When I was a small boy I got lost in a maze. While I understood the basic principle of getting out (run around until you find the exit) I couldn't put that understanding into practice in a way that made getting out easy. So I ran around and around until, by pure chance, I found the exit. I slept well that night which is probably why my parents sent me into the maze to start off with. Playing Sengoku from the fine people of Paradox Games reminded me of that afternoon so much!
Sengoku is a diplomacy/empire building/war game (in order of importance) set in Feudal Japan. You start the game as a senior member of a clan who holds fief over a large chunk of land which you run through the efforts of various advisor's who may (or may not) be able to help you on your path to greatness. Advisor's are one of the core elements of this game. With them you can build improvements to your towns and villages, improve castles and raise armies and bands of ninjas. You are also able to work with other lords to stab allies in the back and poison enemies and, if all else fails, you can raise an army and just attack them!
On top of all that there are also diplomacy screens that allow you to give gifts to your allies to improve your relationships, lands and titles to your followers to improve their loyalty and bribes to the Daimyo in return for titles. All this brings Honour and Power and these are the units by which victory is counted.
Quite surprisingly for a game by Paradox, this one is not turn based. The clock is constantly ticking as you play which means your character and his advisor's are constantly ageing all the time. This is a very important aspect of the game. You must have an heir to take the place of you leader when he dies (mine tended to kick it at about the age of thirty-five) as well as making sure you have replacements for your advisor's in court. And having good advisor's is crucial if you wish to do well. Everyone in the game has certain characteristics which are affected by personality traits, things like how loyal the person is, or how devious and so on. All of these points will determine whether an advisor is a good diplomat, administrator, warrior or just a good-for-nothing. You can improve your advisor's opinion of your leader and clan by giving them lands to rule over, however giving up land reduces your honour and income so this feature should be used sparingly and judiciously as both are important if you wish to forge ahead.
The use of money in the game is fairly obvious, cash allows you to raise and maintain armies, build castles and improve your villages. These improvements in turn give you better defences and provide extra options for improving your land. Theatres, for example, attract Ninjas (Apparently a good play is just what you need after a hard day's ninj). This is all fairly standard stuff though because you can only improve an area through your advisor's, the number of improvements you can do is very limited. Armies have a maintenance cost and raising too many of them will severely eat into your empire's bottom line which will cause you problems as nothing greases the wheels of diplomacy like the occasional, er, donation to the Daimyo. It will also help you plot and scheme, which brings us neatly to Honour.
Honour is a measure of your empire's standing in the eyes of other leaders. A higher honour will give you a number of bonuses, other leaders will look to you as a leader in plots and manoeuvres, it will also help you find allies and better advisor's. Honour can be bought or gained through actions. A high honour makes dealing with others, in fact I found it easier to think of it as influence or standing. This is a fairly standard mechanic in a Paradox game and, like always, they have done a very good job of it.
All plots, recruitment and planning options, are available through the menu in the top left-hand corner. In fact you will probably spend more time there, at least at the start of the game, than you will moving around the map. The menus are fairly well laid out though not very logical and the help is not very, well, helpful. Hopefully the final version will have a tutorial. Working with armies is fairly simple too, you just point and click to where they want to go. Combat is not animated, you just see the results of the combat and this reflects how unimportant this action is to the game. If you want a wargame this is probably one to steer clear of but if you liked, say, the diplomatic elements of Mount and Blade you should probably give this a go. Also, as you are already a fan you are likely to have the patience to work out the details!
This game could be fun. In fact, this game should be fun. What can be more enjoyable than some court intrigue and backstabbing? Top that off with the fact that Paradox have ticked all of the right boxes when it comes to a game like this - pleasant graphics that do not get in the way of gameplay, a gameplay idea set in one of the more interesting periods of history and an interface that is conceptually very simple - and you would think that this game should be one that will fly off the shelves. Now, bearing in mind that I played a preview copy which is not yet finished, I have to say that this is not so. I admit I am looking forward to reviewing this after launch and I'm hoping that the elements that detract from the game will be dealt with, but right now I cannot say this game is very playable. The interface is too concise and uses a logic I just couldn't get a handle on. The help is terse and, well, unhelpful and often got in the way of finding elements. There was also the fact that in order to get help on an action you had to find out where the action was first! This led to a lot of frustration and made it hard to enjoy playing the game. Hopefully this will all be fixed in the final version.
So, this is an excellent game in many ways. The graphics are pretty and, while fairly simplistic by a modern game's standards, more than adequate for a game like this. It is also very, very confusing. I only hope that, when this game comes out, it has a really, really, really good tutorial. It needs one!