Friday, December 29, 2017

Dave Reviews: Tiny Samurai Tokenfest

Battle for Rokugan

If you plan to put this on the pile of board games set in Japan, remember: It's not set in Japan. This is the Emerald Empire. Totally, 100% different. You don't need to be near water to use boats.

We'll get to that.

Battle for Rokugan is a territory control game. Coming on the heels of Legend of the Five Rings, it lets players take up the mantle of one of seven animal-based clans, each with its own three-province territory carved out on the map. The map is very compact given the number of sides; outside of the territories from each clan, there are two other unaffiliated territories and the Shadowlands, two provinces that don't have the end-game scoring benefit of other provinces but let those in control wield useful powers. Fortunately, the number of players is capped at five, which keeps the board relatively open at any player count.

The way it's open, though, is up to the players from the start. Each clan controls its own capital, but after that players choose provinces to control, one by one. It's often desirable to hold your own provinces, since you get a special ability for each territory you control in full at the end of a round, but it's not required. You can immediately take one of the Shadowland provinces and hold it (or effectively dare your opponents to take it from you), focus your control on the land around you to minimize the ability of anyone else to invade your turf, or start taking pieces out of other people's territory to make them fight for their clan's special ability even if it means you have to fight for your own.

The special abilities are pretty strong—certainly worth having as compared to not, though you do need to decide how much effort you want to put into taking one—but what's intriguing about how they're handled is this: you only have one available to you if you control all the provinces in the related territory at the end of a round, but if you use it, it's removed from the game. More over, these are only used at the start of a round, before any fighting occurs. This creates a sort of timer on the ability cards. Once one is used, the territory it came from becomes less valuable, so if you sit on one waiting for the right opportunity, your opponents may sweep in to make sure you lose it even if they don't have a reasonable chance of taking it for themselves.

Combat works like this: everyone has a pool of tokens to draw from, and each clan has a unique special token somewhere in the mix. You draw five tokens, and play five on the board in turn order. If you play one directly on a territory, that token is being used in defense; if it crosses a border, it's attacking in the direction of its arrow. Most of them are army tokens of varying strength, one through five, which are used in attack or defense. Navies can attack or defend provinces on the water, and you don't need to have a province of your own on the water to attack with a navy. Raid tokens burn a province to the ground, rendering it worthless for the rest of the game. (Important note: this does not mean the territory that province is in can't be held in its entirety. The raided province simply doesn't count, and thus a person can hold the territory by just maintaining control of the other provinces.) Diplomacy teapot tokens invoke peace in the province for the rest of the game, which guarantees control for whoever plays it, but they can no longer attack from that province either. Shinobi attack like armies, except they have a maximum of two power and can go anywhere on the map rather than just from a controlled territory to an adjacent one, because that's what motherfucking ninja do.

You have twenty-five tokens, exactly enough for the five rounds of the game. However, each player also has a blank bluff token that's available every turn. The bluff token has no effect, but it allows you to hold one of the real tokens back for use on a following round. This is handy if you draw something rare and situationally powerful like a shinobi token, but it also means you draw one fewer token on the next round. The more you use your bluff, the more real tokens you wind up not seeing by the end of the game. This means that, mathematically speaking, it's more useful to bluff if you've seen a lot of strong tokens, because there are fewer useful ones that you might miss out on at the end. However, any use of a bluff entails some sort of cost, because the bluff does nothing and even a 1-power army can be valuable.

In many games with a type of hidden strength mechanic, low-power stuff is often, effectively, no more than a bluff. In Battle, 1-power armies can serve another purpose if you don't think you need them to put you over the top in a fight—they can defend a territory that's not under attack. This matters because any territory that's successfully defended gains a token at the end of the round worth +1 defense and one extra victory point at the end of the game. You must put a token in a territory to gain this bonus, but it doesn't have to be attacked to be considered successfully defended. This winds up being a way around the common problem in war games of what to do when you're stuck without a good way to gain more territory—just make your territory more valuable.

Of course, making it more valuable means your enemies want to take it... but if they do, all those tokens are wiped out, so it's only worth it if they need to take your points away more than they need points themselves... but that only becomes apparent by the end of the game... but that leads to the most important fights coming in the last round... and you start to see all the scales being balanced to make the decisions in this game require more than A vs. B thinking.

There's quite a bit to like here. Every decision spans out into multiple consequences. Tracking what your opponents have used becomes more difficult as you add players, but that's a genuine skill and will benefit you if you're good at it. Likewise, each use of the bluff might cost you a real token by the end of the game, but it also throws other people's tracking of your information off a little bit, which can be more or less useful depending on your opponents. Gaining and deciding when to use ability cards is extremely important; on top of that, it's quite possible to gain certain abilities and not be able to use them right away, which means you may need to quickly set up a situation where you can use them if they come from vulnerable territories.

Certain aspects of the rules are unclear at first (the ability to use a navy when you're not on the water needs to be much more explicitly stated), and although I haven't tried it with two players, it's hard to see that being nearly as good as a more full game. It could be right for certain people who like maps large enough for them to substantially expand without coming into conflict--or who like to start conflict by surprise precisely because it's not necessary--but the complications of this game shine through much more brightly with four or five people around the table. It's approachable enough that plenty of gamers, from just above casual to pretty hardcore, will find something to enjoy. If you can get a full game of them together, this is worth your time.

Score: Eight ninja sneaking under the castle out of the nine that started the mission

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