Monday, December 19, 2011

Evil Spirits, Smelly Swordsmen, and Drunks: Albe Pavo's "Sake & Samurai"

Hiya, kids! It’s yer old pal, the Brickster, settin’ pen ta paper in his inaugural offerin’ on the SA’s Shogun-ki. Now, while some may take this as a sign of the Age of Mappo’s advent, the rest’a you can enjoy my hard-hittin’ commentary on the important issues of the day-as long as the day in question happened in pre-modern Japan. While we were gonna do a review of some sweater vest-wearin’ college egghead’s thesis on why everyone that likes “Kill Bill” and “The Last Samurai” is a die-hard racist, instead, we’re gonna take a look at the excellent new card/board game “Sake & Samurai” from Albe Pavo. I mean, who’s more familiar with either sake or samurai than the Brickster? And as a special bonus, we’re not only doin’ a review of this kewl game but includin’ an interview with the game’s designer, Matteo Santus! Before we commence to reviewin’, here’s the backstory to the game from its official press release:

“A few samurai warriors are sitting at a table in a small inn, talking and bragging about swords, women and honour. Sake flows freely, but not even the cellars of Bishamon, the God of War, could quench the thirst of Japan’s greatest swordsmen. Servants run for cover, knowing full well where all this is going. Suddenly an eerie silence fills the common room. On the table, only one full cup remains. Who will get the last drink? Will it be the elder of the group, or shall the greatest warrior have it? Time seems to stretch to infinity, until one hand makes a move towards the cup. Such insolence! This insult shall not be tolerated! The elder goes for his sword... We shall never know whether the bold samurai was taking the cup for himself or only to hand it over to his venerable companion. It does not matter: all warriors take offense and draw their katana, joining the fight at the call of SAAKEEE!”

YEEESSSSSSS!!!!! Admit it-you’ve seen this scenario in one form or another in practically every chanbara or jidaigeki film ever made, especially those starrin’ Mifune Toshiro. Most samurai had more arrogance and shorter fuses than your average gang-banger. And now you can bring the action of those thrillin’ films of yesteryear home in the ultimate party game for samurai otaku-“Sake & Samurai”. When I first heard about this game from Tatsu over at the SA, I KNEW I had to have it, and he was able to set me up with one. Even better, I was able to get a copy of the special ‘Superalcoholic Edition’ that was released for the Lucca Comics & Games convention in Italy-after all, the Brickster deserves nothin’ less! The game is good for three-eight players (nine for the special edition), although you can make do with two (each playin’ two samurai). It takes about 35 minutes to finish with four players. The first thing we noticed is that the game components are extremely well done-they’re sturdy and will hold up to repeated play. The artwork is exemplary (yeah, I used a thesaurus)-very detailed, attractive, and each of the nine characters has a completely unique look. The sake drink markers are cool little pieces of clear glass.

The object of the game is to be the drunkest samurai still standin’ at the end of the Sudden Death round. In game terms, drunkenness is judged by the amount of sake drinks taken from the masu by each player. This isn’t as easy as it sounds-each drink taken impairs the abilities of the swordsmen, and grabbin’ too many too early will make players a hooched up stumblebum unable to defend themselves. Sake can be burned up in an emergency to play an extra card or draw a card at an opportune moment, but then you’ve lost it for good. Players who ignore drinkin’ in order to concentrate on swordplay and killin’ their opponents run the risk of lettin’ a low lyin’ lush squeak by with the win-not to mention givin’ the dead players a good shot at ultimate victory. Ya see, when you’re killed in the game, you don’t drop out-you become an onryo (a spirit with a GRUDGE) and a minion of the jealous and thirsty God of Death, Enma. Enma makes the dead players his slaves, havin’ them work as a team (and usin’ the front of the cards rather than the backs) to steal sake from the masu, torment the livin’, or use their awesome magikal powerz to move around sake, cards, and player positions. Yes, you can die and STILL win the game! How cool is that? Only in Japan. As you can see, it’s a delicate balancin’ act each player has to perform-when to drink, when to fight, and even when to die.

Players can choose from such famous swordsmen and warriors as Ito Ittosai, (Yagyu) Jubei Mitsuyoshi, Musashi Miyamoto, Yagyu Munenori, and (in the special edition) Yamanaka Shikanosuke. There are also several characters that weren’t noted as swordsmen-Date Masamune, Hojo Masako, Takezaki Suenaga, and Tomoe Gozen. Sengoku Basara to the contrary, Date wasn’t known as bein’ a particularly good swordsman. Masako was a big time mover and shaker in the late Heian/Kamakura eras, but likely couldn’t tell her tsuka from her kissaki. Takezaki was the bumblin’ samurai whose goofy antics were immortalized in the Mongol Invasion Scrolls. And Tomoe-well, fictional character. But so what? The game designers knew all this, but figured they’d be just as much fun to play as the other guys. Each character has their own special ability and toughness (the amount of wounds they can sustain before dyin’). Players make their own gameboard by placin’ their samurai cards with blocks between each-each block represents one step between opponents, and affects what weapons can be used against a foe. Distances can be closed (which opens up the distance to the opponent on your other side), and you can never pass by a foe, since a’course samurai never give way. At game’s start (before the free-for-all breaks out), each player is sittin’-this allows a one-time Iaido strike while yer still sittin’, but once you stand, you’ll never sit down again-at least while yer livin’.

One of the cooler card mechanics is that you can use the text on the card or one of the four values it gives for movement, attack, defense, or (best of all) drinkin’. This means that there’s really no such thing as a bad hand of cards-every card has somethin’ useful on it. In an emergency, you can also burn up your soul to access the cards that comprise your life force-this costs you wounds and brings you closer to death, but might provide you with the boost you need to avoid a fatal strike or come out on top. For all the options the game gives you, it’s actually pretty easy to learn. It’s a great party game as well since everyone tends to survive one way or the other until endgame.

While goin’ through the rules, we were also amused as hell by the sense of humor the game showed. Whimsical rules abound, like requirin’ the other players to refer to the senior combatant with an honorific added. Since the Brickster was the honored elder, I made ‘em call me “El Conquistador”. Some of the deadliest attacks in the game come from throwin’ riceballs or ramen at your foes, or usin’ some rude bodily function to keep them at bay (like “Strategic Stench”, a technique the historical Musashi was noted for). You can even make your dastardly foes spew up their sake, causin’ em to lose a turn. Minions are provided, and they prove to be perfect cannon fodder for their ‘sensei’, absorbin’ killin’ blows and sacrificin’ themselves on hopeless, idiotic attacks. Albe Pavo has even included an origami masu to place the ‘sake drinks’ in, and they challenge the players to ‘prove themselves’ by foldin’ it up correctly. The game really draws you into the settin’-you’ll have the feel of bein’ in a chanbara film and bustin’ up the local tavern, as well as those other sword-carryin’ clowns who stand between you and the last drink.

While all that technical stuff is great, it remained to be seen just how much fun the game was. So the Brickster put together an all-star team of drinkers from the Studio-me, my wife and co-star Koyori, and two extras that happened to walk by (Mushi Takezo and Chiba Kaede). While you can set the game in several locations (each with its own special benefits and drawbacks), this bein’ our first try we stuck with the sake den. We did amend the rules a bit-samurai boards are supposed to be random but we all picked our own. Takezo took the character he played on season one of “Abarenbo Gaijin”, Miyamoto Musashi. Kaede (who plays one of Ko’s shrine maidens on the show) took Tomoe Gozen. Ko took Hojo Masako, a perfect choice since they’re both gorgeous, intimidatin’, and fearsome women. The Brickster took Date Masamune, since we’re both notorious fer bein’ one-eyed, although in vastly diff’rent ways. We also used our “Ayame, Princess Of The Iris Blossom” plate to hold the sake drinks instead of the origami masu, which the Brickster had ruined earlier by tryin’ it out fer real. And just to add a tad more realism to the proceedin’s, we decided to down a real cup of sake every time we gulped a ‘virtual one’ in the game. There were also penalty cups to be quaffed, just like in every Japanese drinkin’ game, with circumstances to be determined by the Brickster’s infinite wisdom. The gals decided they wanted shochu while the Brickster and Takezo stuck to sake blessed by the deities of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Here’s the initial board setup:

As you can see, the Brickster used “Nomihoudai”, his special sake set crafted by Sen No pRikyu in the 16th century, as a psychological ploy against the other players. Hey, Japanese women can drink most adults under the table, so I needed all the help I could get. Kaede, havin’ the toughest character (Tomoe), was set upon by Takezo and Ko in the early rounds while the Brickster amused hisself by drinkin’ and chuckin’ the occasional riceball at their noggins. Things turned ugly when it dawned on the others that I was bogartin’ the masu, and the Brickster found hisself on the receivin’ end of some deadly thrown chopsticks, a monstrous belch, and brought to his knees by a card that gave him blurred vision. As sloshed as my character was in game terms (not to mention real life), he had nothin’ to play to keep it from happenin’. However, Ko took pity at my plight and knocked Kaede out of the game on the next turn with a three point naginata strike that made her character an instant spirit. This distracted Takezo who turned his attention to Ko, allowin’ the Brickster to take him down for good with a ranged shot of Burning Ramen. Takezo joined Kaede in the spirit world and Koyori drew the final sake drink from the masu-plungin’ us into the Sudden Death round. After the first Sudden Death round, the Brickster and Koyori were tied at three drinks each and the dumbass spirits of Enma had none. Hah! I ain’t fraid’ of no ghost. As per the rules, they had ta commit seppuku because “Pride does not vanish after death”. So that left me and Ko to fight it out for final supremacy.

You’ll notice that the Brickster’s ‘sittin’ counter is still there at endgame. Yeah, that’s right-I got through the entire rumble without havin’ my samurai get outta his chair! This has as much to do with my brilliant strategy as it does Date Masamune (or me) bein’ a lazy bastard. The other players got caught up in swordplay and fightin’ each other, losin’ sight of the final goal-bein’ the drunkest samurai still alive. If I learned anythin’ from Lex Luthor in “Justice League Unlimited” it was to never lose sight of the final goal, and get everyone else to do your dirty work for you. Me, I sat back, knocked down sake every round, instigated the others into attackin’ each other (like “Hey, Kaede, I don’t care what Koyori says-I don’t think yer ass is fat”), and defendin’ myself on the rare occasions I got assaulted. In other words, it was a lot like real life.

Things began to get interestin’ when Kaede, no longer in the struggle but still gamely sluggin’ back shochu, began to perform the traditional Shinto dance “Ama no Uzume”, which looked even better when performed topless. However, a smack to the back of my head by Ko brought me back to the unfoldin’ struggle. Since I was still sittin’, I still had the option of usin’ my deadly Iaido attack and also had a hand fulla kickass cards. I chuckled as I began to slap down the card that would spell Ko’s doom, but she gave that petulant, drunken glare that said “Don’t even THINK about playing that card unless you want the rest of your life to be a barren, living hell”. Rememberin’ that the wise general knows when to lose the battle to win the war, I burned up one of my sake drinks and then played a card that I knew would net me nothin’, makin’ Ko the happy winner and relegatin’ the Brickster to the loser’s circle. But remember what I said about never losin’ sight of the final goal? Ko, bein’ flushed with victory and large amounts of alcohol, unceremoniously booted out our guests and proceeded to take the Brickster as her prize, makin’ me the big winner of the evenin’.

So as you can tell, we had a great time playin’ the game-lotsa laughs and some good competition that went down to the wire. This got the Brickster thinkin’ that it might be fun to see just what the hell was goin’ through the minds of the designers when they put this game together-they’re definitely my kind of people. So we contacted the game’s designer Matteo Santus to find out the story behind this little gem.

BRICK: Tell us a little bit about Albe Pavo-how the company got started, its projects to date, and some projects we can look forward to in the future.

MATTEO: We’re three friends who love boardgames and did game designing for fun for many day I thought: why not publish our projects? They are good! And so here we are, the white peacock was born! We love history, love games and love to fight each other over a board! And also we love to design and to bring new ideas to life!

We have many projects in the works: we are working on a game completely different from our previous ones-its name is WINTER TALES and it's about fables. And we also have other games under development...what do you think of "BEER AND VIKINGS"? It will be stand-alone and compatible with "SAKE & SAMURAI"!

BRICK: Most samurai games revolve around bushido, loyalty, bravery, and all sorts’a BS centerin’ on the myth of the 'noble samurai'. "Sake & Samurai", however, revolves around drunken, violent, and petty ronin swordsmen with attacks like Musashi's "Strategic Stench", vomitin’, and food fights-showin’ the warriors of old Japan as they really were. Why’d you forego the traditional approach and stick to reality?

MATTEO: History is never polished and clean. Bravery, loyalty, bushido, nobility: all so great as to reach the heavens! But Samurai lived on earth and on earth there is mud and dirt and blood and.. Sakeeee!!! Have you ever seen the film "7 Samurai" (Shichinin no Samurai) by Kurosawa? There you can find our kind of Samurais! :D We wanted to portray the code of bushido in the gloom of a tavern, all around the same table with the precious Sake running down! But we did not want to be too serious, so we imagined these dirty versions of the noble samurai! "Take this! Chopsticks in your eyes!!! "

BRICK: Lettin’ defeated players return as spirits to bedevil their former foes (and also gettin’ a shot at a piece of the win) is a brilliant game mechanic. How’d this end up in the game?

MATTEO: If you eliminate from the game one of your friends this could be sad! And in party games this can be a big mistake! Here, if you die, you became a spirit: everybody knows that! And what is worse than an angry spirit with thirst and lust for Sake? But Spirits are dead, so don't do the same things as living people! So we designed their gameplay completely different and we really like the way they play! We've been inspired both in mechanics and graphic design by Japanese histories of ghosts.

BRICK: Was includin’ cards for Hojo Masako and Tomoe Gozen done to get the ladies to try their hands at the game? I’m all fer that!

MATTEO: Surely it is good, but many times ladies want to play as a man: the bigger-dirtier-uglier, the better! And ladies can be really cruel with a sword in their hands…like in Kill Bill!

BRICK: Well, if there was a card for Hagfat in the game, you could be both female and the biggest-dirtiest-ugliest. Speakin’ of which, the artwork for the game looks great and goes well with the theme. Can you tell us a bit more about the artist, Jocularis?

MATTEO: Jocularis is an extremely versatile painter! We plan the game together so he is not only the "visual designer" for Albe Pavo, but has participated in every step of the game design development too. In “Munera” we chose to have a design connected to the "old school" masterpieces of Pompei, for example. Here in Sake, you can see a humorous point of view of the Samurai. This was carefully decided during Game Design steps. The visual aspect of the game should appear perfectly related to the game mechanics and theme. All should work together to give you the experience of a good play: Jocularis is the man trying to resolve this complex design.

BRICK: Guessin’ from the game's backstory and action, it looks like you've seen your share of chanbara and samurai movies. Besides my own classics like “Shogun Sexecutioner” or “Maeda Keiji, Sengoku Stud” what films or TV shows would you suggest watchin’ to set the mood for "Sake & Samurai"?

MATTEO: We loved the movie "The 7 Samurai" of Kurosawa, where the samurai were so human: dirty and rough! Also the manga "Vagabond" about Musashi Miyamoto’s history is really wonderful. About paintings we looked a lot at Hokusai, and all Ukiyo-e Art.

BRICK: What are some “Sake & Samurai” strategy tips you can impart to players?

MATTEO: Strike at the right time at who is drinking more than you: not too early, not too late! And if things get bad, join the dark side: became a spirit!

BRICK: Finally, what’s your opinion on the age old question-"Is it better to have your sake or to drink it?"

MATTEO: Drink it! Then find more and drink again!

BRICK: Thanks, Matteo! Gotta say, I never knew a game designer could have such a sense’a humor. Best’a luck to you and Albe Pavo in the future.

So there ya have it. “Sake & Samurai” is a game that can be appreciated by casual players, chanbara film enthusiasts, and drunks of all persuasions. It’s a pretty easy game to just sit down and play (especially if you grab the ‘quick start’ rules from its page on Boardgame Geek) and unlike some card/boardgames where you can get screwed by a bad hand, your skill at maxin’ out the advantages of your cards is the determinin’ factor. There’s fightin’, drinkin’, bad manners, dancin’, singin’, and hot chicks. Although the dancin’, singin’, and chicks are usually prompted by the drinkin’ rather than built into the game. It’s just like a typical night out at any of Kyoto’s most exclusive nightspots, but you can enjoy it in the privacy of your own home and not have to worry about bouncers, the cops, or high-strung terchy yakuza thugs. “Sake & Samurai” is both fun and challengin’, and the perfect party game. Our group loved it and it’s a good bet you will too-check it out on the Albe Pavo website, or look for it from other online boardgame distributors.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Samurai Archives Introduction to Japanese History Podcast Series

For the past 3 months on the Samurai Archives Podcast, your hosts have been presenting an introduction to Japanese history, from paleolithic Japan to the end of the Sengoku period.  It took a lot of work, and at times felt like quite a chore, but at last we have finished our mini-opus.  We'd like to thank our dedicated listeners for the feedback and questions, and present here a compilation of the entire Introduction to Japanese History series.  Now that the intro series is complete, we'll be bringing you more detailed episodes covering various aspects of Japanese history - and as always, if you have any questions or interests you'd like to see covered in future podcasts, please don't be shy about letting us know.  Feel free to respond to this blog post, or send questions our way on Twitter @samuraiarchives.

If you haven't been following our Introduction to Japanese History series, it goes without saying that you're in for a treat.  At first we expected that it would run about 6 episodes, but in the end it turned out to last 15 episodes, and although quite detailed, we still consider it a relatively brief overview.  Feel free to pick and choose which episodes to listen to - people interested in Samurai battles may choose to skip our treatment of neolithic Japan, or vice versa - so fill up the iPod, and enjoy!

Intro to Japanese History P1 - Prehistory

For part one of our Introduction to Japanese History series, we'll be starting at the beginning of the earliest history of the Japanese archipelago and the changes that took place in culture and technology from the Paleolithic period to the Jomon period, which takes us from prehistory to approximately 300BC.

Intro to Japanese History P2 - Yayoi and Kofun Periods

For part two of our Introduction to Japanese History series, we'll be covering the Yayoi period which was a sharp change from the culture of the Jomon period, where there was a massive influx of NE Asians into the Japanese archipelago. This was followed by the Kofun period, where Japan began to slowly consolidate and unify into a confederacy. The name of the Kofun period comes from the huge keyhole shaped burial mounds known as "Kofun".

Intro to Japanese History P3 - Asuka-Nara Part 1

Continuing our Introduction to Japanese History podcast series, we will examine the Asuka-Nara period over two episodes. The Asuka-Nara period (538AD-794AD) is known for it's classic art and architecture, the introduction of Buddhism, and the Taika reforms and Ritsuryo system. Japan adopted many Chinese style institutions, began to form a national government, and started to assert itself internationally in East Asia.

Intro to Japanese History P4 - Asuka-Nara Part 2

Continuing our Introduction to Japanese History series is part 2 of our Asuka-Nara podcast.
The Asuka-Nara period (538AD-794AD) is known for it's classic art and architecture, the introduction of Buddhism, and the Taika reforms and Ritsuryo system. Japan adopted many Chinese style institutions, began to form a national government, and started to assert itself internationally in East Asia.

Intro to Japanese History P5 - The Heian Period

Part five of our Introduction to Japanese History series covers the Heian period.
The Heian period (794AD-1185AD) is named after Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto). The Heian period is known for it's art, literature, and poetry, as well as the spread of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism.

Intro to Japanese History P6 - The Rise of the Warrior

In this episode of our Introduction to Japanese history series, we examine the rise of the warrior class during the Heian period. As the Heian period began, there was not a distinct warrior class, but armies were raised on an ad hoc basis when needed by the court to put down rebellions, bandits, and pirates. As the Heian period went on, provincial lords began to maintain professional warrior bands to protect their lands and legitimacy, and to go to war on behalf of the court. The court would continue to give these provincial lords legitimacy through bestowing titles and lands. But, as the Heian period went on, court control of these provincial lords and their armies began to weaken.

Intro to Japanese History P7 - The Minamoto and Taira

An important development in the history of Japan and the Heian period, was the rise of the warrior class, which would eventually bring about a true feudal system run by warriors. As more and more military responsibility was delegated to provincial warlords who were out of the sphere of influence of the capital, these warrior houses grew in power. The transition from a central government run by the Heian court to the rise of the warrior class as the controlling group began with the Taira clan, led by Taira Kiyomori, who usurped the power of the Fujiwara clan. Eventually, the only alternative for people who were at odds with the Taira clan, was to throw in their lot with the Minamoto clan of Eastern warriors, which would eventually lead to civil war.

Intro to Japanese History P8 - The Kamakura Period

In part 8 of our Introduction to Japanese History podcast, we examine the early Kamakura period. Once Minamoto Yoritomo became Shogun, he began using the authority given to him by the emperor to solidify his power. Over the course of the next 20 years the Minamoto would usurp much of the power of the imperial court, only to be replaced completely by a line of puppet shoguns controlled by the Hojo Regents.

Intro to Japanese History P9 - The Mongol Invasions in Brief

Part nine of our Introduction to Japanese History series gives a brief overview of the two attempted Mongol Invasions of Japan during the 13th century, and the effect it had on the country in general, and the Hojo regents and Bakufu specifically.

Intro to Japanese History P10 - The Early Muromachi Period

For the 10th episode in our Intro to Japanese History podcast series, we examine the events that lead to the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate. Emperor Go-Daigo, deciding he wants a return to imperial rule without a Shogunate, enlists various warrior families to support him in overthrowing the Kamakura Bakufu and the Hojo regents - however not all goes as planned as Ashikaga Takauji, his ally turned enemy, ends his dream of imperial rule and establishes the Ashikaga Shogunate. Unfortunately for the Ashikaga clan, it's not all rainbows and lollipops for the first 60 years of the Ashikaga Shogunate, as Go-Daigo's supporters set up an alternate imperial line and engage in decades of guerrilla and outright war on behalf of the emperor.

Intro to Japanese History P11 - Prelude to the Sengoku

In this episode of our Introduction to Japanese History series, we look at the 15th century and the build up to the Onin war, and what would ultimately lead to the age of the country at war - the Sengoku period.

Intro to Japanese History P12 - The Early Sengoku Period

After the Onin war in the mid-late 15th century, the centralized power of the Ashikaga Shogunate collapsed, leaving the field open to anyone ambitious and powerful enough to make a grab for power. During the first half of the Sengoku period (approximately 1477-1560) there was massive consolidation as daimyo across Japan solidified their power bases and battled for land and resources. The lack of central government left individual clans to fend for themselves, and in the ensuing chaos many would rise and fall in epic battles that anyone familiar with the pop-culture representations of the Samurai in Movies and Anime would recognize.

Intro to Japanese History P13 - Sengoku Daimyo Who's Who

For the 13th episode of our Introduction to Japanese History series, we present a "Who's Who" of Daimyo of the later Sengoku period. We cover the big names of the Sengoku, the Daimyo that anyone who has an interest in the Samurai would have heard of, and is a primer for those who are new to the Samurai. Introduced in this podcast are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, and others.

Intro to Japanese History P14 - The Wars of Oda Nobunaga

From the 1550's until his death in 1582, Oda Nobunaga was involved in constant warfare. One by one, the major Daimyo of his era - the Imagawa, the Takeda, the Asai and Asakura and others - fell before his armies. This episode, we give a concise history of Nobunaga's ambition to unify the country under his rule, from the pivotal battle of Okehazama that first put him on the national stage, to his betrayal at the hands of Akechi Mitsuhide.

Intro to Japanese History P15 - Tokugawa & Toyotomi Unification

For our final Introduction to Japanese History series podcast, we cover the last part of the Sengoku period. We start with the assassination of Oda Nobunaga by Akechi Mitsuhide in Kyoto while all of his other generals are scattered about the country. Toyotomi (Hashiba) Hideyoshi gets back to Kyoto first and avenges Nobunaga's death, and the unification of Japan continues under him, and then ultimately under Tokugawa Ieyasu. We cover the events and battles of this period, as well as answer some listener Q&A about the Sengoku period.

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Thames & Hudson, July 1, 1999

Batten, Bruce. Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War And Peace, 500-1300
Univ of Hawaii Press, March 2006

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Brown, Delmer (Editor). The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 1: Ancient Japan
Cambridge University Press, July 30, 1993

Brownlee, John. Crisis as Reinforcement of the Imperial Institution. The Case of the Jokyu Incident, 1221
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1975), pp. 193-201

Conlan, Thomas. Friday, Carl. Currents in Medieval Japanese History: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey P. Mass
Figueroa Press (September 1, 2009)

Conlan, Thomas. In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga's Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan
Cornell Univ East Asia Program (August 2002)

Durston, Diane. Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns Kodansha USA; 2 edition (April 1, 2005)

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Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 265-295

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Harvard University Asia Center, April 15, 1996

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Stanford University Press, March 1, 1996

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Routledge; New edition edition (December 29, 2003)

Friday, Karl. Teeth and Claws. Provincial Warriors and the Heian Court
Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1988), pp. 153-185

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Grossberg, Kenneth. Japan's Renaissance - The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu
Cornell University, New York, 2001

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ACLS Humanities E-Book, August 1, 2008

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Univ of Hawaii Press, March 2006

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Cambridge University Press, February 28, 2005

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Routledge, October 24, 1996

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Stanford University Press (January 1, 1995)

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Stanford University Press; 1 edition (January 1, 2000)

Mass, Jeffrey. Lordship and Inheritance in Early Medieval Japan: A Study of the Kamakura Soryo System
ACLS Humanities E-Book (August 1, 2008)

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art 
Published jointly by Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. October 4, 2004

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Vintage; Trade Paperback Edition edition (October 4, 1994)

Mishima, Yukio. Patriotism
New Directions; Second Edition edition (February 24, 2010)

Morillo, Stephen. Guns and Government: A Comparative Study of Europe and Japan Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 75-106

Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 1, 1988)

Neilson, David Society at War: Eyewitness Accounts of Sixteenth Century Japan PhD Dissertation University of Oregon, 2007

Ooms, Herman. Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800
Univ of Hawaii Press, October 2008

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334
Stanford University Press, 1958

Souryi, Pierre. The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society (Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture)
Columbia University Press (August 27, 2003)

Toby, Ronald. Review: Rescuing the Nation from History: The State of the State in Early Modern Japan Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 197-237

Verschuer, Charlotte Von. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu's Foreign Policy 1398 to 1408 A.D.: A Translation from Zenrin Kokuhōki, the Cambridge Manuscript Monumenta Nipponica Volume 62, Number 3, Autumn 2007

Yamamura, Kozo. Imatani, Akira. Not for Lack of Will or Wile: Yoshimitsu's Failure to Supplant the Imperial Lineage
Journal of Japanese Studies Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 45-78

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan Kodansha Amer Inc; 1st edition (September 1992)

Zollner, Reinhard. Review: The Sun Also Rises. Go-Daigo in Revolt
Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 517-527

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Winning Book, Loser Samurai: Tadashi Ehara’s “Shogun & Daimyo”

A while back the SA profiled Tadashi Ehara’s “Gamer’s Guide to Fedual Japan: Daimyo of 1867”. The book profiled all of the families that held daimyo status when the Tokugawa Bakufu returned power to the Imperial Family in 1867. While intended to serve as a guide for gamers, authors, screenwriters, and artists it also proved to be a valuable reference for historical purposes. It was intended as the first of a two part effort, the second of which has just been published. “Gamer’s Guide to Feudal Japan: Shogun & Daimyo-Military Dictators of Samurai Japan” proves to be a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. As author Ehara implies in the press release, the two books could in effect be called “Winners and Losers of the Samurai Era”. This would in effect be the “Losers” volume, covering the multitude of clans that died out, were dispossessed, destroyed in battle, or otherwise lost their holdings from the late Heian era to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. While the daimyo discussed can be termed ‘losers’ they’re some of the most famous families in Japanese history-the Taira, Minamoto, Toyotomi, Takeda, Otomo, Asai, Imagawa, Ashikaga, Kamakura Hojo, and Chiba being just a few. And while these clans might be termed losers, “Shogun & Daimyo” proves to be a winner.

Author Tadashi Ehara has a long history in the gaming industry, having been involved with Chaosium Publications and their primary line “The Call of Cthulhu” as well as being the publisher of “Different Worlds” magazine. Being born in Sapporo, Japan, Tadashi developed an interest in the history of his homeland that came to the forefront when he was gifted with a copy of E. Papinot’s classic “Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan” in the 1980’s. It formed the basis for “Daimyo of 1867”, and while still an inspiration for “Shogun & Daimyo”, Tadashi told the SA that he incorporated much more from other sources for the new book.

Ehara is frank in his admission that “this is not a scholarly piece of work”. Despite this, Shogun & Daimyo’s main sources are for the most part pretty impressive and standard college level texts. Some of them include William Deal’s “Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan”, Papinot’s “Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan”, Edwin Reischauer’s “Japan: The Story of a Nation”, Kenneth Grossberg’s “Japan’s Renaissance”, John Whitney Hall’s “Japan Before Tokugawa”, and other works by Paul Varley, Hiroaki Sato, and Conrad Totman among others. The Samurai Archives is also listed as a source (so it MUST be accurate, eh?). The book is generally laid out three columns to the page and contains hundreds of illustrations, photos, prints, family trees, and crests. It’s a nice looking trade paperback and weighs in at over 335 pages. While it might not be suitable for, say, writing a college dissertation on “Rice Weighing Methods of the Merchants of Sakai During the 11th Month of Bunroku 2” or even “Why Kiyomori Wasn’ t A Daimyo Even Though The Heike Monogatari Calls Him One” ;), you won’t find a better sourcebook for gamers (whether of the RPG variety or historical variety), authors, or amateur historians.

The book’s first section gives some background information such as how to pronounce Japanese kana and also details how certain things will be represented in the book-for example, the Japanese calendar and the order of Japanese names. It’s followed up by a timeline extending over several pages that gives a short history of the different eras from about 35000 BC to 1868. After that is an examination of the governmental systems employed by the Imperial Court, the Kamakura Shogunate, the Muromachi Shogunate, and the Tokugawa Shogunate. The organizational charts and explanations of offices for each will make this section alone a great reason to pick up the book. If you’ve ever wondered how the sometimes bewildering mishmash of offices, titles, and positions relate to each other, this will lay it all out in black and white.

After that comes biographies of the different men who held the office of “Shogun” under the Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa. There are also bios given for the Hojo Shikken (regents) who took over from the Minamoto, along with the puppet Shoguns from the Fujiwara and Imperial Family (yes, strange as it seems, Imperial Princes actually served as Shogun at one point). Family trees for the Hojo, Ashikaga, and Tokuagawa are included. Going through this section will give the reader an excellent overview of the flow of Japanese history during the majority of the samurai era.

Following that is the real meat and potatoes of the book-a listing of over 170 daimyo clans with the clan mon, biographies of well-known family members, descriptions of their holdings, and the occasional family tree. It’s lavishly illustrated and a gold mine of information on the more notable figures of the samurai era. The entries are broken up into eras with each of the clans being listed in the era it ceased to be a player. While this is a bit confusing at first, it’s rescued by an excellent dual purpose index sorted into clans and individuals. The index also lists (in italics) all of the corresponding entries in the earlier volume “Daimyo of 1867”, so you can quickly find virtually any samurai of import with little trouble. Some of the entries further split clans into different branches-for example, the Saga-Genji, Daigo-Genji, Murakami-Genji, Uda-Genji, and Seiwa-Genji branches of the Minamoto. Some of the biographies are quite extensive, running a page or more. As with “Daimyo of 1867”, there will be many names familiar to readers but a lot of surprises as well. These entries take up roughly 200 pages on their own.

Next is a short section specifically aimed at gamers. There’s a listing of over 100 chanbara films with short recaps of each, along with how to incorporate the character types into game campaigns. It’s followed by a kanji primer where the more common kanji are laid out for use in a game setting. Suggestions for campaigns follows this, and after that another great historical resource-a gazetteer of the major roads of Japan during the Edo period. It covers the “Gokaido” (the five major roads of Japan) and supplies maps, entries for the various way stations along with ‘tourist attractions’ for each, and a general history of how the roads were set up and utilized by the populace. This would no doubt be of great help to any RPG campaign set in the Edo period, but also to those just looking for information on the day to day life of the Edo period.

Filling the book out is a random clan mon generator, a section that explains the Goshichido (the traditional regions of Japan), a modern prefecture to traditional province converter, a listing of other traditional regional names, and an extensive glossary of Japanese terms (many of which even we had never heard of). Want to know what a rensho was? How about a ryokoken or ryoshitsuji? They’re actually all the same thing-an associate regent for the Hojo Shikken that sealed the documents of the Bakufu. The answers to the mysteries of the Bunei No Eki, Udaiben, Kakitsu No Hen, Kumonjo, Fushibugyo, and Chinjufu Shogun can all be solved here as well.

Since some of the book’s sources are older, occasionally the information is a bit outdated or conflicting. For example, Kira Yoshihisa (he of “47 Ronin” fame) is given the older rendering of Kira Yoshinaka. It’s mentioned that three of Minamoto Yoshtiomo’s sons were spared by the Taira in the aftermath of the Heiji Incident-actually, it was six. Minamoto Yoritomo on page 104 is claimed to have been in the custody of Minamoto Yoshitsune’s mother, Tokiwa Gozen, when he was spared (he had actually been captured by Taira forces while fleeing with his father eastward-this entry also implies he was Tokiwa’s son, but Yoritomo’s correct mother is given in his earlier biographical entry). As you can see, these types of outdated information tend to be very minor and not nearly as bad as what’s seen in a typical Stephen Turnbull book.

An occasional outright error finds its way into the text-for example, the synopsis for the film “13 Assassins” actually describes the film “Ninjutsu Gozenjiai/Torawakamaru” (which doesn’t appear in the listings). At least two pages in the index are reversed so they don’t run in alphabetical order. And the dangers of using Wikipedia as a source come to full light in the entry for the Chiba family when it’s stated that “…the clan controlled…an area called Soma, which included the Grand Shrine of Ise”. While the scions of the Chiba would be pleased as punch to lay claim to the Grand Shrine, it is indeed in Ise, and not in the Chiba’s historical holdings in eastern Japan. What actually happened was that the Chiba commended their holdings (in effect, putting them under the Shrine’s sponsorship and protection in exchange for part of the revenue) in Soma to the Ise Grand Shrine to avoid taxation and protect their claim to Soma-this was a very common practice, particularly before the Kamakura Shogunate came along. Whoever wrote that up for Wikipedia totally botched the entry from George Sansom’s “History of Japan” that he based it on. Anyway, the point of this extended aside is not to denigrate the book, but rather to point out that you should NEVER NEVER NEVER use English language Wikipedia as a source. Check out the entry for Nagashino if you don’t believe us. It’s brutal. Anyway…

…as a whole, “Shogun and Daimyo” proves to be an invaluable source for both gamers and historians, particularly when paired with its earlier companion volume “Daimyo of 1867”. As a quick reference work for dates, clans, holdings, and historical figures, it will save much frustrating rooting around in multiple sources. We use “Daimyo of 1867” on a regular basis and it appears the new book will get an even heavier workload. It’s a winning book about the losers of the samurai class. You can pick up “Shogun & Daimyo” on Amazon through the SA Store HERE or directly from Different Worlds Publications. There’s also a special price on the Different Worlds site when picking up the new book along with the original Shogun & Daimyo.

Storming The Shogun’s Mansion-The SA’s Final Verdict On Paradox’s Sengoku

Now that Paradox and the SA have given everyone a shot at winning a copy of Sengoku, it's time to take a look at the finished product. We wrote a lengthy preview of the game a few weeks ago that detailed many of its features and game mechanics, so you can check that out here. For this review, we'd like to focus instead on how well the game works in recreating the strife and intrigue of the fractured world of 15th-16th century Japan from both an historical and gameplay standpoint. Does the game triumphantly storm into the Shogun’s mansion, or should the heads of the developers be set on pikes on the road to Kyoto?

From a historical standpoint, Sengoku emerges as one of the best sims to date. The setup accurately portrays the situation at the beginning of the Onin War, with over 350 small provinces (called ‘kori’) up for grabs. Clan layouts and holdings are accurate and most of the starting characters are taken straight from history. As with any game of this scale, playability tradeoffs had to be made-for example, the highly localized nature of the main Hosokawa-Yamana conflict in Kyoto was difficult to recreate, but clan affiliations and conflicts are historical. Armies in the game don’t have a plethora of goofy and exotic unit types. Rather, they stick to what was actually used-ashigaru footsoldier units and mounted samurai with their foot retainers (both being supported with archers). Having armies comprised of both levies (raised on a regional basis as needed) and personal retinues (a leader’s personal standing army that follows him around) also resonates with history, allowing a clan to greatly increase the size and utility of their troops as their powerbase, economy, and wealth increase. Ninja are rare, difficult and dangerous to employ, have realistic missions, and supplement rather than unbalance the game mechanics. The influence of foreign powers and Christianity is relegated to its proper timeframe, and the advantage of the gunpowder weapons they introduced is more pronounced than in some other games.

Most of the historical glitches tend to be very minor and bordering on minutiae- for example, the majority of the hairstyles given to female characters come from the later Edo period. Clan flags often have incorrect color schemes, but this actually works better from a gameplay standpoint as it makes factions easier to differentiate (not to mention many of the color schemes have been lost to history). Players can have four wives instead of the one legal wife that would be appropriate (so just assume that the other three are concubines-if it’s Hideyoshi, he should be allowed to have a hundred or more!). And having a ‘Geisha House’ is an anachronism, as Geisha didn’t show their painted faces until the 18th century. It does, however, sound better than ‘Whorehouse’. None of these has any impact on gameplay whatsoever, so they’re largely non-issues. The only serious historical issue we had with Sengoku was its treatment of religion. For most of Japanese history, Buddhism and ‘Shinto’ have coexisted peacefully and hand in hand. Most Buddhist temples have Shinto shrines on their grounds, Shinto deities also have incarnations as Buddhist Bodhisattvas, etc. The game, however, splits them (much as the Meiji government forcibly did in the late 1800’s) and makes a player choose between one or the other for each of their holdings. In an interview with designer Chris King, he told the SA that it was done to highlight the power of the various Buddhist warrior monk groups. We feel that the game would have been better served to have instead split the Buddhist element into different schools (Shingon/Tendai, Jodo Shinshu/Ikko-ikki, and the violent and exclusionist Nichiren school), but this would have brought a new set of problems into play. At any rate, the Shinto/Buddhist split doesn’t seem to be an issue with the playerbase. From an overall historical standpoint, Sengoku is perhaps the most accurate game to date that deals with the samurai era.

The gameplay succeeds every bit as well. Graphics are attractive and there’s a sortable map display for pretty much anything a player might need-by terrain, clan, personal holdings, kuni, diplomacy, relations, factions, and revolt risk. The interface is deep and takes some getting used to-it’s very easy to get lost and have a hard time returning to your start point. Still, any information you might find a use for is readily available. The game plays out in daily turns, but can be sped up or slowed down substantially as needed-most players find it useful to slow down the default speed, as the game moves along smoothly and quickly. Music conveys the mood well and the loading screen artwork is nicely done.

Sengoku is intended as a mid-level Paradox game and is more basic than many of their more complex entries (and more inexpensive), making it a good introduction to the world of serious strategy simulations for new players. It’s also a more straightforward game with a clearly defined goal-take at least 50% of Japan, claim the title of Shogun, and maintain your holdings for 3 years. While things might be overwhelming at first for new players, just playing a few turns of a trial game will have you comfortable with plotting the deaths of enemies and grabbing their territory in no time.

Unlike many games, your character is limited in the amount of territory he can govern-this is called his demense and is usually limited to about five provinces. Trying to govern more than this will outstrip your capacity to effectively govern and result in unrest among the people, leading to potential uprisings. This game mechanic actually works to the player’s advantage-it gives you territory and titles to gift your vassals with, strengthening your relationship with them and reducing the amount of micromanaging. The vassals in turn will develop their lands with buildings, improved castles, and guilds at no cost to yourself. Economics and province development also tend to be very basic, limited to assigning your court ministers to develop buildings that add to an area’s tax base and allow for larger retinues, strengthen castles, or establish guilds that add specific benefits. Again, this is a welcome break from number crunching and micromanaging, allowing players to concentrate on the character interaction that determines the course of the game.

The core of the gameplay is the vassal and diplomacy system. As with all the best games, it’s easy to learn but very difficult to master. Keeping an eye on potential enemies means keeping an eye on EVERYONE-even your most trusted retainers. You can’t win the game without military conquests, but that takes a substantial amount of income, honor, and time invested in plotting. However, plotting and declarations of war can result in a large loss of honor, which in turn leads to your vassals having a lower opinion of you. It’s a constant juggling act between working on keeping your power base secure and expansion. Adding to this is the need to ensure that you have produced a suitable heir (or optimally several of them) and that he’ll have the backing necessary to take command of the clan upon your character’s demise. Marry early and often, and do the same with your heirs! It’s an often overlooked aspect that can kill off a promising game in a hurry. It’s also very easy to end up intermarrying and weakening the genetic pool of your family if you’re not careful. This will result in congenital birth defects that drive down the stats of your characters, making things even harder.

And while your vassals might be happy, your people may not, leading to rebellions that can disrupt the best laid plans. If you’re really unlucky, you might even be the target of a massive Ikko-ikki uprising that could take years or even decades to eradicate. The warlords of Sengoku Japan had a multitude of threats and problems facing them, and the game pretty much throws them all in your path. If something can go wrong-expect it to do so. Never get complacent. Never stop watching your neighbors or vassals. Even the most powerful positions are only a Honno-ji away from failing miserably. And then there’s that damn foreign religion and their powerful weapons lurking in the future…

Developing plots can range from conspiring from within to overthrow a clan leader or working with neighboring clans to attack a common enemy. Plots can take years to come to fruition, and there’s always the danger of being discovered. They’re the most challenging aspect of gameplay to master, but essential to success (especially when playing as a kokujin or daimyo as opposed to a clan leader).

Military matters are handled in a pretty straightforward way that doesn’t involve trickery, battlefield genius (no real-time battles here), or involved use of terrain. Usually the side that has “the fustest and mostest” is going to come out on top. It’s more important for players to weigh the benefits of raising a levy and sending it off to attack or holding it back for defense in the event of a siege. Wise use of the standing retinue army combined with sticking to areas with advantageous terrain (and hoping the game chooses to use them during a battle) and using ‘chokepoint provinces’ (which will be available after the upcoming patch) can help out as well. The mix of units can also be important-samurai mounted horseman are more powerful than ashigaru, but are worthless when directly assaulting a castle. And again, keeping relations strong with your vassals is important as they’re far more likely to come to your aid with their retinue (which you don’t directly control) if your bonds are tight.

Early player complaints have been of the minor variety with a common issue being a lack of scripted events to add flavor to the proceedings (something which Paradox is working on for the next patch). The lack of attention given by the game to important diplomatic messages and other vital notices is also a shortcoming that’s been addressed. Still, the game is largely bug-free and seems to work well on most computers. We haven’t taken the opportunity to explore the multiplayer mode, but if you (and up to 31 friends!) would like to give it a try, it opens up a whole new human element. Find out who’s a real friend and who’s a treacherous self-serving bastard as you make and break alliances to combat the AI! You can do this either with a LAN setup, directly through the internet, or facilitated by Paradox’s ‘matchmaking’ metaserver. If the game is eventually released in Japanese language, we’ll be setting it up for a LAN campaign for our father-in-law’s samurai re-enactment group, but we’d be interested in hearing how someone’s multiplayer campaign has went.

Game balance is largely up to the player. There are five difficulty settings ranging from Very Easy to Very Hard. Each playable character is also rated for difficulty based on their holdings, troops, and starting position. Obviously, it’s going to be easier to win with a large clan with few or no enemies that’s in a strong starting position (such as being tucked away in a corner of Japan or on an island). It’s much more difficult to rise from a lowly kokujin, establish your own clan or overthrow the original one, and conquer Japan. Still, we managed to take the Chiba to the top of the rice pile and win the game even though they were a kokujin and faced with being at war with the powerful Uesugi clan. Yeah, it took a few restarts, some amazing luck in the early game with the Uesugi being fractured by internal conflicts, and some daring diplomacy. If you’re going to play as a kokujin, you’ll have to be very familiar with the game system and how plots work, and be VERY lucky. But it can be done!

One of Sengoku's strongest points is that like most Paradox games, it's a work in progress. The development team has been keeping close tabs on player reactions, likes, and dislikes. Many of these suggestions (like extending the short lifespan of characters and not wiping out unfinished construction products done by characters that die) have been incorporated into an upcoming patch which will also address the few bugs that made it into the finished game. Since the game is put together with mods in mind, the player community has wasted no time in putting together a number of interesting mods that are available to anyone who registers their game on the Sengoku forum at Paradox Interactive. Already available are mods that add building options, split some of the powerful clans into branch families, add education events, make mountain ranges truly impassable, and a fantasy scenario extending into the 1800's that shatters Japan into a state where each of its kori is independent. Perhaps the most impressive mod is '1551', where a classic 'Nobunaga no Yabou' type scenario complete with historical daimyo is set up for those who enjoy playing out the late Sengoku. Basic modding can be done by even inexperienced players, with more advanced concepts being not much harder. Without much effort we were able to change the Chiba's battle flag to its historical colors, change some character names to historical names, and boost a few stats. Between the continuing efforts of the development team and the player base, the possibilities for Sengoku are limited only by the imagination.

From both an historical and gameplay standpoint, Sengoku is an unqualified success. Players will come away with a better understanding of why things played out as they did, and an appreciation for just how difficult it was for the warlords of the era to create stability from chaos. Unlike most games where a powerful military can simply steamroll the competition, diplomacy-both internal and external-is every bit as important as martial might, and usually more so. The balancing act of rewarding one’s own vassals, watching them like hawks for treachery, developing holdings, plotting with other leaders, and conducting military campaigns means that even a strong late game position can collapse in the blink of an eye. It also means that there is always hope for those in a weak position if they excel at intrigue and keep their eyes and ears open. The option to play as a lowly kokujin holding a single kori to a powerful clan leader with dozens of vassals and provinces introduces extra levels of difficulty. From start to finish it’s an effort that faithfully reflects the Warring States era of Japan, challenging the player without having to resort to artificial stat boosts for the enemy. It belongs on the shelf of any gamer with an interest in Japanese history, and for strategy gamers in general. The game seems to be doing well, so hopefully we can look forward to expansions and other content in the future. Sengoku storms the Shogun’s mansion and establishes itself as the premier samurai strategy game for some time to come. It's available as a digital download through Amazon and many other outlets.