Monday, March 11, 2019

Deconstruction of the game Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa

A common occurrence in video gaming is the “deconstruction” of a game, an attempt to describe how the design works, perhaps what it derives from. While I spent several hours watching five people play this game it proved to be pretty easy to deconstruct.

This game of Japanese warlords was originally published by Milton Bradley and now Hasbro and dates back to about 1987. If designed today it would definitely be much smaller, perhaps accommodating not more than four players, to reduce the length from its current 4 to 6 hours for five players. One reason why it’s so long is that it derives from Axis & Allies and Risk, both often quite long games.

The Risk influence is clear in the board of many territories (a lot more than Risk’s 42) with lines connecting some territories to enable movement across the seas. There are some really long connecting lines “above” and “below” the three main Japanese islands to provide some circularity and width, because even with many territories the main routes through the islands are quite narrow, only a few territories wide.

The game includes a card for each territory as in Risk, and starts with a random distribution of cards so that each player’s holdings are randomly distributed throughout the three major islands (Hokkaido is not included, at the time of the samurai it was occupied by the white-skinned Ainu people). This is identical to the original French way of starting Risk, rather than players choosing their territories. There is no turn-in of cards as we see in Risk. The card turn-in is a kludge designed to bring Risk to a finish, whereas Shogun has a different method.

Allocation of new armies follows the Risk method of one per three territories. In Shogun the result is money rather than armies, which can be spent for a variety of activities (mostly new troops), and can buy as many as three of the weakest troops for one unit of money.

Where is the influence of Axis & Allies? I think the game would work as well with just one or two unit types (the two would be missile troops and melee troops). But in this case we have two kinds of missile troops and several kinds of melee troops, each with a different number required to hit with a 12 sided die (hit on six and lower is the best unit). In an initial combat the defender’s missile troops fire and anyone killed by that fire (victim’s choice) cannot retaliate. But in the end it’s rolling for all your troops against all the opposing troops simultaneously. (Amphibious attacks are at a greater disadvantage.) This is much as it is in Axis & Allies. Attackers can retreat, but defenders cannot, just as in A&A. (This is one of the stranger rules I’ve ever seen, from an historical point of view; I think it’s intended to speed up the game.)

The Army organization of the game is the part that comes from neither Risk nor A&A. Each player has a large cardboard layout allowing for the placement of many units in each of three armies, along with three flag markers (generals) each on a track that can increase their experience. The corresponding flags are placed on the board to show the location of the armies.

In addition there is a ninja which can be hired to try to assassinate a general (67 % chance); if the ninja fails the intended victim can hire it to try to kill one of the attacker’s generals!

Here’s the mechanism that enables the game to end sooner than otherwise. If you kill a player’s last general by defeating his army, you get all his remaining pieces and territories. Winning the game depends on controlling a certain number of territories, for example 30 in the five player game, more in games with fewer players. It’s a more elegant solution to ending the game than the turn-in cards in Risk.

There is even less history built into this game than into Axis & Allies itself. It’s a long game with a lot of miniature figures and a lot of dice rolling.