I hope you’ve had time to oil the blades of your katanas since Shogun 2 came out those few short months ago, because now it’s time for a new challenger!
But whereas Shogun 2 was basically all about building up massive, pretty-looking armies and belting seven bells of Shinto out of your enemies, Sengoku is strictly for the chin-stroking crowd.
The first and most important thing newcomers better know is that this is a Paradox game in the mould of Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron and Crusader Kings. Armies and battles are represented numerically. That’s right – no swarms of naginata-wielding lunatics jabbing at one another for your amusement. It’s all numbers.
OK, so I expect a full half of my readers have now clicked away in search of the next Call of Duty DLC. For those of you who are left, come with me to fifteenth-century Japan, the Paradox way…
Sengoku is clearly influenced by Crusader Kings, the Paradox cult hit with its own sequel in the works (which so excited me at E3 this year; check out my first look). As such, it serves a test-bed for the new ideas that are coming out of that line, whilst building on a solid foundation.
Crusader Kings has counts, dukes and kings. Here in feudal Japan, we have kokujin, daimyos and clan leaders. Which essential fulfil the same roles. The clan is more than just a family, it’s more like a gang or a mini-empire. At the start of the game, a few of the clans administer provinces in different unconnected parts of Japan. As a player you can choose to start as ruler of any one of these provinces, or assume the role of leader of one of the great clans, and look after a couple of your own provinces while relying on your vassals to take care of the others. The map is detailed and smooth, and the overlays allow the player plenty of information at a moment’s notice.
First thing to do is set up your court. Even the lowliest kokujin has his own circle of advisors, a Master of Ceremonies to build up the economic buildings in your villages and them tax them dry; a Master of Arms to sort out your castles and hire in ronin to bolster your armies; and a Master of the Guard to cover your shady going-son: and in feudal Japan, I think you can all guess what that means.
It’s important to keep money flowing into your treasuries, naturally, but the game has another type of currency that is just as valuable: honour. Conduct yourself nobly and keep the right people happy (particularly the emperor) and your honour will be magnificent. And this will allow you to spend that hard-earned honour doing underhanded stuff like attacking the small, weakly defended neighbour you’ve always been on such good terms with. Diplomacy and interaction between characters is more than just a design focus in Sengoku: it practically is the game. Of course, mustering, training and deploying troops is advisable if you want to conquer Japan and win the game, but if you make no friends along the way, you’ll never get half way before you’re stamped out.
One of the exciting things we’re expecting to see plenty of in Crusader Kings 2 is this new concept of plots. Rather than just decide to attack one of your neighbours, you can set into motion a secret plan that draws in allies from without, and with a little luck perhaps even a disgruntled courtier or two within the court of your enemy. Of course, your enemies will be plotting against you the whole time as well – remember I said it was important to make friends?
There are layers and layers to Sengoku, as you’d expect if you’d played any of the other trademark Paradox strategy titles such as Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings. Historical accuracy is an important factor, so if you have a particular favourite clan or even a favourite area of Japan, you can take it as your starting point and carve out a whole empire. This is a big game, though, with big ideas. It doesn’t pretend to the simple accessibility of a Total War game. At first glance it can appear a little daunting, and rightly so – there’s a lot to learn. Through some solid tooltips and a fairly useful tutorial/hint system, the secrets of warfare, religion, development, economics, intrigue and diplomacy that lie at the heart of Sengoku will open up with time and bear fruit.
Sengoku is released in September 2011. I had the opportunity to examine a beta copy, so there is still time for further development and polish before release. I predict that Sengoku will develop a cult following with history buffs, fans of the samurai and just anyone who really wants to get their teeth into an uncompromising historical simulation.