Ro Ro Ro Your Rokugan

What the hell is a Rokugan? Some sort of a pike? A hat?

Half a decade ago, I pronounced A Game of Thrones: The Board Game to be the good version of Diplomacy. All the intrigue, shorter playtime. The ability to outwit your friends without losing your friends. Dragons in place of Prussians.

Battle for Rokugan is proof that history repeats itself, because after some hefty miniaturization, this is the good version of A Game of Thrones. Plenty of intrigue, takes a third as long. You’ll still piss off your friends, but at least that knife you’ve lodged between their thoracic vertebrae doesn’t take five hours to still their wiggling. And in place of dragons, this one has, I don’t know, shadowy barbarian lands or something.

Look, I’m not sure what a Rokugan is. All I know is that this scorpion has got some sting to it.

"It's authentic, like you're playing atop a silk mat that's been run through the dryer too many times!"

Main complaint, right up front: the washed-out colors.

Battle for Rokugan wears its principal joy right on its sleeve, and it’s what sets it apart from so many of its kin. Set in the hazy territory between Sengoku Japan and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of China, it makes some noise about honor but encourages constant betrayal, backstabbing, and general pettiness whenever an opponent’s soft spot reveals itself. The result is an oppressive atmosphere of setbacks, reversals, bluster, and outright fury, without ever letting those moments become entirely rote.

It’s one heck of a feat, balancing the frequency and impact of its dramatic reversals in that sweet spot between infuriating and tedious. You’ll capture territories and lose them, swapped out with a pawn shop’s sense of constancy. Armies will be cleverly deployed and wasted, and often both at once. And narrative twists will come and go, prompting groans before smoothing right into the game’s ongoing struggle for supremacy.

A lot of this has to do with the way Battle for Rokugan unmoors its players from the notion of permanent ownership over, well, pretty much anything. Geography has value — quite a bit of value, considering that land is the only thing that will grant points once the game’s five rounds are over — which takes shape over the course of your victories and defeats. For example, conquering matching sets of territories will earn special bonus cards that can shape your strategy. But while taking and holding territory is what drives the action, there’s no such thing as a linchpin holdfast. Those special cards I mentioned? They’re single-use, almost never turn the tide of war in favor of a single player, and it’s incredibly rare to see all of them claimed before the game crashes to its conclusion. Instead, land comes and goes as quickly as the tokens you’re using to seize or defend it — swiftly, disposably, and easily replaced.

Ah yes, the pronghats. Today they shall clack and gore.

Evaluating my choices.

This sense of impermanence is baked right into the setup. Everyone gets a single province that belongs to their faction, then picks a bunch of extras that can be placed wherever they like. No ancestral homelands, no “North for Northmen,” none of it. At least not unless you’re willing to toss all your weight into a single arena, which obviously makes it harder to break into new regions or combat a far-flung opponent who’s grown uppity. Instead, you’re free to carve out a homeland or scatter your starting territories like seeds in the wind. Want to control the shadowlands and their magical abilities? Go for it. Create a fortress in the corner of the map? Why not. Claim territories right next to an opponent’s home base? Definitely.

From there, each round centers on a random selection of tokens, which everyone takes turns laying onto the board. These are pleasantly straightforward, stripping out the usual standing soldiery and the need to trundle them from place to place. Armies invade across borders, navies leap across the sea, shinobi can assault otherwise unreachable regions, blessings improve the value of your other tiles, and pretty much anything can bolster your defenses. And employing any of them is as simple as placing a token. That placing them is so dang stressful is just sugar icing, a series of escalating threats that promises to culminate in the board’s transformation.

Crucially, this resolution is Battle for Rokugan’s central font of both drama and hilarity. Once everyone has laid out their tokens, everything is flipped up and resolved at the exact same moment. Inevitably, someone will have wasted a huge army countering a bluff, opposing forces will pass in the night to conquer one another’s regions of origin, and entire mobs will amass on the border of a territory as it declares peace, which locks it out of the game, or gets raided, which does the same but with more burning. This is already enough to prompt a wild laugh or two, but more than that, a successful defense will plop down a little marker that increases that region’s strength and gives its owner an extra point. When anything other than a red-blooded attempt to seize a territory results in a rival growing stronger, it behooves you to pick your fights carefully and wholeheartedly.

But here’s the best part. As certain regions grow more fortified while others are blocked through diplomacy or raids, within a couple of rounds the once-bland map of Rokugan becomes pitted with holes, choke points, and high-value targets. What originally looked like a washed-out mass of largely identical regions becomes a player-engineered battlefield. Over here is the spot where three players lost their armies only to strengthen the defender. Here’s the highest-scoring region in the game (courtesy of one of those single-shot cards), which has traded hands three times. There’s the only passage from east to west in the entire middle portion of the map. Not only does Rokugan now have some history to it, but its gameplay is altered by the scars that linger across its landscape.

In this universe, Smokey Bear is a bamboo-chewing panda with a 'tude and he also says the f-word a lot.

Only you can cause wildfires.

With so much going for it, you might be tempted to think that Battle for Rokugan wouldn’t benefit from asymmetry. That’s only because you haven’t seen the way each of its seven factions delineate themselves.

Much like the recent Rising Sun, which cracked the usual asymmetrical complexity problem by giving each side just one simple power that broke the game in their favor, Battle for Rokugan knows better than to go overboard. Here, every side gets two perks. The first and slightest is that everybody’s pool of army tokens is identical except for one addition, whether an extra diplomacy or raid token or a beefed-up blessing, army, navy, or shinobi. Considerable, but doesn’t add even a feather of weight to the proceedings.

The bigger perk is that each side packs a single ability that alters how they approach the game, and without exception these are either insanely powerful or totally despicable, depending on whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. One team ignores the defenses of clan capitals, letting them capture the most fortified spots on the map without trouble. Someone else’s bluff token is actually a sizeable boost to their defense, giving them additional control over their lands and options. There’s the guy who can swap two of his combat tokens before battle, an enormously powerful do-over, especially when paired with one of your limited scout cards. There’s even a jerk who wins ties. Banish the thought.

Of course, it helps that each of these abilities fits cleanly into the whole, shaping the course of the war without ever dominating it. Every clan brings something to the table, a twist that lets them screw with their rivals, while never providing enough of an edge to win based on nothing but their ability’s merits.

War, I presume.

Big important things are happening here. Too bad you can’t know what they are just yet.

Instead, victory in Battle for Rokugan comes down to a whole range of factors, many of them only barely within your control. Your pool of combat tokens is drawn at random every round, each game features its own set of cards to be earned, and even the limp perception that you’re “always” the winning player within your group might swing popular opinion against you. From a certain vantage point, it can look downright chaotic.

However, it isn’t quite as messy as it first appears. Anarchic, yes, but never capricious. A skilled player will nearly always find some way to manipulate the course of the war — a banked diplomacy token for when things get too hot in one particular region, carefully cultivated table alliances (or at least détentes), the occasional dash of magic to sweep away an invader you can’t otherwise deal with. It’s true that Battle for Rokugan places you in a raft and sets you spinning toward the waterfall, but at least it gives you a sturdy pair of oars for maneuvering.

And if you happen to spill over the edge anyway, the central advantage of the whole thing is that it can wrap up in a literal hour, maybe ninety minutes if your friends are prone to overthinking their moves. This is where Battle for Rokugan trumps A Game of Thrones despite jettisoning so many of that game’s systems, because it’s hard to get too infuriated at a game of backstabbing when the whole thing is this smooth, this lucid, and this fast. It’s hard to beat any game that offers this many dramatic reversals within such a compact framework.

Then again, maybe the game stinks and I’m backstabbing you. That would be appropriate.

Posted on March 23, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Based off of the art and graphic design, safe to assume that Age of War is happening juuuust a few miles off the edge of the map, while the mountains are filled with monks engaging in Onitama.

    • That’s how it looks to me as well. All the L5R reference materials make it sound very Japanese, but the distribution of clans across the map feels way more Five Dynasties.

  2. I think I need to pick this up.

  3. Alexandre Limoges

    I need this game too! What did you think of the secret objectives, though? They usually annoy me in games, and those look most particularly problematic (for me) from what I read (large part of final scoring, potentially unbalanced, etc.).

    • I’ve never really minded secret objectives, so they didn’t even register here. One bonus, though, is that it’s possible to ignore them and focus entirely on spreading your territory. I’ve seen a solid handful of victories from players who hadn’t touched their personal objective.

      • Alexandre Limoges

        I guess that the issue I have with them (now that I played the game too) is:

        1. Some grant as many as 10 points – not necessarily the hardest ones – while some are worth 3.

        2.Some objectives target the starting lands of some players who might not be targets themselves, while other players get to score points to hold territories neutral at the start. This is just an example to say that I feel that those objectives are strangely balanced.

        3. But really, what I find very strange is that they are not scaled according to the number of players. In a 2-player game, The Way of Humility (holding less than 10 territories) is an entirely different achievement that it is with 5 players, when it’s actually rather easy to achieve and pays a lot. Conversely, territorial objectives are much easier with 2 players than they are with 5. It feels like they would have needed objective cards for 2-3 players and another set for 4-5 – at the least.

        I have the strange impression that they thought of this mechanism late when players counted points at the start of turn 5 and found they could know exactly where things stood. I am not against a mechanism that makes final scores a little murkier to avoid kingmaking and leader bashing, but I feel that something needs some tweaking here.

        In any case, I really loved the games we played. I have found that your comments about how the board evolves, scars, even, throughout the game, was really interesting. They really got it right with this game.

      • I don’t necessarily disagree with any of your points. Especially number three, though for a different reason — because FFG really shouldn’t be advertising that this game works with two or three players. Bad FFG! Silly FFG! It’s a game of betrayal and diplomacy! It requires four or five feuding players to function!

        The thing is, though, I’m not sure these complaints matter all that much when stacked up against what the secret objectives add to the game. As you rightly pointed out, the secret objectives prevent points-counting in the last turn, which would drag the game to a standstill and probably make its final act far more bitter than it already is.

        Speaking only for myself, I tend to get more angry at betrayal as a game demands more time investment. A betrayal in this game represents a loss of a portion of an hour, while a betrayal in Twilight Imperium might shatter three or four hours of trust.

        But, hey, you might be right that FFG slapped the whole objective system together at the last minute. They sure as heck did that very same thing for Fallout, so why not here? In this case, though, I think it “works” well enough that I’m not too bothered by it.

      • I agree the secret objectives could have used more balancing. As a minor tweak, I ask players at the start of a game to request a new objective card if they are dealt one that rewards owning their own starting territory/castle.

        My other query re: balancing was the “first player card”, which allows you a free action (dismiss an opponent’s token back to their pool). I can understand why they want to balance a 4 or 5 player game, as going first is a considerable disadvantage (as that means 3 or 4 players get to place tokens after you on the last turn). But it seems too strong an ability for 2 or 3 players. But…. yeah, basically this game should be played with 4 or 5.

        Otherwise, I super love this game–so fast, so easy to teach, super tense but not in a hurt-your-brain way. I actually like the pastel colour scheme a lot, it’s quite pretty. And unlike area-control games where someone just gets a huge lead and no one can do anything about it, this one is always in flux and people are engaged throughout.

      • Good idea on the re-drawn secret objective, Nate.

        And, yeah, I would never play this game with only two or three players. It shouldn’t even be an option.

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