Wot I Think: Sengoku

By Adam Smith on October 12th, 2011 at 2:40 pm.

from here on in, it's just words and pictures of maps. Savour this image.

After failing miserably to conquer All Of Japan on my first attempt, I’ve been back for more. And then for some more. And just then, five minutes ago, a little bit more. I don’t think I’ll ever be the shogun but I have experienced enough of the highs and lows of the family feudal system to tell you if my excursion to Japan has been worthwhile and whether my desire for plotting and prevarication has been sated. Read on.

The first thrill of any strategy game is beholding a new world to conquer, whether it’s the randomly generated and slowly unveiled continents of 4000 BC or an immense galaxy of stars, swirling in a dance that says, “claim me, make me yours”. Yes, there’s something seductive about the first moments of discovery, the point at which anything is possible and the pioneer spirit pushes aside the vexed bureaucrat and his concerns about taxation, gazing at the horizon and drawing it ever closer with imagination, wit and grit.

That’s how I felt when I loaded Sengoku for the first time. The geography and culture were new to me – I’ve never studied a map of Japan in such detail and I’ve certainly never explored a 3d one quite as beautiful as this. It can be stunning, the way that the sea seems to stretch impossibly in every direction, making it clear that the struggle is not for a nation or a people, but for an entire world. I’m used to conquering entire planets, sometimes several at a time, but Defender of the Crown taught me at an early age that any area can be worthy of my attention, provided it is divided into sufficient and well-organised component parts.

So, in this sense at least, the apparent reduction in scale isn’t a problem as far as Sengoku is concerned. Japan is a large and complex entity, and it’s possible to start with a small clan on the periphery of the turmoil, or an initially powerful and central group for a more hectic early game experience. Despite that, I was concerned that my lack of knowledge of the various clans could well hobble my enjoyment. My favourite Paradox games allow me to rewrite history, or to experience the simulation model doing that without my own meagre efforts having much impact at all. Therefore, the initial excitement I felt at having a new time and place to explore was soon diminished by the realisation that events simply weren’t as meaningful to my medieval European mind.

Of course, that’s not a failing of the game. With more time, I’d gladly immerse myself in the required reading and for anyone with an interest and knowledge of the period, the interactions between clans and the divergence from the actual record of events will carry more weight. For me though, characters soon became a succession of moustaches, some honourable and well-groomed, others barbarous and in sore need of a trim. Is this how Crusader Kings, my personal favourite, feels to someone with no appreciation of olde Europe and its environs? A battle between armour-clad beards, smooth-faced nobles and prune-like Popes, with little of the awesome, empowering and occasionally unnerving sensation of significantly reforming the past?

I don’t think so, at least not entirely. For once, there are fundamental issues beyond my own ignorance holding be back. While it’s possible for leaders to convert to Christianity later in the game, giving access to a new unit type, there is no emphasis on the clash of cultures and religions, and therefore no potentially game-changing events like a call to Crusade or the death of a Pope. Despite the shifting colours on the map, Sengoku feels static compared to some of its brethren, and thereby it does begin to feel somewhat condensed.

I never struggled with Crusader Kings, despite what some people find to be a vertical learning curve. Actions and decisions made sense and their consequences generally fitted with my idea of history. I mention that game again because it is the title that Sengoku feels closest to, with its emphasis on characters and relationships. On my several ill-fated trips to Japan, the first of which is documented here, I’ve found many of my own actions to have inscrutable results and I’ve rather spectacularly failed at engaging with the plots that I hoped would form the game’s core.

Some of this may be due to the interface, which at first simply seemed streamlined compared to Europa Universalis but soon made me realise that I was missing out on possibilities because I hadn’t figured out how to do certain things yet. I’ve become more comfortable with it now but at first I couldn’t understand how to trigger certain kinds of plot, not realising that the location of characters on the map mattered – at first, not even realising that some characters had a location on the map at all. I think of my immediate advisors and court as existing outside the game world but in Sengoku, when you send a man and his moustache to perform a task, he actually trots off to do it. None of that would be confusing if the visual feedback the game was providing made it clear where everyone was and what they were doing. It does now, but I’ve had to teach myself to recognise it.

As for the plots, maybe I’m just utterly terrible at them. I’m a bad plotter, which makes me a good friend and in Sengoku, good friends are murder-fodder. This is what I have learned. The plots certainly seem to work well for other clans, judging by the speed with which they divide up my lands between themselves. The idea is that in order to increase the chance of pulling off an invasion, or other dishonourable action, characters can be invited to secretly join together, seeking a mutually satisfactory outcome.

In reality, I found that despite the promise of devious political machinations, my campaigns mostly played out in a state of constant open warfare, with precious little time to explore subtleties. I’ve seen reports of cunning marriages followed by assassinations leading to huge swathes of land changing hands in a moment, and I’ve seen people excitedly describe the fact that with clever manipulation and management of people, war is rarely necessary for success. That hasn’t been my experience though and that’s, admittedly, partly because finding the people I need to put a plan into action is often tricky and time-consuming. The interface encourages me to be a lazy brute because its easier to invade than to interact.

I do enjoy handling relationships within my own clan, dishing out land to the most trustworthy members and desperately trying to keep them satisfied lest a civil war ignite and consume all that I hold dear. Family management is important because when a clan leader dies, an heir will take over, so children are the most precious of resources, but I never felt they were more than a series of numbers. In fact, the problem is precisely that they do feel like resources to be balanced and deployed, rather than independent characters with the potential to develop and deviate. That said, balancing the ambitions and reach of supposed surbordinates is the most intriguing and satisfying part of the game.

Diplomacy with other clans isn’t as strong because, despite the promise of complex webs of deceit and secret knowledge, there’s not a huge amount for smaller clans to do other than band together against bigger clans. And for bigger clans, puny neighbours are say pickings, with the honour hit from attacking them acting like a cool-down, causing a break between battles while it recharges, rather than having a wider effect on how characters and families are perceived by their neighbours.

Because war is a constant, with even alliances being a trade of hostages rather than a handshake and a promise of support, it’s a shame that combat isn’t more engaging. Sengoku dispenses with Shogun 2’s elevation of tactical warfare and normally I’d be all for that. I love clicking on maps and watching numbers rise and fall, bars turning from green to red – it’s a huge part of my gaming diet. But, as the tutorial itself says, in Sengoku “might means right”. Retinues are raised from a clan’s territories, so the more land you control, the more men you can send into battle. And that’s why small clans are easy to absorb – they simply can’t defend themselves adequately and larger clans need to seize as much land as possible lest they be noticed by a nefarious sort who sees them as a small clan to be absorbed.

That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying myself or that the game always plays out the same way. I’ve tried several games with small clans and have managed to expand with relative success a couple of times. But it wasn’t through plotting or scheming, it was through striking first, growing fast and being ruthless. There’s pleasure to be taken from that, for sure, but given the simplistic warfare, I haven’t found enough depth in the game. Province upgrades are handled indirectly and the events which punctuate the waiting between wars have never presented me with a great dilemma. Most of the complexity I’ve encountered has come from learning how to do things rather than from the things that I go on to do. In terms of the limited resource management and automation, I feel as I’m being directed to concentrate almost solely on character interactions, but I don’t feel quite involved enough with the vast and ever-changing cast.

It’s a disappointment, in some ways too simple in others difficult to penetrate, but it’s a disappointment I’ve still managed to sink tens of hours into. And I plan to play more but now that the Crusader Kings II beta has arrived (thoughts on that as soon as I’ve poured a large portion of my life into it), I’m back to seeing Sengoku as what I always suspected it might be. A vacation, nothing more than a diversion while I waited for what shall hopefully become my new home for a while.

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33 Comments »

  1. KoldPT says:

    I agree with every single word. Can’t wait to pay 50€ to beta-test ck2 (the current “beta”, as with most of pdox stuff, is really an alpha).

    • mike2R says:

      Don’t really think that’s fair. Whatever you think about Sengoku – and it hasn’t really grabbed me I agree – it isn’t beta. Just perhaps not all that great… (although it might make a great starting point for a mod)

    • KoldPT says:

      It’s an extremely empty game. There aren’t any bugs because there’s nowhere for them to show up. There’s a reason they made it so cheap, and that was to get people to beta test the CK2 engine, pretty much. :P

    • mike2R says:

      No real argument with that, its just that “beta” to me implies HOI3 quality at release. Paradox have made quite a big thing about not doing that again, and subsequent releases seem to show they meant it.

  2. alh_p says:

    Good WIT, I didn’t invest more than 15 hours into it but I do hope to return to it once Paradox have fleshed it out a bit. The premise of the game is war (that should be caps in marketing speak) but the way it’s done doesn’t feel terribly satisfying (perhaps only because it’s shorn of paradox’s usual tech advances). Barebones ping-pong battles until you outnumber the enemy by enough to annihilate their remaining troops is not the height of paradox’s gameplay.

  3. formivore says:

    With regards to beholding, I’ve always found that the appeal of a Sengoku scenario is closer to a space 4x than Civ (Ah, memories of Nobunaga’s Ambition). It isn’t the islands so much as the seemingly limitless number of fiefdoms to conquer, the distance between your start and the end goal. That and the sheer Darwinian madness of it which might be better served by a more warlike game. With European set games it’s like you now control Ile-de-France, Aquitaine, and Provence – you now control France, Ho Hum. Even if France is split up into 50 counties it isn’t strategically rich since the demand is to quickly unify to fend off the HRE rather than fight to the death against 50 other bastards. The trade-off is better diplomacy.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Stellar Duck says:

    I’ve hovered over the Buy Game! button many times on both GamersGate and Steam with this one. I dearly want some Crusader Kings like game to capture my interest. But so far I haven’t bought it. And I don’t think I shall.

    The reason is this: I don’t like Japan. At all. It has no interest to me and I can’t invest myself into names I can’t pronounce and a culture I don’t understand nor care for. I can do European stuff all day because I know the history and places. It’s a known scene on which I can act out my dramas over the centuries. I can’t do that in Japan.
    Japan feels isolated, insular and a bit too full of itself to my tastes.

    Playing Shogun 2 was the final straw for me. Japan is so damn provincial and tedious. Coming straight from Empire where I’m managing multiple theaters, dealing with obnoxious Russians and those damn savages in India resisting my rightful rule at the same time made Shogun 2 feel so narrow and boring. I don’t understand the unit names, I don’t understand the history or why I would want to be Shogun. I don’t understand why there’s an emperor as well. Why is the naval battles so boring I ask myself? When you’re used to firing broad sides of cannons on majestic line ships, a bow fitted barge feels rather crummy.

    I suspect that Senguko would be the same for me.

    I’ll hold out for Crusader Kings 2 and Rome 2, if CA ever bothers to make it. I dearly want to shuffle around my legions using the movement tools from Empire and Napoleon.

    It should be noted that the above says nothing about actual Japan but only about my imagination and lack of interest in Japanese history and culture.

    And to comment on the WiT itself: A good piece that goes into precisely what I want in the game and why it doesn’t deliver.

    I don’t think it’s a bad game after reading this. Just not the game I want.

    • alh_p says:

      Not a fan of the Japanese are you?

      It’s intriuing that there being something you don’t know doesn’t spark an interest in you to find out more… I have to say, the TW and paradox games have been significantly responsible for developing my interest in history. Be it to find out how stuff really happened/worked or just captivating my imagination.

    • aldo_14 says:

      Not a fan of the Japanese are you?

      It’s intriuing that there being something you don’t know doesn’t spark an interest in you to find out more… I have to say, the TW and paradox games have been significantly responsible for developing my interest in history. Be it to find out how stuff really happened/worked or just captivating my imagination.

      It’s not intriguing so much as natural; you can’t be interested in everything after all, whether it’s Japanese history, quantum physics, or the price of cheese in Bulgaria.

    • Duffin says:

      I felt kind of the same when I got Shogun 2. I knew nothing about Sengoku Japan and was a bit overwhelmed. Though Shogun 2 has sucked me in completely and in the months since it was released I’ve read quite a bit on the period. From Uesugi Kenshin sending his bitter rival Takeda Shingen shipments of rice when his clans crops failed to the assassination of Oda Nobunaga, the period has completely intoxicated me. I almost find my lack of knowledge a boon because the more I play the more I discover, making up little stories in my head about my clan or daimyo.

    • Juan Carlo says:

      Give Akira Kurosawa’s back catalog of films a try. Nothing make me want to play Shogun 2 more than seeing “Ran” or “Seven Samurai” or other historical epics of his on TV. They are very good films and they might make Japanese history seem more interesting and understandable to Western palates.

      His Shakespeare adaptations especially are good at this as they kind of translate familiar Western stories and emotions into a more Japanese historical/cultural context.

    • pipman3000 says:

      I can’t imagine how a person could find out about a part of history they overlooked and not be intrigued enough to atleast read their wikipedia article.

      That’s why the negative response on Civfanatics to the Songhai being included in Civ5 baffled me so damn much, I can understand someone not wanting to raid the library every time they see something unfamiliar in a game but what kind of person starts screaming and going off on a tirade about “political correctness” and affirmative action? WTF??? (this has nothing to do with any of the above posts I just wanted to share that because seriously, wtf?)

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      Stellar Duck says:

      I should perhaps add a bit more. I’m very much interested in history and have so far gotten a degree in it. In my years at university I’ve specialized in Classical history though which is why Rome is my favorite TW game. I often spend too much time reading up on whatever caught my fancy on any given day. Japan has never caught my fancy.

      I’d learn about Japanese history if I get a need for it professionally, but when it comes to games I’ve not really the time to justify it. I’ve plenty of history to read as it is with just the Classical stuff.

      But again, I’m not saying that Japanese history is boring. I’m just saying that it holds no interest in it.

      Edit:
      I’ve indeed read up on the Wikipedia articles as was mentioned. I agree that it’s silly to not even make that effort. But to be frank, those are not really enough to compensate for my lack of interest.

      I think it may be a language thing. The phrase yari samurai for instance means nothing to me outside of the context of the game. It’s just a phrase. Empty.

      In Rome when reading the word Triarii I have a lot more to fill that word with. I know the etymology on Latin, I know the proverb about going to the triarii. I know the social make of the army. I know what the reason for the unit is and it’s place in a legion.

      A triarii is a lot of things to me. A yari samurai is a man with a spear and a strange uniform. And yes, I know that’s hugely unfair to Japanese history, but it illustrates my feelings nicely.

    • alh_p says:

      I think that’s fair enough, it doesn’t sound like you can be acused of being ignorant! Personaly, history is a bit of a form of escapism so it doesn’t feel contaminated with work for me. Nonetheless, there is a lot of richness in Japan’s pre-industrial history and culture. Your analogy of the Trariai/Yari Samurai is amusing because I do know the Roman conotations of the Trarii you mention too, but the mention of a Yari Samurai floods my mind with images and references from as many sources.

      Everyone has their favourites and part of the strength of a historical game’s adaptation has got to be how well it can reflect the charms of an age and its cultures. For me, hackneyed in pop culture as they are, medieval, renaissance and dark age europe hold my imagination like no other period or region.

      Also, perhaps in the same way as you, i never really got the attraction of Empire’s Native Americans DLC. Then, a month ago I read the last of the mohicans and I could well have played a campaign on the great lakes right then and there.

    • DiamondDog says:

      I agree with you in part, Stellar Duck. While I find Japanese history fascinating, Shogun 2 made me realise that Japan just feels too small, both in the size of the campaign and variety between the clans. After playing so much of Rome, Medieval 2 and the original Crusader Kings, Japan as a region feels a bit limited.

      Personally, I think it’s high time someone concentrated on Asia as a whole. Who wouldn’t want to try invading Japan with elephants?

    • Premium User Badge

      FriendlyFire says:

      @DiamondDog: Considering how often China, Korea and Japan tended to threaten one another, I’m actually surprised there isn’t a game about Asia already.

    • Gormongous says:

      I think the difficult is in creating a cohesive gameplay system that properly models China, Japan, southeast Asia, and the nomad tribes of the north with any degree of interoperability.

    • kazooka says:

      I’ve had a similar feeling with Shogun. It’s not that I dislike the historical period, it’s that I don’t have any cultural associations with, say the Shoku clan that I might have with, say Glamorgan County in Crusader Kings. I didn’t grow up with the stories of these places humming around in the background, and there’s no intuitive or counterintuive emotional impact when one of them declares war or offers peace or sends assassins.

  5. Craig Stern says:

    “It’s a disappointment, in some ways too simple in others difficult to penetrate, but it’s a disappointment I’ve still managed to sink tens of hours into.”

    I am resisting the urge to make a hugely inappropriate dating joke right now.

  6. GenBanks says:

    However good the game is, I’m grateful to the devs for enabling the Sengoku diaries… Great reads. I hope you do more of them Mr Smith (for other games, I mean).

  7. Nameless1 says:

    Great review, I totally agree. (and cannot wait for CK2 as well)

  8. varangian says:

    I read (on Flash of Steel I think) that Paradox were noted for unhelpful/confusing interfaces and that was exactly what tripped me up with the demo. I managed to get a couple of guys to go do stuff but the guy who was supposed to go develop guilds went on strike, couldn’t get him to do jack. Then I found I was frozen in time and if there’s a button to get time flowing again I never managed to find it. Doubtless I could find out how from some forum or another but I find it a good rule of thumb that if I can’t sit down and play a game at least at a basic level without having to look stuff up then it’s probably not for me. Your WIT pretty much confirms my view.

  9. Zwebbie says:

    I’m much in agreement with this WIT. I’ve played CK, EUIII and V2, and Sengoku is by far weaker than any of those. Now, Paradox’s support for their games is pretty solid, and their expansions are worthwhile, but Sengoku has some core problems that can’t be fixed, mainly that it’s just a race of conquests. I really wanted to like it, because it’s so stylish and alien, but I went back to playing EUIII after two days…

    Edit: also worth noting that the UI is rather worse than in some of their previous games.

  10. greg_ritter says:

    Honestly, I’ll probably never buy Sengoku. Mr. Smith made my point for me – I don’t really know Japanese history, and so to change it is not as much fun as changing European history.

  11. Panzeh says:

    The problem with Sengoku is that it’s actually less complex in a lot of ways than Shogun 2. The only things it really has on S2 is that it has more provinces, more clans, and more effective dynastic systems. In just about every other respect Shogun 2 is outright better.

    • Gormongous says:

      I really hate to agree with this, but I agree with this. Paradox, when a Total War game matches yours in diplomatic options and exceeds yours in economic management, you really need to step it up.

  12. bill says:

    I realised that the hostory we’re taught in schools is entirely western. We learn all about greece, rome france, etc.. (though i’ve no idea what a Triarii is), but we learn nothing about china, japan,etc…

    then again, it’s mostly the same in reverse in Japan. I suspect a game about european history would be dull or uninvolving for most japanese gamers. Most of them will never have heard of Sparta or whatever.

    Personally, I never know how to start on these games, whether they be western history, eastern or imaginary sci-fi. Your first choices often seem to determine your entire game, and i rarely have any idea where to focus and how much.

    • Ateius says:

      Well, yes. They’ve only so much time in grade school history classes to cram all the events of the past into your head, so they tend to concentrate on those immediately relevant to you – an overview of the history of your nation, and highlights of its cultural kin.

      When you get to post-secondary education, the option to learn in depth becomes available, not just for your nation but also those foreign to you. Personally I’ve delved quite a bit into Russian and Eastern European history, because I’m terribly romantic about onion domes amid the drifting snow.

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    Erithtotl says:

    Definitely not blaming RPS, but I wish I hadn’t taken the initial glowing reports of this game from the site and bought it. Definitely found it disappointingly difficult to understand what I was doing and had the same feelings as this final review. Ended up going back to TW Shogun 2 (and I am generally a fan of Paradox titles and the Sengoku setting in general)

  14. qplazm says:

    I dunno about this one. It looks they upgraded the gameplay since the last installment, Sengoku Rance, but I hear Uesegi Kenshin’s not a girl this time around, and you can’t bang her. That makes this a ‘Wait till it’s cheaper’ for me.

    In fact, this review almost makes it seem as if your hyper weapon can’t take hundreds of virginities with varying degrees of force in this game. Why the massive shift in tone, focus, and art style since the last one? Hopefully the soundtrack is as good.