Bone Up: Skulls Of The Shogun Impressions

By Quintin Smith on October 5th, 2010 at 4:05 pm.

It's a skull!

I always thought that if I ever had a son, I’d call him Turn-Based Indie Game Smith. Such is my love of turn-based indie games. Ha! I’m joking, of course. I can’t have a son. Not after what Kieron did to my testicles during the RPS joining ceremony*.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was at the chance to play Skulls Of The Shogun during the Eurogamer Expo this weekend. Due out in early 2011, this is an indie game that should probably be on your radar. What is Skulls Of The Shogun? Is it any good? Have we embedded a video? Patience, child! You’ll get your answers after the jump.

*Nice seeing you all there, by the way!

Yes, we have a video.

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Depending on whether you’re a geek or a massive geek, the first thing you notice about Skulls of the Shogun might either be that it’s very pretty or that it has no tiles or grid of any kind. Yes, it’s very pretty, and yes, it has no tiles. Units in Skulls of the Shogun can move and attack in accordance to circles around them, with those circles shrinking as you move. So, if you move your archer half way to the circumference of his circle, shoot, and then move again from your new position, that circle will have dropped to half the size because you’ve already spent half your movement. Do you see?

As for the game itself, victory is achieved by destroying the other side’s general. Now, there are two twists concerning the generals. First of all, they’re fat bastards who carry a katana in each hand, making them the most powerful units in the game. So, do send your general forward, or keep him in reserve? Second, generals begin the game fast asleep. For each turn you choose not to wake them up, they gain 1hp, making them slightly more powerful. When’s the right time to wake them up? Decisions, decisions.

It’s a little off-putting to find out that Skulls of the Shogun is only going to boast 7 different units (general, infantry, cavalry, archer and three different spell-casters), but after finishing my first game of it I absolutely didn’t care. The simplicity and quiet genius of SotS’s generals saturates the whole game.

For example, another big feature is skulls. If a unit dies, its skull is left behind as a pickup that units from other sides can eat instead of attacking. Eating a skull heals the unit and makes it far stronger, and if any unit manages to scoff three skulls then they become a Demon and gain an extra ability. Casters actually gain a new type of spell with every single skull they eat.

So, if a skirmish leaves behind two or three skulls from your side, it’s in your interest to keep all enemy units out of that area. HOWEVER, if a unit that’s already eaten some skulls dies, those skulls are returned to the battlefield with no colouring at all. Anyone can eat them. Quick, lads! Nom nom nom.

The rest of the game is to be found in the map itself. So, let’s look at a map.

Click for bigger!

Basically, from here on it’s Advance Wars. The turquoise tiles are paddy fields. Once a unit captures one, it gives you rice each turn. Rice can then be spent to buy new units at certain gray temples once they’re captured, and (this is where it deviates from Advance Wars) the more hotly contested temples in the centre of the map automatically spawn a caster unit once you capture them. If you lose control of that temple, the caster vanishes again.

Everything about SotS is simple, but nothing is easy. It’s a game that teases your tactical sense each and every turn. Do you want to move this unit up here, or down here? But if you do that, then your opponent can kill him, but you can grab his skulls… it’s the chess thing, basically, where you end up staring catatonically at the map as your brain goes spiralling off into the future, two, three, four turns ahead, until eventually you lose the thread. Great fun.

Except unlike chess, the skulls and generals also give SotS a capacity for last-minute comebacks and eliminate any potentially depressing slow defeats. In the game I played against RPS’ own Phill Cameron I launched into a pretty aggressive start, and the units of his that survived got backed into a defensive formation around his general.

I lost interest, stopped thinking, and quckly realised once Phill woke up his general that my attackers were outgunned. I drew them back, leaving Phill with enough fallen skulls to power-up his defenders and launch a counteroffensive. That fucker! I felt stupid, and invigorated, and hatched a new plan to beat his forces into dust.

I achieved victory by feeding my Fox Monk (pictured here) enough skulls to grant him a binding spell that allowed me to lock Phill’s murderous general down while I jabbed him to death. Oh, I felt real bad about it. You probably wouldn’t have been able to tell at the time though, what with that dirty great grin on my face.

My overall impression of SotS was of a smart, attractive, engaging strategy game that I absolutely want to play more of it. We’ll be bringing you more on Skulls of the Shogun as and when we get it, and we’ll be getting it as soon as we can. Hopefully they’ll be revealing more on the game’s single-player campaign soon, which I know sees you fighting through the four seasons of a year but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

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39 Comments »

  1. Jeremy says:

    Is this strictly going for a multiplayer angle, or can we expect some single player as well (outside of skirmishes and whatnot)?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      It’s going to have a full campaign, as well as local & online multiplayer. I’ll add that to the article.

    • Jeremy says:

      Oh perfect, not many of my pals are into this style of game, so that’ll give me more of a reason to pick it up.. plus, anything Advance Wars-esque that looks as great as this will almost automatically get my money.

  2. RQH says:

    I saw the video and wasn’t sure what to make of it. But reading this, it sounds like something I’ll very much enjoy. Hooray!

  3. pakoito says:

    Ok, now that you’ve explained the rules the game looks far more entertaining than in all the trailers I’ve seen.

    Gamedevs should hire you as their PR, ffs. I can’t stop trying new games since I came to this page.

  4. mlaskus says:

    I read the whole article thinking the game’s name is Skulls of the Shotgun… Confusing.

  5. PhiIl Cameron says:

    I think the fact that Quinns refused to fight my General Mano A Mano means that I won in a figurative and metaphorical sense. He can have his temporal victory, and my skull. As is only right.

  6. Icepick says:

    Less Skeletons, more Onion Bog!
    Seriously though, this looks pretty cool, I shall have to keep an eye on it!

  7. tomeoftom says:

    Yum!

  8. Tacroy says:

    It needs a new acronym! SotS is already Sword of the Stars!

    But anyway it looks pretty cool, though of course videos don’t really do TBSes that much justice.

  9. subedii says:

    Sounds interesting, but I’ve never really liked the whole “30% chance to miss” thing. It just tends to make strategy games more random than I’d like.

    I prefer the Frozen Synapse approach where who wins a confrontation is solely down to the strategic factors involved, and there’s no random dice rolling. Losing a unit because he accidentally got that 1/10 chance of a critical miss never feels fun, it just feels frustrating.

  10. jonfitt says:

    Is it wrong that I want this on my iPhone?

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      FEAR NOT STOUT FELLOW! Apparently it will be, which is sweet.

  11. Eclipse says:

    definitely on my radar, I love, LOVE, LOOOOOOVVVEEEEEE turn based strategy game.
    Really.
    A lot.

  12. DuckSauce says:

    Awesome :D
    The movement thing is something I’ve already seen though, but might have been off RPS’ radar.
    (Heads up quintin, you may like it)

    Link to what I mean:
    http://www.moddb.com/games/digitanks/news/new-trailer-artillery-meets-strategy-in-digitanks

    This game’s also turn based and employs a similar movement system.
    Though different, worth a look :D

  13. DuckSauce says:

    Awesome :D
    The movement thing is something I’ve already seen though, but might have been off RPS’ radar.
    (Heads up quintin, you may like it)

    Link to what I mean:
    http://www.moddb.com/games/digitanks/news/new-trailer-artillery-meets-strategy-in-digitanks

    This game’s also turn based and employs a similar movement system.
    Though different, worth a look :D

    P.S tanks for informing me about this upcoming game :D

    • icupnimpn2 says:

      The actual movement circle mechanic looks like an, uhm, homage to Nippon Ichi Software’s PS2 games of 5 years ago: Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom. These were quite obviously off of RPS’ radar for a couple of reasons.

      I thought it was a nice evolution or at least parallel development of the turn-based RPG at that time. Since then, most games have still opted to go with the grid. So it’s nice to see another game adopt the circles, but the real innovations are more in how the NIS-style movement and combat have been combined with “capture this” gameplay, and in the couple other features. The multiplayer is a reasonable selling point here. Also, I don’t quite understand the skull mechanic yet, but that could be the bit that pulls me across the line.

  14. Tom O'Bedlam says:

    I had a wonderful time playing Skulls. The art and animations are really charming, especially the haunting animation, where your soldier throws back his head with light pouring from his eyes and mouth, as he chants kanji symbols into the air.

    Also had a good chat with Borut over the weekend about the forth coming features they’re planning. Very psyched by the single player campaign and the fact this is getting a smart phone release, which is exciting because this is much more the sort of game I’ll enjoy dropping in and out of rather than sitting in front of the PC for hours.

  15. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    There is a reason most turn based strategy games (Which i love, cover more! (Or make more, people!)) dont do circles.
    It means you have to start trying to position pixel perfect, instead of having nice discrete, calculable hexes/squares/whatever.
    And i think id rather play advanced wars again, over this.

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      Its actually not that bad unless you over think it, its always very clear who you can and can’t attack. I’d imagine the devs probably want to avoid squares and hexes as they can be a tad intimidating to casual players.

    • Nick says:

      Are board games intimidating to casual players?

    • rrgvwrcda says:

      Depends 100% on the board game.

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      true story. Snakes and ladders? no. Settlers of Catan? of course

  16. SpinalJack says:

    I had a go, it was really slow I thought, even on the small demo map

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Every move on every turn really does matter. So, the only way it’d be slow is if you totally outclassed your opponent/the AI.

    • Auspex says:

      I found it a little slow too to be honest.

      And then the little man who made it started to get worried I didn’t know what I was doing and that I wasn’t enjoying it and then /I/ started to get worried that he was thinking what I though he was thinking and the whole thing turned into a stressful ordeal where we were both pretending to enjoy this horrible anxious, yet slightly dull, encounter.

      Either that or I’m totally mental that is.

    • F4T C4T says:

      @SpinalJack: As I just mentioned in the Indie Awardoramrama post, I played against my girlfriend who’s not a turn based gamer at all and her reaction was that it was really slow. Though she did enjoy it.

      I on the other hand am accustomed to that kind of thing and agree with Quinns. It’s tight and every move matters, especially with the death of a general leading to defeat (I didn’t know this and my girlfriend won our game when I realised he had 2 attacks and recklessly charged him into the fray).

      @Quinns: It was good to meet you at the Meet-o-chat on the Friday evening! I was the dude talking about exploration in games and you mentioned Vangers to me. I might see if I can track down a copy of it. Visually it looks crazy in a cool late 90′s strangely textured way! (Also I hadn’t caught up on RPS before the event and only now realise what the thing between you and Gillen was about. Congrats, looking forward to more of your writings.)

  17. Robert says:

    YAY!

  18. man-eater chimp says:

    An Shogun undead version of Advance Wars? Sold.

  19. Borut says:

    Peter – It actually is much harder to *make* a gridless strategy game, it turns out, because you do have to show the player what they can/can’t target very clearly. Whereas with the grid, you’re right, it’s always clear by the number of spaces.

    But thankfully so far that’s not true for *playing* a gridless strategy game – we try to do a lot of visual, subtle, stuff to make it clear what you can/can’t effect. Units and buildings gleam when they’re in target range, for instance, or enemies raise their swords when they are in counter-attack range. There’s still lots of little things we want to do to improve that, but that’s why it’s not done yet. :)

    The cool thing about it, though, is that there’s a new layer of strategy most of these games don’t have – how you position your units impacts their effectiveness. It’s more about spatial tactics. You can form defensive barricades, you can push people out of them or knock them off ledges with physics (this feature actually wasn’t in the build at the IGA, it’s not quite done).

  20. Blackberries says:

    Spent a good 20-odd minutes playing a full game against the AI at the expo with one of the developers on hand… I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I quite grasped all its subtleties. Perhaps to be expected from just picking up a controller and diving straight in. I also found it a little bit slow/tedious at times, though less so the more I got into it.

    It’s a very pretty game which requires a healthy amount of thought.. I was really having to consider who to spend my action points on each turn towards the end.

    I eventually achieved victory with the help of my general, who managed to claim five skulls and become something of a terrible demonic demigod.

  21. wcanyon says:

    If I can’t buy this on Steam in 6 months it’ll be a crime.

    • icupnimpn2 says:

      what’s the crime to be, specifically? piracy? murrrrrder? it’s almost more scary that you didn’t say, cuz now my imagination is running wild

  22. thebigJ_A says:

    There’s a Quicklook of this over on Giantbomb. Actually, it’s a Quicklook EX, which means thaey get the devs to play, too. (The devs seem like an agreeably dorky bunch.)

    Game seems quite interesting.

  23. MadMatty says:

    beutifull