Game Review: Ikusa

Back in the day, when I was in…maybe junior high, but probably elementary school, I got into wargaming. Not the classic “hex and counter” games that hardcore historical wargamers consider to be the only games worthy of the category, but the big, over-the-top, “Risk to the extreme” kind of games, with big, colorful boards and handfuls of dice and piles and piles of little pieces. I wrote about this genre quite a bit in my review of Conquest of Nerath.

One of the pioneers of that gaming genre (today alternately referred to as ‘thematic games’ or just ‘Ameritrash’) was the Gamemaster series, which included Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and Shogun. Shogun was almost immediately renamed as Samurai Swords, but after a few years both it and Fortress America disappeared. It should come as no surprise that both games, now that the boardgame industry is bigger (and the kids who grew up on them are adults with greater purchasing power), are being reprinted. Fortress America will return this year under the same name, and Samurai Swords returned a few months ago with a new name–Ikusa–and a gorgeous new graphic design. I was very excited to try it out.

Ikusa is similar to Risk and other games like it in that it’s basically a big map full of territories, and you fight over them; you start the game by dealing out all the territory cards, putting a dude on each one, and then adding a few extra units where you want to concentrate your force. There are different units with different strengths, though none of them really have any special abilities aside from “melee” and “ranged.” Each territory has its own little garrison, usually peasant spearmen, but most of your forces are grouped into three giant armies that move and attack as single units. This is what really defines the game and makes it unique. Each army has a daimyo to lead it, and a special battle board showing exactly which kinds of samurai and other units are following him. The army’s position on the board is marked by a standard bearer to save you the trouble of moving twelve guys around in a pile on the board. What’s more, daimyos can actually “level up” as they win battles, gaining the ability to move and attack multiple times per turn. A high level daimyo can be devastating, marching across the board with a huge pile of samurai leaving only destruction in its wake, but this is balanced by the ninja, which you can hire to assassinate enemy daimyos and reduce the army back to level 1. It’s a slick system and a lot of fun.

The economic aspect of the game is more robust than you might expect. Each player gets a certain amount of money (called koku) each turn, based on how many territories they control, and then you allocate them to a series of slots in a tray; this is done in secret, as some of your purchases are blind bids against the other players. When everyone’s done you turn your trays around and reveal what you’ve bought–buying units, building castles, and hiring ronin are simple purchases, but jockeying for turn order and hiring the ninja are auction-based, and anything you spend there (whether or not you win) is lost.

The ronin are one of my favorite parts of the game. Instead of placing them like normal units, you place them on facedown territory cards so that no one else knows where you’ve hidden them. When someone attacks you, or when you decide to mount an attack, you simply flip over the card and place the ronin on the board (or on an army board under a daimyo; your choice). Ronin only stay with you for a turn, but they allow you to concentrate your force much more powerfully, so it’s a deep strategic tradeoff: do I want more power, and the element of surprise, right now, or do I want a unit that will stick around and give me less power over several turns? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and tough decisions like that are what makes gaming fun.

So yes, the game is great. It’s not my favorite wargame, but it’s a good one; if it didn’t involve direct player elimination I’d like it more, but that’s the breaks in an old-school game like this. I also really love the Japanese theme, and the art in the new edition is, like I said, very cool. You may essentially consider the review done at this point, because what follows is completely extraneous. You see, I’m an incurable tinkerer, and there was one aspect of the game that I really wanted to mess with–not for mechanical reasons, but for flavor. I’ve mentioned it a bit in the past, but I’m about a year and a half into an epic RPG campaign for Legend of the Five Rings, which stands for the moment as my favorite RPG setting. It’s basically a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world drawing on Asian history and mythology instead of European, and is hands down one of the richest and most interesting game worlds I’ve ever encountered. As cool as Ikusa was for me, I really felt like, if I was going to play a Japanese-themed wargame, I wanted it to be L5R. So I did a big mod and rethemed it.

The main kingdom of L5R is called Rokugan, and is split into several clans: the Lion Clan, the Scorpion Clan, and so on. Each clan has a unique personality and a bunch of cool characters that I wanted to represent in Ikusa, which seemed like a perfect fit for the daimyos–and since the daimyos can level up, it was a perfect match to a sort of pseudo-RPG feel. I made up ten or so character cards per clan and gave them each two powers: one you get right off the bat, and another that you unlock when you reach level 2. Every time you start a new Daimyo (either at the start of the game or when another daimyo is killed and replaced), you simply draw a card and place it next to your army board. The powers are interesting without really being overwhelming, because I made them weak on purpose–the goal wasn’t to change the game balance, just to add some personality to the daimyos and some L5R flavor to the game overall. I have a lot of printing contacts, so once the cards were written and designed I had a bunch of sets printed off and passed them out to my friends. They’ve become very popular. On the downside, I used actual L5R art for the cards, which means I can’t (for copyright reasons) distribute them or even display them–it’s just a goofy mod I made for my friends, using mostly our characters and NPCs from our RPG. So in some ways this paragraph has all been a big tease, but I prefer to think of it as an example of how you can (and often should) modify your games to fit your own group. House rules are like fan fiction, in a sense: we take what we love and we tell our own stories with it.

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