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Christopher Donovan
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The beauty here runs deep...

I almost didn't get Sekigahara. I had it on pre-order but deleted it, fearing it might be another entry-level block wargame along the lines of Hammer of the Scots, Liberty: The American Revolution 1775-83, Richard III: The Wars of the Roses, Texas Glory: 1835-36, Julius Caesar, or Crusader Rex. I've played some of those games and enjoyed them, in fact I pre-ordered the recent re-print of Crusader Rex. They are fine games in their own right. However, they all feel a little too generic in their application of the same combat system to very different time periods, situations, tactics and technology. I know many people appreciate the fact that they can quickly get into any of these games because they all share some common elements. For me, though, the basic "A's fire, then B's fire, then C's fire" system has become a little stagnant, and seeing it used to depict Ancient Roman and 19th century battles alike without any fundamental change strains credulity. I was a victim of my preconceived notion of what a low-complexity block wargame must be - step losses, dice combat, A/B/C fire sequencing - so that when I saw Sekigahara was going to be a "low-complexity" block wargame I had some trepidation.

As the project developed, however, I took note of some unusual details of the game - no dice & cards used to represent "loyalty" to deploy the different clan's formations in battle. I also took note of the beautiful and strikingly different presentation - a spacious, restrained, and evocative mounted map and novel rectangular blocks (no step-losses). So I put it back on pre-order and I'm very glad that I did. Sekigahara breathes new life into block games, wargames, card-driven games, and just games in general.


From the design notes in the rulebook:
Quote:
Sekigahara is an unusual game. The peculiarities of the design are the product of two priorities: that it depict the conflict in its mechanisms rather than merely in its particularities, and that it adheres to certain design objectives that I consider important.

... Wargames usually achieve accuracy through weight. We forgive a game complexity if it provides greater realism. But what kind of realism is best? It may seem realistic to list precisely the fighting value of every unit, or draw from a deck of historical events, but the commanders in the war were never privy to such knowledge. ... Fidelity must be declared to realism of 'details' or realism of experience; this design has favored the latter.

I sought to convey the experience of being a commander in the war of Sekigahara through the mechanisms of the game. Since the war was characterized by uncertainty - the fog of war was so close leaders could choke on it - so should be the mechanisms (hidden blocks and cards). Since the war was won and lost over loyalty, a major mechanism (the cards) was introduced to depict loyalty. Mechanisms were determined not by wargaming convention, but by the peculiarities of the Sekigahara conflict.


I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about realism in wargames, simulation value, and just what it is I am seeking after while playing "simulation" wargames as opposed to abstracts or euros. I came to the conclusion that I enjoy a good game, but equally I enjoy learning something. But not just any kind of learning, indeed I rarely retain specific dates or place-names. I was seeking after the experience. A classroom will teach you what happened, it will teach you the who, what, when, and where. But a game such as Sekigahara strives to show you what the military crisis felt like in a strategic sense - the possibilities, the unknowns, the characteristic responses of a specific situation as it evolves within a historical context - and allow you to explore that situation for yourself through your own choices and actions. It is difficult to get that from a book. Doing it with a game, while also difficult, is immediately better suited to the task.


battlefield perspective...

Mr. Calkins really summed it up very succinctly in his design notes for this game, apparently his first design. This game was an eye-opener and inspires me not just to play it, but to return to other games where I perceive a similar kind of philosophy at play - games like Up Front, Paths of Glory, and Twilight Struggle. The later game departs radically again from what Sekigahara does - Twilight Struggle is not about what actually happened so much as the perception of what was happening at the time. Similarly, Paths of Glory includes some radical design choices that seem to force players into the mindset of a WWI General - a mindset we now know could be deeply out of touch with the reality at the front. Sekigahara has the added virtue of providing "experiential realism" without sacrificing simulation value. In that it's oddly similar to Up Front, though Sekigahara's ruleset is an order of magnitude less complex. All of these games seek to provide an experience shaped by historical context - A context you can "live" in, however briefly. I am not fooling myself into believing these games can approximate history, but I do believe they can provide unique historical insights while being entertaining and competitive games.

I will be following Mr. Calkins' future designs very closely.

Having played only three times at this point, it remains to be seen just how good Sekigahara really is in terms of depth, balance and re-playability. If it proves to have the staying power, I can imagine this game becoming something of a "classic", and possibly a jumping-off point for a new breed of wargame. That may be a little premature, and my knowledge of the field is far from extensive, but I would advise anyone interested in anything I've ruminated over in this review to try Sekigahara. The first half of your first game will be utterly confusing, the second half utterly engrossing.
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Lyman Moquin
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You get the thumbs up for capturing the meta-gamer mindset on the current block game selection angst. . . .

Having playtested Seki, I really think that the mechanism so nicely fits the role of a Japanese warlord. . . . and have not gotten tired of playing it.

One other game you should try is Napoleon's Triumph. . . Simmons has also taken "block" gaming in a different path. . . and again, the mechanism (manuever) fits the period so well. . .
 
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Paul Franklin-Bihary
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I also agree that Sekigahara is a new step for block wargames. I finally played with another person yesterday, and love the game even more than I already did after some solo experience. Every game has been different. The dice-less system is beautiful and exciting. The production values are excellent. The rules short and easily understood.

In fact, I'm going to go write my own review right now and up my rating. This is definitely my favorite new war game in a long, long time.
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Christopher Donovan
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out to lunch wrote:
I share all your reservations regarding Columbia entry-level block games and preordered Sekigahara for the same reasons that you did (and with a bit of apprehension too), so it's been refreshing reading your review while waiting for my own copy to find its way across the Atlantic.

Mechanically, Sekigahara seems to share some similarities - maybe superficial - with Friedrich/Maria in how you use the cards to resolve battles and with Rommel in the Desert in how they allow you to "buy" different turn options. Which sounds good as far as I'm concerned!


I don't think you will be disappointed..
 
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Tom Jones
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Why is there no +10 Thumbs button? I'm super excited that this game is getting rave initial reviews.

I have been beating my fists in the air for two years now over the state of block game design [1]. I was reacting to the growing "block game ennui" that was surfacing on the Geek and Consimworld. This growing disinterest was fairly clearly aimed at Columbia-style block games, which was unfortunately becoming synonomous with "block games" in general. Columbia/Gamma2 deserves a lot of credit for inventing the genre, and for a lot of "design exploration" over the first, sparse 20 years of the genre (Quebec 1759/War of 1812/Napoleon + Rommel in the Desert + East Front). However, since EF in 1991, Columbia has explored very little new design space. Victory: Blocks of War in 1998 pretty much cemented the framework for all subsequent Columbia games. Hammer of the Scots froze the design mold after (re)introducing card play (RitD was first, though those cards were the equivelant of 0's and 1's).

Zerosum wrote:
For me, though, the basic "A's fire, then B's fire, then C's fire" system has become a little stagnant, and seeing it used to depict Ancient Roman and 19th century battles alike without any fundamental change strains credulity.


Absolutely. Nails it. The "ABC defender-fires-fire" model is... bad[2]. I would use stronger language, but then this would have to turn into a full-blown manifesto. The fact that this system is nearly universally cloned boggles my mind. I was disappointed to see the Archimedes of block game design, Craig Besinque, use this system for Hellenes (yes he threw in a twist with Routs, but that mechanic is a step in the wrong direction[3]).

Back in Fall 2009 when I was first giving form to my frustration over the ossification in block game design, there were some very strong rays of hope. The modern day Courtney Allen, Mr Bowen Simmons, had given us Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph. At the time, 1805: Sea of Glory and PQ-17 had just been released, blocks with completely novel mechanics. On the near horizon was Worthington's Band of Brothers, GMT's Sekigahara, and a strong Simmons Games variant in the form of Guns of Gettysburg.

Fast forward two years, and 1805 and PQ-17 have their adherents, but haven't set the world on fire. I certainly have not felt compelled to play them. Band of Brothers bailed out on the use of blocks (a great loss to us all), and Guns of Gettysburg is in endless and mysterious publication statis. But finally, Sekigahara comes out, and it appears to be as glorious as I'd hoped!

Not that I can directly comment on Sekigahara since my 2006-era P500 order hasn't shipped yet. Not complaining, I understand GMT's situation, plus I haven't had time recently to play the game, even I had it. The 3-4 year old BGG files demonstrating game play had me completely sold on this game.

In fact, I put my marker down six months ago, in the "Wargames: The Waiting" Geeklist (now deleted, along with the entire game entry). Here is what I wrote Feb 2011:


OMG, I'm quoting myself! wrote:
...my prediction is that this [Sekigahara] is going to be an eye-opening game. People are going to say, "huh, you can do that with blocks? And Cards? Wow, cool."

We need this to help break down the log jam of block game design stultification that threatens to set in, even as the format has gained in popularity over the last decade.


Final words. One, I can still enjoy good Columbia block games. For example, Julius Caesar has all the features that bother me in this oeuvre, but it's a very entertaining short wargame (better with 2 decks of cards). Recommended. Two, yes this is now technically a manifesto. And finally, I don't want to slight the block game design progress being made by Rick Young & Jesse Evans (Europe/Asia Engulfed), Rick's FAB:Bulge system, as well as Ron Draker's Prussia's Defiant Stand (a good game, hindered by Worthington's long delay in clarifying mangled
rules). Applause from the bleachers! Heck, I'm going to jump up and down for 1805 and PQ-17, even though they're not interesting to me, their pioneering use of blocks wins the designers a big shiny medal. Right, one more thing. When is Matt Calkins designing another game?

ADDENDUM: In terms of upcoming non-Hammer clone block games, I forgot to give a fist bump to the upcoming Sturm Europa by Michael Tan. This looks to explore a lot of new ground off the trail blazed by Gamma2/Columbia, compared to the parachute drop into Terra Incognita that is Sekigahara. Somewhere in between lies Strike of the Eagle/Eagle and the Star, the recent operational block game covering the Polish-Soviet War (1919-20). This is a great time for block games!

-------

[1] = Block games, by my definition, are wargames where units are represented by upright pieces. The pieces could be wood, plastic or cardboard (or sufficiently old meatloaf). The principle here is that unit information is inherently hidden from your opponent, not the owner. Thus, Command and Colors games are not block games, even if they use wooden blocks. Napoleon's Triumph (Simmons) is a block game (as are a few surprising games that use cardboard, such as Red Storm Rising from TSR). And yes, you can hide unit information by putting a blank counter on top of any stack of traditional wargame counters, but this is a staggeringly inelegant solution. It hides data from both players, yet only one player is disallowed from seeing the data. Note that there is no requirement that a block game must use the 4 edges to track step losses.

[2] = "A/B/C defender-fires-first" is fine if your only criteria are to reward the defender and certain elite/special troops. As long as you don't care whether this maps back to the underlying reality in any way shape or form, then this does the job -- as would a traditional CRT, or even flinging the pieces with a spoon. Under certain circumstances, the defender firing first could make some sense: infantry assault into the face of cannon fire during the horse & musket period. But what does it mean when thousands of hoplites, or an entire legion "swings first"? Nothing. The A/B/C system tries to cover multiple parameters: speed, ranged fire, elite status, or quantity of armor/fighting style (medium vs heavy infantry in ancient combat parlance). None of these, except ranged fire, make any sense in terms of allowing an entire unit to attack and inflict damage first. It's a kludge. An incredibly successfull kludge, sure. If this were the only possible way to indicate some sort of advantage one unit had over another, I would relent. But it's not.

[3] = Hellenes' Rout rule: a unit rated "2" inflicts hits on a 1-2 against enemy blocks with the most steps, while a 5-6 inflicts a Rout on an enemy block with the fewest steps. So, one unit is bloodied, but another unit, one that very well may be at full strength and never touched in combat, runs away. Not how it generally worked back in the day; that's my suspicion. This mechanic does do one, admirable thing. It allows combat to terminate without one side (or both) having been ground to dust. However, this property could have been achieved without forsaking reality. Further, this mechanic interacts with the sea invasion rules to create another pathology. Ground troops have to be carried by a fleet block that has more steps. Thus, a 3-step hoplite needs a 4-step fleet block to transport it over water. Naval transport is a central feature of the game, particularly for Athens. Naval invasions require the fleet unit to land on a coastal land space along with the transported army units, and fight along side them if the space is enemy occupied. Because the fleet units must have more steps, any Rout is inflicted on the heavily armed hoplite, while a hit is taken against the boat-rowing rabble, who have no business being in the thick of the fighting, particularly on offense. Even if the naval invasion succeeds, the now 3-step fleet unit can't transport the 3-step hoplite, so the hoplite has to take a voluntary step loss to "squeeze" back into the fleet. Like I said, a step backwards in terms of game design.

[Edit: typos, clarity, addendum]
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Christopher Donovan
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Thank you for the insightful comment. I want to take a second look at PQ-17. I wonder if it's an improvement over the double-blind naval games of old, like Midway and Bismarck.

I'm really hoping this political block game gets published: Weimar: German Politics 1929-1933

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Sime Mardesic
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Bacchus Marsh
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I ordered this game based on this review. Thoughtful piece and has encouraged me to attempt this style of game for the first time. Thanks.
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Christopher Donovan
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simem wrote:
I ordered this game based on this review. Thoughtful piece and has encouraged me to attempt this style of game for the first time. Thanks.


I hope you like the game. My advice - stick with it.
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