If you're going to call your board game “Sun Tzu”, then you better be damn sure that the game in question makes art out of war. If you're going to call your game “Sun Tzu” then you better make sure that it's going to get your brain ticking. You better make sure that players will sit at the table and feel like they have control and options.
There's nothing to fear with this classic.
Sun Tzu was once called Dynasties. It's a 2-player board game, card-driven, where players vie for control of five provinces in Ancient China. Players move their armies into these provinces, pushing their enemies out, and over 9 rounds there are three opportunities to win the game by dominating the map. To win the game, players need to gain a 9 point advantage over their opponent, pushing and pulling along a scoring track. If a player is on 9 in round 3 or 6, the game ends in his/her favour. If the game reaches round 9, the player with any advantage wins.
Players always have cards numbering 1-6 in their hand. In addition, four more powerful cards are drawn from the player's deck at the start of the game. The player will play these cards face-down into provinces, and the number on the card represents the number of armies the player will move into these provinces.
Sun Tzu is a true tug-of-war. If the red player plays a 4 into Qin, and the blue player plays a 5, then one blue troop goes into the province and the blue player has control. In the next round, if red plays a 3 and blue plays a 1, then one red troop goes into Qin, eradicating that single blue troop first.
Each province has three different point values, activated by the three different scoring rounds in the game. So, Qin might be worth 4 points in the first scoring round (round 3), but it might be worth only 1 point at the end of the game. This makes for a game with real flow, and real dynamism. Provinces can be important, very valuable, then suddenly much less vital. It's a game that is very economical with its rules and components, but thick with decisions and strategic options.
Let's talk about a few of these other cards, though, because these are the ones that really give the game its tricks and twists. There's a -1 card, which means you put one less troop into the fight than whatever card your opponent plays. Why would you do this? Well, if you control a province with two troops, and your opponent plays a huge 9 value card into the fight, you ensure that you only lose the battle by one, meaning that only one of your troops is lost and you retain control of the province. The +2 card, on the other hand, is a card that is perfect for eliminating all enemy presence in a province with low troop numbers.
The Plague card is powerful, cancelling the card played by your opponent, and eliminating half the troops in a province in one fell swoop. This is a great one for whittling down enemy presence in a province that you aim to control in later rounds. Of course, a Plague card can also be played defensively – it can cancel an assault on a province that you control, and only kills half of your men. Hey, who said war was nice?
Your more powerful cards are your aces up your sleeve. Each player also holds a Warlord Card with a special power, to be kept in the pocket until the perfect time. But, in essence, the battle is fought in the predicted behaviour of your opponent.
Why would you ever want to play a 1 value card? Well, sometimes you want to go weak into a province to bluff and prepare for some big move in later rounds, when the province is more valuable. But the 1 card also allows you to draw more cards from the deck, giving you more options for later. It is almost like a “rest” card, a preparation card. The 6 card, the most powerful of the set of cards that are available every turn, can only be played into a province once per game. Timing when to use this is vital – and knowing which provinces your opponent can't play their 6 into is significant information.
As the cards are played, and troop numbers are adjusted, and control shifts back and forth across the map, the beauty of Sun Tzu emerges completely. I guarantee you this – play this game with someone and you will love that moment when your opponent just gets how intelligent this game is. You'll see a smile creep across their face as they realise that they have the opportunity to set multiple traps, across space and time. Bluffing and timing is everything.
In the last game I played, we realised that the province values (randomly assigned at the start of the game) meant that the only way either player could win in the first scoring round was through total domination of the map. Unlikely, really. But then... as we both sat there talking about how unlikely it was to gain total domination by first scoring, I'm sure we were both thinking the same thing – should I go for it? Pushing for domination is risky. You'd be using a lot of your best cards very early in the game, leaving it to luck that you'd be able to get the right cards to build a new strategy if your attacks failed. But still... if one of us had the courage to make the push, and the other played cautiously, then it might be possible to win the game within ten minutes. But what if both of us went for it? What if we both flung our heavy hitters out there, and both ended up on our knees in the later rounds?
Sun Tzu is an excellent game. It's beautifully tense, and a true battle of wits. Visually, it's superb - small footprint, gorgeous art, crisp graphic design. Games play in about half an hour, but can end shockingly swiftly, leaving you breathless and devastated. It's a game that has you staring at your opponent, asking yourself “What is she doing? Where is she going? What is she planning?”
Sun Tzu is a beautiful example of the Art of Design.