A few years back, I purchased a used copy of Shogun, the Milton Bradley version from the 1980s. It was recommended to me by a friend who had said that the game was way better than Axis and Allies, another Milton Bradley game from that era that I also owned. At the time, Axis and Allies had been the longest and most complicated game I had played (this was in my early stages of the hobby), and when I saw a pretty decent used copy of Shogun a few days after the recommendation, I snatched it up right away. And then it sat on my bookcase for years …
That is, until last weekend. I finally rallied 4 other players to tackle this game with me, and we set the date to play. We all looked up the rules online so that we would be ready for combat on game day. Of the 5 of us, there were two of us who hadn’t played it before, one of them being me. We all laughed that for such an old game, many of us still had a version of this Milton Bradley gem. The game, originally called Shogun, changed into Samurai Swords during a re-release in 1995, and was renamed Ikusa during the 2011 re-release under a different company.
The rules online for Ikusa is a 32-page PDF. Yep, 32 pages! And in our research in learning how to play the game, we realized that there aren’t many video tutorials online on game play since the game is pretty ancient by board-game standards. The rulebook is easy to follow though; there’s just so much information! Also, the box is massive! It doesn’t fit in a bookcase as it’ll stick out awkwardly. Thus my copy sits on top of the bookcase, along with the Axis and Allies box, since they don’t match all the other box sizes.
The previous owner of this copy took good care of this game. All the pieces, which there are seriously a million of, were all separated in ziploc bags. There were a few broken pieces but that’s expected for a game this old. The game takes place in feudal Japan where 2-5 players try to take control of provinces by fighting other players. The person who controls 35 provinces wins the game. All players start with the same number of provinces, which are randomly handed out. We then take time to place our troops two at a time on these provinces.
Each player is in charge of 3 daimyos, or generals, and those daimyos take charge and fight other armies for control. All players receive the same number of troops: 36 ashigaru spearmen, 9 ashigaru gunners, 9 samurai swordsmen, 9 samurai bowmen and 6 flag bearers. Each of the military units has a combat value, and your armies, which are headed by the daimyos, can only hold 15 units on the army card. Each square on the army card shows what type of unit can be placed there.
The game is played in rounds, which is broken up into nine actions.
- Determine turn order.
- Levy units.
- Hire ronin.
- Hire ninja.
- Wage War (A. Move daimyos armies. B. Declare battles. C. Conduct combat. D. Final movement).
- Remove ronin.
- Collect koku.
During the planning stage, player use their koku (income) to bid on what they want to do for the round. This is done behind the player shield and is revealed simultaneously when everybody is ready. There are five spots to divide your koku — turn order, building, levying units, hiring ronin and hiring ninjas. Use up all your koku each round as they don’t carry over.
The person who bid the most in the turn-order spot gets to pick when he or she wants to go. If there is a tie, they can resolve it among themselves or it can be random. The rest of the folks who didn’t bid will also get a random turn order. The neat thematic thing about this version of the game is having swords to determine turn order. People have lamented that future versions of this game got all lame because they removed the swords and just use cardboard turn markers. Swords are definitely way more awesome! And my version still has the little styrofoam stands that hold up the swords. A great thematic detail!
In order to build, a player must allocate 2 koku, and this allows building of a castle or a fortress, which is basically upgrading a castle. The castle or fortress adds temporary defense units for the province it’s in. A castle or fortress can never be destroyed; it just moves ownership to the person controlling the province.
The next step is levying units. For every koku you place in the bin, you can either levy 1 samurai bowman, 2 samurai swordsmen, 2 ashigaro gunners, or 3 ashigaru spearmen. There is a 1-unit-per-province limit when playing them on the board or your army board.
A player can also hire ronin, which can do sneak attacks on the enemy. For each koku, a player can hire 2 or more ronin and deploy them secretly in one or more provinces. The ronin are effective because of the element of surprise and their high combat value of 5. When you hire a ronin, take the province card you want him to sit in and place it facedown in front of you. That card stays facedown until you prepare to attack or defend. The drawback of a ronin is that they cannot move or fight themselves; they must be with an army or provincial force. At the end of the round, in Step 8, ronin are removed.
Step is 6 is hiring the ninja — who doesn’t love a ninja? Well, I guess if you’re his target … There’s only one ninja in the game, and the person who bids the most koku receives the ninja. If there’s a tie with the koku, nobody receives the ninja. The ninja can be used to spy on an opponent’s allocation of koku before a round or to try an assassination attempt on an opponent’s daimyo. To attempt an assassination, you have to roll an 8 or less. If you roll a 9 or more, your attempt fails. And then the intended victim can strike back! If the intended victim rolls a 9 or more, he or she can choose to assassinate a daimyo from the ninja-hirer. If an 8 or less is rolled, the attempt fails.
And now it gets to the good part: waging war. This step has four phases. The first phase is moving your daimyos’ armies. As daimyos win more battles, their experience level goes up, which then allows them to move that many spaces. The next phase is declaring battles. You can only attack an enemy in an adjacent province. You show this by placing a battle marker on the border. When you declare battles from a province with an army and provincial force, the army or provincial force can attack alone, or each troop can attack an adjacent or empty province separately. You show this by placing battle markers for each troop.
The next phase is combat. Your handy-dandy player shield breaks down the combat sequence and the combat points for each unit. The sequence goes like this: bowmen, gunners, remove casualties, daimyos, swordsmen and ronin, spearmen, remove casualties. You can repeat the sequence until the attacker calls off battle. A player scores a hit whenever the player rolls a combat value or less for that unit. Each player who suffers casualties can choose which unit to remove. If you’re battling with an army, the daimyo is the last casualty to be removed. If your last daimyo is eliminated, you are out of the game and the player who killed your last daimyo instantly owns all your units and provinces.
The last phase of war is final movement. The attacking player can move army or provincial forces into an adjacent empty or friendly province. If you conquer an enemy’s province or an empty province, take that province card from your enemy’s hand or from the pile on the table and add it to your hand. At this point, you can also remove battle markers from the board. The next steps are removing ronin and collecting koku. To calculate income, you count up the provinces you control and divide by 3, rounding down. No player can collect less than 3 koku. To win the game, a player must gain control of 35 provinces. There are 68 provinces on the board, which are randomly assigned to players at the beginning of the game.
Our game lasted just a little over 5 hours. The first person was eliminated a little before the 4 hour mark. I was next to go, at the 4.5 hour mark. There were 3 players left, but it was really between 2 superpowers coming toward each other from opposite sides of the board, with the third guy unable to make progress from the middle. I originally had been gaining strength by fortifying from the east but then made a mistake by being aggressive too early and moving along the sea line to Kii. I was hoping to attack my nearest enemy from opposite sides but one of my daimyos got killed there, and then it was downhill from there. The first guy to get eliminated kept saying how much he wasn’t a fan of dice games, to which another guy — who eventually came in second — said yes, there is dice rolling but there is strategy in fortifying your troops to give you the best odds.
There are more rules and items that I didn’t bring up in this post because I just wanted to highlight the basic gist of the game. There is a lot of strategy involved in planning moves, moving your armies and guessing what other players are going to do next — like with most other area-control games. But I totally enjoyed Shogun’s theme, plus the swords are an awesome touch. I would love it play it again, now knowing better strategy of when to fortify and when to attack.
Shogun was one of five games in the Gamemaster series that Milton Bradley released in the 1980s. My friends were also talking about Fortress of America, too, which some of them own a copy. Maybe we’ll tackle that next. Who has played this version of Shogun before and what was your experience like?