I'll set the scene. The year is 2007. I'd just graduated from University and was busy trying to find a 'proper' job. In between looking for work, I needed a fun activity to bolster my spirit after the inevitable interview rejections. Hmmm, what to do? Then it hit me. Board gaming! I had always played games, but they tended to be of a more traditional 'family' style, you know, Monopoly and the like. It was time to branch out and get something a bit meatier, so to speak.
A daunting second choice for sure!
I've always been an avid comic book reader and the local comic shop in Guildford, which has now unfortunately closed down, also sold board games. The first board game I bought was actually Railroad Tycoon and after myself and four friends started a regular gaming session, we were hungry for more. What next I wondered?
I then discovered the BoardGameGeek website and was introduced to terms like, game mechanics, ameritrash games, Euro games, gateway games and heavyweights. It seemed strange then having only just started my gaming odyssey, that the second game I bought was a fairly heavyweight euro game which, if you've persevered long enough to get to this part of the review, you will have gathered was Shogun.
Get to the review you fool!
Okay, okay. I'm not going to verbalise the entire rule book here as that would be a bit boring and to be honest you really want to hear about how it plays, whether it's good or not and just what the hell is that big cardboard tower thingy? Anyway, you can probably download a copy of the rules online if necessary.
16th Century feudal Japan....it's the place to be
Your name is Takeda Shingen. You rule your territories with an iron fist. You tax your people to the limit and confiscate rice with gleeful abandon. You build luxurious temples and castles and consider yourself the premier Daimyo of the era. But wait, the vultures are circling.
Hashiba Hideyoshi, a rival warlord, has built up his army and is threatening your borders. As you send your forces to confront him, disaster strikes. Attack! Your rear guard is left open and as you struggle to repel invaders your temples and castles fall into enemy hands.
This is just a taste of what awaits you in a game of Shogun.
Get to the action already!
The game takes place over two years each of which has four game rounds (seasons), during which you'll perform actions. Scoring takes place twice, once at the end of each year. After you've slugged it out, battered the other players, raised and destroyed buildings and often times cried into your noodle soup, the player with the most points is declared SHOGUN!
After an initial province drafting system, each player will end up with 7-9 areas that they can then start performing actions with. To quote everyone's favourite space smuggler, this is where the fun begins! You take your province cards and lay them face down on your game board. The board represents actions, some of which include, 'build a castle' (which costs three treasure chests as seen in the top left action space), 'collect taxes', 'reinforce armies' and of course 'WAR!'.
Some provinces are better suited for certain action types so one might be great for confiscating rice or one might let you build multiple buildings etc. After everyone has placed their cards, all 10 actions are performed. "Is this not just a boring rinse-and-repeat situation?" I hear you ask. No my non-samurai friends, for this is where we get one of my favourite game mechanics.
The carnage and unpredictability of blind-bidding-worker-placement-bluffing (to be honest that might be a made up mechanic but I stand by it). The order of the 10 actions is randomised each round but interestingly before placing your cards only the order of the first five is revealed with the remaining five laying face down like a wild boar in the grass waiting to pounce (hmmm, do boar pounce? Answers on a postcard).
Dilemma! The build army and war actions are not revealed in the first five, meaning I don't know whether one will come before the other. Do I have Izumo strengthen it's forces? The trouble is, if war is revealed before Build Army, Izumo might get attacked before I get a chance to play it's action. Aarrgghh, it's not easy being a despotic warlord! Matters are further complicated by a blind bid each round that determines turn order.
Below, we can see each warlord's card which represents turn order (yellow being first and red being last) and the benefits that come with each (extra money etc). We can also see how the board might look after some building has been done.
What goes in....doesn't always come out
"Battle tower, battle tower, battle tower!" That's the chant that goes round the table of our gaming group as war is declared and armies prepare to duke it out. It doesn't mention it in the rule book that you need to shout it, but I feel it should be compulsory. As if you hadn't guessed by now, war plays a big part in the game and yet another cool mechanic is how war is waged and winners determined.
Below, we see Tosa about to invade Awa-Shikoku. One of the blue armies must be left behind but the other three are scooped up along with the three defending red armies and dumped into the tower. In all it's wisdom and guile, or in reality physics, the tower spits out the results and declares a winner and loser (in some cases there is mutual destruction. Boom!).
Whoa, six go in......and three come out! (image two). Now we compare results, one red and blue offset each other and are discarded leaving just one remaining red army which returns to Awa-Shikoku having successfully defended the province. However, this result means that two blues are still lurking in the tower, waiting to strike during future wars. Sneaky ninjas if you will. I love it!
Final Thoughts on Shogun
There's a lot more to cover but I think I'll just let you know my feelings on this game.
Shogun is a great game that when it hits the table still elicits the same responses of giddy joy (*cough cough* I mean thunderous war cries). The gameplay is tight and has that oh-so-great balance of the player wanting to do multiple things but only being able to do some.
Replay-ability is massive due to the fact that the board is double-sided, bringing whole new mapping of regions plus the turn order, season bonuses and order of action spaces are randomised every round. This may sound too random for some (I had a friend who use to hate any game that involved dice of any kind as he hated randomness. He's chilled on that since then!) but in reality, the player is given a hint of what to expect and thus can plan and mitigate to some degree.
As for the components, sure not everything is wooden as there are cardboard tokens to represent buildings and peasant revolts (oh yeah baby, we didn't even touch on those!) but they are good quality and if you need to upgrade, I believe Queen Games have produced a version with full wooden components. I don't think they are necessary though.
If I had to pick holes, I'd say five-player games can be a bit brutal. As each player only get seven provinces, if one player gets picked on then it can be a case of 'no way back' and as the game can go long, that can make it an uphill struggle with no hope in sight. This doesn't seem to be the case in three or four player games though.
Leading on from there is the fact that Shogun is a fairly long game and you'll need to reserve at least two and a half hours - although it will be time well spent. The beginning set-up of choosing provinces can take 30 minutes alone although, again, it's a part of the game that helps to create tension and early hostilities.
To sum it up, the following picture isn't a comment on the quality of the materials Queen Games use for their boxes, more so the amount of times my copy has hit the table. And that means lots and lots. Take from that what you will.