Saturday, November 06, 2010

Mito Komon’s Coming To Town: Holiday Gifts For Japanese History Buffs

That jolly old soul with the white beard and hair recently paid a visit to the Samurai Archives, and along with him came several new Japanese wargames and RPG’s. No, it wasn’t Santa, or even our father-in-law, but rather Mito Komon-the Edo period hero who proved that the Tokugawa really were the good guys. The wizened Tokugawa scion brought along Sanada Yukimura, Shimizu No Jirochou, and Oda Nobunaga to join in the fun along with a bunch of frantically retreating Ming and Korean troops. With New Years and Christmas rapidly approaching, it’s time to start dropping hints to your friends and significant others about some of the items on your personal wish list-and we’re assuming since you’re here, some of them are probably Japanese history related. We’ll have book reviews of some interesting releases in the weeks to come but for now, let’s take a look at some historical simulations, card games, and board games dealing with pre-modern Japanese history-the perfect gift for those looking to replay the past. Everything reviewed here is Japanese language only except for ‘The Imjin War’.

The best of this round of offerings is likely Game Journal #36: Sanada Gunki: Kessen! Osaka No Jin (真田軍記:決戦!大坂の陣, Sanada War Chronicles: Decisive Battle! Siege Of Osaka). This is an update of Tenka Fubu’s 1992 release Sanada Gunki. It’s a strategic/operational level simulation of the Osaka campaigns of 1614-1615. The game has enough specialized rules to make it unique and interesting but not so many that it becomes overly complex and bogged down. Played on a well done map of Japan from Owari to west of Osaka, it employs a standard hexagonal movement grid. The counter sheet and orders of battle are excellent, sorting the different forces (Tokugawa vassals, Tokugawa allies, Toyotomi retainers, and Toyotomi allies/ronin) by color. The Tokugawa forces outnumber the Toyotomi by roughly two to one, but the Toyotomi are given a shot at surviving by the strength of most of their units. While this was done to balance the game, it works against it from a simulation standpoint. The Toyotomi units did tend to perform better in the battles, but is Sanada Yukimura’s small personal force really twice as strong as the main Tokugawa force under Ieyasu? For that matter, is Akashi Teruzumi’s detached force (which historically performed miserably, getting lost and missing the battle) one and a half times more effective than Ieyasu’s? The Toyotomi army also has the advantage of being able to hole up in Osaka castle when things go bad, an extremely hard nut to crack for the Tokugawa (and something they almost have to take to win). There are plenty of other castles and objectives to take for both armies. It’s well balanced and games played between two players of similar skill will go down to the final turns.

There are scenarios for the Winter campaign of 1614 and the summer campaign of 1615. There are also three ‘what-if’ scenarios. What if Sanada Masayuki had lived to take command of the Toyotomi forces? If Fukushima Masanori had deserted the Tokugawa and thrown his support back to the Toyotomi? And finally, what if it had been Ukita Hideie who had returned from exile to take command in 1614? Sanada Gunki is an excellent old school wargame that might be Game Journal’s strongest offering to date. The magazine has several articles on the Osaka campaigns, including an historical overview, designer’s notes, a phase by phase illustration of how the action unfolded in real life using the game components, and even a manga strip with gameplay tips. Comparisons of various Sengoku related wargames, reviews of other new releases, and articles on non-samurai related wargaming round out this excellent package.

Japanese History War Game Quarterly #7 features Nagashino: Shitaragahara Kassen (長篠:設楽原合戦, Nagashino: Battle Of Shitaragahara), the famous 1575 battle where the allied forces of the Oda and Tokugawa effectively ended the threat of the Takeda. Strangely enough, this tactical level game features area movement on a map that encompasses not just the main battlefield but also the area around the besieged Nagashino castle. A hex based map would have been far better for this level of game, but it’s not totally unexpected since JHWGQ hasn’t produced a hex game yet. The map itself is quite an ugly and abstract piece of work. As with most games that appear in this publication, there are cards to introduce random elements into the battle (like the weather changing, rendering the Oda guns useless). The counter mix is by far the best part of this offering-the oversized counters are broken down into generals for both sides and the Oda/Tokugawa forces have two for each commander-one used for equipping them with guns and one without. Yes, as if being outnumbered historically by almost three to one isn’t bad enough for the Takeda, they don’t know until battle is joined which of the Oda forces have guns-and for that matter what commander is where, since units are hidden until engaged (but all of the Takeda forces are clearly identified from the get-go). There’s great cover artwork featuring Takeda Katsuyori and a glowering Oda Nobunaga, and you’d swear it was Darth Vader being depicted on Oda’s in-game counter. As a bonus, there’s a code exposed when the game components are removed from the bubble that allows you to download a Vassal module for Nagashino from JHWGQ’s website. At any rate, it’s a fast play and has a high fun factor.

There have been several changes made in the format of JHWGQ with this issue. Some are minor-the magazine is now printed ‘Western style’, opening and being read from the ‘front’ (with the game components now in a bubble on the right side of the opened magazine rather than the left). Some are medium-the rules for the issue’s game are now printed separately instead of being part of the magazine, somewhat hurting the cohesiveness of the product as a whole. Some are major-there’s now only 16 pages to the magazine, just about half of what JHWGQ #1 had. A bit of this is due to not including the rules, but other content (such as reviews of DVD’s that tie in with the issue’s subject matter) have been eliminated. What’s there is fine-an overview of Oda Nobunaga’s army and various battles it took part in, an historical article on the Battle of Nagashino, set-up instructions and an introduction to wargaming, and an examination of the campaign using the game map and components to illustrate how the battle played out in real life. JHWGQ has been losing steam the past few issues with content being scaled back and using less polished components-probably cost cutting measures that bode ill for the future. Hopefully they’ll be back on track in issue 8, with a game depicting the action of the Bakumatsu.

Sengoku Daimyo Card Game: Kunitori! (戦国大名カードげーム:くにとり!, Steal The Nation!) combines the best of both possible worlds: a Sengoku period province grabbing game and hot anime chicks. Yes, all your favorite daimyo from the warring states are rendered as women in this game by some of Japan’s best known manga artists. Whether it’s the cutesy-pie flat chested Hideyoshi or brassy lingerie-wearing Oda Nobunaga strutting around with her big boobs spilling out, these famous historical figures take on a whole new dimension. This 270 card non-collectible set (meaning you get the whole thing at once-none of this ‘false collectible’ rare card and booster sets crap) from Arclight not only has novelty appeal but is a solid gaming experience as well. Like most card games, it’s easy to pick up and play but will take some time to master all its subtleties. Up to six players can compete and games can be finished in 30-60 minutes. Enlist the help of foreign traders, boost your economy, mash enemy daimyo, and check out Nobunaga’s rack. Go ahead-you know you want to.

‘The Imjin War’ is a condensed 16 page booklet produced for use with the Killer Katanas 2 (tsk, tsk-a plural Japanese word) miniatures game system. It contains information and rules for putting together miniature Ming Chinese and Korean armies and pitting them in battle against Japanese forces during the Bunroku/Keicho campaigns (Hideyoshi’s Invasions of Korea in the 1590’s). There’s a nice level of detail here, giving the mainland Asian forces plenty of armament and artillery options. Ming armies are rated differently for northern and southern troops and Korean forces are divided into regular army, Righteous Army, and armed monks. Sorry, no provisions for naval warfare, so Admiral Yi cultists will have to wait for another day. While the KK system is probably the most accurate and detailed English language rules system portraying tactical samurai warfare, this particular rules set tends to result in fairly balanced battles, coming up with rather ahistorical results. This is easily rectified by dropping the morale factors for Chinese troops (always) and (depending on the battle and type of forces) Korean troops by one. Then you’ll be seeing battles that play out accurately. For further fine tuning, try raising/lowering the morale of Japanese troops according to their supply status in a particular battle. Author Brian Bradford has been selling these booklets on eBay, but interested gamers might want to wait until early November when his full scaled ‘Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasion’ sourcebook comes out. The sourcebook will contain the rules found in ‘The Imjin War’ plus scenarios of notable battles and lots of background information such as illustrations of Ming banners and flags. Unfortunately, it appears that Kenneth Swope has had some input into the finished product, so it might be skewed in favor of a powered up Ming army-but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed by lowering a factor here or there.

For those not familiar with the KK2 system, it’s well worth checking out even if you’re not a gamer. Brian’s base set and supplements give some of the better information to be found about most of the major Sengoku daimyo and their campaigns in English (although a lot of it is taken from Rekishi Gunzou mooks and the notoriously unreliable Japanese General Staff written histories of the 1890’s, so be forewarned). You can contact Brian on the Yahoo ‘Asian War’ group for more information.

Our wife Ayame recently visited from Japan and gifted us with some older games we hadn’t known about. The following two games have been out for a couple of years, but are worth a look for their depictions of subject matter not usually covered in samurai era sims.

While Command Journal Japan #75 touts two WWII German vs Russian games as the main attractions, what we’re interested in is Toukai Yuukyou Den: Jirochou Sangoku Shi (東海遊侠伝:次郎長三国志, Eastern Gangster Legend: Jirochou’s Three Provinces Record). This is a game simulating the Edo area Yakuza turf wars of the late Edo/early Meiji periods. It’s based on the well known Japanese novel Jirouchou Sangoku Shi that details the adventures of historical Yakuza boss Shimizu No Jirochou (AKA Yamamoto Chougorou). Jirochou was a tremendously popular ‘chivalrous man’ along with being a master swordsman, gang mediator, philanthropist and a type of ‘Robin Hood’ figure in Japanese lore-he’s been the subject of dozens of films and novels. As indicated by Jirochou’s name, the object is to control Yakuza activity in the areas between Edo and Kyoto. There are several factions in the game (including Shogunal inspectors sent to control them) and the counters represent individual figures from history (and sometimes fictional ones). There are oyabuns, sub-bosses, enforcers, soldiers, and the occasional ronin bodyguard. The rules system covers a lot of options and has interesting ‘chrome’ rules, giving the gameplay that seedy Yakuza feel. The map features area movement with the different famous major roads of Japan (such as the Tokaido) playing a large part in strategy. Overall, the gameplay is quite like that seen in War Game In Japanese History’s #1 ‘Shinsengumi’ game (reviewed earlier in this thread). For fans of Zatoichi and Yakuza films, this game will have a lot of appeal and is an interesting break from the conventional battle games that usually appear in Command Journal. The reverse side of the map has a cool 'woodblock' look to it with illustrations and doubles as a fourth game-Meiji Zankyouden Sugoroku (明治残俠伝雙六, Meiji Yakuza Tales Sugoroku). Sugoroku is a simple Japanese dice game, in this case playing off the 'Showa Zankyouden' film series. It features the Yakuza as well (zankyouden means 'remaining chivalry' and is often used to describe the Yakuza). The main magazine also contains articles that give mini biographies for each of the figures in the counter mix and one that gives a history of the Yakuza in the Kanto area in the 1800’s. You also get the two other WWII games and loads of reviews, gameplay tips, and (non-samurai related) historical articles, making this issue a great value.

‘RPGamer’ is a Japanese magazine that touches every facet of Role Playing Games, from Call of Cthulhu to Star Wars to D & D-horror, SF, fantasy, and more. Issue #12 focuses on historical roleplaying, featuring Shibaiyuugi: Mito Komon (芝居遊戯:水戸黄門, Drama Game: Mito Komon). Mito Komon is the historical Tokugawa Mitsukuni, a member of the Tokugawa Mito branch family and an historian who began to put together the massive ‘Dai Nihonshi’ (‘Great History Of Japan’) that took around 200 years for the Mito branch to complete. Mitsukuni was said to have wandered the length and breadth of Edo period Japan incognito in his research efforts. Folk legend had it that using the guise of retired wealthy merchant Mito Komon he righted wrongs, broke up criminal gangs, and punished corrupt officials along the way. The Mito Komon legends have been the source for dozens of Edo period and modern novels along with a long running TV series and several movies. The game allows you to recreate these adventures of the elderly Mito and his two energetic young aids (and whatever other playable characters you might care to roll up), presumably pausing at the penultimate moment to dramatically flash an inro with the Tokugawa crest emblazoned on it just to show those punks who it is they’re REALLY dealing with. There’s a detailed 24 page rulebook/sourcebook with small scale maps for all sorts of Japanese environments-farming village, fishing village, small town, way station, daimyo mansion, etc. There are game markers to represent the forces of good and evil and a very nice three panel gamemasters screen. The latter has a map of Edo period Japan on one side with all of the provinces, major towns, and road networks displayed. The reverse side has all the tables needed to play this entertaining and colorful RPG. For anyone putting together Japanese themed RPG’s or even aspiring authors, it’s a great resource. The magazine has a huge variety of articles and reviews, including one that examines the different releases over the years in the ‘Japanese Historical RPG’ genre. Even better, it covers both English language (Sengoku, Gurps Japan, Land Of The Rising Sun, Ninja, and lots more) and Japanese releases-surprisingly, there seems to be more of these in English (although the Japanese releases appear to have lots more color, flavor, and chanbara feel to them).

Other highlights include reviews of ‘Edo period’ DVD’s to add flavor to any campaign, several manga strips (our favorite being a long one that pits ‘Mito Komon Vs Mobile Great Buddha’), ads for every RPG game ever released here or abroad, and overdeveloped gals in sailor suits with blazing automatics. Japanese publications almost always figure out a way to work hot chicks into the mix, and I for one appreciate their heartfelt efforts to gain my entertainment yen.

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