W. Eric Martin
On July 1, 2011, I previewed Craig Van Ness' new take on the Battleship game of old: Battleship Galaxies, a design that is thoroughly modern, yet with just enough of ye olde Battleship feel to call to mind lazy summer days in which you and your brother and neighborhood friends would spend hour upon hour playing games in the garage, eating Popsicles and wishing it would rain so that you could run outside and cool off.
Now U.S. publisher Hasbro, through its Avalon Hill brand in the Wizards of the Coast wing of the company, is bringing back another oldie-but-goodie – Mike Gray's Ikusa, né Shogun and formerly retitled Samurai Swords, due out July 26, 2011 – but this time the game plays exactly as you remember from those halcyon days of youth, a brutal hours-long face-smashing, neighbor-pounding, back-stabbing, "I'll never play with you again!"-vowing, territory-grabbing adventure fest.
That said, while the game plays the same as in decades past, the artwork and components have been updated to modern times. Gone are the pumpkiny samurai and technicolor green ashigaru of old, having been replaced with more muted shades of orange and green. The iconic, yet somewhat stereotypical "land of the rising sun" imagery on the game board has been replaced by a more realistic look of land and sea. The troop bin/action reminder shield holder is a solid block of plastic, fortress-like in its own right.
The only thing missing from the new version, compared to the original game, is the set of swords used to designate turn order, these swords having been replaced with cardboard markers. If that's enough to have you turning to eBay for the earlier editions, then so be it.
For those not familiar with the game, here's a rundown of how to play, decorated with a few photos from yours truly in my makeshift photo studio: The goal of Ikusa is to own 35 provinces out of the 68 in the game. (With two players, you must own at least fifty provinces at the end of a round to win the game.)
To set up, shuffle the province card deck and deal an equal number of provinces to each player. Each player places one ashigaru spearman in each province he owns. Then in the randomly determined turn order, each player takes turns placing two spearmen in six different provinces that he owns, then takes turns placing his three army markers in different provinces that he owns.
Each army marker represents a number of figures: its daimyo (or leader), samurai bowmen and swordsmen (one of each to start), and ashigaru gunners (two to start) and spearmen. These armies differ from the provincial forces in that they are led (by a daimyo) and can therefore become more experienced over time, making multiple attacks and traveling greater distances. What's more, while a province can hold at most five individual units, an army can be comprised of up to fifteen units.
The risk, however, is that a daimyo can be assassinated by a ninja, and if you lose all three daimyos – whether through assassination or through battle as the last casualty in your army - then you're out of the game. (You can replace an assassinated daimyo if that army survives until the end of a round, but without its leader the army can't move, making it more vulnerable to attack.)
Each player receives koku (coins) equal to the number of provinces he owns divided by three and rounded down. You're now set to play.
At the start of each round, each player first secretly allocates all koku to the five locations in his planning tray, those being Turn Order, Build, Levy Units, Hire Ronin, and Hire Ninja, which are (not coincidentally) the next five actions of the round. Based on player bids, turn order for the remainder of the round is determined, with ties being broken by random draw of the turn order markers in question.
If a player spent two koku on Build, he then builds a castle in a province he owns or adds a fortress to a castle already on the board. These both provide additional defense in the form of spearmen or ronin if this province is attacked during the game – but should someone else manage to take over this province, then they'll receive the defensive bonus. You can't take a castle with you, after all!
Players then buy units based on the amount of koku they spent – one bowman, three spearmen, and so on as shown on the chart above – and place them on the board, with no more than one unit being placed in each province, whether as an individual force or as part of an army.
For each koku you spent, you then hire two ronin and deploy them in secret to any province(s) that you own by placing them on the back of the province card(s). Later this round, when these forces move, attack or defend, you reveal the province card and add the ronin to the army card or the province in question. (The number of ronin in a province must be less than the number of units from your regular forces, and whether used or not the ronin are removed from the board at the end of the round.)
If one player spent more koku than each opponent on the Hire Ninja action, then this player hires the one ninja for the round. (If the high bid is a tie, no one gets the ninja.) This ninja can be used at the start of the next round to spy on an opponent's koku allocation before you allocate your own money or (from the second round on) to assassinate an opponent's daimyo. This assassination isn't assured, however, and should the attempt fail, the opponent gets a chance to assassinate one of your own daimyo instead.
All these actions are preliminary to the heart of the game: war between the provinces. In turn order, each player now moves his armies, declares battles, carries out combat, and makes any final movements.
As mentioned earlier, daimyo can become more experienced during the game; specifically, once per round in which an army has a successful battle against a defender – that is, killing all of the enemy and leaving the province empty – the daimyo's experience marker on the army card is moved right one notch. After three such successes, that daimyo will be level 2, which enables that army to make two attacks each round; what's more, the army can move into a province immediately after a successful attack in order to launch the next one. That army can also move up to two provinces both before and after combat. Daimyos can be as high as level 4.
After moving your forces, you mark every battle to come with a marker indicating which of your forces are attacking which adjacent province, with multiple attacks being possible into a province. Combat is handled with 12-sided dice and resolved simultaneously for attacker and defender, with all bowmen and gunners firing first, casualties then being resolved, then daimyo, swordsmen, ronin and spearmen attacking, with casualties being resolved once again. The combat value for each type of unit is visible on the player screen above; roll this number or lower to succeed. After a combat sequence the attacker can choose to end the attack (whether successful or not) or start the attack sequence again. After combat, you can move armies or provincial forces to reallocate your troops or take control of any adjacent empty provinces.
Once all players have finished combat, all ronin are returned to the side of the board and players receive koku for bidding at the start of the next round, with a player receiving one-third as many koku as the number of provinces he owns, with a minimum of three.
Build, recruit, attack – that's the essence of the game, but you need to pay attention to when you do what where due to one important detail about the game play: player elimination. Yes, Ikusa being an old-school game, it didn't shy away from kicking players out of the game if they played poorly or were too much of a threat in past games or bothered everyone else in real life by being a smarty-pants. What's important to know, though, is that if you're the one to eliminate someone from the game, then:
• You now own all provinces and units owned by that ousted player.
• You receive new daimyos to replace any that you've lost.
• These daimyos come with no armies, but you can place them on any province you own, picking up troops from that province, if desired.
All of which means two things: (1) Don't weaken someone to the point of nearly eliminating them from the game unless you can finish the job the same turn, and (2) Expect to find a big target on your back after boosting your holdings. Whoa, I just had another flashback to my teenage days of playing in the garage. Who wants to play a side game of Knuckles while we wait for our turn to attack?