This series highlights our favourite mechanics or parts of a game. Whether they are thematic, intelligent or just enjoyable, this series wants to celebrate the best bits.
Battle for Rokugan is a strategy board game that takes inspiration from Diplomacy and The Game of Throne Board Game. Where Game of Thrones and Diplomacy are epics that take at least half a day to play, Battle for Rokugan wraps up in under two hours. Rokugan draws it’s setting from the Legend of the Five Rings card game, which FFG recently rebooted. It’s a pseudo-oriental fantasy world full of Samurai, magic and intrigue.
In Rokugan players take control of one of seven Clans and fight to acquire the most honour at the end fo 5 rounds. Each province controlled when the game ends contributes honour points. Controlling entire territories (3-4 provinces) gives you further honour. Along with area control, players are trying to achieve their own secret objectives which also award honour at the end of the game. Every round after drawing their hand back up to six tokens, players take turns to secretly assign them facedown to the board. Once each player has had five turns to place a token, all tokens are then revealed and resolved.
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Excerpt from Sun Tzu’s famous Board Game Geek post “Ten tips for winning Battle for Rokugan” later published in print as “The Art of War”.
The core of the game takes place during this placement phase in which you secretly set out your orders. The resolution phase is short and requires no input from the players as all battles happen simultaneously. All the bluffing and decision making occurs as you place your combat tokens face down on the board. The way combat tokens are placed on the board indicates what they might do. A token across a border is surely an attacking army? An enemy token placed inside your territory could be a devious shinobi attempting to capture the province or a devastating raid to trying to wipe the area from the game. As each token is placed, a foggy picture of what will happen in the resolution phase begins to emerge. Tokens are finite, and once used they’re discarded face up. It’s essential to pay attention to the combat tokens each player has used when planning your turn.
Every type of token you can place on the board has a legal placement. Any tokens not in their legal place when all the tokens are revealed are discarded. It’s not forbidden to put a token in an illegal place. However, you do so in the knowledge it will be discarded for no game effect. That’s not to say it won’t have an effect on your opponent. At the start of the Battle for Rokugan, everyone is given two Scout cards that allow them to look at an opponent’s facedown combat token and one Shugenja card that allows them to reveal and discard a single token. These are incredibly powerful abilities, but once they’re used, they’re gone. You place a token in a way that suggests a raid, your opponent might be forced to spend their Shugenja card to get rid of that token to save their province. The look on their face when they discover you bluffed and they’ve discarded an Army 1 (the weakest combat token) is a joy to behold. It cost you one of your actions that round but they’ve just lost their Shugenja, which is a mighty blow.
But there’s more, what if I told you that bluffing and deception was so baked into the core of Battle for Rokugan that every round you’ll have access to a blank bluff token. Usually, after a token is resolved on the board, it is removed from play for the rest of the game. The bluff token when revealed returns to your hand of combat tokens. It’s available to you every round and can be crucial to your strategy. It’s a token that can do everything. You can defend a border, by positioning your bluff token to attack across it, thereby blocking your opponent from placing a token on that border. Trick your opponent into wasting their only Shugenja card by threatening a raid. Feint an attack on a territory to spread your opponents defence. You’ll always want to do more than your tokens allow. You can’t defend every one of your territories under threat of attack while still attacking yourself. In this way, without realising, players will call bluffs, they accept that they can’t hold the territory and so don’t bother committing forces in defence. That’s when bluffs go bad.
The success of the bluff token lies in the mind and actions of your opponents. To play it, you’re giving up the opportunity to play a combat token with an actual game effect. Yes, your opponent spent one of their tokens to defend a phantom attack but it still counts as a successful defence giving them an honour and a defensive bonus to future battles in that province. The bluff token is versatile, but it’s only one tool in your arsenal, and if you don’t make use of it properly, you’re wasting your actions. In a game you get to place 25 tokens (5 tokens each round, over 5 rounds), if you bluff every round, that’s a 5th of your actions gone. Every decision has weight in Battle for Rokugan, you should never bluff for the sake of it.
The bluff token even plays into the thematic flavour of the clans. Every clan has a unique ability. The Lion clan get a special bluff token. When played in defence, this token is not removed and contributes defensive strength during the resolution phase. It’s not a hugely exciting ability. However, always having 2 defensive strength available suddenly means that your loathed to use the bluff token for anything else. This brilliant bit of design gently prods the player away from elaborate bluffs and into the more straightforward strategies of the honourable Lion clan. It’s so effective that I hate playing the Lion Clan. I want to best my opponent with clever ploys, but so often the defensive bonus is too good to be thrown away to feint an attack.
The bluff token is the chocolate sauce to Rokugan’s moist strategic sponge. It gives you moments where you’ll sit across from your opponents trying to read their expressions or silently willing them to take the bait. Battle for Rokugan is a highly competent strategy game full of magical Samurai, mystic temples and crabs, but the humble bluff token is the best bit. Few other strategy games allow for bluffing or require it in quite the same way that Battle for Rokugan does. Anticipating your opponents, while concealing your own plans is a core part of strategy games, yet none of the other strategy games in my collection (Inis, Cyclades, Game of Thrones, Tigris and Euphrates, Axis & Allies & Twilight Imperium 4th Ed) let you actively bluff quite like Battle for Rokugan.
As you can tell I really like Battle for Rokugan – it got an honourable mention in our favourite games of 2017 which you can check out here.