps this is a question no human was ever meant to know the answer to.

At the end of the first year and again at the end of the game players score points based on the number of provinces they control and for buildings erected in those provinces. This tends to encourage a much more bloody second half, as people try to steal the most valuable improved territories from one another.

Shogun is a heavy, complex game with a play length that can stretch to three hours+ with slower or new players. Generally, people will not really know what they’re doing until after the first scoring phase and by this point other players will probably have left them behind. The action selection process results in the table falling silent for 10 minutes as players plan, re-plan and agonise over decisions. A player who gets a good setup, usually meaning he consolidates his strength at one end of the map, will be in a great position, particularly if his neighbours are too cautious with their troops.

What does it offer in return for these issues? A rich, satisfying experience that rewards careful planning, strategic thinking and good timing. It provides excellent emergent narrative as Daimyo’s build up their power, expand their influence, make enemies and are brought low by revolting peasants. It produces brilliant episodes of brinkmanship, as players build up huge forces, to protect their fragile borders from the equally huge force being built up by an opponent, who only started raising that army to protect his own borders. Both players are now locked in a mutually detrimental arms race that was never necessary in the first place. They stare at each other across their lines, not wanting to be the first to blink in the face of the slaughter that is inevitable. It allows for fantastic tactical maneuvers, as a player takes the limited mobility options for his troops and turn them into a daring forced march across Japan, building the strength of his army as he goes before storming across a border that, at the beginning of the turn seemed to be a perfectly harmless frontier.

Positives:

Rich gameplay with a lot of decisions to be made. A system of action selection that creates a real sense of tension every time you finish your planning. A unique combat system (almost, see Wallenstein (second edition)) that offers a different take on the fog of war from the usual die roll. Rewards multiple plays. Emergent story that leads to great moments of drama.

Negatives:

Long playtime. Periods of silence as everyone huddles around their own set of cards, planning for the turn ahead. If you have any propensity towards Analysis Paralysis, you should probably steer clear as much for your groups sake as your own. The tower can, on occasion, turn a crushing superiority of numbers into defeat for no good reason. It can be fiddly and there are a lot of rules to remember.

Conclusion:

Shogun is one of my all time favorite games. I love the seeding of the board at the beginning, the way you can see pockets of strength and areas of weakness emerging. I love the planning phase, juggling the tactical needs of the situation on the map, with the strategic objectives of scoring points and feeding the populace. I love the fighting, taking dozens of cubes and pouring them down that plastic funnel is just satisfying and watching them spill from the bottom, holding your breath and praying for the right result is just fun. Shogun isn’t for everyone. It’s length and complexity are made worse by the long periods of downtime between rounds as everyone figures out what to do next. The sheer amount of process involved in each turn can be a drag. The rules are so complex that you’ll forget something most games and have to check the book, which isn’t laid out very well for referencing, at least to my mind. But the feeling when a plan you’ve been working towards for three turns finally comes together and you look at the board and realise that it’s worked makes any other problems fade into the background. Shogun feels like a challenge and it offers a sense of achievement that few other games can match. Equally, losing can feel like a punch in the gut but usually that is tempered by admiration at your opponents plan.

Unless the tower screwed you. But who can decipher the will of the Gods?
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Re: A review of Shogun

Post  PaulC on Fri 14 Nov 2014, 07:42

Nice review, SteveyG - sounds like a game I would like.
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