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.