Ro Ro Ro Your Rokugan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.