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Poetry Written With Three Splashes Of Blood

Сообщение Илья Литсиос » 10 май 2018, 13:56

Обзор игры "Tenkatoitsu" ( https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/214296/tenkatoitsu ), который был до кучи удалён с BGG, так как автор в другом его обзоре был заподозрен в исламофобии.

Poetry Written With Three Splashes Of Blood
by Stephen Best

Setting the Scene

     Sharp dressed entertainers they may have been, but we really shouldn’t romanticise the samurai. In feudal societies most people are malnourished peasants, not master bladesmen, and an enthusiasm for lopping off heads, then as now, is more than a tad antisocial. Nevertheless, and credit where it’s due, there aren’t too many more colourful periods of military history than the Sengoku Jidai (1467-1615), a swirling kaleidoscope of power grabs and back stabs, castle burnings and battlefield slaughter, with a cultural exchange visit to Korea squeezed into the mix. After all those exertions the lads took a well earned breather for two and a half centuries until Tom Cruise came along and got them all killed.
     It was brave of Hexasim to publish a game entitled Tenkatoitsu, which sounds like one of those Philip Glass compositions where he plays the same three notes for an hour. Perhaps they were aiming for a more refined and selective audience than one that would splash the cash for something called ‘Samurai Bloodbath’ or some such vulgarity. Whatever the case, those who buy are going to be rewarded with three choice cuts from the climactic Momoyama phase of the Sengoku era; three battles clearly chosen to exemplify the major themes of samurai warfare.
     Yamasaki 1582 is offered as either a meeting engagement or a pitched battle, with a siege assault thrown in as a bonus. In Nagakute 1584 an army goes down to the woods and gets a big surprise. Sekigahara 1600, one of the two huge battles (the other being Tennoji) that brought the fun to an end, features a level of battlefield betrayal that puts Bosworth Field to shame.

Component Parts

     The game’s graphical presentation is very much at home to Mr Cliché, though not in a bad way. Rice paper is everywhere along with portraits of the protagonists and examples of their heraldry. There are passages from Hagakure (of the sort that CEOs like to quote when embracing their inner warrior) and plenty of Japanese script. (You have to be careful with Kanji - more than a few of my compatriots have ‘Drunken Idiot’ tattooed on their hides rather than whatever they thought they were getting.)
     The box art is very striking with Akechi Mitsuchika (looking like he doesn’t want to give peace a chance) on the front, the Kurosawa horses and rain motif behind him, and battlefields magically transformed into fans on the back. It doesn’t quite reach the lofty standards of Panzer Vor! but it’s close. Here are the contents:

i) Counters
     In the first game of the series, Kawanakajima, men and markers were engaged in mortal combat with the Clouds filter from Photoshop. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Here, with mon replacing men, the counters are generally much more elegant. Some of the colour choices, however, leave a lot to be desired. The two Tokugawa armies could scarcely be more unpleasantly coloured if they’d been dressed by Vivienne Westwood, and both of the forces at Sekigahara, clad in brown and grey, appear to have transferred from the Russian Front. Why you would want to use such a drab palette for the showcase battle in the box, or indeed any samurai battle, is baffling.

ii) Maps
     One of the rituals of wargaming, as time-honoured as the Japanese tea ceremony, is having to pick up counters to discover what lies beneath. There’s no need for that here as the map art is essentially decorative, with the game’s functionality, in terms of movement costs and terrain modifiers, being indicated by the hexside symbology. Set-up positions are indicated on the maps but not in too obtrusive a way. Unfortunately the maps are rather dark, especially so at Sekigahara. Either they printed out darker than had been intended or else the designer, who moonlights as the cartographer, has been channelling Mark Mahaffey.
     What I really dislike about the maps is the heavy, glossy paper they’re printed on. This is great for posters but the worst possible choice for folded maps, with very noticeable fraying guaranteed. Why all companies don’t follow Clash of Arms and OSG in using soft textured paper is a perplexing mystery.

iii) Rules and Charts
     There’s a significant improvement from the previous game both in the refinement and the presentation of the rules. The page layout is as good as I’ve ever seen. Particularly impressive is the use of marginalia to illustrate and clarify sections in the main text. The rules are of medium complexity although their unusual and innovative nature necessitates a close reading. Translated rules sometimes cause problems but I found these to be well written and thorough. Missing from the rulebook are the historical and design notes of the first game.
     There are seven play aids printed on sturdy cardstock: three pairs of army HQs, a castle and various charts, tracks and tables. There are also some paper aids of the type that like to be photocopied. Although the maps are the standard A1 size you’ll need a fair amount of extra table space to accommodate the play aids.

The Raising of the Clans

     There’s a familiar geometry to the Western Way of War; squares and rectangles, usually consisting of a single type of soldier, deployed in linear or quincuncial arrays. We see these in numerous historical engravings and in the games inspired by them. By contrast, the battle scenes depicted on Japanese screen paintings look more like mob action. This may be misleading, although frontal charges do seem to have been the preferred tactic, but it symbolises the cultural differences which the game acknowledges.
     Sengoku armies were alliances of clans, some of which displayed a high degree of independence and purchasable loyalties. Troops fought not in an army’s battle lines but entirely within their own clans which served as combined arms forces of variable size. The game follows this model, with small clans being represented by a single combat unit and larger ones by two or more units operating together in an amorphous group. Each clan is governed by an order, from the usual tetrad of attack, defend, move or regroup, which determines when and how it can move and fight. Orders can be changed but not without difficulty. Normally clans activate discretely with limited cooperation from their allies.
     There is no subdivision of clans into troop types although these are implicit in a unit’s combat factors. Each unit has ratings for élan and mass, representing mounted samurai and ashigaru foot-soldiers respectively. Many units also have some firepower, from arquebusiers and archers, which can be used in certain circumstances. A few units have prominent leaders who can provide a boost for their own troops or a trophy head for the enemy.

Under the Bonnet

     In my review of Thunder in the Ozarks (go on, I’ll wait) I extolled the virtues of chit-pull systems in capturing the chaos and unpredictability of battle. There are alternatives, of course, such as the wonderfully clever and elegant command and control system in Hexasim’s Eagles of France Napoleonic series, but for me this is the preferred option. Our game designer evidently feels the same way and has added a twist which demonstrates the flexibility of the mechanism.
     There are two types of activation chits in the game. The first group, which are obligatory, randomise not formations but the phases in which they activate. There are five phases: March, Regroup, Initiative (for changing orders) and a Combat phase for each side. Which clans activate in each of them is determined by their orders and proximity to the enemy.
     Secondly, and dependent on the well-being of the army commander and his generals, there are each turn a variable number of clan activation chits. These allow specified clans to take an additional activation, preceded by the option to attempt a change of orders, and simulate efforts by the field HQ to influence events through the use of flag signals and messengers tearing around the battlefield with giant balloons on their backs (I kid you not). It’s also the method for bringing reinforcements into the game. Since the length of a turn is determined by the obligatory chits there’s no guarantee that a given clan activation will occur - it could be delayed or cancelled.
     As with CDGs at strategic level, the use of activation chits to drive battle games is always going to divide opinion. Grognards will grumble at these newfangled ways and grandmasters will want to drag Fortuna from her temple, but the control they’re seeking isn’t what I’m reading in the history books. I should further point out, in the measured and respectful manner of internet discourse, that anyone who disagrees with me is a Nazi. So, there you have it, case closed.

Cunning Plans

     In normal usage a battle plan refers to those instructions and objectives given to all parts of an army prior to battle. In game terms, however, it refers to a set of special tactics, each of which can be assigned to a selected clan throughout the course of the battle, on an ad hoc basis, and in lieu of a normal clan activation. Thus, although the battle plan must be predesignated, there is plenty of flexibility in its implementation. There are ten such plans, bearing the names of battle formations (which is also a bit misleading), each containing limited numbers and types of tactics.
     The importance of these special tactics is that they allow clans to do things which would not otherwise be possible, such as coordinating manoeuvres or withdrawing from the enemy without being pursued. It’s even possible to turn an opposing clan into berserkers (always fun). Some battle plans also convey extra benefits, such as die roll modifiers and the ability to fortify hexes.
     Play Note: Since battle plans add two pages of rules, some bookkeeping and quite a bit of head-scratching it may be advisable to treat them as advanced rules, to be added after you’ve nailed down the basics.

The Fight in the Dog

i) Slicing and Dicing
     Like so much else in this game, combat resolution seems deceptively simple. There is a single table on which the sum of two blue dice and that of two red dice intersect to give the combat result. There are, however, a substantial number of modifiers which can be applied to both rolls. These have been grouped into tables and there are lots of helpful examples of their use in the rulebook. Even so, I suggest having a notepad at hand rather than trying to work out the aggregate modifiers in your head.
     Average dice rolls with little modification will cause low attritional losses. Heavy damage will be inflicted either by a pair of unusually high or low rolls or by significant modification. Some of the tactics required to effect this are obvious, but there are so many possibilities and permutations that acquiring a good grasp of the combat system will take some time.

ii) The Damage Done
     Units can sustain up to three hits, beyond which they get the hook. These step losses are reversible but extricating units from the fray in order to achieve this is not easy. Moreover, losses need to be shared out as the elimination of a unit may cause the rest of its clan to suffer a collective meltdown.
     Victory points are awarded for eliminating leaders and those units which have an élan value. This means that your biggest hitters will also have a target on their backs, creating some interesting dilemmas. Unlike most games you don’t earn brownie points for killing grunts and runts as the samurai were a bit snobby about whose heads they hunted. An automatic victory is attainable if you manage to reunite an army commander with his ancestors.

Chrome Plating

     The previous four sections have covered the game’s core rules. What remains is mostly chrome, both generic and scenario specific. I’m not using that term in a derogatory sense, however, as there’s not much in these extra rules that I’d consider superfluous or excessive. They enhance the playing experience as well as evoking a sense of time and place, albeit at the cost of adding quite a few pages to the rulebook.
     Yamazaki has many special rules applying to it. Some are written generically and placed in the main body of the text, but they don’t apply to the other two battles. The most striking of these is the game within a game provided by the action at Shoryuji Castle. This has been worked into the victory conditions to make it less peripheral to the main action than it was, but I think that’s justifiable. Many samurai battles were closely connected to the besieging or relief of castles so it’s good to have this feature in the series.
     Similarly at Sekigahara we have extensive betrayal rules. Historically a substantial part of the Western Army ruined the battle’s play balance by turning their coats or sitting on their hands. The game, quite rightly, tries to restore a sense of loyalty. It should also be noted that this battle uses a different scale to the others, with each unit representing a far larger number of troops, and without any corresponding modification to the rules, so that the countermix is not much bigger than Yamasaki’s. I was somewhat disappointed by this, but at least it means that , unlike the GBoH version (see below), we get to see the full battlefield.

The Seat of Judgment

i) Points of Comparison
     I like to place a design in the wider context of Grand Tactical gaming. Given the unusual subject matter that’s somewhat difficult here, but there are two games, Samurai and Ran from GMT’s Great Battles of History series, which can be used for comparative purposes. These two actually have different sets of rules as, unforgivably, the reprint of the former wasn’t updated to match the changes in the latter, but I’ll treat them as a single entity in these comments.
     Both designers have clearly consulted many of the same sources, such as Stephen Turnbull’s cottage industry of samurai books, and both have been determined to inject as much period flavour as possible. Initially, the GMT games have the greater appeal. Their maps and counters are bright and colourful and they offer lots of scenarios. The subdivision of clans into weapons groups, and the tactical detail that goes with them, will be attractive to many gamers, myself included. Beyond this point, however, impact starts to yield to resonance.
     The main problem with the GBoH series lies with its Command & Control system. This was certainly an improvement on what went before (which was often no C&C at all) but it somehow manages to be simultaneously both too gamey and too over-elaborate (it’s always a bad sign when you see leader counters covered in lots of little numbers). By contrast, Tenkatoitsu uses a game motor that is both straightforward and convincing. Similarly, the chrome seems tacked on in the earlier games, whilst here it feels more smoothly integrated.
     You could argue that the difference is like that in the rival presentations of Breitenfeld and Lützen in Lion of the North (GBoH) and Gustav Adolf (M&PBS), where the work of a period specialist has surpassed that of general designers. I think, however, it’s more of a case of the greater authenticity that comes from a fresh approach rather than trying to mould a subject to fit an existing system.

ii) Summing Up
     Kawanakajima was ahead of its time, its significance obscured by its rough edges and oddball character (it takes one to know one). Like Stonewall’s Sword (Revolution) it was a pathfinder, smoothing the way for something similar but greater. Maintaining this analogy, and notwithstanding great differences of topic and scale, Tenkatoitsu has much in common with the subject of my first review. In both cases we see designers looking for and finding new solutions, rejecting plodding convention in favour of innovative mechanics which produce a more authentic historical narrative whilst maintaining essential playability.
      There is sophisticated design work here, with a subtle interconnectedness between subsystems that produces a very satisfying whole. Particularly noteworthy is the representation of the problems of battlefield management. Commanders start with more opportunities than frustrations but once units close with the enemy, becoming much more difficult to control, and losses start to mount, that situation is reversed, making generalship a challenge.
      This is a very good game system with the potential to spawn a great series. It beguiles with the coquettish charm of AV girls (oops, wrong website) and thrills like those horror movies featuring the young Yoko Ono (she really must do something about that hair). I hope that you will honour it with your support as I do with my words.

Final Thoughts

     Well, here we are at the end of another epic feat of two-fingered typing (Richard Berg used to get paid in gold and concubines for this kind of facetious reviewage). Despite their being the enemies of my blood I have to hand it to the French, they certainly know how to make fine wargames. Magazines, too - Battles (presently dormant, possibly extinct) has long been Best in Show. Along with the TV series Spiral (Engrenages), the produce of Hexasim, Vae Victis et al are the best things to have come out of France in ages. Possibly ever.
     One of the things I appreciate most about these French designs is that they inhabit the temperate ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of wargaming where historicity and playability exist in harmonious balance. They don’t place you at a giant table, covered in maps and a million counters, circumvallated by half a dozen fat guys wearing ‘Vive L’Empereur’ T-shirts. Nor do they sit you before a load of wooden blocks or plastic figures, about to be conquered by some annoying child, the proximity of whose hot mum is the only possible compensation for such humiliation.
     All that remains is to thank and congratulate François Vander Meulen on what is in everything save its colour gamut a remarkable piece of work. I hope that the muse remains with him since, in a hobby still dominated by Yanks and tanks, it’s easy for games like this to be sidelined as quaint esoterica. Further volumes will help to counter that and, thanks to the Knights of the Bushido, there’s no shortage of possible scenarios. In case a pecuniary incentive is also needed, I’ve inserted a subliminal message into the text of this review that will compel the reader to purchase twelve copies of the game. Hope that helps.

Stephen Best
Will Adams’s hardy shipmate
Firearms & Shunga Emporium
Илья Литсиос Не в сети

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