Board Game Review: Battle for Rokugan

Fantasy Flight Games’ Battle for Rokugan is a board game of conquest and deception. Set in the same universe as their Legend of the Five Rings living card game, players take control of samurai clans vying for dominion over the Emerald Empire. It’s a concept to make my inner child jump with excitement; and though the theme doesn’t quite live up to that hype, the execution more than makes up for it.

Battle for Rokugan is a naturally game of shifting borders. The map consists of individual provinces that form various territories. The majority of the provinces are printed with a star-like symbol, which represents the amount of honor or victory points they’re worth. The player with the most honor by the final round wins the game. The mechanics of play are elegantly simple, too, but every move left a delightful butterfly of apprehension in my stomach.

Rokugan is divided into three phases over five rounds. During the upkeep phase, each player places a bluff token behind a screen, and then draws five more combat tokens at random. Those tokens serve as your core actions, and there are seven distinct types. Army tokens are the most common and are used to attack and defend. Navy tokens assault coastal provinces. Shinobi are rare, but they can strike anywhere on the map. The equally rare diplomacy tokens prevent friendly provinces from ever being attacked again, whereas the raid tokens leave nothing but ruin. Blessings can be placed on top of army, navy, and shinobi tokens to increase their strength, represented by a number value printed on their faces.

The bluff token needs little explanation, because during the placement phase, players position their tokens face down on the board. This continues, one token at a time and in turn order, until five out of the six are placed. And that’s just one aspect of what makes Rokugan so exciting to play. No one knows exactly what to expect, which constantly leads to moments dripping with anticipation. Breaths are held and curses shared as the tokens are flipped during the resolution phase. Bluff tokens are then returned, encounters are won or lost by calculating total strengths, and used tokens are discarded.

The hand you’re dealt is left to fate, but Rokugan isn’t a game of pure, random chance. There’s order in its chaos, with numerous opportunities to also mitigate the fog of war. For starters, every player randomly draws a secret objective card during setup. They provide specific goals to complete, such as holding a number of coastal provinces or a clan’s capital by the end of the game, and reward additional honor points if successful. Furthermore, where and how a combat token is placed presents a decent indication as to someone’s intention. A token set on the border between provinces usually signifies a hostile action. If one is inside a province, you can expect a more defensive move.

Clan abilities and a handful of cards can change the tide of war, as well. The seven playable clans all have their own unique passive traits. Scorpion clan, for example, allows a player to look at an enemy combat token once per round. Cards are no less powerful, but they come with an interesting catch. At the start of the game, everyone is given two scout cards and one shugenja card. Both allow the viewing of a single combat token on the board, with the shugenja card having the added bonus of being able to then remove what was seen. Additionally, by controlling every province of a territory at the end of a round, players can earn potent territory cards that can change the landscape of the board in dramatic ways. Once used, however, the cards are discarded and can’t be played again.

It all comes together to create a game that left me questioning the timing of all my decisions. After all, there are only 25 turns and five rounds to dominate the board. Do I to not play a specific combat token, putting it back into the supply and hopefully drawing it again later? Should I use my shugenja card now to guarantee success? Every move potentially informs how an opponent will react, too, so I found myself constantly squeezing my brain wondering whether or not to use a particular token or card this turn or the next. And as the final turns near, the tension builds and becomes absolutely palpable. I could barely look as the last scout, shugenja, and territory cards were played, only hoping their owners’ reaching hands wouldn’t grab my last tokens.

Those kinds of decisions and moments gets players standing around the table before it’s all said and done. It’s hard not to laugh when outwitting an opponent, or to share stories of thought processes even through failure. And there’s no better feeling of accomplishment than turning a bad set of combat tokens into a victorious round, either through devious bluffs, careful placement, or a well-timed trait or card. Rokugan is full of those experiences, and I was happy to find it scale well even at two players. It’s better with a larger group, as more people at the table means more threats and the chance for fun, underhanded diplomacy, but smaller player counts still deliver elation and anxiety both each round.

As enjoyable as it is to take a samurai clan to victory, the eastern Asian theme is mostly window dressing. It could be supplanted with almost anything else and little would need to be changed. Rokugan is largely a mechanics-focused game, and that’s perfectly fine. Its gears are well oiled. But those excited for Rokugan because it’s set in the same universe as Legend of the Five Rings may not find much of a universe here to latch onto.

The only problem I did have with the game is that the board and tokens are visually dull. There is beautiful detail drawn across the components, but the color scheme is muted to the point where it can be difficult to discern the state of the map with a single glance. Everything just blends together into a low-saturated field of tokens and lines.

Battle for Rokugan is game of bold actions, cunning deceptions, and breathless anticipation. It repeatedly kept me out of my chair, standing to survey the territory before me. That’s the mark of a good strategy game. Its theme may not come through too strongly, but Rokugan earns a solid recommendation for those wanting to challenge their wits. Battle for Rokugan will be available this December 7th, with an MSRP of $39.95.

Full disclosure: a sample was provided for this review.