Monday, October 3, 2011

Ikusa - "Ronin" Roughly Translates To "Waiting In A Bowl Of Rice To Pop A Cap In Your Ass"

I don't know what's gotten into Hasbro and its subsidiaries lately, but I'm digging it. Maybe there just aren't enough "Dudes on a Map" games on the market or something, but with Avalon Hill's release of Ikusa, the second renaming and reprinting of the epic GameMaster series game Shogun, not to mention the recent release of the awesome Conquest of Nerath and the upcoming release of the groundbreaking Risk: Legacy, they seem to be wanting to be wanting to own the epic conquest game segment. Luckily, they do it really well, and the treatment they did to Shogun to remake it into Ikusa is nothing short of phenomenal. Thanks to Wizards sending me this copy for review, I can tell you all about it.

If you've never played either the original GameMaster series Shogun or the first remake, Samurai Swords, allow me to tell you what they're about. The game is a territory conquest game taking place in feudal Japan, several centuries ago. You command your generals, or daimyo, and provincial soldiers who defend territories, with the goal of expanding your influence to a pre-set number of territories to win, or you can just stomp the brakes off of your opponents and subjugate their armies and cities.

What makes this unique is that there's so many different mechanics that come into play, from blind bidding, hidden resources, variable units, spying, assassination, daimyo experience upgrades for valor, and hidden mercenary reinforcements in the form of Ronin. All the mechanics tie in flawlessly for what can only be called the best depiction of epic warfare in Edo-period, feudal Japan that I've ever played, let alone a very solid war game.

Ikusa has absolutely breathtaking art throughout, and paired with the overall production values this can only be considered to be the ultimate version of the game. While the miniatures are unpainted, and there are almost 500 of them, they are unique looking and come in seven colors to represent the five players, the Ronin, and the ninja. In what can only be an ode to multiculturalism and racial harmony, there are no yellow figures in the box, which pisses me off because I really like to play yellow when I can.

This is due to an injury I suffered long ago, causing dark colors to blend together quite a bit in anything other than bright light; I suspect color blindness is similar. Most of the player colors in Ikusa are of the darker variety, so I wish they'd stuck with the colors used in Shogun, which have bright blues, reds, and a yellow figure that I could most certainly differentiate. Seriously, nobody is going to call Avalon Hill racist for putting one player's worth of yellow figures in the box simply because it's a Japanese themed game.

Another thing changed from the original is the wee katanas that were used to designate player turn order in Shogun. This isn't a big deal because the originals were of a brittle plastic that always broke, and now they're cardboard chits with numbers on them, so I think this is an augmentation rather than a detraction. I guess I can no longer try to stab an opposing player with the little swords, so maybe that could be counted as a downside, but all things considered, I have ample knives around the house so I suppose I could improvise.

Other than those small things, the components are pretty much the same in quantity, although everything is of a better quality. The millions of plastic miniature people are of the same quality and detail as those in Conquest of Nerath, which is awesome, and they're all easily distinguishable from each other when it comes to the model shapes themselves. There's riflemen, archers, spearmen, samurai, and all kinds of other guys.

There's even a ninja in the box, who is my favorite as his sole job in life is to spy on things and murder daimyo as they sleep. On top of that are five player dishes, which are used to house players' forces, money supplies, and to bid and purchase things. It comes with a neat player shield that sits on a groove in the dishes and provides a rules reference as well as little indicators that hover over the depressions in the tray which are used to place coins to take certain actions.

Included also are a bunch of cardboard chits that are all well designed, a bunch of plastic coins which are detailed and durable, a sheet of stickers with which to label your flagbearers, a bunch of cards that match each territory on the board, a bunch of plastic pagoda buildings and fortification pieces that the pagodas sit on to indicate they are fortified, some dice, and finally, a well written rulebook. All in all, you definitely get your money's worth when it comes to the bits and pieces, because everything in this game is absolutely perfect. All other games from here on out should look to this game as a guideline for what game components should look like; they are truly that good.

I'm not going into my usual "how to set up and play" with this because you can look back to any review of Shogun and Samurai Swords, or to the rulebook at the bottom of this page, in order to learn how to play this. Nothing has changed at all from previous versions, aside from inclusion of short game rules in the far back of the book. I may be wrong about this, because I don't recall reading any before, but this version has some neat little rules that allow for shorter games as well as two player games.

Now, by shorter rules, I should mention that this is a relative statement, and shorter in this context means "not five hours". The nature of the game is such that it takes considerable time to develop your strategies to their fullest, and this is a very long game, even by epic conquest game standards. The short version brings it to around three hours, as I noted, which is much more manageable.

I will, since I have more time to waste and more thoughts to confer upon my beloved readers, go into what I really, truly, and unabashedly love about Ikusa. First, I'd like to talk about why the Ronin mechanic is so bad ass. In most conquest games, you buy people, place people on the map, and proceed to slaughter one another wholesale. While I'm fine with that, the Ronin change this substantially and add a huge cool factor due to the fact that Ronin are not simply more dudes to add to a territory, they're invisible, Predator-armor wearing mercenaries for rent, waiting in a bowl of rice to pop a cap in your enemies' asses.

Ronin, essentially, are paid for and temporarily rented by the player during the purchase phase. Instead of putting them on the map, you place them on the cards that represent territories in the map, and the cards are placed face-down, so your vile enemies will never know where you're actually deploying them until it's too late. This adds an awesome surprise attack mechanic that, when well used, can change the game exponentially.

Alternatively, you can use them to feint and have an enemy believe you're augmenting a garrison to make them delay an attack on one of your provinces. To top that off, there's only a set amount of them available at any time, and they're taken out of the pool in the player order for the round, so if you want to be extra nasty, the first two players can conspire to take the lion's share of them to stop another player from taking them. It's brilliant.

The next mechanic that I love is the fact that your daimyo get experience as they win battles. This doesn't change your battle effectiveness in that you get more dice or something, it changes the amount of spaces that the entire army that serves under that daimyo can move. Thus, a battle-hardened daimyo may take several territories in one fell swoop or travel long distances to engage their hated rivals instead of puttering along as they are forced to do before building experience. This also makes them huge targets because they are potentially fragile, since once their army has fallen they are quite easily killed, even by a lowly yari-wielding peasant.

Another cool mechanic is the units and battles system. There are a wide variety of units, from bowmen to samurai, and each has its place in your armies. Bowmen and Gunners fire before all else, and thus players that have diversified well have a decided advantage over those who simply bought piles of foot soldiers to act as chaff.

Finally, the ninja mechanic is a very clever way to keep enemy strong daimyo-led armies in check. The highest bidder in a round is the only one who gets to keep the ninja for that round, with all others losing their money, and the winner may use him to either kill a daimyo by declaring an attack, or they can hold him in reserve until the beginning of the next round where he can peek an an enemy's expenditures and see what that player plans to spend cash on.

For the former, you can declare who you want to kill and roll the die; if you roll a nine or higher, they cannot move, attack, or defend this round. So, it's not really so much killing as maiming, which is actually more valuable in war as time has told. The downside is that if the assassination attempt failed, the opponent can retaliate and, if successful, maim one of your own daimyo in a similar fashion. It's a truly vicious mechanic, and it's yet another thing that makes Ikusa truly unique when weighed against its peers in the epic war game spectrum.

Now there are some things that a people will be turned off by when it comes to any iteration of Shogun, be it Ikusa or Samurai Swords. First, the game phases can be a hair unwieldy to some because while some actions are simultaneous, others go in player order. In short, the gameplay can be viewed as choppy, or not quite streamlined. Second, the game can be very, very long. It's like Risk, in that regard, but with far more complexity. Four player games can run as long as four to five hours, and even longer if you're playing your first game.

Finally, something that may turn new Ikusa players off is the fact that there are none of the "new standards of Dudes on a Map" included in the game, such as variable player powers, mission-based scoring, robust economic models and things of that nature. At its core, it's a game about sending troops down the line, dismembering your enemies, forming and breaking alliances, and capturing their territories.

Beyond the above complaints which have haunted Shogun and Samurai Swords all along, as well as some new ones, I think this is an awesome game. If you had not considered buying this paying the outlandishly high prices that have been spotted on Ebay for Shogun, or less so for Samurai Swords, jump on this. If you dig Japanese culture like I do (so much so that I married into a Japanese family) and love conquest games, this is a no-brainer. I have yet to find anything that captures the spirit of Japanese warfare like Ikusa does.

For some, Ikusa may appear too simple, but in reality there's tremendous strategic options available, so I don't take too many points away from Ikusa for not being "modern" or updated. New stuff might've been nice, but part of the charm of Ikusa is that it is very straightforward to learn and play, without having too much stuff going on in it that it becomes unwieldy or overly complex. Part of me wonders if this was reprinted because the original designer, Mike Gray, who is still with Hasbro, has had some new ideas on how to update this through an expansion down the road.

Why I Want To Be A Feudal Daimyo When I Grow Up:
- This game's art is rivalled only by Cyclades, which I consider to be the pinnacle example of art in a game
- Outstanding production values from the plastics to the cardboard also contribute to the stratospheric "pretty" factor
- The inclusion of game-shortening rules was a smart way to ensure the game will get to a table near you
- The awesome mechanics of experienced daimyos, hidden ronin, and the Ninja aren't found anywhere else I know of
- The player interaction in Ikusa is the equivalent of a katana to the scrotum, which is awesome

Why The Ninja May Disembowel Avalon Hill:
- No yellow player pieces? Seriously? C''s not controversial, even in ultra-liberal suburban Washington
- If you cannot handle sitting in one spot for four hours, this is NOT the game for you
- It may be too simplistic for some people, especially considering some of the more modern epic conquest games

This is, simply put, the finest iteration of one of my favorite conquest games of all time, but if you didn't like the other iterations, you probably won't like it now. It's not for the faint of heart, and it's not for someone who wants to play a game for an hour and be done. This is for armchair generals who wish to tread upon their enemies' bones for hours on end, giving nor accepting mercies, and those who wish to engage in a epic game of strategy, intrigue, and elegant warfare. For me, it's a must-have, but I really like these kinds of games, and with the Japan factor, this is at the very top of my list.

4.25/5 Stars

You can learn more at the Wizards/AH page here, and the rules are at the bottom of the page:

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