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Bone Up: Skulls Of The Shogun Impressions

Featured post 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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Quintin Smith

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