Artist: Michael Menzel
Publisher: Queen Games
I played Wallenstein many moons ago when I first got into Euros. It was a thrill. I remember the game was long but I was very engaged throughout. I distinctly remember intense fighting for territories that had lots of structures and the hooting and hollering of cubes tumbling down the tower. It was good times all around. More than a decade and many many games later, Shogun, a reimplementation of Wallenstein finally made it to our table. Truth is, I have owned a copy of Shogun for the longest time without really making an effort to get it tabled. I kept it at arm’s length because Shogun comes closest to a dudes-on-the-map war game which is not a staple of my group. Moreover, simultaneous programming as a mechanism is also not something high on my list. That said, I recall having fun with Wallenstein and had high hopes for Shogun.
In Shogun, players are Daimyos controlling different parts of Japan, eyeing to conquer as many valuable territories as possible and scoring VPs in the process. Scoring is simple. In winter season for each of the two years of game play, players score one point for each territory controlled, and one point for each building (theater, temple or castle) that resides in the controlled territories. Finally, territories are grouped into regions and holding a majority of a particular type of building per region will also score points. For a game like this, I love that the scoring is simple and not multi-category, point salad scoring as per most Euros.
The main mechanism of Shogun is programming not unlike RoboRally or Edo. Programming feels like a mechanism from a bygone era as you don’t really come across it much these days, for a good reason. Much of programming relies on being able to guess what your opponents are planning to do and when exactly they are going to do it. One must assess the board, look at the resources available and decide what actions to perform in reaction to potential threats, real or imagined from other players. This means as you program your moves, you are basing your decisions on partial information from the game state, and sometimes, you can get it wrong. Very wrong.
There are 10 actions in Shogun and in the beginning of each season, all the actions are laid out so that players know the sequence in which the actions will occur. Unfortunately, only the first five actions are displayed face up, and the final five are faced down, giving players only partial information to program their moves. Each player then distribute their territory cards to corresponding actions – and not every territory has to perform an action, before carrying out their actions in turn order according to the sequence determined by the initial layout each season. Turn order is also determined during programming with players putting down different money cards to compete for turn order slots and the benefits that come with those slots.
Players start with 8 territories in which to perform the actions. Since only one card is used to represent a territory, each territory can only perform one action per season. The actions are straightforward: construct a theater for 1 gold, construct a temple for 2 gold, construct a castle for 3 gold, recruit 5 army unit for 3 gold, recruit 3 army units for 2 gold, recruit one army unit and move units from that territory for 1 gold, confiscate rice, levy taxes and finally send your troops for battle (2x). With these actions, players will prep their territories either for battle, construction or harvest resources in terms of rice and gold.
The harvesting of resources is very thematic. Taxation yields gold critical for operational expenses while rice is needed to feed the territories during winter. Importantly, both actions cause local unrest. If these actions are performed more than once per territory, the farmers will revolt and players would have to put down the revolt lest they lose the territory completely. Very thematic. At the end of the year, rice must be sent out to each territory and additional rice must be put aside based on event cards that appear. Failure to do so will also trigger a revolt. So, the game not only focuses on player versus player battles, but also managing the local populace.
Quelling a revolt and initiating battle between territories employ a cube tower system in place of dice. This tower system is likely where the game either gains or loses fans. Cubes representing armies or farmers from territories involved in a battle will be deposited in a tower. Not all cubes put in will exit the tower and some will stay in the tower and come out in subsequent battles. Importantly, cubes not involved in a battle will stay in the tray and put back in to the tower each time the tower is used. In this way, cubes are not lost randomly and only assessed in the battles they are involved in. The winner of the battle is a simple majority of the cubes belonging to either defender or attacker with the victor subtracting the difference in losses and placing the remaining armies back on the territories. Farmers can sometimes participate on behalf of defenders if the territory in battle has no unrest. Nice touch. A tie is costly as it represents mutual destruction with the territory reverting to neutral status along with complete loss of all structures previously built in that region.
The cube tower device is likely the most controversial mechanism for the game. It introduces randomness in that cubes that exit the tower don’t always match the inputs. While most of the time, the expected outcome matches the relative number of cubes going into the tower, there will be surprises. The tower introduces randomness not always compatible from a Euro gamer perspective in that the outcomes are not predetermined. For every surprise battle lost, the cubes from the loser remaining in the tower will likely aid in the next battle. To me, this is perhaps a version of rolling dice with an added temporal dimension. Crudely speaking, If the attacker rolls 8 dice representing 8 cubes, some of these dice may end up never used in this battle, but will be employed in future battles. Overall, there is no doubt the cube tower represents some amount of chaos and randomness that will exceed the tolerance limits of some Euro style gamers.
That’s it in a nutshell for Shogun. As the seasons progress over the course of two years, players will bulk up their defenses and launch attacks to take over certain territories that are resource rich (not all territories will produce same amount of rice and money) and poorly defended. Since structures yield immediate and area majority points, territories with a lot of these structures are tempting targets for take over. Of course, they will also heavily defended. The game only allows two battles per season and so, this is not really a “war game” in the traditional sense. Instead, Shogun is a balance between construction to secure majorities, defending specific territories and launching attacks when it makes sense to do so. In a way, it’s a Euro game wrapped in a war game theme.
Shogun/Wallenstein has a solid fan base and probably an equal number of people who will never touch it again. There are tangible and clear reasons for why folks would dislike the game. Apart from the cube tower, the programming can be a frustrating exercise. The temporal sequence of events is critical for execution and no where is that more evident than in taxation. Many actions require money and if the taxation event comes late in the season, then many of the actions cannot be completed if you run out of money. Timing or guessing the appearance of specific actions can be annoying. Predicting your opponents moves can also be tough as you end up preparing defenses for counterattacks that never materialize or worse still, getting attacked or scooped for an attack for a specific territory. However, all these chaotic elements can also be part of Shogun’s appeal. Players who love this genre or not bothered by some of these less predictable outcomes will embrace the chaotic elements of the game and go with the flow. Euro gamers are often fixated with making the best possible decisions without resorting to random elements or non-player derived variables. In other words, luck of the roll. No-luck or Low luck games are prized and Shogun definitely does not fit this description.
Ultimately, I feel that Shogun and Wallenstein is the type of game that you either love or hate depending on how you approach the game. It is a light war game of sorts that require you to relinquish some measure of control and to make decisions based on partial information. The game can obviously be played without direct player v player conflict where only neutral territories are conquered. That would be a boring game. Instead, the game can shine if all players embrace some of the randomness, making decisions at a rapid pace so the game does not drag and accepting that the nature of partial programming and the cube tower can result in unpredictable outcomes. If you take this game seriously and over analyze every move, then the random generating mechanisms will result in a frustrating experience. Not everything is as random as it sounds, but enjoying Shogun does mean accepting these mechanistic limitations in the game and letting go of the occasional lopsided defeats that you are favored to win. After all, many real battles in history have been won over longer odds.
Initial impression: Average