(image courtesy Bernd @ BGG)
There are currently only two games I have rated a “perfect 10″ over at BoardGameGeek. A game does not need to be truly perfect to get the elusive perfect score but just a game that I’m always wanting to play and that I often continue to think about when we’re done. Twilight Imperium 3 is one of those games, but I’ve already talked about that (although don’t be surprised to see more talk in the future). Shogun, by Queen Games, is another.
If nothing else, Shogun is a gorgeous game. The large map of Japan broken into provinces is very colorful, pleasing on the eyes and very easy to read. There’s even an alternate map on the back side with a different layout for more advanced players. Each player has bright, well-illustrated player mat to help them plan their actions and place their armies (using the advanced setup). Of course players have a bunch of wooden cubes to represent their armies. Most striking, though, is the cube tower. The tall cardboard tower with a clear plastic funnel and base dominates the visual field. It is impossible to miss and is guaranteed to get more than a few people at least curious about what the heck it is.
Shogun takes place over the course of two years. Spring, summer and fall have players planning and executing their actions while winter is purely a scoring round. You earn points for holding provinces, owning buildings in those provinces and having the majority of three different types of buildings in the regions on the map. At the end of two years the player with the most points wins.
While the basic premise is quite simple, doing well at the game is far from easy. There are ten actions players will be able to perform each season. Each player has a hand of province cards that represent the territories they control. To perform an action you place a province on the action you wish to perform there. For example, to collect rice from Owari you’d place your Owari card face down on the collect rice action on your player mat. The order of the actions is randomly determined each season. You get to see the order of the first five actions but the last five are hidden and revealed as you start resolving actions. This means you have some knowledge about the timing of events for the season but must also plan around the unknown.
(image courtesy richardsgamepack @ BGG)
One very important part of the game is feeding your people come winter. You are allowed to take rice from provinces you own, adding to your overall rice supply for the year. At the end of the year you need to have one rice for every province you control. If you are short then you’ll be facing revolts come winter. Collecting rice can often be challenging enough but the real tricky part is that four event cards are put out at the start of each year, one card per season. Each card has two parts: first is a special condition that applies for spring, summer and winter, second is rice loss come winter. This number will range from zero to negative seven or so. You’ll see the four possible cards at the start of the year but the order is random so you have to plan for the possible rice loss and possibly take some risks or change your plan as the cards are resolved.
The best part of the game is without a doubt the cube tower. Inside the tower are a couple of horizontal platforms with random holes cut in them. When you attack another player (or face revolts) you take your army cubes along with cubes from the defender, toss them in the tower and see what comes out! Attacker and defender destroy each other on a 1:1 basis and whomever has the most left wins. Any cubes not related to the attack stay in the tray and are tossed in again on the next attack to keep them cycling through the tower. Cubes will get caught up in the tower so you may only have a few come out or you might knock some loose inside and end up with more cubes coming out than you tossed in! It’s quite possibly the most exciting randomizer ever. There’s no way you can even begin to guess probability, you just have to toss your cubes in and hope for the best. Generally combat is extremely bloody with the winning side only having a couple of cubes left. Everyone loves watching the results from the tower… it’s just oh-so-satisfying.
Shogun is not all that difficult to learn even if it looks a bit daunting at first glance. It is part war game, part area control and part resource management. You need to balance all three to do well at the game. With only the possibility of 12 attacks per player over the course of the entire game (two per season) you really need to pick your battles carefully. Armies are expensive not only in gold cost but also in activation; you can’t move an army the same turn it is built so you always have to be thinking at least one season in advance. The cube tower is a great way to resolve combat. Not only is it a fun randomizer but you also will be making decisions based on how many cubes you might have sitting in the tray or possibly stuck in the tower.
Which is why I think the game is so fantastic. There’s a decent amount of luck in the game with the random events, random action order and the cube tower but it’s all very manageable. You might get a few bad results from the tower but it’s rare to see someone win or lose the game from luck alone. At the same time there’s enough variability that no two games ever seem to play out exactly alike. You can feel when you’ve made a good move; it’s possibly one of the more satisfying games in that regard. With only six seasons every action counts and you need to be setting yourself up from turn one. Pulling off a win in Shogun is a great feeling.
Shogun is actually a remake of Wallenstein which featured a map of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. Having played both I can say without a doubt that I find Shogun to be the much better game. Shogun has a few extra mechanics – most importantly a bid for turn order – that really adds a lot. I also feel the map is actually better. At first I thought Wallenstein’s more rounded map might make for a tighter game but it is almost a little too large and has some seemingly imbalanced areas. Shogun, while much longer and narrower, feels like it makes for more interesting and focused interactions with other players. Generally I think you interact with fewer players (as there are fewer adjacencies) but those conflicts turn out to be much more interesting.
(image courtesy cimere @ BGG)
I really only have three complaints. First is that the player mats tend to bow upwards a bit which can make dealing with your province cards a little bit of a pain at times. Second, I don’t like the rule that you plan your actions before seeing what special event is in effect for the season. Sometimes the action will impact rice or gold production, for example, or might protect provinces with certain buildings. They did that to add a little bit more randomness but I think the game could just as easily be played with this information known before planning your actions. It’s a variant I’d like to try out sometime and see what impact it has on the game. If anything I think it’d just make it even more strategic. It’s a minor complaint, though, and the game works perfectly fine as-is.
Finally, the game is a bit punishing once you start falling behind. Fewer owned provinces means fewer actions you’ll be taking each round. When two of your actions almost always will need to be taking gold and rice that can leave you with little left to do. If you carelessly attack or leave key provinces unprotected it’s not hard to end up in a bad situation. I’ve seen players pull off great wins but often you’ll have a rough feel for which spots you’ll be competing for at the end of the first year. I don’t find this to be a real problem as careful planning will generally keep you competitive. Still, I can see where some might find issue with this.
Part war game, part Euro, Shogun succeeds on both fronts. The game can run a little long at times – plan a good 2 1/2 to 3 hours – but it’s well worthwhile. Players will be sucked in by the cube tower and hooked by the interesting decisions and good mix of strategy and tactics. Shogun is a great game, no doubt about it.