Kawanakajima 1561 – Boardgame Review
Kawanakajima 1561. Board Game. Published by Hexasim; distributed in U.S. by GMT Games. Designed by Francois Vander Meulen; French to English translation by Mike Brewer. $25.00.
Passed Inspection: Chit draws simulate fog of war, wide choice of tactics available to players, beautiful graphics, $25 price is excellent
Failed Basic: Siege rules seem out of place, since battle begins with armies nose-to-nose in a slugfest; little difference between cavalry and infantry
In the annals of Japanese history, two men have come to symbolize samurai warlords (daimyo): Takeda Shingen and Uesegi Kenshin. Both men struggled against each other for years, and like the greatest of chess grandmasters, were never able to finish one another off. Their wars are legendary, especially the several battles they fought over the Kawanakajima Plains.
A new French wargame company, Hexasim (distributed in the U.S. by GMT games), has stepped up to provide us a simulation of the Fourth Battle Of The Kawanakajima Plains. They have done a masterful job of producing a fun and historically accurate game.
Kawanakajima 1561 comes packaged as a folio—a folder with rules book, two player aid cards, large 34 X 24 inch map, and 210 counters and playing chits / markers (the Clan unit counters are slightly larger than the markers). You need to supply four d6, two colors if possible (two red and two blue dice are apparently provided in the French version of the game).
Although originally a French language game, the rules are among the cleanest translation I’ve ever come across; kudos to UK gamer Mike Brewer for effortlessly hurdling the language barrier. The rules book is clear and concise, and even most of the game markers are back-printed with English words (so "Tour" flips over to "Turn", and "Victorie" is of course "Victory" to keep track of VPs). Only the Clan Mode chits retain their French wording, and I actually prefer "Deplace" rather than "Move". I might start to deplace and attaque in all my gaming …
The game itself, once you get accustomed to some of the concepts, is an absolute joy to play and becomes quite second-nature as you go. (For those of you who remember playing ICE’s fantasy wargame The Battle of the Five Armies, the chit draw sequence will already be old hat.)
Each army is composed of several Clans, each Clan lettered for convenience. Most Clans have two units, some have three, and a few are small, single-unit Clans. The wonderfully illustrated full-color counters (based on Japanese paintings) have several values. All units have an Elan and Mass rating; these show how spirited and tough the troops are. Some units also have Firepower ratings shown as one or more dots in the upper right corner, while bars in the upper right corner indicate Leadership. The commander of the Clan / unit is also named.
Here’s where the game design really takes off. At the beginning of the game, Kenshin gets to choose a Battle Plan. (Takeda was caught by surprise, so in the historcial scenario he doesn’t have a plan; in a hypothetical scenario, he can gain one during the game but for the first few turns is still flat-footed.) A Battle Plan indicates what Modes your Clans can begin the game in; Kenshin historically went with Swirling Winds, so his Clans can begin in Movement or Attack modes (Takeda is stuck in Defense). There are seven Battle Plans, each with its own tactical advantages, from the aggressive charge-ahead Arrowhead to the purely defensive Turtle Shell. Battle Plans tell you which Modes your Clans can begin the game in.
One of the player aid cards is a "honjin", or Headquarters, card with small squares for each Clan of both players. You take Mode markers and put them on each of your Clans. Modes are Attack (the Clan is seeking to close with and fight the enemy), Move (the Clan is maneuvering but cannot enter an enemy ZOC), Regroup (the Clan is rallying, re-forming their lines, etc.), and Defense (the Clan is holding their ground).
Clan Modes affect a unit’s performance in combat and movement. A Clan with a Move chit has 4 movement points and can travel in any direction but cannot enter an enemy ZOC; a clan in Attack mode has 5 MPs but must move straight towards the nearest enemy unit. You can change each Clan’s mode during the game, but you will find that it is easier to change "up" rather than "down;" once a unit is in Attack mode, it is difficult to call it back!
At the start of each turn, five chits are placed into a cup: Move, Rally, Initiative, and two Combat chits (one for each army). These are called the Compulsory Action chits. In addition to these, both players roll a die to determine how many Command Points (CPs) they have available. For each CP, you can select one Clan activation chit and put it into the cup; each Clan of both armies have their own activation chits.
Play then proceeds with either player (it doesn’t matter who) drawing a chit at random. If it is a Clan chit, the owning player may perform any action allowed with that Clan depending on its Mode; a Clan in Attack mode can move its units towards enemy units and will attack enemies in its ZOC, but the Clan can’t move away from the enemy. You can also try to change the Mode of an activated Clan by rolling a die; you have to roll equal to or higher than a number to change Mode, the number based on what Mode the Clan is currently in. Compulsory chits affect both armies, so the Move chit means everyone in Move mode can maneuver, and everyone in Attack mode advances one hex closer to their enemies. The Combat chits affect all the Clans of one army; combat becomes mandatory between adjacent units.
Once all five Compulsory chits have been drawn, that’s it, turn’s over, even if there are Clan chits still in the cup! This is an excellent device to simulate the uncertainty of war. You are forced to make plans as true warlords must, to consider all possible options. What if Masanobu doesn’t launch his attack in time? What if those cavalry troops circle around to the rear before you can move against them? The chit draws may be random, but as a player you choose which Clans will receive the best chances to act by putting them in the cup.
Combat is a traditional CRT handled in an untraditional way. Rather than straight odds computation, the attacker rolls two dice for the column and the defender rolls two dice to determine the line used. Various factors can influence the rolls: add the Elan of a charging attacker when rolling for Column; subtract the Elan and the Mass of a defending unit when rolling for the Line; terrain modifiers, etc. Once the two rolls are made and modified, cross-index the column and line to find the result, which will either be Retreat, Step Loss, or both; low lines and columns mean the attacker suffers, high rolls affect the defender.
Each unit has four steps; Good, Shaken, Disordered, and Exhausted. A unit face-up is in Good condition; flipped over it is Disordered. A Shaken unit is indicated by putting a "blood spatter" chit on top of a Good unit; an Exhausted unit is a Disordered unit with a bloody chit on top of it.
Nearly all of the hexes on the map are "clear" terrain, so movement is pretty basic, with a few fords and streams thrown in for +1 MPs. You need to keep your Clans within 9 MPs of the army leader (represented by Clan A counters); otherwise, any actions you want them to take will be delayed by at least one turn—another nice touch to simulate the problems of tactical command in feudal warfare.
A few minor quibbles on the game design: There is little difference between cavalry and infantry units; they move the same, fight the same, even follow the same charge rules! A few rules of difference in mounted and foot troops movement would have been appreciated. The hypothetical scenario has a seres of Siege rules which is almost a completely different game, a good abstraction of siege warfare but weighs the game down a lot if you try to incorporate it. And the historical set-up provided literally has the armies nose-to-nose on Turn 1, with only a few hexes between them; Kenshin is kicking Takeda across the map by the time half of Takeda’s army even enters the battle.
But these are, again, minor points. Keeping Cavalry and Infantry on par was a design decision to keep the game quick to learn and play, the siege rules can be used by those who want to "bleed off" troops from the plains and thus affect the tactical battle, and historically Kenshin did achieve complete tactical surprise; Takeda survived (barely) due to the timely arrival of reinforcements, which is well simulated in the game.
in Kawanakajima 1561 Hexasim has produced a beautiful-looking and beautiful-playing game of feudal Japanese warfare, the first in a promised series of games called Senkogu Jidai ("Age Of The Country At War"). The tactical chit system really sets this game apart from other systems on the market, and I hope they adopt the same system to other periods of war. Until the next Hexasim release, I’ll gladly continue to play Kawanakajima 1561 over and over again.
Solitaire Suitablility: 7 out of 10 (chit draws mean you never know which Clan is going to take actions first)
About the Author:
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1100+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America or running one of several Pittsburgh area bookstores.