Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence ★★★★
After the decade-long Ōnin War (1467-1477) ended without a clear victory, Japan fell into a state of constant war and conflict. With the power of the shogunate in tatters and the emperor relegated to a purely ceremonial role, local warlords known as daimyos fought over land and influence, hoping to reunify the nation under their power. It’s a romantic age, an era of change and turmoil in which a newly found meritocracy subverted a social order previously seen as untouchable. Amidst the might of tradition, the chaos of treachery and the smell of gunpowder, laid the opportunity to forever define a country and set its future for centuries to come.
Sphere of Influence, the fourteenth entry in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, let’s you revive that opportunity.
As daimyo, it’s the player’s duty to manage the economic, diplomatic and military aspects of his clan. By recruiting officers and assigning them to different tasks, land can be developed and trade allowed to flourish. Roads can be built to allow faster troop movement and castles can be upgraded and fortified for the inevitable siege. Gaining trust with rival clans can assure safer borders and the soft power of the royal court can momentarily stop an invasion.
But each of these actions carries a cost in gold, which is inevitably in short supply. Trying to keep around severe diplomatic efforts while buying muskets from Western merchants and building the necessary facilities to plant more crops is impossible. To succeed, the player must compromise and, in Sphere of Influence, compromise means risk.
There’s the risk of not being able to keep amicable relationships with the most powerful clans, the risk of being forced into defensive wars or worse, the risk of being forced to compete in numbers to compensate for a lack of guns. The best officers can be seduced away if their greed isn’t being satiated and supplies can run out in battle. Above all, there’s the worst risk of them all: Not taking a chance.
Unlike the vast majority of computer strategy games, turtling isn’t viable. Economic development, while valuable, isn’t enough to trample an opponent, focusing on it over everything else all it does is let already-powerful clans seize the richest lands and hire the best officers. The player must attack swiftly, even before it’s completely safe to do so, or see difficult battles slowly turn into impossible ones. Like Machiavelli said, war is not avoided, just postponed to someone’s advantage.
This probably sounds complex. Yet, it’s not. Sphere of influence has clear, simple mechanics more in line with board games than with the often bloated workings of strategy video games. In fact, the complexity of the game resides almost purely on the consequences of the player’s actions and the impossibility of doing everything at once.
Take economic development, for example. Fortresses and castles work a series of agricultural, commercial and military districts, each providing different resources for the clan and all of them able to be upgraded by investing gold and building facilities. All the player needs to do is click on the “facilities” menu, choose a castle and decide what to build.
There’s a catch, though: These facilities don’t just increase a district’s output, but also that of adjacent ones or even minor variables like innovation, attack power and population growth! Hence economic development quickly reveals itself as a puzzle with the solution chosen by the player. Should conscripts be prioritized at the cost of long-term growth? Will a thriving economic town benefit from defensive upgrades or would those resources be better spent in offense? It’s simple mechanically; strategically, it’s not.
Warfare is a bit more complex, but not by much. The number of troops that can be deployed by each castle depends on its population and level of development while their strength in combat depends on the stats of the officers attached to them. Up to three can be assigned to the same army and each one has a different combat ability.
But in order to fight, the army has to reach the enemy first and depending on the distance and the state of the roads, it may prove a challenge. The terrain of Japan is mountainous and difficult, slowing down troop movement and allowing brave generals to shut down key routes if the enemy is not properly coordinated. Armies can only carry up to four months of supplies with them and between battles, movement and sieges it’s extremely easy to run out of food right in the middle of the enemy clan.
The enemy can be fought, either automatically on the overmap, or manually and despite the massive mechanical difference between the two they actually follow the same principles: Armies can only attack to what is in front of them and they receive more damage if they are being attacked by several armies at once, no matter their size. The result is an intricate dance in which armies try to put the enemy in a pincer and hit with a well-timed ability, crushing their rivals.
It’s not easy. If a unit remains under musket fire for too long or is hit by a cavalry charge, it may become confused and take massive amounts of damage. The best officers like Motonari Mori or Masamune Date can decimate whole armies on their own and even minor figures can combine forces to turn battles around. Holding back the button before unleashing an attack is an exhilarating experience and the tension and worry of seeing your numbers go down is incredibly compelling.
Yet, my favourite part of the game is not war, but diplomacy. Sphere of Influence has the most streamlined diplomacy system I’ve ever seen in a video game and also one of the best. Here’s how it works: The player sends an officer with some gold to the main base of an enemy clan and turn over turn he’ll work to gain trust with them. After a while and depending on how much there’s accumulated, different deals become available.
Seems simple? There’s a catch: Unlike the computerized opponents of the average strategy game, the AI in Sphere of Influence plays to win. If it senses an opportunity, it seizes it. If it can form an alliance to defend against other player, it does and if a castle is left undefended, it jumps in for the siege. It’s tense, fun and scary; attacks might come from anywhere and only ephemeral alliances with the right clans can stop them.
But who are the “right clans”? Not all of them were equally powerful during the Sengoku period. Some, like the Takeda, the Shimazu or the late Hojo clan were major players that commanded vast amounts of men and land, while others, like the Suzuki or the Nanbu only had a minor amount influence. And the game reflects that. All of them are playable and have their own geographical idiosyncrasies, making them the “right” clans to depending on the current situation.
Because it’s not always better to ally with the strongest clans. They are, after all, the biggest obstacles on the road towards unification and will aggressively expand if left to their own devices. The player must keep the balance of power through pacts, coalitions and the swift defense of key allies or be swallowed by the ever-changing political reality. Not even the small clans are cannon fodder, the difficult terrain and the support of other clans makes every castle a challenge.
I remember one game, as the small but proud Sanada clan, where I found myself sandwiched between the powerful Ishida and Tokugawa. Having disrupted the course of history by attacking the latter during the decisive battle of Sekigahara, my clan had grown to the point that a massive battle for Japan was inevitable and I had to choose who I was going to support.
I could have allied with the Uesugi and the Date and formed a coalition against the Tokugawa, but that would have left my rear exposed and give up control over the rich lands of Owari. I could have befriended the Mori and the Chosokabe to crush the Ishida, which would have let Tokugawa clean up the rest of the country without opposition. Up North, the Maeda could be easy prey or a vital ally but treating them the wrong way could spell doom for my clan.
This is what I love about Nobunaga’s Ambition: It plunges the player into the turmoil of the Sengoku period by making him take the same kind of choices the people of the period did. The whole game is drenched in history and small vignettes punctuate historical events. I didn’t just see the fall of the Imagawa or the Honnō-ji incident unfold before my eyes, I actively took part on them.
Sphere of Influence is not an airtight design. The constant shuffling of officers, the limitations of the Historical Quest System and the way the economic side of the game becomes less important after a certain point in the game all put a serious cap in what it can achieve. Clans are mostly differentiated through geography and their officers, making them fall prey to homogenization and the dated, occasionally cardboard-like graphics are extremely unimpressive.
Sometimes, especially after an easy playthrough, I’m left wishing for a an extra bit complexity or a little more depth, a small stroke of genius that raised the game from great to classic status.
And yet…none of these flaws get in the way of my enjoyment. In the first months of owning the game I racked over three hundred hours of playtime over at least a dozen sleepless nights and its powerful, romantic orchestral soundtrack has become a mainstay on my phone. It has made me watch Kagemusha and Ran and taught me about a past that, otherwise, I would never have seen.
|NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION: SPHERE OF INFLUENCE (2015)|
|ORIGINAL NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION (1987) DESIGN||Kou Shibusawa|
|GAME DIRECTION||Hiroyuki Koyama||DESIGN||Hiroshi Kimata|
|DEVELOPMENT||Koei Tecmo Games Ltd. Co.||PRODUCTION||Kenichi Ogasawara, Kou Shibusawa|
|MUSIC||Masako Otsuka (Main game music), Budapest Art Orchestra, Budapest Art Choir, et al. (Performances). Additional compositions and performances by various other artists including staff from previous titles in the series (Yoko Kanno, et al.) and specialists in tradicional Japanese instruments|