Battle for Rokugan Review – Every Clan For Itself
Area control has always been a highly contested genre of tabletop games. Ever since the very first wargames (thank you HG Wells) there have been area control games. Out of the top board games on BGG, the board game database, there is now a whole swathe of area control games, each boasting something slightly different.
One well known game of this genre is the Game of Thrones board game. It is also a well-known fact amongst gamers that the Game of Thrones board game lives in a bit of a niche. The GoT game is often stated as being superb; however, it is very long. A game can last up to five hours, so unless you want to spend a whole day playing the same thing, it usually doesn’t make it out very often to the table. Or so I have been told.
Enter Battle for Rokugan. Battle for Rokugan takes the principles mentioned in this article thus far and puts them together into a game that works really well. It is Fantasy Flight’s answer to the people like me who didn’t purchase the GoT game because it is just too long. It is also a well structured and beautifully constructed game in its own right, championing the area control genre with a slightly oriental twist. Kudos, Fantasy Flight, Battle for Rokugan is superb. It only lasts around an hour and it is near perfect.
In this Battle for Rokugan review I want to explore the game with you and explain why it should have a place on your gaming table.
What is Battle for Rokugan?
Battle for Rokugan is one of three games that Fantasy Flight have created based in the Legend of Five Rings universe. Alongside the tabletop RPG and living card games of the same name, Battle for Rokugan is the only straight up board game created around the theme. It is for 2-5 players.
Battle for Rokugan is, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, an area control game based around feudal Japan. In it, players each control one of the seven clans of the Legend of Five Rings mythos in a battle over different territories and provinces on the board. You play as the daimyō, leaders of the seven great clans, in a battle for the most honour. This includes taking control of the Unicorn, Scorpion, Crane, Lion, Crab, Phoenix, and the Dragon Clans to become the strongest force in Rokugan.
How To Play Battle For Rokugan
Battle for Rokugan has, in my eyes, two great strengths. The first of these is how simple the rules are. Once you have got through the terminology, and have what each thing is called down, you are looking at a game in which the core rules are only around three pages long. That is both ridiculous and amazing. It is something which all games should strive to achieve.
Next, Battle for Rokugan is only 45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes long (depending how many players there are and who you play with). It takes place over exactly five rounds. Over those rounds players will draft tokens face down to create a hand of six tokens (five plus a bluff). These tokens act as your units during the game. This is, for want of a better term, a token drafting game.
Battle for Rokugan is also asymmetrical, meaning that every player (every clan) has their own abilities. Each clan gets one additional troop of a specific type as well, but more on this later.
Before the game each player is handed a hidden objective. This is something that will give extra points during the end game.
The Different Rounds in Battle for Rokugan
Each of the five rounds is split into three sections, in this incredibly simple game. These are the Upkeep, Placement, and Resolution phases.
In the Upkeep phase several core things happen.
The first thing that happens is the new first player is chosen. For this, there is a small deck created out of cards with the icons of all the clans placed upon them, plus enough neutral cards to make it up to five. One of the clan cards is drawn before the deck is assembled, and the remaining four cards are put together. That card denotes the first player. The neutral cards are things like the player with the most territories goes first, and none are used in a five player game.
Next players draft tokens. They have a pile of face down tokens that they draw from, drawing up to six. This includes their bluff token, which will always return to their hand. Each turn the players will play five of their six tokens. One may or may not be that bluff.
After players have drawn, territory cards may then be played. These are cards that you get as the first player to conquer any territory, giving bonuses in the game. Once that is over, players move onto placement.
Players take it in turns placing five of their six tokens, starting with the first player. They are placed face down, so only the placing player knows what is on each one. Tokens are placed in provinces. Multiple provinces make up territories.
There are six types of token and these fundamentally determine the outcome of a game. These are:
- Army – Units ranging from 1 strength to 5 strength. Army units can be placed on any land border to attack from one into the other, or they can point inwards to defend a province you already control. Army units can only attack provinces adjacent to a province the attacking player already controls.
- Navy – The same principle as with the army, but only for coastal provinces. It attacks from water as opposed to an adjacent province.
- Shinobi – Shinobi are the covert units of the game. They can attack any province, whether it is adjacent or not, and defend provinces. What is more, they can be teamed up with Raid icons to create moving bombs.
- Diplomacy – Can only be played in a province you control. It locks that province down, disallowing external forces to interact with it. A peace token gets placed on the province, and no one may move troops into or out of that province.
- Blessing – Blessings are placed face up on another token, giving the token underneath a boost. They are the only token placed face up.
- Raid – Raid burns a province, making it inaccessible to any unit, effectively removing it from the game.
- Bluff – It’s blank. It counts as nothing.
Now the main pieces are on the board, it is time to resolve them.
Firstly, all the tokens are turned over. Any illegally placed tokens are removed, as are the blanks.
Combat is resolved as a basic number system. If I am attacking you with an Army strength of 4, and you have an Army strength of 3, then I will take the province. If it is a draw the defender wins, and if the defender wins, the player places a territory control marker in that territory face up, showing +1 defence moving forward (+2 for the Crab Clan).
It is then checked to see if anyone now controls a territory, and if they do, and they are the first one in the game to control that territory, they get the corresponding territory card.
You then repeat.
End of the Game
The end of the game comes at the end of the 5th round, at which point the points are counted. A point is awarded for every flower a clan controls – flowers being the icons in each territory. They are also on the face up territory control markers.
Five points is given per set of territories owned, and points are awarded for the end game conditions as stated on the card at the start of the game. This may be to control certain provinces belonging to a different clan, or to own a set of coastal provinces etc.
And that’s it. There are a few additional rules, and you can read the additional rules to the Battle of Rokugan here. That link will take you to the Fantasy Flight rulebook for the game.
What Is It Like Playing Battle for Rokugan?
I have to admit, there are a few things, bar the simplicity of the rules and the length of the game, that are really impressive about Battle of Rokugan. It is a really well thought through game, with a few mechanics that stand out.
The first is the mechanic to determine the first player. The idea that there is a deck for determining the first player is a really nice one. As a mechanic it works really well, and it is something I don’t think I have come across elsewhere.
The other mechanic I really like is the actual placement of the pieces on the board. These are face down, and then flipped over in unison to reveal what is going on in Rokugan that round. The addition of the bluff means there is even more at stake, as well as a third dimension, each turn. Played right, the bluff can be as powerful, if not more so, than any other token on the board.
Personally, I am a huge fan of Battle for Rokugan. It is a well balanced game, with each turn starting the players off on a theoretically equal footing. There is randomness to the game; however, it is not suffocating. Instead, the randomness ensures equality as the players will make their way through almost 90% of their tokens throughout the game. It is a game that is constantly on the razor edge, and if any player really carves a path for themselves, you know they deserve that position.
In my opinion, Battle for Rokugan is a game to watch. The way the rules are written, the simplicity of how it plays, and the beauty of the mechanics makes it amongst the best area control games ever made. It is thematic, unique, and really challenging.
One of the strongest aspects of Battle for Rokugan is that it is asymmetrical. No two factions play in the same way, and this is very reminiscent of similar games like Rising Sun or Twilight Imperium. This asymmetry works really well in an area control game, making sure it feels different each and every time the game is played. There is a high amount of replayability due to this.
Singing the praises of a game like Battle for Rokugan, as you may be able to tell, is easy. It comes naturally, when faced with a game like Battle for Rokugan to say how smooth it is and how well it plays. It is a strategic game, with bluffing as well as strategy, and just awesome to play.
Since this review is so glowing I feel the need to point out as many negatives as I can about the game. One of the biggest problems that can arise with asymmetrical games is that the clans aren’t quite as well balanced as initially thought. Realistically, I can’t say whether this is the case or not as I haven’t played with every clan yet; however, it is worth keeping in mind. At the moment they seem balanced but this may not be the case in future.
The biggest pain though, and this is a small thing, is that there is no points track. The game is incredibly compact within the box, which is a rare thing for Fantasy Flight (who are somewhat renowned for their poor box design), and so I have to salute them for that. That being said, there really is no wastage. There is no points tracker, and that would have been really useful towards the end of the game, when trying to work out who won. We now use a point counter app, or do it the old fashioned way with our fingers and toes. Either way, a points tracker would have been a nice addition.
That is my biggest criticism though, and I really implore you to try this game. I think it has already made its way into our list of our top 10 games of 2018 (or that we have played in 2018), maybe even the top 5 games. Simply superb.
Conclusion: Battle for Rokugan Review
Battle for Rokugan is a unique and superb game. Fantasy Flight, who have made a whole host of incredible games in the past, have outdone themselves with a game that is both the essence of simplicity and highly strategic to play. There are no other words for it. It is an awesome game.
So, what do you think? Is Battle for Rokugan the kind of game to appeal to you? What are your favourite area control games? Let me know in the comments below.