Saturday, April 14, 2007

Improbability and the East (San Juan, Shogun)

...or The Dice Tower is Luch's Harsh Mistress

...or The Dice Tower is Easy's Fluzy Lover

First, the big news: Congrats to Kozure and Tili on the arrival of mini-Kozure #2! Despite the baby's arrival, this particular family's commitement to gaming runs deep... This Wednesday, a mere two days after birth, we played at Kozure's place at their request!

While waiting for Luch to arrive, Bharmer and I played a game of San Juan with Tili (did I mention this was two days after birth?). Bharmer ran away with this one, being able to build a couple of large buildings and having the best resource production going. Tili and I pretty much tied, I beleive.

I have to say that from this session, I think that San Juan works much better with 3 than with 4 (and since 2 plays similarly to 3, I guess that must work just as well). Why? Because with 3 (and 2) players more of the roles go unchosen each round. This leads to a less homogeonous game where a player's choice really does impact the other players... with 4 players it seemed that resource production, building and trading occured pretty much every round. With 4, it was quite possible that no resources would be produced for several rounds or that building wouldn't occur. Anyway, it felt like a more satisfying game to me.

As Luch arrived, we set up Shogun. Tili retired for the evening and Kozure sat in. In our last game, I had enjoyed the game quite a bit, but described the game as an adult version of Mousetrap. How did game #2 go? Pretty much the same.

For the record, I won this game. Also for the record, there's no way in hell I should have!

For the first year, I tried to skip out on rice production to see what would happen. I also decided to focus on winning majorities in buildings over other ways to generate points. Not generating rice did lessen my angry farmers, and it was well I did because the rice deficit card which came around in winter was the -7 one. Ouch. I had the potential for 3 nasty revolts, and my building strategy combined with poor planning in the fall had left me short on soldiers. I was fully expecting to get ravaged. Due to the -7, I wasn't the only one in line for a wallopping, but I was by far the worse off.

Guess what, I survived completely unscathed and everyone else lost at least a province. Luch lost three.

The second year was similar. I planned for Rice this time. There were attacks, and I won and lost my fair share. Still, the previous winter had really stacked things in my favour. By the second winter, I had planned for the revolts and didn't lose anything to them. The others didn't fare as well, despite also having planned, and were crippled as a result (this time we were facing down a -6 rice drought).

What can I say? I feel I played a good game, that my building strategy was generally well thought out despite a few glaring mistakes along the way. Still, there were SO MANY large swings of luck that I felt that the result was kind of out of my control.

Shogun does a lot of things right: Despite being long, it never FEELS long. The planning phase is fun, if a little brain-breaking. Seeing things play out is entertaining. you always have more you want to do than you can, and the decisions feel like they matter. Finally, the dice tower is a really fun way to resolve battles.

But (you knew there would be a "but"), I still feel that it's not as much a strategy game as it seems it should be. So much rides on which of the 4 event cards comes up at which point (particularly in winter). Also, the order in which the 10 action cards comes up can REALLY mess up your plans (the timing of combat card and the treasure actions being particularly crucial). Immediately losing the province card if you lose a battle, and therefore potentially losing the associated action, can also be pretty devastating. Lastly, for all the "fun" of the dice tower, it does have a way to introduce more chaos than most randomizers would. These items can literally crush a player's plans unless they play ultra conservative at all times. A Game of Thrones has similar swings of fate with it's decks, and I guess that's one of the reasons I keep comparing the two.

In contrast, the randomized special cards are an example of the type of luck I'd expect to find in the game. As players secretely bid for turn order, the randomized powers create an interesting tension between chosing turn order vs the power you want. It makes the choice interesting, but isn't devastating or unbalancing towards one player or the other.

So, in the end, Shogun fails (for me) to be a STRATEGY game on the same level as similarly heavy games such as Power Grid, El Grande or even Railroad Tycoon (where luck is present, but in controlled ways). Despite that, it's a lot of fun... I'd prefer to play this over Power Grid, actually. I guess i'm mostly harping on the disconnect between what the game seems to want to be, and what it is.

Anyway, i've gone on for quite some time now. i'd be interested in other people's point of view on the matter!

Edit: I better way to describe my feelings towards Shogun occurred to me today... In Shogun, you can't win unless you play well strategically (where+when to build temples, which provinces to take, protecting your investments, etc). However, there is enough large swings of luck that your best play could easily get erased by bad luck.

In other words, play well + cross your fingers.


  1. The jury is still out on this one for me. I enjoyed this game a bit less than the first round because I felt that the severe rice shortages were handicapping some players much more seriously than others, as Easy points out clearly.

    Despite being of a much more "Euro" lineage than A Game of Thrones, I'm feeling that the latter game feels less random than Shogun. That said, the other mechanics of AGoT are definitely more "Anglo" (I'm going to try to use the term "Anglo" rather than "Ameritrash" since I dislike the AT label). It's interesting to compare a Euro game with wargame influences to a wargame with euro influences. Overall, I find AGoT more successful, but I tend to prefer Anglo/wargames in general.

    Shogun also has a feeling of ending when it's just getting rolling. Somehow I feel as if it should go on for another few seasons. I suppose there's no reason why it shouldn't except for playing time. I wonder if people have proposed longer variants.

    I agree with most of Easy's assessments of the game. I think presented with the opportunity, I might still choose Power Grid, but perhaps I just am eager to start winning again after a long losing drought. Shogun may still pop up on my Hot List or Top 10... still deciding.

  2. Kozure,

    I think both Shogun and A Game of Thrones draw most of their criticisms due to their hybrid nature... Shogun is a game which feels like a heavy euro but which winds up having far more luck than you'd expect, whereas A Game of Thrones looks like a straight up conquest game but has a quite a few euro-like mechanisms which constrain play.

    I don't know if I can pick a favorite between the two, Shogun felt more exciting, but AGoT felt more strategic. AGoT has it's share of large luck fluctuations, and it is of the unfortunate type which tends to favour some players far more than others, but it seemed easier to overcome the bad luck.