This last weekend at Rodney Thompson’s birthday party, I played Shogun, a board game about warring states in feudal Japan. Not to be confused with the 1986 Milton Bradley version of Shogun, this game is a sophisticated war game that combines the territorial components of Risk, the resource and population management of a game like Puerto Rica, and a time progression scheme like Year of the Dragon. Shogun is probably not a game for the novice board game player.
I enjoyed components of Shogun, though unlike my fellow feudal-state warlords (Logan Bonner, Chris Tulach, Rodney Thompson, and “Doc”), I found the game to have a few too many fiddly components. Were it not for having someone who had played the game before explain the rules, I think I would have spent the first half of the game fumbling around.
The game plays roughly like this. Each player has a bunch of groups of population army markers that he or she assigns to different states on a map of feudal Japan. The starting locations are determined randomly, like in Risk. Once starting locations are established, each player assigns the cards associated with his or her regions to actions on a player board. These actions determine what action a person takes in each region, whether collecting rice, gathering taxes, adding population, attacking adjacent regions, constructing buildings, and so forth. Each player has an amount of money to spend on these actions. A player can also use the money to bid on turn order (which also determines which of five special actions he or she can take during a given game round). The players then go through all the actions on their player boards (based on the initiative order they bid for), taking the actions as prescribed by a randomized track. For example, one round, the track might have tax collecting be the first action, followed by battle and then building. Another turn, battle might take place first, followed by collecting rice and then another battle. After four times through this randomized track, players count up victory points based on the number of territories they control and buildings they’ve constructed. At the mid-way point and end of the game, a player must also make sure that he or she has enough rice to feed the population or else rebellions crop up.
Sound like a lot to digest? It was. And I haven’t even talked about the battle component. The battle component is actually the most fun (and random) element of the game. Shogun comes with a tower, in which you place your population army markers along with your opponent’s markers (and sometimes the villager markers who fight against you). If you have more forces that come out the tower on the bottom, you win. The inside of the tower is designed to limit the flow of population markers, catching some of them each time.
I liked Shogun because it was faster and a little more complicated than Risk. Shogun also seemed less likely than Risk to have a player eliminated in the first twenty minutes of the game. Despite the randomizing element of the tower, I felt like Shogun depended on less dice luck than a typical Risk game.
Unfortunately, the game seemed to be trying to accomplish a little too much. If I were to play the game again, I’d scrap the initiative bidding and instead use a rotating start position like Puerto Rica has (although that might risk upsetting the economy of the game, since it’s expected that people are spending money to bid for initiative). Also, I think I’d prefer to track victory points each round instead of only at the end of the fourth and eighth rounds (again, this would require some other adjustments in rules). Although we all knew that Tulach was in the lead due to a good starting position, it would have affected our strategy to see how far ahead he was. The victory point track in the game is a little pointless. I expect VP tracks in games where the point totals are constantly changing and affecting the game. In Shogun, that was not the case. The other aspect of the game I’d like to eliminate is the way in which rice is compared to population, although I’m not sure how exactly to make it work, since maintaining rice production is a core component of the game. The possibility of rebellion breaking out in your provinces is a cool piece of simulationism, but I think it could be streamlined, maybe by just losing all your units in one of your rebellious provinces, rather than having to resolve battles in each of those locations.
The last thing I would like to see change is the method for determining starting location. Starting locations were determined by each player either by drawing from one of two face-up cards or from the top of a face-down region deck. This method gave Chris Tulach a serious advantage throughout the game (and ultimately one for which none of us could catch up). I was the closest to him at the mid-way point of the game when we stopped, and I was still behind by three or four victory points—which in Shogun is a large margin. I think perhaps only having one face-up card might limit a player’s ability to dominate one area of the map.
(I’m in the middle playing purple; Chris was blue; Rodney was yellow; Logan was black; Doc was red—and preventing me from attack blue!)
Having learned the rules, I’d enjoy playing Shogun again. However, it is not for the faint of heart. Unless you enjoy war games to at least some degree, I recommend steering clear of Shogun and choosing a more traditional resource management game.