Daimyo Seii, Daimyo Do
Another day, another Small Box Game by John Clowdus. This time it’s Seii Daimyo, where much like every other game about Feudal Japan, your goal is to unite the country’s warring clans under a single Shogun.
Fortunately, the execution is more interesting than the setup.
The big reason I keep taking a chance on John Clowdus’s designs has nothing to do with any particular love for small-format games. If anything, I often think we over-value short games. There’s nothing wrong with a game announcing its intent to kick off its boots and stick around for a good three or four or five hours, so long as it’s going to be a solid conversationalist while it’s hogging my table.
The thing about Small Box Games, though, is that Clowdus isn’t so much reinventing the wheel as taking the same pieces and rearranging them in surprising ways. Multi-use cards are often the hub, tug-of-war mechanisms the spokes, and recycled settings the — I don’t know, wagon wheels don’t have all that many parts. The hub flange, maybe? Add a pinch of direct confrontation and, baby, you’ve got yourself a chuckwagon stew going.
Seii Daimyo prominently features some very familiar elements, mostly in the form of its clan cards and location cards, which means roughly eighty-five percent of the cards could almost pass for belonging to one of Clowdus’s other games. The first ones are the guys you can play for their abilities or into your army to maybe capture extra fortresses, while locations are the spots you’re hoping to capture — with the risk that their real estate values can either skyrocket or plummet depending on whether they’ve been put to the torch or fortified.
Of course, familiarity doesn’t mean this wheel doesn’t roll with the best of them. If anything, it rolls. Choosing whether to hold onto a card for later or burn it for an immediate benefit is as compelling as ever, especially since by this point in his career, Clowdus knows how to give his cards teeth. It’s even possible to largely ignore the big army-building stuff in favor of a flurry of swift strikes, taking and fortifying locations before the end-of-round battle even starts.
But the central feature of Seii Daimyo is one I haven’t even mentioned, and it elevates the whole package with some very light — but very crucial — role management. At the start of each turn, your strategy is determined by selecting one of two roles, whether the location-capturing Samurai or the card-playing Ashigaru. The trick is that both of them grow more powerful as more of your opponents choose the other role. For example, picking the Ashigaru when there are a bunch of juicy locations to squabble over means that you’ll be drawing and playing multiple of those clan cards, which might very well mean your turn is two or three times as effective as anything all those samurai jocks could accomplish.
Unfortunately, the choice of which role to use often devolves into one of those He’ll pick Samurai so I should pick Ashigaru, but he knows that too so I should pick Samurai, but he knows that too so I should pick Ashigaru mental conundrums, which robs it of some of its potential bite. Picking a role that results in a bunch of actions often feels more like dumb luck than having out-cogitated your rivals. Which is a pity, because so much of the game hangs on that initial selection. If anything, it feels like the entire system should have been expanded upon, perhaps with a third role.
Of course, that’s an easy call for me to make from the sidelines, as much of Seii Daimyo’s appeal comes from its compactness. Nobody is going to accuse Seii Daimyo of being a masterpiece, but it does make for an interesting experiment. For one thing, it’s one of those rare Clowdus games that’s actually at its best with three or four players, and I would love to see him experiment further with the role selection.
For now, though, this is probably my least-favorite of this current trilogy. The good news is that tomorrow I’ll be talking about the best one.