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Review: Sun Tzu

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The historical Sun Tzu once said, “All warfare is based on deception.”  Today, he might say the same thing about card games.  Bluffing and misdirection have always been critical in both warfare and card play.  And so the game Sun Tzu is a good mesh of both the man’s military philosophies and good old traditional cards.  After all, every great card game requires you to read your opponent’s mind as the ancient general would say is true of war.  You need to know when to strike, know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  Wait a minute?  I think I just established that Kenny Rogers is a direct descendant of Sun Tzu?

How to Play

Sun Tzu pits two players as opposing generals contending for control of China during the poetically labeled Spring and Autumn period.  Although to be honest the theme is completely moot concerning gameplay.  The design is a straight up vying game in which opponents play cards of varying strengths to five different provinces to achieve victory through area control.

Both generals have an identical deck of 20 action cards and start with those numbered 1-6.  The remaining 14 cards are shuffled and each player draws four to complete their starting hand.  You’ll also select one of five Warlord cards which gives you a special power to use during the game.

A romance of only two kingdoms.
A romance of only two kingdoms.

Every round – the game consists of nine – you will play a card face down to each region on the board.  When both players are done, you’ll reveal the pair of cards in each region, one-by-one.  After all five battles are resolved, players discard all cards played except for the value 1-6 cards which they retain.  Then they draw two more and pick one to keep, placing the other back beneath their draw pile.

For the most part the commander who played the larger value to that region wins that battle.  Then a number of troops will be added and/or removed based on the difference in strength of the two action cards.  For example, if Red controls Chu with one unit and played a 5 to the region while Blue played a 2, the Red player adds another three armies to the province.  If the victor of a battle does not currently govern that state, then you’ll remove the owner’s armies based on difference in strength until they’re eliminated – and then you may start adding your own pieces to make up the difference.

Half of the cards are pure strength cards valued 1-10.  However, the rest are special cards.  The -1 card, very much as it sounds, is worth exactly one less value than whatever your opponent played.  Some others switch that positively to offer up a +1, +2, and even +3 above what your adversary committed.  There’s also a Plague card which kills off half of the armies stationed in the province to which it’s played.  It also effectively cancels out whatever your foe assigned.  Finally, there are a couple of special rules with the ‘1’ and ‘6’ cards.  With the former, you may draw three cards at the end of the round and keep two.  With the latter, you may only play it once per territory, marking its use with one of your army units next to that region’s scoring meter.

Scoring is as easy as 1-2-3!
Scoring is as easy as 1-2-3!

Of course the goal of Sun Tzu is to earn points, which you win by controlling provinces after rounds 3 and 6, as well as the end of the game.  Territories are worth varying points as designated by triangular placards.  The game includes ten of these, from which you randomly draw five and assign to each area.  These then exhibit how many points the provinces are worth during each scoring phase.  They are nifty 3-D displays (some assembly required) so that you can conveniently rotate them after a scoring round for easy reference as to the next round’s value.

The method of calculating scores is similar to battle resolution.  During a scoring phase, both generals count up their points from controlled provinces.  Whoever has the most earns a number of points equal to the difference in score and moves the point marker than many spaces along the track towards them.  If one player is able to accumulate nine points over the first two scoring rounds, she wins automatically.  Otherwise, you continue for the final three rounds.

After all, as Sun Tzu once said, “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him.”  He may not have been talking about points in a board game, but he might as well have been…

Committing your forces in secret.
Committing your forces in secret.

Epic Battle or Wee Skirmish?

Sun Tzu also said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  Which is quite apropos for a card game which only simulates war.  And trust me, I’m resisting the urge to throw around all kinds of other quotes from the strategist’s seminal masterpiece.  In Sun Tzu the game, you’re not really fighting as in a clash of steel or rolling of dice.  It feels more subtle and calculating.  You’re trying to read your opponent, guess what his next move is and make your own while trying to throw him off.  It feels like poker.

The theme here is actually fascinating.  While completely irrelevant to gameplay, it nonetheless perfectly sets the tone.  Ancient warfare was very often a cat-and-mouse affair as two military minds pitted themselves against each other.  It was one of maneuver and surprise, as much as stand-offs and bluffing.  The tie-in with Sun Tzu and his Art of War allows Newman to instill these motifs with appropriate quotes throughout the action cards.  While certainly not life-and-death struggles with the fate of nations on the line, card games still exude the same ideas as you strategically dance with an opponent across the table.

The Battle of Chu. Well, one of nine of them, at least...
The Battle of Chu. Well, one of nine of them, at least…

So how does Sun Tzu represent these elements?

As far as maneuver, there’s actually quite a bit more movement on and off, and even around, the map then one might first presume.  It’s true you can inadvertently – or on purpose – pile up multiple units in one province which may be effectively stranded.  However, troops will be shifting in and out of territories based on the outcome of battles.  There is even a form of area movement.  If you run out of troops in your reserve in order to place your quota of troops after a victory, then you must shift a number of minis from other provinces to fully resolve the battle’s result.

There’s also the Plague card which can really thin out a region, and which you may consider using on yourself!  You see, units are finite in this game.  While you can move them around on the board if you have nothing in reserve, that sort of area movement is heavily dependent on the order in which each province is resolved – and that’s not always in your control.  It depends on which player has the fewest troops on the map each round.  So if you find a ton of yours idly sitting around in a territory while running short on troops overall, you could use the Plague to take half of them back into your supply.    There are also a few Warlord powers that allow you to move a troop around, but the bulk of movement results from combat.

Every great commander should consider an array of options.
Every great commander should consider an array of options.

There are also opportunities to spring surprises on your foe.  Especially in the early game.  Since they’re never discarded, you always have access to the action cards valued 1-6, and you’re both keenly aware of this fact.  However, who knows as to when any of the other 14 cards will come out – and even be played.  One really rewarding tactic is to play the Plague in a region your enemy has figured you’ve long ceded.  Then after his forces have been decimated, try moving in with that 10 value card, hoping to pull the massive swing!  Of course, you need to take advantage of those types of moves when sprung because once you commit your special cards, they’re done for the game and your opponent will make the mental note. So it can be kind of like a one shot.  That’s tensely riveting.  And it fits with the ancient warfare theme as well.  It’s often do or die once you start showing your hand and revealing your plans!

Running stand-offs are also common.  Those regions where you know both of you are all-in, or nearly so, and you don’t really care that your intentions are known.  This can typically happen in provinces coming up with a high score – and aren’t heavily controlled.  In those scenarios you may be able to use brute strength with high value action cards or even the +1, +2 and +3 special cards, either retaining control or totally flipping the region’s ownership.  However, if you don’t already have a significant upper hand and/or the cards to achieve it, you’ll need to decide if committing the strength is worth it.  Perhaps yielding that region and making up for its loss with control in multiple others would be more fruitful?  In either case, these situations expose a downside inherent in every card game: randomness, or luck of the draw.  The special cards particularly can be very much situational, so there’s some evident give and take with their usefulness.  And since they’re discarded, misuse can prove wasteful.

Every great commander also has a distinction.
Every great commander also has a distinction.

Finally we come to bluffing, which really defines the heart and soul of a great card game.  It’s also related to the other elements.  In order to work the board’s movement in your favor, pull off a big surprise or win a major stand-off, you’ll likely have to use some misdirection.  Sun Tzu makes bluffing even more fun and crazy by changing the values of each province every scoring round.  So the areas you invest in fort the first three rounds might be different from those in the game’s second and third periods.  This creates very fluid play ripe for bluffing.  You can feign interest in one province, but come in strong later.  Maybe pretend you’re interested in another area hoping he’ll overcommit to it and waste good cards.  All the while, you have to figure out what your opponent is planning to do in not one, but five areas.  More than once you’ll stair across the board at what he’s just laid down as Vizzini’s cautionary “Clearly I cannot choose the glass of wine in front of me” runs through your head.  One nice thing in this design is that a poor choice in one place doesn’t necessarily ruin your entire strategy, as can happen in other bluffing games.

You will sink your game, though, by frequently misjudging your opponent.  Sun Tzu is tight and focused enough that it not only creates a tense and calculating experience, but heightens it at the same time.  That’s because there aren’t a lot of decisions in the game – after all you play five cards for nine rounds.  So those decisions are important enough that each one matters, and even grows exponentially so.  Still it all works out in about a half an hour, thus meeting one of the requirements to be designated as a filler.  I believe it meets them all.  And it’s a good one.

Momentuous events...eh, that may or may not occur.
Momentuous events…eh, that may or may not occur.

In effort to provide a little variability and depth to what is essentially a minimalized design, Sun Tzu also provides the aforementioned Warlord cards and also five Event cards.  Both of these mechanics are a mixed bag.  Each general has their own set of five unique Warlord cards to pick from.  However, a few seem stronger than others.  It’s not really enough to give the contest any sort of asymmetrical angle.  The Event cards are shuffled to begin the game and then placed in a stack from which you reveal the top card.  Each card describes a unique outcome once a certain condition is met.  The problem is that certain conditions may never occur in a particular session.  So they often just sit there, teasing you, never affecting play whatsoever.  I’m not sure Sun Tzu ever said anything about taunting?

The components are immediately eye-catching.  Indeed, they’re even over-the-top, but I certainly won’t complain!  When set-up the plastic miniature units are probably the first to draw notice.  Even though this quick-playing title is nothing like a dudes-on-a-map game, kudos to Matagot for going above and beyond the usual wooden cubes or cardboard tokens.  The scoring placards also fall into the gratuitous category, but are still innovative, attractive and intuitive.  The board serves its function perfectly.  The color palate is laid-back and the artwork is done very well in sort of a traditional style.  The only criticism could be the stereotypical font.  However, while hackneyed, I’m not sure it would be considered offensive.  Beyond those graphic elements, the only unfortunate drawback to the components is that the plastic minis and fancy 3-D placards drive up the price beyond what many would pay for a filler, no matter how fun and tactically-challenging it is.

gratuitous (adj.): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted, yet much appreciated!
gratuitous (adj.): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted, yet much appreciated!

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” may sound like something Kenny Rogers said, but no, it was actually Sun Tzu (and the last quote I’ll use, promise).  That’s what Sun Tzu the game is about, too.  Knowing where to commit strength, when to walk softly and when to try and delay your enemy is at the heart of this taut, well-paced filler.  While not about grand strategy or bold moves, though you can certainly pull some fun surprises, Sun Tzu is about reading your foe and getting into his head so that you can simultaneously read it and mess with it.  For as that ancient general once said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”  Okay, one last quote…so I lied.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing a review copy of Sun Tzu.

Once more unto the breach?

  • Rating 8.0
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Summary

Pros:
Feels familiar, yet still unique
Creates tense showdown
Very player driven with luck minimally in background
Simple filler, deep head-to-head play

Cons:
Event cards not as impactful
Warlord cards mixed bag
Gratuitous components drive up price

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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