The evening breeze whips chillingly over the foothills of Shinano’s peaks. As I stare off into the dark and distant bleakness, my thoughts are consumed with the bitter irony that, tomorrow, the destiny of so many rests upon the outcome of a battle in the rock and snow of a forgotten world. I have marched my army to this desolate, unwanted place because I’m told that is what I’m to do. I have brought my noble men here because the honor of my Yukinaga family demands it. Because my master Shogun depends on it. So we wait. And while the next day will bring fire and screams and clash of steel, tonight all is quiet. In fact, all seems too quite. Squinting to peer deeper into the brush I hold my breath. Wait! Who goes there? Oh, no, alarm! It’s a ninj–
How it Plays
For several reasons, I won’t bore you with an exhaustive, straight-up rules breakdown. Shogun (aka Samurai Swords, now aka Ikusa) is nearly 30 years old. Those three decades have provided ample opportunity for others to re-hash the rulebook. And while it’s not necessarily a mind-numbingly complicated game, there are still plenty of quirks and chrome and finicky details. Nor is it a novice’s endeavor. Plus my friends and I played with so many house rules back in the day, I’m afraid of mixing up some of the smaller peculiarities; thus risk heaping down calamitous wrath upon my head from die-hard fans for missing any particulars. War gamers can be like that.
Suffice it to say, Samurai Swords is EPIC. Sweeping across a wide open map of Japan with legions of plastic armies and falling dice, players must channel their inner Kurosawa and Watanabe – or since this is a clunky, ostentatious, bloated, old-style American game, rather they should channel their inner Chamberlain and Cruise. It is a traditional “dudes-on-a-map” game in every sense of the phrase. Its massive board and sprawling miniatures craft an impressive visual. Its endless fiddliness and muddled strategy eat up just as impressive an amount of clock.
Portraying vying Shogun’s in Japan’s tumultuous Warring States Period (c. 1467-1603), players seek to unite enough of the divided country to form the semblance of their own shogunate. Beginning with an even number of troops and territories, competing warlords will battle over provinces to consolidate their power and earn koku, a monetary unit equivalent to the amount of rice to feed one man for a year; also the game’s currency.
Each turn, players secretly allocate their budget of koku to one of five departments: turn order bid, construction of fortifications, levying troops, hiring mercenaries, or bidding for the ninja’s services, in order to spy on the enemy or assassinate one of his daimyos.
Daimyo’s are very important. You start with three of them and each one leads an army. These armies are the heart of Samurai Swords. While regular troops stationed throughout the provinces may still move and fight, these provincial forces are limited to 5 units per territory. Your armies, however, may hold up to 15 units each and their generals actually gain experience for victories, which increases their mobility and offensive reach. Units in the army are placed on a separate army board, with a banner to track its experience. A matching banner standee then designates its actual movement and location on the board. These corps will conduct the bulk of your campaigning.
There are six different unit types: daimyos, bowmen, swordsmen, gunners, spearman, and rōnin – mercenary swordsmen who’ll join your cause one turn for the right price. As in most games of this nature, battles are resolved by throwing dice, but in this design they’re twelve-sided. Units score hits on different results. Bowmen and gunners always fire first, the former hitting on a roll of 6 or less, while gunners inflict damage on 4 or less. After casualties are removed from those volleys, then melee troops join the fray: daimyo’s (6 or less), swordsmen/rōnin (5), and then finally your lowly spearman, aka peasants with pointy sticks (4).
While diplomacy and negotiation will be necessary for a shogun to successfully emerge, victory can only be won militarily. So turn after turn, you spend money and fight battles, rinse and repeat, wax on, wax off. War rages across the land until one warlord amasses enough provinces to win, the target number determined by number of combatants.
The Katana Mightier Than the Pen?
Samurai Swords – first titled Shogun when released in 1986, but renamed to not tick off James Clavell – was the last of old Milton Bradley’s infamous Gamemaster Series. Milt was a swell guy, who was apparently rather fond of large games. Yeah, okay, so maybe the Milton Bradley wasn’t responsible for this one – I think he may actually have lived during the time period the game depicts. The game was actually designed by another guy.
I wouldn’t necessarily say Samurai Swords and its Gamemaster brethren are “love/hate” types of games.
On second thought, never mind. Yes, I would.
You either love these beautiful behemoths. Or you hate them. Let’s face it. You’re not going to sit down and play a game that you “kind of like” for 6 hours plus. And while they certainly aren’t for everyone, there’s no doubt they have had an indelible impact on the hobby and are still popular and commercially successful even today. Axis & Allies has spawned nearly a dozen reprints, new editions, variants, and even a miniatures line. Meanwhile, Conquest of the Empire, Fortress America, and this very title have all been reprinted in the last decade. Then there was Broadsides and Boarding Parties, but like Episodes I, II, and III, let’s just pretend that one doesn’t exist.
Many people may compare Samurai Swords to the previous designs Risk and Axis & Allies. But that’s merely for the sake of a starting reference in order to place the game broadly within its genre to those who know nothing about it. Like both of those iconic titles, the goal is conquest with little miniature armies marching across big maps and rolling battalions of dice to fight battles. As in Risk there is no fixed geo-political setup, no permanent alliances, and your economy is based on the number of territories you own. Similar to Axis & Allies, movement is restricted, there are different units, and each type has variable costs and offensive power. Yet despite these over-arching similarities, this game plays much differently.
Samurai Swords revolves around armies. Like any dudes-on-a-map game, you can still use your scattered and individual garrisons to battle and capture territory, but they’re slower and smaller. They cannot move prior to declaring battle and the 5-unit provincial force limit restricts their power. You’ll still conduct sporadic campaigns at opportune hotspots with these limited troops. More than likely, however, you’ll use them to feed your armies. That’s because not only is there a 5-unit limit per territory, but when levying troops you may only place one new unit per province, per turn. Thankfully, armies can freely pick up and drop off garrison troops while marching across the map, provided you don’t exceed the provincial or army force limits in the process. The more victories your general wins, the farther he can move, thus the faster he can swell his army’s ranks. And the more battles they can wage. Not only are they critical for their offensive capabilities, but as soon as you loose your third daimyo, you’re eliminated from the game!
So the design is about maximizing the effectiveness of your three daimyos. The random, generic setup and victory goal only highlight their significance. Rather than taking specific territorial objectives, you just need to grab as many provinces as you can get and adequately defend. Rather than presenting players with obvious strategies, it’s an open-ended flow of armies and fluid campaigning. There’s no “one strategy beats all,” or “you have to have Australia to win” type of scenario. Samurai Swords doesn’t really have any scripted moves, as in many other war games.
Quickly, you’ll want to win some cheap battles so that your generals gain experience. You need to recruit efficiently so that you can build directly into your armies, as well as levy reinforcements nearby with which to augment them further. And you need to keep them within supporting distance of each other – or at least a pair of them. Scattered holdings and divided forces are dangerous in most war and conquest games. In Samurai Swords, it’s ruinous.
If you can’t bring enough forces to bear quickly because of the region and levying limits, you can – and should whenever financially able – resort to rōnin. These mercenary soldiers are one of the more unique aspects of Samurai Swords which sets it apart from others in the genre. Their exact location is a secret. Rather than directly to the game board, you place the units on the province cards where you wish to assign them. Your opponents know how many you have and the number of provinces in which they’re divided, but they don’t know which territories those are. Until you reveal them when moving or battling with the relevant group. Rōnin also must obey a force limit, but it’s simply 1 less than the number of troops present in the territory in which you place them, and they ignore the 1 per territory levying restriction. So you can plop down a sizable contingent in one fell swoop. Even though these hired katanas drift away in the night, they can potentially double the size of an army for a crucial engagement. Even 5 or 6 employed effectively – on offense or defense – can absolutely devastate an unsuspecting or unprepared enemy.
Force limits, levying restrictions, and rōnin also combine with a few other elements to encourage attacks and really discourage turtling. Turtling is a delaying and baiting tactic in which one concentrates almost exclusively on heavy defense, piling up troops in one territory, while making little gains offensively. It generally slows a game down and frustrates other players. First off, the unit limit makes it logistically impossible to turtle in Samurai Swords. Even with an army, you can only build up so much. Second, the game’s defensive emplacements are nice, but certainly not unbreakable. Castles net the defender 4 bonus spearmen, while Fortified Castles grant 5 bonus rōnin. Not a tremendous advantage to the defender. Finally, the game’s victory condition discourages turtling. You need to conquer a target number of provinces to win, a goal unlikely accomplished by sitting around, waiting and watching. Opponents can simply march around you and onward to their victory.
Campaigning in this design is very different. It can be a bit confusing and fiddly and in some manner a little counter-intuitive. Generally conquest games involve grabbing a number of soldiers, sliding them into a territory, and staying there if they win or leaving if they decide to retreat. In Samurai Swords, you first may move armies, and only armies, a number of friendly territories up to the daimyo’s experience level. While provincial forces cannot move during this phase, armies may still pick them up as they march through, provided you always leave at least one to occupy a province. After these preliminary moves, then you declare battles by laying little round tokens with arrows on them pointing to the adjacent fiefs you wish to battle. If victorious, your troops don’t automatically move into them. When all the dust and gunpowder settles, then you conduct final movement. This time, garrisons may move and armies can again march up to the number of territories equal to a general’s experience, attaching and detaching units along the way.
Combat itself is a bit distinctive, as well. The use of twelve-sided dice is interesting. It’s a rarer choice to begin with and all units utilize them, rather than assigning different sided dice to represent varying unit strengths. However, it can also mean battles take some time. With no unit hitting better than 50/50, and then only bowmen and daimyos at that, you potentially will roll for several rounds. In large army vs. army battles in the game’s later stages, it’s a guarantee. The mechanism of ranged units firing first is also a fun inclusion that I’ve only seen in a few other games. It also tosses in some tricky tactical decisions. Do you take swordsmen and spearmen as casualties from that first volley to save your expensive bowmen? Or keep them to deliver their own blow in the melee round?
The nature of diplomacy is not unique to this design, but the “every man for himself” aspect is also not extremely common. Alliances are very fluid and non-binding. You’ll definitely want to shore up weak defenses and gang up against powerful leaders by making temporary pacts, mutual non-aggression treaties, other compromises, and outright alliances. The rules specifically allow them, but offer no structure in regards to crafting them. And nothing is binding, so beware! Some players and gaming groups may not prefer such Machiavellian and shifting negotiations. But the opportunity for political intrigue really enhances the game’s military end goal.
Another non-traditional element that compliments the design’s conquest-oriented nature is the economic phase. I like how there are interesting ways to spend your money, other than just buying troops. As far as I’m aware, Samurai Swords is one of the first games of this genre – maybe period – to allow bidding for turn order, something which you can really leverage to your advantage in gaining the initiative and forcing an opponent off his/her strategy and into one of reaction. Fortress construction is a fine way to strengthen defenses, bolster a weak point, or deter an attack with bonus troops. Mercenaries, as mentioned earlier, are a great way to get around the 1 unit per province levying limit. And finally there is the ninja.
The ninja is a sort of culmination of both the diplomatic and economic benefits that I just mentioned. As highest bidder for the shadowy assassin, you essentially hold a persuasive trump card in the political arena. You can use him to seal an alliance, force compliance, or deter aggression. And then you can turn around and stab that partner in the back – literally! Or, the influence on negations aside, the ninja can spy on your enemy’s economic plans next turn. Better yet, use him to assassinate an opposing daimyo. If successful, the murdered general’s army cannot move that round and must promote one of its bowmen or swordsmen as the new daimyo…if there is one. Be careful, however. If your enemy escapes the ninja’s trap, they’re allowed to turn around and make an attempt on you!
Of course, I understand designs in this genre are not for every person. Indeed, they’re probably for a rather small percentage of hobby gamers. That doesn’t make it any less of a classic. Some of the elements in Samurai Swords are found in other war games or have influenced subsequent designs. But as a whole, it can be bloated and unwieldy and intimidating. It is very long. There are peculiar rules you can easily forget or confuse. It can suffer from a runaway leader in which the richer get richer, the poor get trodden over, and the endgame can reach a foregone conclusion long before the final battle. Not to mention that the dice can create great swings of fortune – or misfortune. But gaming is not always about elegance, balance, and simple calculation. Sometimes, you want to dive into it for the story.
A classic game generally invokes a lot of nostalgia, usually sitting in one of two camps. It’s either like a fine wine or warm comfort food that is pleasant to return to now and then to relive fond memories or create new ones. Or you discover that it just hasn’t aged as well as you remember it being. Samurai Swords is neither of those. Instead of comfort food, it’ll give you indigestion. Rather than aging poorly, you find it’s just as unique and distinctive as ever. It is not refined or sophisticated. It was never meant to be. Instead, it is epic and glorious and adventurous. Fittingly so, you won’t play it very often because, well, you just don’t have the time. But when you do, you’ll remember the days when the hobby never worried about “elegance,” but rather embraced adventurous theme, grand confrontation, and wild fortunes to give players not simply a game, but an experience.