Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan ★★★★★ | Review

Japan was unified by three feudal lords. The first, Oda Nobunaga, spent twenty years bringing the nation under his power. After being betrayed, Toyotomi Hideyoshi governed for a decade before his death. The last one, Tokugawa Ieyasu, would create a dynasty after a military campaign lasting seven weeks. Matt Calkin’s Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan tells that story, in one of wargaming’s best and most elegant designs.

BLOCK WARFARE

Sekigahara is a block wargame. Units are represented by wooden pieces, whose characteristics are not visible to the opponent. Like in Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign and Hammer of the Scots, this is a way to represent the fog of war. Players cannot know the exact composition of the opposing army, only how many blocks it’s made of.

In real life, the Sekigahara campaign was defined by the dubious loyalty of its forces. Each side was composed of a myriad of smaller clans, each with their own interests. At the outset of the namesake battle, the forces of Ishida Mitsunari outnumbered Tokugawa’s by 45.000 men. Soon after it started, six different clans would change their allegiance, turning the balance of the conflict upside down.

The game reflects this through cardplay. Blocks can be moved freely, but in order to make them participate in battle, we must spend a card of their clan. An army, no matter how large, is defenseless without this support. And yet, we may not be able to afford their loyalty. Cards are extremely limited and managing them well is the single most important strategic consideration in the game.

After all, cards are used for everything. We get only five per two sets of turns, and we must already spend one to bid for turn order. This leaves four, unless we want to move more than one army. If so, we must spend another card, reducing that number to just three. And, while they can be kept from round to round, half of them are discarded in the process.

Given that each side is composed of four different clans, it’s impossible to keep all units ready for battle. Even when the conflict grows in scope and we start getting 6, 7 or 8 cards per hand, it’s never enough. We must carefully plan our advances to ensure troops will fight when we require them to. When can we lay siege to a castle? Is it safe to move out if we can’t defend a stack?

The trick is that blocks of the same clan get a bonus if revealed one after another. Two pieces of three add up to seven, the necessary threshold to kill an enemy block. And cards spent in battle are immediately replaced. The game actively rewards aggression with more cards to fight with. All it asks from us is to keep our clans in rotation, making them work together despite their differences.

This is where the board comes in. Heavily asymmetrical, it never fails to provide difficult choices. Every castle in the map, as well as any other point of interest, can be approached in at least two different ways. Taking the long road from Edo to Aizu castle, for example, might allow us to bring more troops, but it’s also possible to lay a quick siege from Sendai at the cost of a card. It’s up to us to decide which one is the better strategy.

PRESSURE

It’s hard to overstate how much pressure Sekigahara puts on its players. The forces loyal to Ishida cut the map from east to west, splitting Tokugawa’s territory with two inconvenient castles. The latter, however, has control of Japan’s most important roads and a rallying point where they meet. Within a turn, all armies in the game will be within strike distance of one another.

If the possibility of being attacked on all fronts does not make us cautious, the opportunity to reply in kind almost certainly will. Leaving castles is risky. Splitting our troops, even more so. And yet, we can only win by opening ourselves to danger. All our actions may leave a flank open, but we can choose which one is left exposed.

The brilliant part is that it cuts both ways. A successful maneuver on one side, creates an opportunity for the other. This leads to a highly dynamic field of battle where aggression is rewarded. In fact, controlling more castles and resource locations than our opponent gives us an additional card or reinforcement block. This back and forth contributes much of Sekigahara‘s depth and thrill of decision making.

There’s also a subtle rubberband effect. When losing blocks, particularly in sieges, we get additional cards. Given how scarce they are, this has a noticeable effect on loyalty. And, while conquering a castle is a huge victory, leaving one block behind to hold it is no small sacrifice. Most notably, it requires armies to be reinforced, preventing a large one from steamrolling the map.

Lastly, it can all come down in one fell swoop. If either Ishida or Tokugawa are killed, the game immediately ends in a victory for the other side. It’s not a remote possibility, either. Resources are so limited that leaders will always be at the front line. Playing around that risk or actively seeking to win that way makes Sekigahara better and more memorable.

IMPERFECTIONS

Seasoned wargamers might feel disappointed by Sekigahara‘s abstractions. The game is seen from such a far-out perspective that aspects such as terrain or the rain that prevented arquebuses from firing aren’t represented in-game. It is focused almost exclusively on loyalty, to the point it may not be inaccurate to call it a card game with a conflict board.

Thematically, it lacks the romanticism of A Most Dangerous Time or Nobunaga’s Ambition. There are few human elements, even loyalty is seen clinically. And yet, it captures the conflict perfectly. The Sanada clan might have been reduced to a single disc, but its mere presence explains why it was such a thorn for Tokugawa. Historically, they delayed vital reinforcements and the same is likely to happen in the game, if we are not careful.Mechanically, Sekigahara may look pristine. However, it’s true that there are a few small defects. I remain unconvinced by the turn order. Selecting a card in secret and then letting the highest number decide doesn’t seem as clever as the other systems. Tokugawa has better numbers, so spending a card as Ishida feels less like a clever ploy and more like a gamble.

Most importantly, Sekigahara suffers from the same flaw as Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates. Hand management is vital and the entire position of the board is dictated by it. And yet, each battle can result in a completely new hand. Drawing poorly means a stack might not be able to fight at all. Even delaying a siege for one turn can have devastating results.

There are also a few cards that cause blocks to betray their side. If we play one and our opponent doesn’t have the loyalty to back it up, it adds its strength to our side instead of theirs. While tense, they are unreliable and easily played around. My largest success with them hasn’t been in battle, but simply as a high number card to fix turn order.

Fortunately, these flaws are ameliorated through good play. Skilled opponents will not attack stacks unpredictably. The risk of a good draw is high enough that most will let the opportunity pass. In fact, fighting just to see better cards is an important aspect of the game’s strategy. It may not be the most thematic, but it works well and ties into its aggressive appeal.

BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE

Like other games by GMT, the production is of very high quality. The wooden blocks and clan symbols create an appealing view of the battlefield, both traditional and abstracted at the same time. Unlike other titles, the map is large enough to accommodate them, though castles do become obscured when armies are stationed in them. The Spanish version by Devir lists three instead of five blocks to be placed in Aizu castle, but it’s a small typo that only affects setup.

What I value the most about Sekigahara is how simple it is. Its rules can be explained in minutes and a complete game should take less than three hours. There are no small rules or strategic niggles that could derail a match between two beginners. Most importantly, I find it highly replayable. With every match, I become happier to play it and introduce it to others.

I can’t think of a better title to get into wargames. As someone who enjoys them, but only occasionally, it hits a perfect balance of complexity and depth. It’s worth playing for the depth of its decision making alone, not just its setting. The only reason I didn’t include it in my list of the best board games for video game fans is that it might have been a touch too specific.

Sekigahara might not tell us much about the samurai or the greater Sengoku period. But, as a game, it’s a fantastic representation of its most famous conflict. It’s perfect for those who value decision making and tactics. It’s my favourite amongst all wargames I’ve played and I’m glad to have it in my collection.

SEKIGAHARA: THE UNIFICATION OF JAPAN (2011)
DESIGNMatt Calkins
ARTRodger B.MacGowan
Mark Mahaffey
PUBLISHER
GMT Games
Devir
LENGTH180 minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
2 (Best with 2)SCORE★★★★★

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