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Subject: A flawed gem easily shined. rss

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Sam London
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One of the first “big” games in my collection years ago was A Game of Thrones the Board Game. I was always a big fan of the experience (though I hated the Lannister starting position), and got it to the tables as frequently as I could. Unfortunately, due to the play time and teaching time, that has been a total of five times by my count. I just have too many games that have to get played and too few gaming opportunities, so dedicating a whole long evening to a game like that is something that occurs rarely.

When I first saw Battle for Rokugan announced, at a quick glance I took it to be a simple reskin of the GOT board game. I bought it as a splurge purchase one day at my FLGS (because frankly the price point for the content is great) and after reading the rulebook I realized Batlle for Rokugan is less a reskin and more of a gutting (in a good way). Each player assumes control of a major clan from the Legend of the Five Rings setting and dukes it out for control of their home empire of Rokugan. They do this by placing order tokens face down on the board, only revealing them for execution after all the order tokens for the given round have been placed. Provinces will change hands over and over again, some will be fortified, and some will be burned. The players do this because provinces are worth VP at the end of the game, and because controlling all of the provinces in a given territory grants access to powerful once-per-game abilities. This occurs for five rounds and at the end of the game the player with the most points is the winner.

The game gets a lot of points from me right off the bat. First off it successfully takes the core mechanic (playing facedown order tokens that will take effect later) from GOT and fits it into 60-90 minutes. Another thing I love is that the only luck in the game is the order in which you draw your available order tokens (with one exception ranted on later). Between card effects and the potential use of the bluff token (I will come back to that) you have the ability to guarantee you will see the tokens you want in a given game (or bank the ones you already have for the right time).

Where the game really shines for me is with the ability to bluff and with the map. Firstly, every player has a dedicated bluff token that can be used but never discarded. Using the bluff token effectively allows you to save one order token you like for future rounds, but if you don’t care for that effect it is important to note that every token can be used as a bluff token so long as you place it at an invalid location. Invalid tokens just fizzle and are discarded. This introduces so many head games into Battle for Rokugan and that is where the game is at its best. I had a Crane player mock attack me multiple times trying to draw out my best orders for defense, so after he bluffed me twice I completely ignored his real push.

It’s an easy thing to overlook, but I think the strongest aspect of the game is the map itself. The map is organized such that the game is a knife fight in a phone booth for 2-5 people. I haven’t tried the game with 2 players yet, but at higher player counts there is no way to really turtle. The Crab clan has the best ability to play defensively, but the Raid order effectively removes a province from the game anyway, so fortifying a province to crazy levels just makes it a target. This makes it so everyone has to play aggressively, and in doing so, it is very hard for anyone to get their feelings hurt.

My one issue, and it’s a big one, is the secret objectives. In my opinion they completely ruin the game. The issues with them are many, but simply put, they introduce a huge element of luck to the game. I played a 4 player game where 3 of the players managed to draw the secret objectives to control the majority or capital of a non-player faction’s lands. I drew one such card for an opponent and a neutral card (which in hindsight I should have taken). The game played out and was great, until objectives were revealed at the end.

The first issue is that you can see your objectives during setup before you place your initial control tokens. Two of the three players satisfied their secret objective in setup (the third forgot what her objective was). Both of these players never lost control of their objective provinces all game (the first because no one cared about Unicorn lands, and the second because he declared peace on the Lion capital turn 2. This means effectively that 2 of my opponents started the game with a massive point advantage compared to me.

The second issue that arose from this, is that since you get powerful cards for controlling whole territories, and because you are forced to invest in your capital, everyone is very protective of their home territory. So while the other players more or less satisfied their objective during set up, I was fighting for mine all game. In the end my objective was literally impossible because peace was declared in two Scorpion provinces including the capital. A more experienced player would have seen ways to prevent this, but regardless that is how the game ended up.

In the end my biggest problem with the secret objectives are that they are random and have such a large impact on final scoring (25% to 33% of final score for most players), and that the best objectives are the ones that are least likely to involve conflict with other players.
After the game in question one of my friends pointed out the all to obvious solution of playing without secret objectives. Game fixed!

In closing, the secret objective issue aside Battle for Rokugan is a great game, but not an outstanding one. I will gladly play it again (and again), and I hope FFG expands it with Mantis and Spider clans and with more cards for territory control. For me the game’s only (non-fixable) detractor is that it’s almost too boiled down. I feel similarly about it to how I feel about Dominion, where it embodies the essence of a mechanic (in this case secret orders). So while I enjoyed it very much, I also cannot say it was a life changing gaming experience for me, which leaves it at about an 8/10 for me. All of that being said, the game will likely get played quite a bit, because there just aren’t that many nigh-luckless, 60 minute, 2-5 player wargames out there.

Some scattered remaining thoughts:

- For how little difference there is between clans they actually feel fairly different. The unique order tokens are something you have to be mindful of, the passive powers have enough of an impact on gameplay, and you will frequently have your home territory card which is usually very powerful.

- I think they nailed the number of effects that let your interact with (viewing or discarding) already placed order tokens. It is enough that you feel like you have some tricks all game for that and have to worry about opponent’s while also feeling you need to be miserly with them.

- I have never been compelled to note how much value you get for a game in a review until now. The box is backed with stuff. At a 40 dollar MSRP, getting a game this size almost feels like FFG is losing money on it somehow.

- Conflict wise I feel like the territory cards are a very effective carrot on a stick. They are very powerful and cool so the tug of war for them takes up the first half of the game until they start getting used. I just wish that there were more so you didn’t have a 50% chance of seeing a given card during a game.
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Kin
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Thanks for the review.

Perhaps you can try playing without the secret objectives?

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Ian
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As a big fan of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, I think the secret objectives work well if the players are aware of what all of the possible objectives are. D:A-M includes a reference sheet with each of these objectives for the players to look at - something this game could use, too. That way, there is an element of deduction as to what each player is secretly trying to achieve on top of the overt world domination.

The bluffs become that much more useful, since you could divert attention in the late-game from your real machinations.
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Sam London
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candoo wrote:
Thanks for the review.

Perhaps you can try playing without the secret objectives?



As I note in the review, a friend suggested this and this is how we play now.

At this point no one is going to convince me that the secret objectives work well. You must be able to see how broken the mere possibility is that your objective is to control your own capital, where you are forced to place a control marker in setup. Being able to play the entire game with your secret objective more or less in the bag after setup or even turn 1 is not compelling gameplay. Conversely having any objective that is not this way puts you at a massive disadvantage to everyone else.
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Hugues Richard
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AnotherHorrorFan wrote:
candoo wrote:
Thanks for the review.

Perhaps you can try playing without the secret objectives?



As I note in the review, a friend suggested this and this is how we play now.

At this point no one is going to convince me that the secret objectives work well. You must be able to see how broken the mere possibility is that your objective is to control your own capital, where you are forced to place a control marker in setup. Being able to play the entire game with your secret objective more or less in the bag after setup or even turn 1 is not compelling gameplay. Conversely having any objective that is not this way puts you at a massive disadvantage to everyone else.


We also played a 5P game where Crane had to choose between the Shadowlands objective that barely gives any pts or the impossible Phoenix objective (unless you're Phoenix or Phoenix is empty seated of course) since that clan can so easily take or retake Capitals. They are nice and wishful incitatives but seem to give too much points as our games saw ranges between 8 and 30 some.

To counter this point though, I had a game playing Lion with Lion objective and a peace token on first turn. Easy right ? Played the peace on it and later, the crappy "2X +1 honor" and "=4 honor" cards for a whooping 5 + 7 honor impregnable region... Until Scorpion switched regions with an unseated Unicorn (also her objective) card from a bordering 1 honor region. So Scorpion went up 4 pts while I went down 11 for a nice 15 pts swing, reversing my Crane and Lion cards to her advantage and earlier played sole diplomacy token. I won't say the clans are uneven, they don't seem to be, but the balance of those region cards and the fact they are hidden... I ain't butt hurt but damn, for a 30 pts game and all the tokens we played, 15 pts on a single card play felt freakin' cheap.

For the little story, so cheap that Crab used a card to remove peace tokens turn 4 so I was able to reclaim it 7 to 6 on turn 5 with a three pronged assault and shugenja card on a raiding Phoenix but still.
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Horsie Palamino
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I've considered some alternatives for the fully 'secret objective' for setup. My friends and I will probably start playing with all non-clan conflicts faceup. (Such as Sail, Humility, Jade and Shadowlands) These missions will be attainable by everyone on the table, so it encourages conflict.

As for the 'Secrets', choose all the objective areas of the clans in play, and get one of them each. If anyone has their own clan, reveal and reshuffle. This way, noone has too big of an inherent lead. And it decreases the importance of the non-active clans to a degree.

Oninohugo wrote:
I had a game playing Lion with Lion objective and a peace token on first turn. Easy right ? Played the peace on it and later, the crappy "2X +1 honor" and "=4 honor" cards for a whooping 5 + 7 honor impregnable region.

I believe stacking more than one special token on a region is illegal, as per the rules. So you can't have a province give that much honor if it's peaced unless it was bolstered every round before the diplomacy token went down, and even then, it would only give 7 at most including a +3 from the region itself.
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The secret objectives start to shine when players are more experienced. I think an expansion with more secret objectives would be very welcome but at this moment you get to memorize them fairly quickly and can guess what other players are after by how they place their control token at the very beginning and by how they behave on the map. It's very easy to mess with people's secret objectives since the moment you see someone taking a capital other players (should) surround it with their control tokens.

The secret objectives and the +5 points for territories are the strongest aspects of the game giving players the necessary pressure to clash with one another. Without them the end result would indeed be what you describe - bunch of people turtling and essentially doing nothing. The dangerous buzz kill for every area control game.

Obviously people like to play differently but imo calling this mechanism a flaw after 1 play is unfair. Since it was designed to prevent the turtling you mentioned. My only complain about the game is that there could be more ways to use tokens or just more different variations of them. As of now the secrecy is more about "how big is his army?" instead of "what is under that token?" due to the placement rules. I love the way a shinobi can carry a raid token to another province and I wish there were more surprise elements like that.
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Sam London
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I like Palamino's idea.

HailTheSun wrote:
Obviously people like to play differently but imo calling this mechanism a flaw after 1 play is unfair.


I never said I had played the game only once. I had one three player game and two four player games at the time I wrote this review. I'm not questioning the intent of the mechanism, I'm questions it's execution. As I have stated before, the argument that you can view where people place their control markers in setup when it's possible to draw yourself as an objective is flawed.
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Just add a couple of houserules:

1.Pick private objectives only after the initial placement of control markers

2.Let players take a replacement of a private objective if a private makes a reference to their own clan/capital.

The game is excellent.
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Kin
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Or what about a common pool of face up objectives? Each player may only score one of them.
 
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Nick Sephton
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candoo wrote:
Or what about a common pool of face up objectives? Each player may only score one of them.


This seems like a nice idea. Then everyone knows what is being played for. You could even allow anyone to score any number of these, as it is all public anyhow.
 
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Clayton Weaver

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I would much rather play with secret objectives with the small possibility of giving someone incentive to turtle instead of not playing with secret objectives at all.

People sack capitals all of the time. Crane's and Crabs are on the water. Phoenix and Dragon share a border. Lion and Scorpion can pretty much get hit from all sides.

I strongly recommend people play with the secret objectives a couple of times before assuming that they are bad for the game.
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Nick Sephton
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Clayton7 wrote:
I strongly recommend people play with the secret objectives a couple of times before assuming that they are bad for the game.


Obviously it's fine to try them out, but it is pretty sucky to just randomly lose to a card you can't see and have no knowledge of. If anything, you need to play without them first, so you can understand how difficult each of them is to achieve, then read through and learn them, then play with them so you can make educated guesses at which each opponent has.

I'm going to test the "Open Objectives" variant and report back. I think this will work well. (i.e. Deal N objectives face up at the start of the game, anyone can score any number of them at the end of the game.)
 
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Clayton Weaver

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TheBigFish wrote:
Clayton7 wrote:
I strongly recommend people play with the secret objectives a couple of times before assuming that they are bad for the game.


Obviously it's fine to try them out, but it is pretty sucky to just randomly lose to a card you can't see and have no knowledge of. If anything, you need to play without them first, so you can understand how difficult each of them is to achieve, then read through and learn them, then play with them so you can make educated guesses at which each opponent has.
I don't see why you can't just show people the secret objectives when you're teaching the game and then play the game with the secret objectives.

As such, you're not 'randomly' losing to a card 'you have no knowledge of' because you also have a secret objective and you have knowledge of what is possible.

If your opponent is turtling over their own objective then that means that they aren't contesting your secret objective.
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Nick Sephton
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Yeah, you could do this, but it just seems worse. These secret objectives don't feel fun at all. Better to just have them public, rather than randomly lose the game for no reason at the end.
 
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Secret Objectives definitely don't ruin the game. They make it way better. Playing without the Secret Objectives makes the game very boring and pointless.
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Nick Sephton
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discojedi wrote:
Secret Objectives definitely don't ruin the game. They make it way better. Playing without the Secret Objectives makes the game very boring and pointless.


Tried it in three games. It's much improved. There is still loads of hidden information, and now you actually know what everyone's objective is, rather than just guessing.

Can recommend.
 
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Steven K
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I'm about to start playing this game and teach it to my family, and after reading this thread I think we'll play the Secret Objectives face up first, and once everyone is familiar with them (hopefully after a few games), we'll try to play them hidden so there won't be any nasty surprises later.
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Jason
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What's your thought on this way to use the secret objectives?
- Have the players choose their clans (or random).
- Remove all the player clan specific objectives.
- Shuffle the remaining objectives.
- Place a number of objectives equal to the number of players face-up on the table. (Or maybe even 1 minus the number of players if it's too much to track.)
- Make it so that all players are able to go for all objectives.

It would push conflict to areas of the objectives. It would mean that ones for other clans could be scored by 2 players (1 holds the capital, the other holds the other 2).
 
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I would just use a reference like this that someone has made:
Reference List for Territory Cards, Secret Objectives, Clan Abilities and Initiative

That way everyone has a list of all the possibilities, so they can try and figure out what others are doing, plus it could clarify some points about what territories count, etc.
 
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Nick Sephton
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After playing it, I'd choose the last option: -

Deal out N objectives publicly, and let any player score any number of them at the end of the game.

There is already loads of hidden information in this game.
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The A Feast for Crows expansion for A Game of Thrones also uses secret objectives. They solved this by having the objectives be worth varying points depending on which house you're playing. Maybe something similar could have been done here? Let the clan specific objectives be worth varying points depending on if it is your capital, opponents capital or no player's capital.
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I truly dislike secret objectives in games, and even more when they can be worth a large part of the final scoring. The good news is that it's rather easy to solve the issues they create for us.


There are many good solutions:

1. Not use them at all.

OR
Take only the 5 objectives not related to holding specific clans' territories.
AND

1. Reveal 3 and let anyone accomplish them.

2. Do as usual, but divide the points those cards reward by 3 or 2.

3.
- Take as many secret objectives as there are players + 1 (or same number if 5 players)
- Secretly give one to each player.
- Once consulted, every player puts it back on the table, face down. They are shuffled and revealed face up on the table for all to see. You will know what the objectives are, but not who owns them. One of them will be owned by no one (very useful with 2 players)

The territorial objectives are just flawed, honestly. You can be lucky and pick your own. You can either be a target or not. You can get a neutral one or not. The only way I would play them is by giving one taken from the clans that are playing to each player, and not his own.
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Lucas McPherson
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Solipsiste wrote:
3.
- Take as many secret objectives as there are players + 1 (or same number if 5 players)
- Secretly give one to each player.
- Once consulted, every player puts it back on the table, face down. They are shuffled and revealed face up on the table for all to see. You will know what the objectives are, but not who owns them. One of them will be owned by no one (very useful with 2 players)

The territorial objectives are just flawed, honestly. You can be lucky and pick your own. You can either be a target or not. You can get a neutral one or not. The only way I would play them is by giving one taken from the clans that are playing to each player, and not his own.


I havn't tried the game, but this is actually an interresting way of doing things, I'm wondering if you had any tries with this suggestion?

Best Regards
L
 
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Derek H
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Solipsiste wrote:
3.
- Take as many secret objectives as there are players + 1 (or same number if 5 players)
- Secretly give one to each player.
- Once consulted, every player puts it back on the table, face down. They are shuffled and revealed face up on the table for all to see. You will know what the objectives are, but not who owns them.

Have you tried this? It seems sneakily interesting ...
 
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