Saturday, September 24, 2011

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.


  1. Great review other than the biased, non-relevant YouTube links.

  2. "biased, non-relevant but humorous YouTube links"...but thanks anyway!