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Subject: Battle for Rokugan Review - A Fantastic Foggy War rss

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Chris McDowall
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Battle for Rokugan puts you in control of a great clan, warring for control of a sort of mythic Japan. It’s a strategy game light on rules but quick to play, scaling from two to five players, and full of opportunities for clever maneuvering.

You take turns placing secret orders for armies, navies, and shinobi assassins, as well as deploying special orders like Diplomacy, taking one of your provinces out of the conflict for good; and Raid, razing an enemy territory to scorched earth.

The game is built around dual uncertainties. Firstly, you draw only a small hand of combat tokens from your pool each turn, so you never know quite what options you or your opponents will have. Secondly, you can see where your opponents are placing their tokens, but not what those orders are. The first point in particular makes everything more blurry than the relative certainty of Diplomacy, so come to the table prepared for a fog of war.

At the end of each of five rounds, combat tokens are revealed and battles resolved. Provinces change hands, those defended are bolstered, some end up burned to the ground. Crucially, played combat tokens are then discarded, and everyone draws back to a full hand of new tokens. You start each turn with the same number of tokens, whether you own half of the map, or have been completely wiped out. Grabbing lots of land gets you closer to victory, but leaves you with twice the borders to defend, and no extra troops to do so.

The map and components are simple and sturdy. All cardboard here, no miniature samurai. Still, it’s quality cardboard and the soft, pastel artwork feels appropriate. Reading the board can be tricky, with the muted tones and flat tokens, so I wish they’d gone with a bolder pallet at the cost of some aesthetic appeal.

The pace of this game is truly remarkable. Before the first turn you take turns snatching up the empty provinces, so the map begins with fractured borders and aggressive positioning. There’s no slow march to war here, you’re clashing from the first moments of the game. Every turn feels impactful, and drawing a fresh set of tokens each turn means you never feel like you’re stuck in an impossible position. There’s always hope, but also greed, envy, thirst for revenge.

Another remarkable feature of this game is that it supports two players as well as larger groups. One-on-one games are a bloody war where there’s no illusion of diplomacy. Your lands marble the map, so each player has far more options than their five tokens could hope to cover, as well as far too many openings to defend. Lands swing back and forth and it feels like you really have to pick your battles and decide which lands you’re willing to sacrifice.

With more players you open the door to negotiation and stand a better chance of managing your borders. There aren’t any formal alliances, and with tokens being placed face down onto the board there are few ways to launch a true sneak attack, so don’t be expecting full-on Diplomacy-level twisting politics. Instead, there’s more to be said for appearing non-threatening, turning your opponents against each other, and knowing how to pick your battles. Any player that seizes a handful of lands in a single turn is sure to draw the attention of the others. While players can’t directly assist in each other’s attacks, forcing an opponent to fight on two fronts means they’re often unable to get enough tokens down to defend them all.

So in my experience, there’s little tendency for formal alliances here. Everybody knows they can win, and war is the only way to do that, but a temporary vendetta against a common threat is still a tempting offer. There cannot be peace, but you can try to direct the war away from your own borders.

As I mentioned earlier, the game is built on dual uncertainties of hand-drawing and hidden orders. I’ve heard concerns that this combination prevents any sort of reliable deduction of your opponents’ moves. Whether you’re attacking me with an Strength 5 Army, or just a Strength 1, could depend as much on the luck of your draw as your overall strategy.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, just different to what players used to the playing A Game of Thrones would expect. Those hoping to be able to perfectly deduce an opponent’s actions could find this element frustrating. Sometimes you can even predict the incoming attack, and have nothing in your hand that can deal with it. You were destined to lose the battle, but the war is still up for grabs. The best Daimyo will know when to accept a loss, and how to make the best use of even the worst tokens in their pool.

To mitigate the randomness there’s a degree of hand management here. The Bluff token is slightly misleading at first, as any token can be played in an illegal position in order to deceive your opponent. There are few feelings more satisfying than having an opponent waste their precious Shugenja card to remove one of your Army 1 tokens that you placed disguised as a Raid.

The Bluff Token does nothing, so misdirection is all it has to offer. More importantly, using it lets you hold back one of the tokens in your hand until next turn. The cost for this hesitation, alongside placing a powerless token, is that you draw one less token next round. Do you want to risk never drawing one of your most powerful tokens? For me, this strengthens the theme of encouraging you to make the most of the hand you drew unless absolutely necessary.

There’s some variable setup to make each game feel fresh. There are seven clans to choose from, each with a special power and a unique token to add to their pool. They feel different, but I would have liked to see this asymmetry ramped up to make the graceful Crane feel truly different to the deceitful Scorpion or the enigmatic Dragon. This feels like an area ripe for variants, for groups that are happy to throw the game off balance occasionally.

Hidden objectives add an extra layer of scoring that I don’t feel the game really needs, as the scoring tends to naturally create certain objectives for each player as the game goes on. Whole Territories, made up of three provinces of the same colour, grant a special one-use power (themselves part of a variable setup) and extra points at the end of the game, so you’ll quickly learn to prioritise territories that would grant these to you, or deny an opponent. Provinces can even become more valuable through being defended successfully, presenting a ripe target for enemy raids. These feel like organic, meaningful objectives compared to the relatively unexciting offerings on the cards.

This game is a must-buy for anybody that wants a fast-playing war full of risky gambits and uncertainty. The two player game is a much appreciated option, but I can’t honestly recommend it unless you’re also going to get to play with more. The low price and compact box are doubly appealing, though the lack of token storage in the box is devastating if you don’t have your own supply of bags on hand. I shiver at the thought of somebody buying this game and storing hundreds of tokens, in seven colours, loose in the box.

I dream of an expansion that includes bolder components to mark your territory, more clan asymmetry, and a better set of secret objectives, but Battle for Rokugan has already captured my heart. Absolutely recommended.
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Dario Alex
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ChrisMcDee wrote:

[b]
This game is a must-buy for anybody that wants a fast-playing war full of risky gambits and uncertainty. The two player game is a much appreciated option, but I can’t honestly recommend it unless you’re also going to get to play with more. The low price and compact box are doubly appealing, though the lack of token storage in the box is devastating if you don’t have your own supply of bags on hand. I shiver at the thought of somebody buying this game and storing hundreds of tokens, in seven colours, loose in the box.

I dream of an expansion that includes bolder components to mark your territory, more clan asymmetry, and a better set of secret objectives, but Battle for Rokugan has already captured my heart. Absolutely recommended.



Great review, but I slightly disagree on the two players count .

I do agree that it is a different experience in 3 or more but I really like the "chess-like" feeling of a 1v1. I would still recommend this for 2 players, true there are other option out there, but BoR has its own feel that I could not find in any other game .

My only complaint is in a 3 player game, I had my fair share of games and this is the scenario where king maker was felt more.


PS: I definitely agree on the expansion I'd love more clan cards, more and different objectives, more clan.... just more of everything. I hope that BoR gets its fair share of players and doesn't get blown away from Rising Sun (which i like less, btw )
 
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