April 20, 2024

First Impressions: Battle of Sekigahara

Marc M, 3 April 2024

On the morning of October 21, 1600 near the village of Sekigahara, Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu led clans forming his Eastern Army against the Western Army led by Ishida Mitsunari. By midafternoon, tens of thousands of soldiers lay dead, and the Eastern Army was victorious, laying the groundwork for the Tokugawa shogunate, which would rule Japan for 250 years.

The box cover of Battle of Sekigahara, featuring a painting of the battle.
The box cover features a panel of a large painting of the battle.

click images to enlarge

Stephen L. Kling’s Battle of Sekigahara offers a chance to get a feel for this historic battle in a game that’s easy to learn, quick to play and captures the feel of a battle that would decide the direction a significant portion of history.

 

Game Components

The open game box showing game cards, an instruction manual, a counter sheet and a red die.
The game includes a brief rule booklet, a sheet of counters, a die and two decks of game cards.

 

The Historical Game Company recently provided a copy of the game, printed by Blue Panther, to try out. Like other THGC games, Battle of Sekigahara comes in a relatively compact package. The inch-deep box contains an 11 by 17-inch map, a sheet of counters representing the Eastern and Western armies as well as a couple of groups of potential allies, and a few game markers. There’s a brief manual and two decks of cards that help drive the gameplay.

For a more detailed look at the components, see our Battle of Sekigahara unboxing article. In short, this game has a small footprint – you could easily play it on a small desk (you could even squeeze it onto a TV tray).

 

Impressions

An overhead view of the initial setup of Battle of Sekigahara
Eastern and Western armies face off at the beginning of the game as Mori and Kobayakawa units look on.

 

The rules state early on that the game isn’t meant to be a hardcore simulation of the battle. Like similar games from THGC that cover other historical battles, it’s meant be “…a competitive game that captures some of the flavor of the battle.” And that description fits the components and rules well. This isn’t an overly complex or detailed game and it’s not designed to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to play.

After playing through the game a few times, I found it to be a refreshing balance to the more complex games I’ve played. While I enjoy large, detailed games, some can take an hour or more just to set up (I’m not complaining, I enjoy that too), not to mention the time needed to gain a basic understanding of the rules and actually play the game. With Battle of Sekigahara, I was able to learn the rules, set up the battlefield and play the game in a fraction of the time I would with some of my other games. That was really nice.

In addition to being a game that offers a pleasant break from longer, bigger games. I think this is a good startup game for someone just getting interested in wargaming or a good game to teach to friends and family who feel like wargames are too complicated to enjoy.

 

Gameplay

An Eastern Army game card showing moving and firing units and a potential for reinforcements.
The game starts of well for the Eastern Army with immediate activation of their reinforcements.

 

Gameplay is streamlined and you can focus on playing and enjoying the game and the historical touches. There are several victory conditions, but most revolve around controlling objective hexes. There are five phases to a player turn:

  1. Card draw: The card indicates how many units can move and attack, as well as special actions or conditions that apply.
  2. Movement: You move units up to the indicated maximum.
  3. Defensive fire: The defender can conduct up to three attacks.
  4. Combat: You conduct attacks up to the indicated maximum.
  5. Rally: Each disrupted unit not in an enemy zone of control recovers good-order status.

The major concepts of more complex series are pretty much all here. Counters have attack, defense, and movement factors. There’s a terrain effects chart that specifies basic movement and combat effects. Teppu units (those armed with matchlock rifles) and bowmen have specified ranges. You have to contend with zones of control, disruptions, advances, retreats, rallying units, and checking line of sight. And, there are rules for combined attacks.

A close up of black Eastern counters and white Western counters around an objective location.
Eastern Army spearman and samurai units move into and around an objective location.

 

Combat is simple. Roll a die, add an attack factor and compare it to the defense factor of the unit you’re attacking. There may be no result, a disruption or an elimination of the defender. No combat results table, no to-hit chart, no unit reductions. Disrupted units retreat, and if they can’t, they’re eliminated. Cavalry and infantry units can advance after combat.

I usually enjoy a complex system that has different terrain effects for different unit types, one that sometimes requires you to use a straight edge to check LOS across hex artwork or that requires multiple combat die rolls and charts to enhance realism. However, in Battle of Sekigahara I really appreciated a ruleset with just enough structure, but not enough to slow down the action. The rules let me focus on playing the game and getting a flavor of the battle rather than the details of a high-fidelity warfare simulation.

All in all, this is a game that’s easy to learn and easy to play. The game makes it simple to introduce key parts of wargaming to newcomers without making it difficult for them to keep up with the game. And, while Battle of Sekigahara is a two player game, there are no hidden actions or units. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy it as a single player game.

 

Battlefield Friction

A close up of an Eastern Army card allowing to moves, three attacks but no cavalry attacks.
Sometimes the cards can slow down your advance.

 

Special events or conditions on each of the cards can change how a turn runs, and, in a few cases, how the entire game plays out. You might get reinforcements, and you might not. You might recover lost units, specific units might get bonuses or you might not be able to use the units at all. A card draw can decide if you get reinforcements early in the game or so late that they do you little good. A die roll can determine if your allies join you, betray you, or just stand by and watch the battle unfold. Often, you have to adapt your plans to the conditions each card reveals. Planning for a half dozen units to carry out your attack? See what you can do with two.

A Western Army game card allowing six moves, five attacks and a potential activation of allies.
A die roll of six keeps the Mori in place, offering no help to the Western Army.

 

A nice thing about these events is that some are related to the history (or potential history) and others are related to conditions of the period. Rain makes the gunpowder of your rifle units useless or prevents cavalry movement. One of your generals refuses to engage at the proper time. It’s definitely worth learning at least a little bit about the historical battle to get an appreciation of these details and fully enjoy the game. And, while the decks of cards (and so the variety of events) aren’t huge, they inject replayability into the game. I played through several times and each game was different.

 

Final Thoughts

This was my first experience in many, many years with a wargame that wasn’t meant to be a fairly detailed simulation of battle. I enjoyed the setting, the historical touches and the gameplay. There are enough details in this wargame to maintain realism but enough simplicity to keep the game fun. This simplicity, and the fact that you’re only activating a few units each turn, also translates into a fast-playing game.

Two eastern army game cards with the game board and units in the background.
On turn nine, allies betray the Easter Army and fight for the Western Army.

 

I wasn’t sure how I’d like the card-driven aspect of the gameplay, but I was pleasantly surprised. The cards can speed or slow an advance or give you a chance to turn a defeat into a victory. It was challenging and fun balancing out the benefits of carrying out my carefully laid plans versus simply playing to take advantage of the special events. There were a couple of times when one army or another was on the verge of victory and I really couldn’t wait to see what the next card draw revealed and how the turn would play out.

One thing I struggled with a just bit was some clarity around the rules. In simplified form they obviously can’t cover every eventuality. While I really appreciated a simpler wargame, the downside was I had to make judgement calls on interpreting a couple of rules. It was easily sorted out, but it did slow me down a few times as I dithered over interpretation.

But that’s a small point and maybe one of my own making. The parts I liked, I really liked, and the enjoyment I had playing the game – particularly when the Eastern Army was one objective hex and one turn away from victory and it all depended on how I managed the card draw – far outweighed any dithering for me. And of course, I’m getting better at figuring out how to make the most of the cards or at least minimize any problems they create. This is a game that’ll be nice to pull down from the shelf when I need a break from a 60+ page ruleset and a half-dozen player aids. And it’s one that’ll make it simple to introduce some family members to a hobby I really enjoy.

 


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