Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan (GMT)

Game: Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan (GMT)
Participants: Bob H, Myself
Time: Sun, 12/18 ~ 2.00PM - 3.45PM

I have never played a block game like this. I wouldn't call CCA or CCN block games in the sense that they don't use blocks to hide information from the other player. The blocks add a great ascetic to those games but could have been plastic pieces or counters and the games would have worked (not quite as well as they do with blocks, IMHO). I cant recall why I ordered Sekigahara other then perhaps it wasn't a Berg game and GMT put it up for preorder. I know that neither HeavyD or Bob showed any particular interest in it nor was there much buzz associated with the game prior to its release. Thus when it arrived, I looked it over and put it on the shelf without much thought.

Recently however I read several random posts in the GMT folder on CSW where someone had played the game for the first time and really enjoyed it. This piqued my interest. So I broke out the rules. I started with the designer's notes (doesn't everyone?) and was impressed at some of the things that the designer talked about around what he was trying to achieve with the design. Then I looked a little closer at the rules, first off they were pretty short, less then 12 pages. So I started reading and liked what I read. When I got to the combat process, I really got excited. The game is a little bit about deck building and a little bit about a traditional point to point card driven game. When you add in the blocks and the revolutionary combat system you really have something special, unique in my limited experience. There are no dice. The designer is also very interested in producing a balanced and playable game within the historical narrative.

So the next time Bob came over for our regular Thursday night session, I forced him to play. We set it up (set up is very easy and fast) and spent a lot of time going over the rules (Bob had not read them prior to sitting down). Then we started and played for a few turns before deciding that we liked the game enough to give it a full playing the next time we got together. The next night I played a full game with HeavyD. HeavyD arrived prepared (he's never been anything other then prepared, bless his heart). Again I started to explain the game to him but after the third or fourth time he finished my sentence or made a minor correction to a point I was explaining, I said the heck with this and we started.

Initial Set Up

Roughly two hours later we were finished and I was electrified. What an amazing experience! And this was my first game. We played a complete game in under three hours, closer to two. The game was an exciting back and forth thrill ride. Some of the time I felt like I was doing great, then the pendulum would swing the other way and I thought all was lost. We had several exciting battles, we had one devastating battle where, late in the battle HeavyD introduced a double unit and they switched sides, a massacre ensued. It was fantastic, so much more exciting then determining the odds or the firepower and rolling a die. We both learned some lessons that you can only learn while playing. We both couldn't wait until the next time we played. I couldn't wait to play Bob again on Sunday.

The Game

Sekigahara is a game about the seven week campaign that took place in 1600 that resulted in the unification of Japan. Each side plays a faction (the yellow blocks or the black blocks). Victory is determined at the end of the game by counting resource locations (1VP) and castle locations (2VP), the player with the most VPs is the winner. There are sudden death situations for each side, if your main leader is killed in a battle for instance you loose, or the yellow guys can loose if the heir block is taken. The game comes with a great one page player aid that has nearly all of the major rules summarized. Movement is by default 1 space, this is enhanced and decreased for various reasons (size of moving force, presence of a leader, force marching etc). There are castle locations and siege rules. Set up if fixed (there are certain units that start in the same place every game) and variable (you will randomly add X number of units to certain locations at set up). Combat is driven by deploying units (blocks) into battle via cards, the side that is able to generate the most impact (value of the units deployed) is the winner. The battles go back and forth with each player committing units to the battle until the other side has the initiative, units can switch sides during a battle. Losses are permanent. The cards are used to drive movement and recruiting as well as combat. The rules are very well written, one or two turns into the game and you will rarely need to look anything else up (sans perhaps the siege rules).

My Second Game

So I thought I would be able to use my new found knowledge to crush Bob after playing my first game a couple of days before with HeavyD. When Bob sat down I went over a couple of rules items to clarify them for Bob, but these were minor and in no time we were playing. One thing I should point out is that we used color coded dice to mark the control of castle locations. This helped a great deal as the big blocks can sometimes hide castles and it makes it much easier to quickly identify where the castles are and who controls them, very handy if you are still new to the game.

Start of turn 2
 One thing I had learned from my previous playing was that you need to sit tight for the first turn or two unless you have a lot of cards of one Mon or the other. Each side had several Mons (factions within their group), the Mons are displayed on the blocks and correspond with the cards. Each player only starts out with 5 cards, with these five cards you have to pay for movement (which is done twice over the course of a turn) and use them for any battles you might have. Additionally each player has to use a card to determine who gets the option of going first, this card is discarded and not replaced so you end up with not very many cards during the first turn.

Bob was playing the Black blocks so he has a slight advantage in starting forces as well as in gaining the initiative (all of his cards are even numbers and the yellow cards are odd). I haven't counted the blocks but my sense is that the black team has more starting off. I know that I started off slow, not burning any cards for movement and only taking minimal moves or recruiting on my first turn. Bob on the other hand started off by moving two 4-block armies out and towards my peace loving yellow blocks. We both grabbed a few resources on the first turn, then I moved a big 6-block army out of my capitol to deter Bobs opening. 

Ueda Castle Falls on turn 2

Bob started off the hostilities on turn two by going after Ueda Castle in the center of the map. I had three blocks, all from the same Mon and Bob came in with 4 blocks. I chose to fight as I had the cards I needed to get at least two of my units into the battle. It was a route, Bob got all 4 blocks deployed to my two, it was 16 to 5 in the end and I lost all three blocks. Bob took the castle and eliminated a key strong point of mine in the middle of the map. In the bottom of my 2nd turn I went after Miyazu castle (upper left hand side of the map).  He declined to fight and I was able to take him out. We were learning that sometimes its better to not fight and lose blocks via siege as you can draw a card per block lost in a siege versus one card per two lost in a normal battle.
Start of turn 4

I should talk about building your deck for a moment. As I mentioned, each player starts with only five cards. At the start of every turn, each player will discard half of his cards (rounding in his favor) while drawing in 5 (or six if you control more castles) new cards. Thus if you have a couple turns without battles and heavy movement your hand will get bigger. A bigger hand is important as its these cards that will enable you to both move your blocks and then get them to fight. I love how this works out...it forces one to carefully judge when its wise to use cards to move and when its better to same them for a latter turn.

The 2nd Battle of Miyazu Castle
Bob's forces retake Miyazu Castle

On Bobs next turn he brought his big six block army into my recently conquered Miyazu Castle. I elected to fight even though I only had three blocks, I knew I could get them all in the battle. Bob was better prepared and again routed me, I lost all three blocks in a 19 to 10 battle. Then in the second part of turn 3 we had an amazing fight in the center of the map. Bob took his 4-block army (the one that had taken my castle in the middle) and went after my 2-block force that had been running around capturing resources. I had only the two blocks (a leader [1 impact] and a 3 impact unit), but I had a single loyalty card. On Bobs second deployment I played the loyalty card and he had no answer for it (if you have an additional card of the Mon of the unit in question, that unit stays on your team)...thus his 3-impact unit came over to my side and I stole the victory out from under him. The final was 8-5, he lost two blocks and I lost none.

Traitors! A single unit switch's sides and all is lost
Riding this improbable victory, I took my main force (4 blocks) back up to Miyazu and went after Bobs 5 block army.  I had a bunch of cards of the right Mon and I knew that Bob had just recently played a lot of these Mon in retaking the castle. This time it was a one sided battle as Bob was caught Mon-less and only able to get a single 1-impact unit into the fight. The final was something like 11-1 and I killed three blocks at no cost to myself. Bob did have a couple of loyalty cards which I was able to counter with my deep hand. Bob retreated into the castle with his surviving blocks.

The 3rd Battle of Miyazu Castle, a one sided Victory for the Yellow Team

Bob started to muster in troops in the while I made a move on Kiyosu (a center of power for him). I went in with 6-blocks (burning a card to force march them in there) and we both got everyone into the fight, this one was costly (16-10). In the end I cleared out his army and was now close to two of his castles. I was sitting in his muster location so I knew that I'd have some time before he could get a force into this area.

Start of turn 4

Turn 4 was all Bob. He defeated both of my remaining armies on his side of the map in one sided fights. Thus in one short turn I went from feeling like I had this one in the bag to desperation. Bob had more resources and more castles. He kept on bringing on 2-4 blocks per muster while I was only able to bring in one or two blocks here and there. I was able to clear out the castle closest to me so that I had 4 castles and they were all close together on my side of the map. I was desperate enough at this point to burn cards to bring in my special reinforcements, I needed to do this because I was running out of units and Bob kept on getting bigger and bigger (he drew the right blocks in the reinforcement phase and was able to get them on the map quickly).

The Battle of Kiyosu

A close run affair, 16-10 in favor of the Tokugawa (Yellow) faction

On turn 6 Bob went after Miyazu castle again, he moved an 8 block army in there and wiped me out. It was a big and bloody battle ending at 20-14. I lost 3 blocks and he lost two. I did manage to lesson the losses by converting one of his 3 impact blocks over to my side (what were they thinking!). He then countered by grabbing one of my units. Fantastic stuff I tell ya! Bob then moved against the South (my side of the map) and re took the castle there, taking out my garrison force. Victory points wise it was turning into a land slide victory for him. I didn't have much in the reinforcement box to bring in and had already brought in my special reinforcements. I was down on cards as well.

The Start of Turn 5

Bob knew that he was in the drivers seat and there were only a turn or two left. I had one last grasp left even though I knew it wasn't going to alter the overall course of the game. I gathered my remaining forces in Kyoto and went after Miyazu once again, better to go out in a blaze of glory that to just sit there. This battle was exciting and close, the end result was 21-19...so close. After that it was over. The final VP count was 16-9 in Bobs favor.

Miyazu falls for the last time

Despite the one sided final result, it felt close and tight the whole game. Not knowing what you are going to face by not seeing the other guys units AND THEN not knowing what he'll be able to get into the battle once you get there is simply one of the best gaming mechanics that I've come across. I cant wait to play this one again. I highly recommend this game to anyone who will listen. It's easily the best new (new as in new to me) game that I've played this year...and that's saying something as I think CCN and Dominion are also fantastic games as well. My hats off to Matt Culkins on his inspired design.

Positions at the end of the game
Each sides eliminated units


  1. Fab review. Now I have to tear the shrink!! I had this slated to play late Jan.
    May I re blog your post? Well done!

  2. Steve, as always, you make want to play something that you have enjoyed. Besides a great writer of these things, you are full of inspiration as well. Thanks for the review...now to find the time...hhhmmmm.

  3. Kevin,

    Thank you, feel free to repost sir.

  4. Rich,

    Great to hear from you. This is a good one, I hope you can find some time.

  5. Stephen, thanks for this AAR and review. On the strength of it I went out and got the game and thus far I'm very impressed with the quality. Will have to get this on the table soon. Perhaps I can entice my son away from the Xbox to give it a try. I think you are in Kirkwood? I'm from Webster originally & get down there periodically from northern Illinois.

  6. Tom,

    I'm glad you liked the write up. I hope you enjoy the game and have luck getting your son to try it with you. Thanks for the comments.