Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Finally, a good samurai game

In my review of Seven Card Samurai I mentioned that we are fans of samurai films, an interest that has been rekindled thanks to a recent display of Japanese armor at the Portland Art Museum, and a friend's recent series of showings of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies on his impressive home theater system. We've been on the lookout for a good samurai themed game that isn't of the Risk-style army placement variety, which is a taller order than you might think.

We stumbled across a demo copy of Shitenno at our local game store, and gave it a try. After one play we were undecided, but we played it again a few weeks later and decided that we enjoyed it enough to pick up a copy for ourselves.

The game is a fight for control of feudal Japan, but rather than armies clashing, it is about clever use of resources to control strategic spaces on the board. The board is divided into eight provinces, each with four spaces for players to place their control tokens. Each player can place two tokens per turn, either by spending a specific combination of military or financial resources, with the spots costing more depending on how many control tokens are already there.

It is how players acquire their resources that is the more interesting part of the game. Each round, the player who was the first player on the previous turn assumes the role of Tairo and draws a certain number of military and koku (financial) cards, and also takes the four title cards, which determine turn order and also give a particular advantage for the next turn.

From these resources and titles, the Tairo forms a lot of as many or as few cards as he wishes, plus one title card, and offers it to the next player in the current turn order. That player can either take the lot or pass; if they pass, the next player can accept or pass, and so on until either the lot of cards has been taken or it comes back to the Tairo player, who must take it if no one else did.

Then the Tairo forms another lot of resources plus one title and offers it to the next player in line who doesn't have a lot yet, who can accept it or pass. This continues until everyone has some cards and a title for the next turn.

This is where much of the game's strategy takes place. Each province has a particular combination of different types of military cards that must be played in order to place a control token there, so the Tairo and the other players are looking at what's on offer, hoping to get the cards they need. The Tairo can't really make the lots too uneven or he'll get stuck with the worst of them, but he can try to fake out the other players by composing a lot with the cards he wants and a title he doesn't think the other players want. This can backfire, however, if he fails to correctly guess what the other players are after.

Play continues, alternating between placing control tokens and dividing up resources, until either any one player has run out of tokens or the koku deck has run out, at which point everyone gets to finish that turn and then points are added up based on how many control tokens each player has in each province, plus bonus points for koku cards still in hand as well as having the most tokens in a province.

Shitenno is pretty abstract, but at the same time I think it really conveys a sense of the political and economic wrangling that was common in feudal Japan, and it's helped along by some beautifully illustrated, high quality game components.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A conquest and control game that turns on resource management rather than combat, which sets it apart from similar area control games like Risk or Age of Conan.

Date played: July 27, 2014

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