By Isaac Smith
Have you ever thought to yourself, “What would feudal Japan look like if everything were run by 50 people?” Because if you have, boy, have I got a game for you.
West Coast Megagames put on an event in Sacramento that brought just over fifty people together to play an aptly named “megagame” called Sengoku. Because of the scope of the game, it’s very difficult to explain accurately (the instruction booklet is 20 full-size pages long). Here goes.
The setting is Japan in the year 1551. Different players belong to clans, which vie for control over territory, economic superiority, and the favor of the imperial court. Other players include two religious temples, a ninja clan (who can assassinate players), the bakufu (the shogunate and official government), and the imperial court (representing the emperor, who is in charge of keeping track of and maintaining the honor and status of the clans).
The military part of the game plays out much like Risk: economic power is largely governed by how many provinces you control. You amass troops, play a rock-paper-scissors type game with some random elements, and the winner either retains control of the territory they defended, or the attacker gains control of a new province.
But diplomacy factors much more strongly into the gameplay than military strategy. Incursions must be sanctioned by the emperor, who judges your honor based on your behavior in his presence, gifts you bestow upon him, and hearsay from other sources. Discovering the planned movements of other clans could be beneficial to your individual strategy. Currying favor with the bakufu allows promotion of people within a clan, granting them additional powers, resources, and military prowess. In much of the game, who is in your corner matters a lot more than what resources you have at your disposal.
There are also two committees: an intelligence organization and a courier organization. Sending clandestine messages makes use of the courier organization, who decides what to do with said letters when they have possession of them. This can make for increased drama if letters are addressed improperly, don’t reach the correct clan (or reach no clan at all). The intelligence organization collects information from all of the clans, whether by spying or clan informants, and sells it to whomever can pay. My favorite part about this was that each clan table (and the imperial court) had a microphone underneath it, with all of the channels feeding back to the intelligence desk, where there was a mixer and a pair of headphones. As a player, you don’t ever know who intelligence is listening to, but you always know they could be listening to you.
Diplomacy and ropleplaying may not seem like they belong in a setting that also contains so much strategy, but the two were mixed so as to be indistinguishable from each other. Let me give you a particularly juicy example:
The shogun, who rules the bakufu, resided in a fortress in Kyoto. The Oda clan hired the services of a ninja and successfully assassinated the shogun, but kept it from getting out. They then attacked the fortress, with the excuse that they had received word that the (already dead) shogun was going to be the target of an assassination attempt. They sacked the fortress and “found out” that the shogun had been killed, presumably by the Rokkaku clan. The ramifications of this are pretty far-reaching: if the bakufu discovered who actually killed the shogun, then they would declare the Oda clan in open rebellion against the emperor (which would obviously be bad news). However, the shogunate also needs to elect a new shogun, which comes from one of the clans and has to be ratified by both the bakufu and the emperor.
But here’s the kicker: the bakufu knew that the Oda clan had killed the shogun before the fortress was sacked, and the emperor knew only that the shogun was dead (not who did it). The bakufu needs a new shogun, and whichever clan leader receives the promotion lends their military aid to the shogunate (as well as gaining the ability to promote and grant favors to the clan from whence he or she came). The only people who know Oda was behind the murder of the shogun are the bakufu, who presumably are poised to declare the Oda clan as traitors and give them a very hard time. But if Oda gave them a good enough offer, then their leader would become the new shogun and it would all be swept under the rug, the emperor and the empire none the wiser.
Unless the Oda clan wasn’t in good enough favor with the emperor to get their leader ratified as the new shogun.
It’s like a murder mystery, Risk, and a Kurosawa flick mixed together. The game is as complex as the interactions between the people playing allow it to be.
Now that you (more or less) understand the thrust of the game, you’re probably wondering if it was good. I am pleased to tell you that it was masterfully designed and executed. John Cleveland and Benjamin Weiner, the two heads behind the game and the event at which is was played, did an excellent job of creating a scenario in which the rules were easily understandable (I went from no knowledge of the game to being competent enough to play in about half an hour). The rules themselves provided an interesting framework within which people could play and operate, and the results were equally as interesting when the rules were broken as when they were followed. As an observer, I was intrigued by everything going on around me, and I imagine as a player that the intrigue is a lot deeper, given that they couldn’t just walk around and listen in on everyone like I could.
I’ve truly never been a part of something like this. It was a game that worked magnificently on a scale the likes of which is rare to see. If you enjoy roleplaying, tabletop games, or you have no idea if you’d enjoy either of those things, check out West Coast Megagames’ website here. They also have a Facebook, if that’s your thing. They are planning another megagame in April called Watch the Skies, a game about alien invasion. It looks to feature similar veins of diplomacy, but with a goal of self-preservation instead of social and political power.
I plan to keep our readers informed about the timetable for the next event, but if you’re in or near Sacramento in mid-April, I wholeheartedly suggest coming out to support a unique, interesting and fun gaming experience in the region. After seeing the scope and complexity of this game (and how much fun the players were having), I would love for this to grow into something Sacramento could claim as part of its culture. Your interest and engagement, dear reader, helps that happen. I hope I see you at the next one!