Monday, 7 May 2012

Sekigahara

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Sekigahara is an entry-level card-driven block wargame about the civil war in Japan which ended the Sengoku Jidai (the warring states period) in 1600. The two factions in this war are the Ishida and the Tokugawa. Ishida is loyal to the young heir of the previous supreme military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had died of illness two years ago. He perceives Tokugawa as a threat that needs to be eliminated. Afterall, Tokugawa's clan is the richest and most powerful clan in Japan. As Ishida plots to unite various clans to destroy Tokugawa, Tokugawa too has been building alliances via policital marriages and diplomacy. As the tension builds, the great clans align themselves to one of these factions. Open warfare breaks out.

The game is played on a map showing Honshu, the main island of Japan. Armies are represented by blocks, and each block belongs to one of the great clans. Players use cards to muster blocks onto the board, to move blocks, and to conduct battle. There are 9 castles and 9 resource locations that the players fight over. They are worth victory points, and whoever controls more victory points after 7 rounds wins the game. There are a few sudden death victory conditions. If the enemy leader, i.e. Ishida or Tokugawa, is killed in battle, you win. If Tokugawa successfully besieges and conquers Osaka, capturing the young heir Toyotomi Hideyori, he wins.

Blocks in this game are simpler than most block wargames. They usually just show one to three mons (clan symbols), which indicate their strength. A block does not rotate to represent losses. If it takes casualties, it is eliminated and leaves the game. Cardplay is what drives the whole game. On your turn you have limited movement and mustering actions. You need to spend cards to do more than the bare minimum. You also spend cards if you need to force march your armies. Armies, especially big ones, often move rather slowly. Cards are also used to conduct battle.

This is the starting setup. Ishida blocks are golden, Tokugawa blocks are black. Osaka, where the young heir Toyotomi Hideyori is located and needs to be protected by the Ishida faction, is where those eight golden blocks are. The capital Kyoto is just to the east of Osaka, where the two golden blocks are. Tokugawa's capital of Edo (modern day Tokyo) is in the southeast.

The top right and bottom right corners of the board are the recruitment boxes. Players need to take a muster action to bring those blocks into play. The thick brown lines are highways which connect Osaka, Kyoto and Edo. Red dots are resource locations.

Initial Tokugawa forces in Edo. The board and the blocks have icons indicating how the setup should be done, which is convenient.

The initial setup in the area near Kyoto. Normal-looking castles are initially controlled by the Tokugawa player. Castles with yellow outlines initially belong to Ishida.

Battle strength is not determined only by the blocks present. You need to have cards with mons matching the blocks to deploy the blocks. Else the blocks cannot lend their stength to the battle. So a big enemy army may in fact be quite weak if your opponent has few matching cards. A small or medium sized army can be very powerful if the owner holds the right cards. Being able to deploy many blocks from the same clan is very powerful, because every subsequently deployed block of the same clan gets a strength boost depending on how many blocks of the same clan have been deployed. Some blocks have a gun or a cavalry icon, and these when paired with special attack cards can be devastating. One type of card which can completely turn the tide of a battle is the Loyalty Challenge cards. Whenever you deploy a block, your opponent may play a Loyalty Challenge to make your block turn traitor. If you are unable to show a card of the same clan from your hand, the block betrays you and contributes strength to your opponent instead. So, often you need to think carefully before playing the last card of a particular clan from your hand.

After all cards are played, whoever has more strength wins the battle. Both players need to take casualties based on the opponent's strength, and the loser takes one extra casualty. Big battles are usually devastating to both sides.

Some of the cards. Cards with two mons (clan symbols) can be used to deploy two blocks instead of one. The small number in the lower right corner is for deciding turn order. Every round both players must simultaneously spend one card to determine who will decide the turn order.

At the start of every round, you must discard half your cards before you draw 5 new cards. This means you can't really hoard cards and hope to get a perfect hand for one big battle. However each round you have two turns, so based on what your hand is like at the start of the round, you can try to manouevre your armies into position in Turn A, and then go for the big battle in Turn B. The control of castles and resource locations determine who gets to draw an extra card and who gets to draw an extra block into the mustering box at the start of a round. So during the game there is this economic aspect to compete in.

The Play

This was my first play, against Allen who had played once before. In his previous game he played Tokugawa, so for this game I asked him to play Ishida. The first thing I felt once the game started was - Whoa! Tough decisions! And it's hard to get things done. Movement is usually quite slow. The default movement speed is just one step. There are ways to increase speed, but if you try to move more than 4 blocks together, there is a speed penalty. Also in the early game, the number of cards we had was hardly enough to fight any battle effectively.

In the early game Allen seemed to fumble a little with the rules. The last time he played was quite some time ago. He lost a few early skirmishes. I managed to keep ahead economically. I started the game with five castles to his four, and I also grabbed resource locations more quickly. That gave me the advantage of drawing an extra card and drawing an extra block into my recruitment pool every round. In the central region, my mostly-Fukushima army attacked and captured one of his cities with a castle. On the eastern side, his Uesugi army obliterated my Date army. My huge Tokugawa army in my capitol in the southeast kept rather quiet. Only around mid game some of the Tokugawa forces marched northwards to besiege and eventually capture one of Allen's castles. Allen's Uesugi army in the east did not approach my Tokugawa army or my capitol Edo. I caught up with him and defeated him in battle. His remaining forces retreated westwards and captured my Maeda castle at the northern tip of the map. My Tokugawa army continued to give chase, eventually defeating his Uesugi army again and recaptured my Maeda castle.

On the far right, Allen's Uesugi forces had destroyed my Date armies. I mustered many Tokugawa blocks but had not yet done much with them. Now I marched a big stack towards Allen's castle, while still keeping some blocks in Edo, in case his Uesugi armies came calling.

My smaller Tokugawa army had captured Allen's castle and had also marched further north to capture a resource location. Allen's Uesugi forces on the east had completely destroyed my Date forces there. I needed to muster more troops in Edo to deter him.

On the eastern side, Allen's Uesugi forces had retreated to the northern shore while securing some resource locations. My Tokugawa army had previously fallen back to the castle, wary of his greater numbers and also wanting to rendezvous with reinforcements from Edo. Later, this Tokugawa army chased the Uesugi army along the northern coast, heading westwards.

Meanwhile, things on the western side of the map were tense too. My large and mostly-Maeda army marched from its northern home towards the central part, near the capital of Kyoto, meeting with my other medium and mostly-Fukushima army which earlier captured one of Allen's castles. Allen mustered many of his Mori forces from the Mori recruitment box to Osaka. The Mori clan is a special case, having a special recruitment box with five blocks in it at game start. If I attack Osaka, these five blocks come onto the map for free. But if Allen wants to bring them in, he needs to pay one card per block, which is expensive. The story behind this is Ishida was wary of the powerful Mori clan and ordered the Mori daimyo (clan leader) to stay in Osaka. Allen had a terrifying stack of blocks in Osaka and Kyoto. He marched some of them to attack my combined Maeda-and-Fukushima army in Sawayama, the city east of Kyoto. This was the first big battle of the game.

We were both well prepared for this, having cards to deploy every single block. I had more blocks, and had a higher total strength to win the battle. Losses were heavy on both sides. Allen lost all but one block, which was subsequently overrun (and killed) anyway. This was a devastating loss for him. Our forces were greatly reduced on the western side. However after that Allen was able to muster new blocks more quickly than me, and we had a second major battle, this time with Allen emerging victorious. My armies were outnumbered in the west, but Allen split up his armies to go conquering resource locations and castles. I hurriedly sent a Tokugawa army from Edo in the southeast, traveling along the southern highway, to come to the aid of my much dwindled Maede army.

My Maeda (five circles) army and my Fukushima (three-pointed leaf) army prepared to converge.

The first major battle, Allen's eight blocks against my eleven.

Allen's army contained many Mori blocks, which he had spent many cards mustering from the Mori recruitment box. At first we thought I lost the battle. Then later we realised I had missed out one Maeda gun block. I still had a card to deploy this block, and this was enough to tip the balance.

The aftermath of the first big battle. I temporarily occupied Kyoto after overrunning Allen's lone survivor from the battle.

This was the second major battle. This time Allen's army was led by Ishida himself (that complex kanji character). My army was crushed.

On the western side, I had an army en route from Edo to support my depleted forces. Thankfully the highway let me move more quickly.

Only towards the second half of the game Allen was able to compete more effectively for castles and resource locations. Towards late game, I wiped out his armies from the eastern half of the board, but didn't have enough armies or time to capture all of the castles and resource locations there. I guess that's poor planning on my part. A wasted opportunity. Most of our remaining armies were in the western and central parts now, and our numbers were about equal. I had a comfortable economical lead, and if I could last until the end of Round 7 still holding on to this lead, I would win. Since movement speed is generally quite slow in this game, it would be tough for Allen to capture enough castles and resource locations in time. In Turn B of the Round 7, I intentially marched a smaller army to Kuwana, a resource location, to prevent Allen from getting to my castle in Anotsu, just past Kuwana. I could afford to lose the battle in Kuwana and let him gain one resource location (worth 1VP) as long as I could secure my castle (worth 2VP). I left a sizeable army in Gifu castle to deter him too.

A medium sized and previously very successful Tokugawa army lead by Tokugawa himself descended upon Tsuruga, a resource location, to secure yet another resource location for myself. Just to be on the safe side, you see. Things looked bleak for Allen. There wasn't much he could do now that it was his final turn. Then I suggested why not try to attack the Tokugawa army? If he could kill Tokugawa himself, he would win a sudden death victory. And he thought, why the hell not?

And I'm sure you can guess what happened next...

In hindsight, I didn't need that lousy Tsuruga resource location at all, which put me in range of Allen's army. I already had more than enough VP's. I had miscalculated in my haste. Even when that climatic (or anti-climatic, depending on how you see it) battle started, I could still have kept my win. I only had two Tokugawa cards for my four Tokugawa blocks, which should already be a warning bell. However I still went ahead to deploy my Tokugawa daimyo block first (because, hey, it was free to do so). When it was time to take casualties, I was forced to eliminate my Tokugawa daimyo, because the priority for elimination is deployed blocks first. If I had considered the situation more carefully, I should have simply not deployed my Tokugawa daimyo block, and just let the other blocks suffer losses. I didn't need to deploy blocks to eliminate Allen's blocks. I was going for an economic victory and killing his blocks was completely unnecessary in this battle. So, two perfectly aligned blunders - advancing my over-confident Tokugawa daimyo into Allen's attack range because of one unnecessary VP, and committing the same daimyo to battle unnecessarily - allowed me to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I just taught myself a lesson on complacency.

Allen's Turn B of the very last round. I had sent a small 2-block army from Kiyosu to Kuwana to prevent Allen from marching towards my castle in Anotsu. I was willing to sacrifice this small army to ensure I would still hold Anotsu castle at game end. Two blocks from Kiyosu also marched to Gifu to boost the defenses there and to deter Allen. My Tokugawa army prevoiusly at the Maeda castle in the top right corner had marched to claim Tsuruga, a resource location. Allen left Gifu castle alone, and attacked both the small army in Kuwana and the Tokugawa army in Tsuruga.

This was where Tokugawa fell (the single mon block with the three-dot banner). Ishida himself had personally led the army which defeated Tokugawa. Such sweet victory for Allen!

The board situation at game end. Look at those dead people on the left side of the board! I can't help thinking of "I see dead people; they are everywhere" from the movie Sixth Sense. On the board, I controlled 6 castles (12VP) and 4 resource locations (4VP), totalling 16VP. Allen controlled 3 castles (6VP) (there's one in the northwest hidden by two of his blocks) and 5 resource locations (5VP) (Tsuruga was his, not mine), totalling 11VP. Why??!! Why did I send Tokugawa to die?!!

The Thoughts

Sekigahara is succinct and easy to learn among wargames. However it does not feel simplistic. The starting setup is partially (maybe 25%) random, so there is some variability. The cards you get determine how you want to play your first round, so there is no standard opening move. There is more manoeuvring than battles in the game, and I would say the manoeuvring is more important than the actual battles. Movement is slow, which means you need to plan ahead where you want to move which army. Getting your armies into position and saving up the right cards for battle (or striking at the right time when you have the right cards) are critical to your battle success. So battles are mostly a culmination of all the manoeuvring beforehand. You still do have some decisions to make during battles, e.g. which blocks to commit, the order of committing them, whether to save some cards to protect yourself against a Loyalty Challenge, and when to play a Loyalty Challenge card. The Loyalty Challenge card aspect presents a difficult decision not only to the potential target (who needs to consider saving a card for protection), it also presents a tough decision to the card holder. Having a Loyalty Challenge card means you have one fewer card that you can use for deployment. If you play a Loyalty Challenge card too early and your opponent can defend against it, you have just wasted the card while your opponent loses nothing. The card he has just shown you returns to his hand and you'll probably scream silently "I'm screwed!!".

There is a bluffing element in the manoeuvring. You don't exactly know how strong an army is, because even if it is an army you have battled before and you have seen the composition, you don't know whether your opponent is currently holding the right cards to have it fight effectively. A bold move may be a mere bluff. A humble army may be more potent than you think. There is no dice or randomness when battle is joined. The blocks and cards involved are fixed now, and it comes down to how the combatants play their cards. When a battle ends, both sides get to draw the same number of cards as they have spent during the battle. So you will not become card starved due to battle, just that the cards you draw may not be useful for other battles you may want to fight. You draw cards for battle casualties too, so the loser who has lost more blocks sometimes has a bit more compensation.

The game is very exciting. Every block lost in battle leaves the game permanently. There are no step losses. You don't really get to muster many blocks, so you cannot afford to waste your blocks. Because of how costly battles can be, even for the victor, the build-up towards each battle is tense.

Due to the mostly fixed setup and the relatively simple map, I do worry a little about replayability. At the moment I'm enthusiastic to play Sekigahara again. It'll take at least a few more games to see whether replayability is a valid concern. Luck of the card draw may be another concern. However, due to the slow army movement, you do have time to prepare and ensure you get the right cards you need. Every round you discard half your cards, which means you can keep those you want and hope that the new cards drawn include some that you want. One action that a player can take in lieu of movement is to discard some cards and draw the same number. This can be helpful if you are desperate. Generally my view is you should just make the most of the cards you have. If you get many Date cards, then try to position the Date army to fight. You sometimes need to spend cards for movement anyway, so "useless" cards can be used this way.

Sekigahara reminds me a little of Hammer of the Scots in terms of granularity and complexity, but the rules have fewer exceptions so it is easier to learn. Gameplay and feel are quite different though, but both bring out the backstory well.


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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

So, have you finally concluded regarding replayability? I so want to buy this and this is my only concern

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Unfortunately I have not got around to play Sekigahara again since those first two games. I have now bought a copy myself, the spanking new 2nd edition. So I hope to bring it to the table again soon.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I've played my 3rd game recently, with my new copy, and I still enjoy the game immensely. I find that despite the mostly fixed starting setup, the initial card draw can make things quite different from game to game. So it's hard to script your moves in this game based on the initial setup. In a way the game feels simple, because you can say the battle results are predetermined. No die rolls at all. The key is whether you engage in battle in the first place. Do you bluff? Avoid battle? Use Loyalty cards? The greatest fun comes from that psychological battle with your opponent, and guessing his intentions. The fun is not really in the execution of the battles. I can still see myself playing this game more. The card draws, the order that the reinforcements appear, and to some extent part of the initial setup all help to create variability.

3 games is probably not enough to conclude about replayability. But if you ask me, if I can get 10 plays out of a game, it's worth the money I paid for it. For Sekigahara, I think it will last more than 10 plays.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much!!! To be honest, I have already ordered it before hearing your most recent opinion :)
Thanks again

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

:-) Have fun!