Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
System requirements: TBD
ESRB rating: Not yet rated
Release date: September 13, 2011
Much like WWII, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crusades, Japan’s Sengoku Period is an historic conflict that game designers can’t seem to leave alone. The intrigue and warfare of such a violent period has spawned a number of interesting titles over the years of such widely varying kinds as Takeda 3 and Total War: Shogun 2. Now Paradox Interactive has decided to add their grand strategy gaming touch to this period, bringing gamers Sengoku: Way of the Warrior. Rather than trying to out-do Creative Assembly or Magitech in terms of tactical battles, Paradox has taken a page from their own Crusader Kings and designed a title that is more focused on the interaction of characters than it is on the proper deployment of archers on a battlefield. In Sengoku, plotting and scheming has a central role to play in a game where your own vassals can be as much of a threat as an opposing clan.
The goal in Sengoku is to become Shogun, and in order to do so, your clan must control over fifty percent of the country for about 18 months. This sounds awfully easy, as surely any halfway competent ruler can conquer and hold half the country for two years. However, these simple victory conditions belie the intricate nature of the game. With Japan being divided into over 300 provinces, and with your character’s personal demesne limited to around 5 provinces, the game suddenly becomes much more difficult. Provinces not directly a part of your personal demesne are given to vassals to rule, and they have their own agenda as well as having a voice in clan affairs. Vassals that do not like you might plot against you, and all important vassals get to exert influence on the succession of the clan’s leadership. If your vassals are not cooperative, not only can they break away, but they can even decide that a character that is not your preferred heir be the next leader of the clan when your current ruler dies. Intra-clan politics can tie up a significant portion of your money, time, and resources, but it is worth it just so you can ensure that your own son gets to lead the clan when you die. The alternative is to become a mere vassal in a clan you have built up over a few decades.
External threats are also omnipresent in Sengoku. Warfare is conducted on the strategic map between armies, and there are no tactical battles as such. After a war is declared, armies fight one another and sieges take place. While there is some strategy to marching armies around the map, the real strategic elements involve who is commanding which armies (leader skill is crucial) and whether levies are mobilized or left home to defend their province. Like other Paradox titles, the player raises a standing army, called a retinue, using money from provinces. But provinces also generate a levy based on their buildings. This levy can be mobilized in times of war and go on offensive operations; however, if it stays home, it can add itself to the defenses of the province’s fortifications. Thus, an important decision when initiating a war is which levies to mobilize and which to leave at home. Furthermore, vassals, unless they are very powerful, cannot control their own levies during a war. Vassals generally can only control their personal retinue, meaning that the clan leader can control most of the clan’s military strength during a war without sidelining the vassals completely. This neatly gets around the problem of Crusader Kings where a liege would take a vassal’s armies and the vassal would sit on his hands for the entire war with nothing to do.
Diplomacy is very much based on whether two characters like each other; while gifts can raise their relations, characters with the right kinds of traits will like each other more than characters with the wrong kinds of traits. However, unlike other Paradox titles, diplomacy here is less about treaties and alliances and more about hostages, marriages, and plots. Declaring war costs honor. The more two characters like each other, and the more ties they have to one another, the more honor it costs. In order to prevent war between two clans, a mere piece of paper saying, “We won’t go to war” is not sufficient. Instead, the clans must exchange hostages. So long as hostages are exchanged, the two clans face a much higher cost in honor to declare a war, not to mention the cost in the lives of the hostages. And warfare, while it most often takes the form of wars of annihilation, is not always a fight to the death. It is possible to force other clans to submit to vassalage. While powerful clans won’t ever accept, weaker clans with no hope of victory might choose to become vassals. This lets the defeated clan keep its lands while owing you fealty. The disadvantage is that since they have their lands intact, they can plot against you later. But given the time it takes to conduct sieges, it can be faster to simply subordinate neighboring clans to prevent a war from lasting a decade.
Marriages are very important, and not just because your clan needs heirs. Marriages between two characters strengthen their ties, making war more costly. Furthermore, wives increase their husband’s stats. Every character has a martial, diplomacy, and intrigue stat that measures their ability in war, diplomacy, and subterfuge. Even an imbecile of a clan leader can become reasonably competent if his wives are smart; at least twice I’ve had militarily incompetent clan leaders whose wives were able to increase his martial score. And yes, I said wives. Polygamy is possible and, indeed, common; each male character can have up to four wives. While women cannot occupy positions of obvious political power in Sengoku, they can be critical in their capacity to support their husbands in whatever intrigues and warfare the clan engages.
Plotting is not just a term that covers various nefarious activities in which one can be engaged. There is an actual game mechanic called plots. When your character wants or needs help from other characters to achieve certain goals, you go to the plot menu and select a plot, activating it. Plots include everything from vassals conspiring against the clan leader to clan leaders wanting to initiate a multi-clan war against a powerful clan. After initiating a plot, your character can send diplomatic offers to other characters, asking them to join the plot. Once enough characters, with enough power, have joined the plot, the leader of the plot can initiate it, and the desired effect occurs. This mechanic is great in an environment where the AI controls maybe hundreds of characters. You don’t have to hope the AI understands the goal of a particular action; the plot mechanic ensures that if the AI accepts your offer to join a plot, it understands what is going to happen (no more “Hey, I thought we were allies so we could attack X, not to usurp control of the clan!” kind of AI behavior). Plots may also be discovered before they are initiated. The Master of the Guard can uncover plots against your character, and if discovered, not only is plot shut down (ending the arrangement between the characters) but the target who discovers the plot can expose the plotters, causing them to lose honor. Thus, plotting is not without risks.
For those who want to wage covert warfare on their own, ninjas are available and looking for work. Ninja perform a variety of mundane, but useful, activities, including taking hostages, rescuing hostages, damaging provinces, provoking uprisings, dishonoring characters, and the ever popular assassination of targets. They cost money, but much like their ronin counterparts, they are not always available for hire. Because they are not always in your demesne looking for work, you cannot abuse them by spamming ninja attacks. As for ronin, they are large additions to your retinue that take less time to recruit and are easier to support than spamming your own personal troops for the retinue. However, ronin are also not always available for hire, making it difficult to abuse them as well.
There is one unusual mechanic that has made its way into the game: seppuku. I was initially surprised that such a game mechanic was included, mainly because ritual suicide is controversial and I couldn’t see the point of its inclusion in a strategy game. As I indicated before, honor is something all characters have, and honor is used up declaring wars and in plotting. Honor can be gained in a variety of ways, but it is possible to lose way more than you earn. If your honor gets too low, you are in danger of losing the game. A character with low honor can commit seppuku, causing their heir to inherit and passing on some honor to that heir. In addition to this, a clan leader can demand that vassals with low honor commit seppuku. While the vassal can refuse, the refusal itself costs honor, resulting in serious complications for that vassal. While it might seem like this mechanic can be abused (for example, killing a bad ruler off so his brilliant son can take over), the reality is that seppuku has serious restrictions on its use. Furthermore, since vassals can exert influence on the succession of the clan’s leadership, it is often more worthwhile to hold on to a stupid ruler in the hopes that your sons can mature and take over. Seppuku is a solution for problems of personal honor only in the most extreme cases.
Sengoku is shaping up to be a very different strategy experience in feudal Japan from most other titles covering the period. It is currently still in beta, but it is slated for release on September 13, 2011. I’m looking forward to it.