Sho Sho Shogunate
Japanese history isn’t really my specialty. As far as I can tell, it basically consists of four thousand years of fighting over who gets to be shogun for a little bit, then the new shogun gets poisoned by a ninja and the whole things starts all over again, at least until Tom Cruise shows up and wows everyone with his beard into accepting modernity — but sensible modernity rather than mean modernity.
Thankfully, the tiny card game Shogunate doesn’t do anything to challenge my assumptions. Just last night, we propped up five new shoguns, then promptly murdered all of them. There were vendettas, assassinations, and… well, that’s mostly what happened. Vendettas and assassinations.
When you get right down to it, Shogunate is more than a little reminiscent of Guillotine, that classic game from before the turn of the millennium that pit its players as headsmen in the French Revolution. In that game, you had a line of people waiting for the chop, some reviled nobility or churchmen, others innocent peasants or martyrs, and you’d rearrange the queue to ensure that the most prestigious heads landed in your basket while your opponents were left with the ones that might enrage the crowd. It was a hilariously dark little game, drawn with cartoon characters who seemed cheerful enough for people about to have their most critical appendage removed.
It’s also a good game to be compared to. Better yet, there’s a dash of intrigue thrown into the mix. In Shogunate, everyone is secretly supporting one of five clans — the Cat, Crane, Rooster, Snake, and Wolf, which I hope you’ve noticed I’ve painstakingly alphabetized so as to avoid showing any favoritism. These are lined up in a tidy little row in the center of the table, your own favored clan somewhere in the line of succession. Here, the comparison to Guillotine gets thinner, because whichever clan occupies the first slot at the conclusion of a hand will become the next shogun, so everyone is determined to maneuver themselves to the front of the line. But very much like Guillotine, players can totally lop off the head of whomever is up front. Hijinks ensue.
The result is a clever little game that’s also deliciously bloodthirsty. Each round sees a single player sitting out and acting as a sort of shots-caller. While everyone else plays a card, the shots-caller sits in stoic silence, giving their best impression of an ambitious daimyo, then decides the order that everybody else’s cards are resolved in. Most of the cards shuffle the line a bit, maybe jumping a particular clan forward in the rankings or knocking someone back. There’s also the dreaded assassination card for murdering the current contender for shogun. This isn’t a sure thing, however, as multiple assassins might blunder into each other, possibly resulting in a forty-minute ninja battle while your target slips out the back way. As in real life, assassination might sound like a good idea, but it’s liable to make enemies and accomplish nothing, so choose your timing carefully.
The biggest chunk of points are ultimately awarded to the clan standing at the front of the line when the hand wraps up, but sometimes it’s a good idea to be the power behind the throne. This is where shodai cards come in, letting you declare your loyalty to a particular clan, and earning a few points for yourself if that clan ends up on top. It’s possible to wager on yourself, of course, though that means putting all your eggs in one basket. This can mean a huge payoff in points, but sometimes it’s better to mislead other players by patronizing your worst enemy. Or at least who you suspect them to be.
This is all clever stuff, though it’s diminished somewhat by the inclusion of a single card. That might not sound like much, but when everyone is working from an identical hand of five cards, that’s twenty percent of the game. The offender is Storms to Flowers, which swaps the positions of any two clans. Unfortunately, what this usually means is that you’ll spend an entire hand carefully positioning your clan, then everybody’s last action is Storms to Flowers on the off-chance that the round’s shot-caller will have them resolve their action last, propelling their clan to primacy (or whichever clan they’re supporting if their own has been assassinated). It’s an unfortunate conclusion to a round of hearty political backstabbing, and it could have been negated with a single card that, say, blocks other actions, giving preeminent clans a hope of maintaining their edge.
Even so, Shogunate is a worthwhile filler game, perfect for passing the time at a restaurant or for Geoff to show up for game night. A single hand takes maybe five minutes to finish, so a full game only takes twenty or thirty minutes. And within that short span of time, I guarantee heads will roll.