One of the great difficulties in creating any work of game-as-history is the sheer potential bulk of the thing, where the subtle complexities of real-world conflicts must be modeled as rules, endowed with appropriate exceptions, and tested for some semblance of balance. Take the Battle of Sekigahara, for instance. Set in the autumn of 1600, this was the final step in a years-long campaign by Tokugawa Ieyasu to bring the warring daimyos of Japan under his thumb. During the course of this seven-week campaign, clans and generals swapped sides, cobbled highways and back-country fortresses alike played important strategic roles, firearms and cavalry disrupted the usual order of battle, and some dude held a fortress against all odds through the sheer weight of his respectability.
The beauty of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan — and I don’t use that word lightly — is that it’s perhaps one of the least demanding games I’ve ever played from GMT, somehow managing to capture the drumming tension of its subject matter without ever once sacrificing depth for simplicity or simplicity for depth.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about Sekigahara is that it’s one of those old-fangled “block games.” Whether playing as Tokugawa or Ishida Mitsunari, the guardian of the young Toyotomi Hideyori, your forces will be arrayed plainly before you: an army assembled over here, a general and his men over there, some cavalry and guns up north whose contribution down south would be greatly appreciated if only you can somehow get them from one side of the map to the other. Unlike some strategy games, however, your opponent’s forces are all but invisible. All you can see are the blocks themselves, not what they represent. Sometimes all you’ll see is a lone block, no idea whether it’s a band of peasants or some deadly cavalry; other times there will be a dozen of the things clogging up the Nakasendō Road like a backed-up sewer line, just begging for a good plunging.
But that’s where the second thing comes in. You see, in Sekigahara, just because there’s a pile of blocks doesn’t mean they represent anything. Oh, sure, they represent people. But people willing to fight is an entirely different matter.
Put simply — even crudely — everything comes down to your cards. Each week sees new cards entering your hand, each representing the tenuous loyalties of the generals and clans whose fighting men you’re hoping to toss into the grinder. The problem is that you need to tug on the heartstrings of your generals for pretty much every little thing. Want to hold the initiative that week? Better dump a good card to make it happen. Want to force an army to march a little farther than they’d like? A spent card can make that happen. Even the number of your orders comes down to how many cards you spend at the beginning of your turn, and the effect couldn’t be more pronounced. Spending nothing means you get to trundle one measly stack from town to town, while ditching two cards — a huge sacrifice in a game where you’re only picking up a maximum of six every week — means you can move everything and recruit some new blocks. There’s nothing quite as chilling as that moment when your opponent decides to cut their hand to ribbons because they’ve spotted some long-term advantage in moving all their stacks.
Of course, it’s the moment when two opposing stacks of blocks collide that slide this system into its sharpest focus.
Battles play out as a series of escalating bids. One side reveals a general and slides into the lead, the other deploys some soldiers. Out rides the cavalry, the other guy unholsters the arquebuses. Back and forth it goes until somebody can’t or won’t reveal more blocks, at which point casualties are dealt and somebody retreats.
This is already pretty nifty, but it’s about to get downright exciting. First of all, revealing the mon of matching clans will result in a sort of avalanche, with each previous block adding extra strength to the block that just showed up. Setting up matching blocks to march out one after the other, or combining the bonuses from cavalry and guns, can result in a huge jump in points, the sort of jump that results in your opponent’s expression transforming from hope to despair. Even better, all of this harmonizes perfectly with the card system, because you can’t reveal a block unless you can prod that clan’s general into action with one of their cards. That enormous wall of a dozen blocks squatting on your path into Osaka? For all you know, all that bluster might put up less resistance than a chain of origami swans strung across the road.
There are a few special rules, naturally, the castles and discs and special units that add some dynamism to the proceedings, and it’s possible to reveal the occasional special card to challenge the loyalty of an opposing unit, march out two blocks at once, or trigger a special attack. But by and large this system is just so straightforward, so easy to parse and manipulate, that it quickly becomes second nature, melting into the background and letting you get on with the central business of Sekigahara.
What business am I talking about? Well, the business of being a brilliant general, baby.
As you might expect, a whole lot of Sekigahara is about making the right bluffs. Clever players will be able to lock down entire regions with an oppressive stack of nothing, or pretend to show weakness in order to draw an enemy army into a slaughter, or march a big fat army that you couldn’t possibly have enough cards to bring to bear, except, whoops, you totally do, and now your enemy’s army is about as effectual as an 18-syllable haiku. In one match, I managed to crumple Tokugawa’s entire drive on my capital with a force roughly a quarter its size. In another, the war in the west fell apart when my opponent realized that I had nothing but mismatched single-mon clans protecting a string of castles. In both instances, a combination of factors, ranging from a carefully-cultivated set of cards to making the right grunts of annoyance when the enemy made a move, were what determined the outcome of the entire war.
When you get right down to it, that’s the beauty of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. It’s a wargame that prunes back everything but the beating heart of its system, giving those hidden blocks and more-hidden cards the room they need to breathe. It’s a game about leveraging loyalties, fog of war so thick you might choke on it, and the ability to prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.
Most of all, though, Sekigahara is elegant. There, I said it: Sekigahara is perhaps the most elegant wargame I’ve ever played.