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Review: Ikusa board game

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Ikusa box cover

Title: Ikusa
Price: $79.99
Release Date: July 26, 2011 (original release in 1986)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Age: 12 and older
Pros: Attractive board and components, clear rulebook, easy to learn hard to master style.
Cons: Games can run from 4 hours (like it says on the box) to 8 hours, players can be taken out early, backstabbing can lead to hurt feelings.
Overall Score: Two thumbs sideways, 75/100, C+, *** out of 5

Ikusa is a Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) board game set in the feudal Japanese era. Players take the role of would-be conquerors of all Japan and battle other players for supremacy. Like Conquest of Nerath, also from WoTC, Ikusa is a real-war game, with victory only achievable by slaughtering your enemies and dominating the board.

Unlike other recent releases by WoTC, this is a reprint of an older game, called Samurai Swords, which in turn is a reprint of a still older game called Shogun (the name was changed so as not to conflict with games based on the Shogun novels). Other than rules clarifications, there are only minor differences in the artwork and game components. The most significant difference is the old games came with plastic swords (the size of letter openers), used to determine turn order. While some reviews mourn the loss of those swords, I was stabbed in the ribs by an overzealous opponent during a game of Shogun/Ikusa in 1989, so I’m perfectly happy with the cardboard counters the game now uses.

Putting weapons in the game aside, the design of Ikusa won awards when it came out in the previous millennium but board game design has come a long way since then and I worry that this type of game just can’t cut it against more recent titles.

To Rule Japan, You Must Simply Remove All Opposing Heads

Ikusa board setup

Game setup is relatively random, in a process not much different than in Risk. After the random setup, each player places his three daimyos (generals), hopefully in regions of Japan where the luck of the draw will make it easy for him to consolidate a power base. Players are then issued koku (money) based on territory owned and then comes the planning phase.

Each player has a little for’, behind which he secretly plans how to spend his money in the coming turn. A player can spend pay to choose turn order (for example, to be assured of going first), build fortresses, buy troops, hire ronin (mercenary troops only useful for a single turn) or hire the dreaded ninja.

This is a wargame, so troop-buying is where most of the money goes. A player can purchase samurai swordsmen, archers, spearment and gunners (using muskets, a peasant weapon), which is just enough troop types to provide variety without overwhelming a new player with too many choices. Most combat is performed by daimyos, which start with a signficant army. If a daimyo is killed, he’s difficult to replace and a player loses the game if he loses all three of his generals (hence often a fortress or two is built to give generals with depleted armies a place to hide). These daimyos gain experience if they live long enough, eventually able to rampage and move through much of Japan in a single turn, although usually the game is over by then.

The ninja is a bit of a wild card, capable of spying and assassination, usually the latter. A successful assassination, determined by die roll, kills the daimyo, leaving the daimyo’s army vulnerable for a turn (the daimyo gets automatically replaced with no experience at the end of the turn). If the aassassination fails, the near-victim of the assassination can send the ninja back to attempt to assassinate a daimyo of the player who first bought the ninja. Thus, using the ninja can lead to wild and unexpected swings in game balance, and lead to deeply disappointed players (and stabbings).
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After planning, everyone simultaneously reveals how they spent their money, and then player turns proceed in order.

As the game revolves around daimyos, they are denoted both by flags and by the shape of the base of the uniKt. As most folks aren’t knowledgeable of Japanese heraldry, it’s probably easier to just look at the base:

Ikusa Daimyos, no flags

That Old School Smell

While Ikusa is a very refined design, this type of game isn’t for everyone or for every gaming group. Players quickly learn that attacking first just makes a daimyo vulnerable to the other players, as combat is very bloody, typically leaving the winner with few pieces left. Amongst aggressive players, a game can easily take four hours, already a long time. Games with veteran players often see Japan turn into a powderkeg, as everyone builds up, waiting for someone to make a critical mistake, and such games can take eight hours, pushing the limit for how long most people are willing to play a game. There is also much negotiation and diplomacy between players in Ikusa, and inevitably someone must betray someone else, which can lead to hurt feelings (and possibly other things get hurt as well, so keep sharp objects away from the gamers!).

A foolish or unlucky player can also be taken out early which is bad in such a long game or, worse, he can be crippled by losing two of his daimyos quickly, forcing him to play for hours with no hope of really influencing the game. While this sort of thing was common in older designs, most new games simply don’t allow for a player to be in a hopeless position at any point but near the end of the game.

There Is Always Someone Willing To Pay For Glory

Feudal Japan is a great place to play games and Ikusa is, for now, the game that best captures the militaristic glory of that time and place. For serious gamers with thick skins that don’t hold grudges, this game can be a way of life, providing a fun experience every weekend for months. It’s possible my painful experience with the game has colored my opinion, so be sure to check out a more positive review from Drake’s Flames.

Product Page [Ikusa] Also Read [Drakesflames]

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