Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Top Of The Rice Pile-Paradox's Sengoku Preview

We were recently afforded the opportunity to play a preview edition of Paradox Interactive's upcoming computer game of the "Age of the Warring States" in 15th and 16th Century Japan-"Sengoku". As this is a preview of an unfinished version (bugs were still being ironed out and play balance adjusted to make things ready for the game's Q3/2011 release), we're going to largely refrain from pro-or critical-commentary and concentrate instead on what you can expect to see when you click 'Start'.

Like most Paradox games, players might find things somewhat intimidating at first and be at a loss where to start. After all, there are over 350 areas of Japan to conquer-and almost as many possible characters to start out with. However, once you've assigned the councilor positions in your court, given them tasks, and raised your first army and sent it off to battle, it's easy to settle in to the proceedings. There are tips given for first time players when accessing different functions and screens to help you along. The object-to control 50% of Japan, declare yourself Shogun, and then hold that title for three years against an onslaught of enemies. The game runs continuously in daily turns, but like 'Europa Universalis' can be greatly sped up, slowed down, or paused as the player chooses. The preview edition contained two choices-both starting on May 26, 1467 (dates are given in the Western calendar rather than the Japanese lunar calendar). Choose from the Onin War (so named for the Japanese era in which it began) or the Kanto War (taking place in eastern Japan). Since the Kanto War not only featured the strongest clan in the game from a military standpoint (the Uesugi, the Shogunate Deputy in the east or "Kanto Kanrei") but also the fearless warriors of the Chiba, we decided to give it a go.

We started out as the Uesugi. The basic area of the game is the 'kori'-the 350 or so individual provinces of Japan that make up 'kuni'. Kuni are the traditional provinces of Japan readers might be familiar with from other games-Satsuma, Shimosa, Owari, Mino, and Mikawa, for example. In game terms, characters who only have 'kori' titles are termed 'kokujin' and usually owe their allegiance to their daimyo (who control one or more 'kuni'). Especially early in the game, daimyo roughly correspond to the samurai who held 'shugo' positions (governor of a kuni). The daimyo, in turn, owes his fealty to the clan leader. Clan leaders aren't what you would expect from the name-rather, they're the leaders of several allied families, not all of whom will carry the same family name. In game terms, Oda Nobunaga would be a clan leader, with the Akechi, Hashiba, Niwa, Shibata, Maeda, et al being considered part of his 'clan'.

The Kanto War was fought between the Uesugi and elements of the Ashikaga Shogunate on the one hand with their opponents being rogue elements of the Ashikaga and their allies in the Chiba (some of whom ended up fighting alongside the Uesugi). We chose to play as the Uesugi clan leader...even though he turned out to be a minor with a regent running the show for him. The Uesugi start out with an enormous military advantage, and it took only three years or so of game time to leisurely wipe out the opposition with minimal losses. The focus here was mainly on raising and deploying troops. Armies can be raised from local levies from each kori, or from retinues that are loyal to a specific leader and follow him around the map. There are only two basic troop types in the game-Ashigaru/jizamurai and mounted samurai with their foot retainers (infantry and cavalry, respectively, both with built in bowmen). Later in the game (after the arrival of the Portuguese) ashigaru can be outfitted with gunpowder weapons. This is historically accurate, since it wasn't until late in the Sengoku that daimyo began to group units by weapon type-and even then, a mounted horseman would have foot retainers running alongside them (no all-horse cavalry in Japanese warfare) and spearmen would have archers providing covering fire for them (as would arqubusiers). There weren't units of 'Kisho Ninja' or 'Naginata Warrior Monks' running around. Battles are fought and resolved automatically when opposing armies are in the same kori in a 'battle window'. Battle continues day by day until the morale of one side breaks or they're eliminated. If the attackers emerge victorious, they'll lay siege to the enemy castle, an undertaking which can literally take years for a well developed castle. While 'samurai cavalry' reign on the battlefield, 'Ashigaru infantry' is king of the siege, particularly if the player wishes to try a bloody direct assault on the castle. Moving armies from province to province is easy and takes place simultaneously with all other enemy movement, so you might find yourself chasing around an enemy force that changed positions before your movement was complete. Supply is covered in an abstract way by having a supply limit-units over an province's supply limit will experience attrition as the soldiers either starve to death or simply decide farming wasn't so bad after all and go home.

While the combat was raging, we didn't neglect the home front. Your character can only control five or so provinces himself (his holdings are called a demesne) effectively, which tends to cut down greatly on the micromanaging. You can assign your Master of Arms to improve the castle (with eight levels of improvement, including moats, towers, and gateways)-again, this uses realistic timeframes for completion so they won't be finished overnight. Castles improve a province's defense and also increase the maximum size for levy troops. Your towns can be upgraded by the Master of Ceremonies with buildings such as inns, toll booths, and a courthouse that will increase your tax revenue and also increase the maximum size of your retinue forces. The Master of the Guard can open up guild slots for special buildings (four per province) that confer a unique benefit, such as lowering revolt risk or increasing the combat ability of troops raised there. One religious building can also be constructed in each province. Revolts can and do happen, and we had to put down a couple (one by followers of Shinto and one by townspeople).

This brings up the most involved and important part of the game-your character and his interactions with everyone else. Your player character can be a clan leader, daimyo, or a simple kokujin-and the game experience changes greatly depending on which you choose. A clan leader (like the Uesugi) is primarily engaged with creating alliances with other clan leaders, rewarding his vassals, keeping the clan together, and conducting military campaigns. On the other hand, a kokujin (like the Chiba in our second tryout) will be more concerned with bringing himself to the attention of his lord and plotting with others to eventually form his own clan or usurp the one he finds himself in. Starting out as a kokujin can be challenging, since if your forces represent less than 5% of your clan's army, you will have no direct control over them-the clan leader will raise, deploy, and dismiss them. You can't declare war on another province, and just have to hope your leader makes wise decisions that won't see your domain get mashed. The daimyo experience falls somewhere in between. Characters have three main attributes-martial ability, diplomacy, and intrigue. These attributes can be bumped by the ratings your wives have. Yes, wives-even though a Japanese could only have one legal wife during this period, the game lets you have FOUR (whee!). Just think of the other three as concubines, which a samurai could have as many of as he could afford. Anyway, they'll add a portion of their ratings to those of your character and can really help make up for any deficiencies. They'll also defend a province's castle when its levies are on campaign. Attributes can be raised or lowered by traits-and they cover pretty much everything. They're gained at birth from the traits of your parents, during childhood (characters don't become adults until age 15), through experience, and through lifestyle choices. A maimed character experiences a loss in martial ability and health, while a lunatic will be disrespected by his vassals and unpredictable as an opponent. An ugly character will find it tougher to enjoy diplomatic success, while a good looking diplomat will not only make friends but also be a hit with the ladies (becoming the Brick McBurly of his day). Lepers, drunkards, hunchbacks, stutterers, geniuses, imbeciles, and scholars can also be ambitious, ruthless, paranoid, humble, envious, or speak with a lisp-with attributes adjusted accordingly. Good traits can be bad (an honest man will be hated by the deceitful) and bad ones good (a drunk will be loved by other drunks-we enjoy our sake!).

Every character in the game has this level of individuality and complexity. And it's here where the real fun lies. Creating good relationships with other characters is crucial to success. Your vassals will become angry if you try to keep all conquered provinces under your control-they need to be rewarded for their efforts with lands, titles, and cash. And you should-you can only construct one building at a time per province in your personal holdings, but they'll help develop the clan holdings faster by doing the same in theirs. Clan leaders in particular need to work hard to keep the good graces of their vassals-there are many pretenders waiting to wrest control of the clan, and your proclaimed heir needs as much support as possible to see to it that your dynasty continues. This is vital-your character will almost certainly die before the game is over (death becomes much more likely after age 40), so you better hope your heir has been well trained and enjoys the favor of the vassals. Remember what happened to the Oda clan after Nobunaga's death? It basically became the Toyotomi clan. Having a high diplomacy attribute (or sending your Master of Ceremonies around to gladhand vassals on your behalf) will go a long way towards keeping their opinion of you high. Your relations with other independent leaders also go a long way towards a successful conclusion-you often need them when plotting against a larger foe. Kokujin and daimyo will also find that being diplomatic works wonders in gaining supporters for your eventual promotion to clan leader (or establishment as a new clan).

Honor is also a major factor in the game-basically, it's 'currency' you earn by rewarding vassals, gifting allies, and supporting the emperor that can be 'spent' on 'morally questionable' acts such as declaring war (especially on a friendly clan), having a plot discovered, or using ninja. If your honor goes negative, it's game over-there's a seppuku button to commit suicide that will restore a bit of honor for your heir when yours gets very low, but we never felt the need to use it. In fact, it looks like we maxed our honor out at 100 as the Uesugi despite a few reckless attacks on friendly clans.

Religion wasn't really much of a factor in the early game, as few of the provinces constructed temples. Shinto confers a bonus to honor, Buddhism to reinforcement rate, and late-to-the-dance Christianity an increase in tax income and firearms. All religious buildings are called temples, but we're really talking Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and Christian churches here.

Ninja can be hired to do a daimyo's dirty work-assuming your Master of the Guard can find one. They'll do it all, from rescuing hostages to burning down enemy buildings (and of course, assassinating enemy characters). They cause a hit to your honor and gold supply, and if caught, can lead to a major drop in honor. We didn't find a need to use them early, but they would likely prove valuable later on where enemies have built up. You can also use your Master of the Guard to cause a vassal to become disloyal to his liege-and perhaps more ready to join up with you. Ronin (and their attached forces) can be recruited for your retinue forces, and they contain some of the best fighters in the game.

Graphics look great, with several different views and filters of the map of Japan that will supply you with important information at a click. The interfaces are intuitive and also loaded with information, and the same info can usually be accessed several ways. There were the usual learning curve screw-ups on our part-for example, we had a stud as our Master of Arms and rewarded him with a landed title-which removed him from the position and left us having to fill it with a chump.

We at the Samurai Archives will be running an interview with the game developers and designers in early September, and also running a basic 'Sengoku Trivia' quiz contest (focused on the Onin War) for downloadable copies of the game in conjunction with our friends at Paradox-and of course, a full review of the game. You can keep up with the game's progress in the SA's Japanese Entertainment forum (which has links to the Paradox Forums, Sengoku Facebook page, Twitter, etc). Until then, we'll be doing our best to see to it that the Chiba end up at the top of the rice pile instead of being squashed by the Tokugawa during the Odawara Campaign.

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