If you are a veteran Legend of the Five Rings fan, waiting years for the various rumors about a big box, Emerald Empire-spanning epic board game to finally bear fruit…I have some bad news for you. This is not that game. If, however, you’re a fan of the setting and you like streamlined, relatively simple strategy board games with a dash of luck, playable (once familiar) in an hour or so, then you’re in for a treat.
Battle for Rokugan takes place at an undetermined time in the Empire’s history, with each of the seven Great Clans vying to take control of each other’s territory and gain honor in the eyes of the Emperor. In reality, it’s an area control game in the mold of Diplomacy and FFG’s Game of Thrones board game, in which players use face down tokens to direct the movement of their armies and navies, stabbing each other in the back along the way.
Each player takes on the role of one of the clans, and has a pool of tokens representing the resources they have at their disposal. These tokens consist of armies of various values (1-5, with lower strengths more common than higher), navies, blessings, diplomacy, raids, and shinobi (ninja). Additionally, each clan receives a bonus token of some kind, such as the Lion having a strength 6 army, the Crane having an additional diplomacy, etc. Furthermore, each player has a reusable bluff token that can be played like an actual order, but does nothing and returns to their hand at the end of each round.
At the beginning of a round, you will draw 5 of your tokens, at random, and then proceed in turn order to place them on the board one at a time, face down. Placing a token on the border of a province neighboring one of yours indicates an invading army; placing a token inside your own province indicates a defending one. Navies can be placed on the coast of an enemy province to attack into it. You can place a blessing token on top of one of your already-played tokens to give it strength and render it immune to other players’ effects. Raids, when resolved, destroy all tokens in or attacking a province, and render it useless for the rest of the game. Diplomacy renders a province off-limits to all attacking armies for the rest of the game, but also prevent anybody from attacking from it. Shinobi act like attacking (or defending) armies, but ignore adjacency requirements. Additionally, each player begins the game with two scout cards and a shugenja card, which they can use to peek at and remove opponents’ tokens, but are removed from play after use.
In addition to their bonus token, each clan also has a special ability. For example, the Dragon clan get to draw an extra order token each turn, then send one back to the pool, giving them greater control over their options.
After everybody has placed all their tokens, they are revealed and resolved, then discarded. If you can successfully invade a province with your armies, you take control of it, and its honor. If you successfully repel an invasion, your province becomes more honorable, and also easier to defend the next time. If you are the first to control all three provinces that make up a clan’s territory at the end of a round, you gain a unique, one-use card that can give you a powerful advantage. Additionally, certain valuable neutral territories, such as the Islands of Silk and Spice, also give special cards for gaining control of them, as do the infamous Shadowlands.
The game lasts a total of five rounds, at the end of which most, but not all, of each player’s token pool will have been used up. At the end, victory points will be determined by the amount of honor in provinces under a player’s control, with bonuses for controlled territories and accomplished secret missions.
Despite looking like a complex wargame, Battle for Rokugan is surprisingly fast and light, with the token draw providing a significant amount of randomness. The strategy of the game comes in making the right decisions for what to do with the tokens you draw each round, and there are numerous options for that. Set aside two hours or so for your first game, but after you are familiar with it, a session of Battle for Rokugan can be easily accomplished in an hour. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised at the $39.99 MSRP; while the components are only tokens and cards, the gameplay itself is reminiscent of a $60+ game, and it is clear a great deal of development went into it.