For most casual Japanophiles the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States) period of Japanese history involves a mass of feudal lords, shifting alliances, uncertain loyalties, beautiful artwork and really difficult Japanese names leading somehow to victory by Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Travel guides, wikipedia, anime titles, films, TV shows, secondhand James Clavell paperbacks and the odd history book may add to one’s store of knowledge of the subject, but unless you are a genuine enthusiast, retaining much of it can be hard work.
Fortunately, if you want to learn enough to be able to answer that obligatory quiz question or impress a special someone with a timely sightseeing namedrop, there is another option available.
You could play a game.
Electronic options include the Shogun: Total War franchise. This is for computer gamers who enjoy combining strategic oversight (“let’s move 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry into the Osaka region and see how the computer AI likes that!”) while also zooming in for tactical detail (“cavalry squadron, swerve to the left of the guys with those long spear things and then hit them from behind”). Although this series is much acclaimed, if you are not very handy with a mouse then you won’t want to bother.
Console gamers with good Japanese skills can find a broad selection of samurai-themed Japanese-language titles in local video, electrical and used goods stores, but for those who really want to get a feel for how a game reflects the era, manual – or board – games are the way to go.
For higher-level strategic or operational focus, A Most Dangerous Time by Multi-Man Publishing or Sekigahara: the Unification of Japan by GMT Games might be for you. If you have very good Japanese, you could also look for a copy of Feudal Lord published in Japan by Sunset Games, but it is a rare find.
What these three games have in common are beautifully drafted maps, counters to move about and battle with, cards to dictate certain events, rules to govern movement, combat and victory conditions, and historical scenarios to enact on the dining room table.
Where they differ is in subject matter.
A Most Dangerous Time by famed Japanese designer Tetsuya Nakamura is devoted to the conflict between Oda Nobunaga and his rivals over the period 1570-1584. Sekigahara features the final weeks of the campaign between the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the supporters of the child heir, Toyotomi Hideyori. Feudal Lord, the only one of these games printed in Japanese, covers a range of conflicts from the 12th through to the 16th centuries.
If you are more interested in purely tactical aspects – that is, replaying particular battles on a map representing the historical terrain using counters representing the historical combatants – then your best options are Ran or Samurai from GMT Games’ Great Battles of History Series, the slightly less serious Samurai Battles games by Zvezda (which use plastic figures on a customizable board), the Hexasim Kawanakajima system or games put out by Japanese publishers Epoch, Sunset or Game Journal.
Board games will typically take two to six hours of playing time and, ordered online from the USA, will cost around US$60-$80 new, with shipping costs on top of that. Dedicated hobby shops in Tokyo such as Yellow Submarine or Shosen stock some imported games, and Yahoo auctions also has a board gaming section.
These games require a time investment to learn the rules and one or two plays to see how the game system itself works. After this initial learning period, interaction with the game and the other players will help to generate insights into how geography, politics, logistics, decision-making under stress and dumb luck combine to make history; insights that reading a book or trotting through a museum alone cannot match.
If you really want to understand the mass of feudal lords, shifting alliances and uncertain loyalties that lead to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s triumph, trying to emulate or better the achievements of the main protagonists of the time on a game board or a computer screen can be a fun and memorable way to do so.
For more information on board games on the Sengoku Jidai use the searchable game database at boardgamegeek.com or go directly to the manufacturer’s pages at gmtgames.com or multimanpublishing.com