BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front, get this game. At a mere four dollars, this DLC (Downloadable Content) package for Matrix’s Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogan is a real steal, not for anything dramatically new gamewise, but for the very rare subject matter covered. In this case the DLC title Gempei Kassen (源平合戦) refers to a bonafide Samurai (侍) civil war between the powerful Japanese clans of Taira (平氏) and Minamoto (源). The conflict not only decided which of the two would rule the country as the power behind the Imperial throne, but oh, so much more. The name itself is from an alternative reading of the Japanese characters for Taira and Minamoto.
Tabletop gamers like me (note – from here on in my articles “tabletop” means miniatures, “board” means counters and hexes) have always been suckers for the esoteric. How else could one explain companies making money off a full line of figures for the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 1913? And while the age of the Samurai has been covered in other wargaming venues before, this particular campaign is rare. GMT has two excellent boardgames named Samurai and Ran on Japanese warfare, but neither covers the Gempei War. The Total War Shogun 2 computer game does cover it in a DLC package called Rise of the Samurai (clever name, right?), but like all Total War titles we are talking eye candy stuffed Hollywood history vice reality, Tom Cruise and the always exquisite Ken Wantanabi notwithstanding. The Shinto (神道) gods must have been watching, because Matrix has now filled the void.
At this point you are likely scratching your head and asking exactly what this “oh, so much more” really is and why does it make this campaign so unique. Quite simply this campaign determined the ultimate destiny of the Samurai warrior class as a military, social and political force within Japan. It determined whether the term “Samurai” evolved into the stuff of legend – and countless cinema – or fade into the mist of oblivion. Without too much tongue in cheek, depending on who won this five year family spat, the movie The Seven Samurai and the western The Magnificent Seven (Yul Brenner version) may or may not get made. To understand why, grab a glass of Sake (酒) and let’s have a short history lesson.
In very general terms, the Samurai were born from the defeat of Yamato Japan by the Tang Chinese and Silla Korean dynasties in 663 AD at the battle of Hakusukinoe (白村江の戦い – say that three times quick, I dare you). In its aftermath, the Emperor Tenji (天智天皇) instituted reforms modeling the Japanese state after that of Tang China. Thus the Taiho Reform (大宝律令 Taihō-ritsuryō) of 702 AD introduced not only conscription for a peasant based army, but also a 12 level bureaucracy of which the lower six were staffed by “Samurai” (“those who serve”) handling daily affairs. The reform also established the Shoen (荘園) Estate System which created a Chinese type aristocracy with large tracts of fertile land, and various tax exemptions as well. This made the new aristocracy beholden to the Emperor due his granting estates to members of the Imperial Court, friends, monastic orders, allies and uniquely, to disinherited princes. The Emperor often had dozens of courtesans, creating so many princes that not even a proverbial Philadelphia lawyer could pick who was next in line for the throne. Disinheritance and a trip to the country was a convenient way of solving a most complex situation. Eventually, these estates evolved into the famous Japanese clan system most people recognize today.
Small farmers, however, were left with the tax bill. Many merged to form their own clans for protection against the aristocracy and Imperial Magistrates. Many others sold their holdings to and become tenants of estate holders who negotiated on their behalf how much money the Imperial Treasury would get each year. Such wealth mandated protection, causing the raising of family based militaries and hiring of professional warriors to become common. These forces proved far superior to the underfunded Imperial Army, so the Emperor disbanded it and tasked the clans for support when needed. These warriors, now an equestrian caste called Samurai due their fealty to the clan employing them, and the Ashigaru (足軽 light foot) infantry they led, were particularly efficient at suppressing rebellions.
Then in the late 8th and early 9th centuries the Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇) began to push his empire north into the lands of the barbaric Emishi (蝦夷), and again tasked the clans for military service. The Emperor also introduced the title of Shogun (征夷大将軍 sei’i-taishōgun, temporary barbarian crushing generalissimo) for the commander of this expedition, which was revoked upon its successful completion. As such, the Taira Clan and the Minamoto provided the bulk of troops and thus grew quite powerful, the former dominating military affairs at the Imperial Court.
In 1180 the Emperor Takakura (高倉天皇) abdicated and Taira no Kiyomori (平 清盛) put his two year old grandson Antuko (安徳天皇) on the throne, much to the displeasure of the Emperor’s brother Prince Mochihito (以仁王, seriously do you know how difficult it is to work with this font?). The Prince put out a call to arms and the Minamoto eagerly responded, thus starting the five year Gempei War. Some 50,000 casualties later, the Minamoto triumphed and Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝) had himself commissioned permanent Shogun. He moved state administration from the Imperial Capital of Kyoto (京都市) to Kamakura (鎌倉市) and – in a very important first for the country – took control over both military and all civilian functions to include the economy. While the Emperor remained in Kyoto as a ceremonial figure, the country became a total military dictatorship with even greater security requirements, confirming the Samurai as a permanent fixture, one that continued to grow in power exponentially.
The new Gempei Kassen DLC covers this little known war as a new campaign for the base game. Unfortunately, there are no historical battles included, with all engagements either as the result of the campaign itself, or end user created with the Skirmish system. This isn’t a bad thing in this case as it did force me to try the game’s campaign system, and I found it refreshingly simple. True there is an overall campaign to be won, but it seems very evident to me that the real purpose of said system is its use as a battle generator. This of course, is right up my tabletop alley.
The campaign map is divided into provinces of varying types of terrain. Each enemy or friendly army has a set number of Action Points each turn to use for moving, combining or dividing armies and so on. If an army of one faction enters a province containing the army of another, the defending army will either retreat to an adjacent province or give battle, allowing you to start moving troops and killing things. At the end of a turn cycle the computer calculates how much in tax revenue you’ve collected, which you can then use to buy more troops. Outside a few more details, that’s about it and I like the concept.
I won’t get particularly granular as regards set battles, but instead recommend Shogun Cobb’s recent fine article on the base game. However, here are some impressions I developed specific to this DLC campaign package. First, there are no lances, pikes, firelocks or cannon in this game. Second, the big killer seems to be the bow, and if you think those things can’t make an impact by wearing a unit down with 5 – 10 kills a turn, you are very much mistaken. Seriously, I’ll trade as many spear chucking Ashigaru for bowman as you’d like in this campaign. Third, there seem to be no logic or pattern to the way enemy units move and fight, and this is historically correct. Outside support given to the 20 or so relatives around you, warfare back then never really advanced far past Mob 101, and the game displays that well. I found adopting a very geometric and controlled Seven Years War formation based tactical process could really stymie the AI, though not all those long bow arrows it kept sailing past my head each turn. Finally, my impression is that forests aren’t nearly the movement obstacle I found in Pike & Shot, sensible for a gaggle of unformed, loose order troops.
There are a few other things included in the DLC, such as new factions and icon textures, but the new campaign is the main focus. I was pleased to see that the Sohei (僧兵 warrior monks), were back with their own unique standard and so pathetic that they could do anything in battle. Lots of fun. And speaking of standards, about the only disappointment I had was that the third party Fujiwara clan (藤原氏) was not represented by its own Nobori (幟) standard, adapting that of whatever other faction it supported.
As a bonus, the DLC also gets you the latest game patch. All the expected bug fixes are there, but there are also a few other significant changes. Steppes are now a terrain option and similarly you can change the ground tiles from the artistic Japanese style back to the turf green textured pattern of Pike & Shot. I prefer the latter, because it reminds me more of tabletop terrain I would guess. There are now also optional icons that can appear above a formation of troops to designate any type of special ability. For example, a unit may have a small bow icon (you REALLY want to keep track of these) or a Samurai Kabuto helmet (兜, 冑) if a general is present. The maximum battle map size has also been enlarged.
My concluding thoughts can be summed up by the fact that two battles into this thing got me to purchase the two separate Collector’s Edition campaigns off of Steam, and then spring for two Osprey books on the Gempei War for my Kindle. And now today Matrix has announced yet another DLC, this time centering on China and called Mandate of Heaven (天命 pinyin; really, did you think I couldn’t come up with the proper Chinese?), so keep an eye out. Until then it’s back to my PC where I will close and say . . .
天皇陛下万歳 Tennōheika Banzai! – “Long Live the Emperor!”
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