Board gaming is a hobby that has always been dear to me. My interest in the field is wide, ranging from simple and straightforward “social” games such as the relatively recent “Carcassonne” to far more complex rule monstrosities like the 1990 Avalon Hill game “Republic of Rome”.
Therefore, when I recently learnt about the existence of a samurai warfare game called “Ran”, which borrows its name from the Kurosawa movie (even acknowledging its source) and comes in a box whose cover is clearly inspired by Kagemusha, I knew that I had to get the game. And get it I did.
In fact, to be completely fair to the reader, I must mention that when I contacted the manufacturer of the game, they kindly offered to send me a review copy. You may judge yourself the impact that this may or may not have had on what follows.
In any case, I have now had the opportunity to sit down for a couple of games of “Ran”, and I think that my early impressions of the game are enough to warrant writing a review. For those who are either too busy or too lazy to read the whole piece, let me give you the opportunity to skip the details by saying that I really like the game. The rest of you, read on.
A note: While playing, I took a series of pictures with which to illustrate this article, but it seems that I have lost the cable with which to transfer those pictures from my camera to the computer. As for now, I will publish this without the illustrations, and anyone interested in checking how the game actually looks like can check Board Game Geek‘s Ran picture gallery.
The Kurosawa Connection
Since this is an Akira Kurosawa website, I should probably clear up a few things regarding the Kurosawa side of the game before continuing with the actual game review.
On the surface of things, the board game “Ran” has very little in common with the movie “Ran”, or indeed with any of Kurosawa’s movies. This is of course understandable, considering that the game is about military strategy, whereas none of Kurosawa’s movies really centrally deal with warfare, but rather, when it is present, use it as a backdrop and a metaphoric device. “Ran”, therefore, is not “based on” or even “inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Ran”, and neither does it claim that.
Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge the battles available in “Ran” the strategy game in no way correspond with the ones in Kurosawa’s “Ran” or “Kagemusha”. ( “Samurai”, an earlier game by the same maker, includes the Battle of Nagashino, which is the final battle in “Kagemusha”.) The connection is therefore in some ways very superficial, indeed almost accidental.
Yet, while playing “Ran”, you will probably sooner or later catch yourself humming the theme of either “Ran” or “Kagemusha”. Even without any actual one-to-one correspondence between the game and the movies, each can help to better understand the other. The movie helps you visualize the game, while by playing the game you come to understand the mechanics behind Japanese warfare depicted in the films. There is also something quite epic, or as the box text puts it “Homeric” about the board game, on a level similar to Kurosawa’s endeavors.
Consequently, while “Ran” the board game is not exactly a “Kurosawa item”, it is certainly something that I would imagine might interest a number of devoted Kurosawa fans.
“Ran”, published in 2007, is the 12th volume in the “Great Battles of History” series by the well-known game publisher GMT Games. The company is perhaps best known for its war games that strive for historical accuracy, often with the result of added complexity in the rules. “Ran” is in fact the second samurai warfare game in the series, following the 1996 game that was simply titled “Samurai”.
The battles included in the box range in printed playing time from roughly two to “more than five” hours. My impression is that these figures are fairly realistic for someone already familiar with the rules. Your first battle, however, will most probably take about a double the estimated time. As for the complexity of the game, I have seen both more complex, as well as far simpler games. I would say that as board games go, “Ran” is somewhere towards the lower end of the “high” complexity games.
I have previously not played “Samurai”, or any of the other “Great Battles of History” games, so I had to approach “Ran” with only my previous experience as a gamer to fall on.
“Ran” comes with seven scenarios, each representing a battle from the late 16th and early 17th century feudal Japan, which was part of the so-called “Warring States” period. Because of it being the second samurai war game in the GMT series, the battles on offer are somewhat lesser known than are the ones in its predecessor “Samurai”. This, of course, in no way makes the scenarios themselves less interesting to play, and in any case I wonder how many people actually are more familiar with, say, the Battle of Sekigahara (not included) than for example the Battle of Mimigawa (included).
Based on the scenarios that I have tried alone and with a friend, the rule system in “Ran” seems well balanced and certainly faithful enough to the historical reality that was feudal Japanese warfare. In fact, since I cannot claim to be an expert in this particular field, I enlisted for the testing purposes a board gaming friend who is a trained historian working in a library of military science, and thus capable of bringing some relevant knowledge and authority to the table. The game clearly received his seal of approval, for as I am typing this review, he keeps harassing me with messages about when the next session is to take place. Which, by the way, will probably be quite soon, as I am just as eager to try the game again – not least to attempt to have my revenge after being so miserably crushed in Nagakute!
“Ran”, as the name suggests (“ran” is Japanese for “chaos”), employs a turn system that does away with strict linearity. Rather than each player moving all of his units and then passing the turn to the next player, the system allows for frequent changes of initiative, and a single game turn may easily see both players moving different parts of their army at very different times.
How this work is that, without going into unnecessary details, the more skilled your commanders, the better hold of the flow of the battle you will have. In gaming terms, this means that capable and lucky generals (who each command individual parts of your army) may be able to move up to three times in a single turn, giving them a clear edge in the battle. In fact, in our early test games this sometimes felt like too much of an edge, although this may only be me complaining against my friend’s amazingly good luck with the so-called Momentum dice-rolls.
While the above is a slight variation of a relatively standard war gaming practice, “Ran” is somewhat different from your typical tactical war game in that it incorporates individual combat into a system otherwise concentrating on units comprised of a few hundred men. The way the game does this is fairly interesting, and something that I still need to experiment with to make a full tactical use of. On the basic level, however, what happens is that individual samurai or busho (generals) can enter into head-to-head fights with each other in the midst of the chaos around them. With a little luck, these individual feats may then change the direction of the whole battle, if they happen to take place at the right moment.
My only real complaint about the individual combat system is that while the idea itself is very intriguing, the rules behind its execution are somewhat less so. You basically compare the fighting characters’ abilities and throw dice, the one with the lower total suffering a wound. If a character’s stamina runs to zero, he dies, although you can withdraw before that. This, I feel, could have been made more tactical and interesting by extending the rules somewhat, allowing for different types of attacks (perhaps ranging from all-out defense to all-out attack) and maybe even mapping the hits to different body parts to make the fight more visual. But maybe I come here too strongly from my background as someone who has practiced kendo (“Japanese fencing”) and plays role playing games with systems similar to the above – perhaps it might, in fact, be taking the individual combat too far in a game that is, after all, a tactical war game.
Individual feats are important also outside of the immediate head-to-head combat. As mentioned before, each part of your army has its own commander, and the commander’s personal skills reflect how well he will be able to maneuver his troops. Similarly, your whole army – including the commanders – sit under your main commander, whose stats again have an influence over the proceedings.
These commanders also take personal responsibility over their (your) decisions in a way that the game designers have tried to tie with the bushido (warrior’s “code of conduct”) culture that is at the centre of medieval Japanese warfare. For example, when ordering a withdrawal of his troops, a commander may in some cases have to, as a result of losing face, commit seppuku (ritual suicide). This is, in fact, how our Battle of Nagakute ended, with my commander-in-chief Ieyasu Tokugawa being forced to take his own life after ordering a tactical withdrawal with the idea to save and rest his troops. His death then caused panic within the lines, and large parts of the army left the battle field, handing the victory to my opponent.
All in all, “Ran” is a very interesting mixture of troop and individual level warfare that is in some ways very traditional (which is good), but also unique (which is also good). As a result, it seems like a safe bet for anyone enjoying tactical war games, while a determined newcomer may also find the game a good introduction to the genre. I am certainly hooked, myself.
If, however, the most tactical war game that you have ever played and ever want to play is Risk, read into the rules before you fork out the money to buy “Ran”, as it may not quite be your cup of tea. Then again, it may also turn out to be the beginning of a beautiful new hobby, for which “Ran” can in fact serve as a relatively good and quite straightforward introduction.
If you have never played board war games before, you may on your first impression of “Ran” be overwhelmed by the number of components that the box contains: seven maps printed on two large sheets of paper, over a thousand counters marking your units and their various states, a rule book and a scenario book, plus a number of charts and table cards littered with information. GMT also provides you with Ziploc bags to hold the counters in, which is extremely nice of them, considering that one will need those bags anyway, yet always forgets to buy any for a new game.
The maps in “Ran” predictably serve as the gaming board, and are of relatively good quality paper. Card board maps would, of course, be superior, but including seven cardboard maps the size of these babies would obviously raise the manufacturing and printing costs considerably.
One of the biggest problems that hex based games which work with a large variety of counters have is that the hexagons provided on the map are too small to actually comfortably hold all the counters. The problem is present also in “Ran”. For, even if a single hex in the game can only have one unit in it, it will ultimately also have to house a number of non-unit counters along with it, thus creating stacks (or in our case piles) of chits on the map. Furthermore, since the facing of the units is important, moving the counters around without accidentally changing the facings of surrounding units is difficult. Especially so, if you have fingers the size of Southern Europe, as I do.
One possible solution to this could be to keep the non-unit markers out of the actual map, referencing them on a separate sheet. Since the units, however, have no individual IDs, this is impossible without actually drawing something on the unit counters, which again is something that I am not going to do purely for aesthetic reasons.
The 24-page rule book starts by noting that the rule system in “Ran” is less complex than in the games that have preceded it in the series. It even goes as far as to suggest that a total newcomer to the genre of historically accurate war games will in 20-30 minutes be able to learn the rules to the point where “you’ll be just as good at this sort of thing as we are”.
Now, either this latter statement is a downright lie, I am a poor learner, or the guys over at GMT actually have no idea how their rule system works. For, at least in my case, it took almost two hours of flipping through the rule book until I reached the point where I was comfortable setting up the first scenario to test the game. In the end, it wasn’t until about four hours into active gaming that I started to feel like I mastered the basic rules in a way where I wasn’t making all that many mistakes.
Sadly, in fact, it is the rule book that is the weakest link in the “Ran” package. By this I do not mean the rules themselves, but the way that they are explained. The rule book lacks a real index, and the order in which the rules are presented seems fairly illogical to me. Add to this the high number of typos, grammatical errors and a few completely missing words here and there, and your initial enthusiasm towards the system is somewhat lessened as you try to make head or tale of it.
What I personally felt was most importantly missing from the rule book was a stronger historical background to many of the rules. Quick, short notes about why things work as they do would have helped at least me to remember the rules faster. Similarly, I often found myself wishing for more examples for rules that felt unclear for a long time. Perhaps GMT could even have considered adding to the package a book in which the reader is taken through a sample battle move by move, thus explaining the rules with real examples.
All this being said, once you actually get to the point where the system starts to make sense to you, you discover that the effort has easily been worth it.
One big question that always hangs in the air in the case of board games that depict individual battles concerns longevity. After all, if what you get is a set number of historically accurate battles, how many times can you play through them without the act becoming repetitive? Similarly, since many of the battles included in “Ran” are quite lob-sided in that one side is heavily favored to win from the outset, how interesting can such games be for the players?
Since I have only had a couple of weeks with “Ran”, I am obviously not entirely qualified to answer this question. However, since one battle will take you an evening to play – especially if you count in the time that you will spend afterwards discussing the battle and showing your friend relevant scenes from “Kagemusha” and “Ran” – you have at least seven evenings worth of brand new material in “Ran”. Fourteen, if you play once on both sides.
I also doubt that the battles will get repetitive already after two plays. After all, both the “chaotic” (this in a good sense) turn system used in the game and the individual combat system should guarantee that weird and wonderful events will unfold in the midst of the battle when you least expect them to. I would, in fact, even be ready to suggest that the game has a lifespan somewhat longer than your average game that depicts historical battles.
“Ran” is also surprisingly well suited for solitaire use, if you (like me) enjoy simply watching a battle unfold before your eyes. It is therefore one of those games that you can safely purchase to get your war gaming fix even if you have no friends to play with.
I admit that my experience with “Ran” has been quite brief, as I have not yet had the opportunity to try all of the battles included. What I have played, however, I have really liked, and can certainly recommend the game to war game aficionados, as well as those interested in the hobby.
As a Kurosawa item, “Ran” is more of a namesake of a distant cousin than anything else. Yet, as I mentioned before, while a direct connection between the director and the game is totally lacking, people liking one may very well find the other worth checking out. You never know, maybe you will discover something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Availability and more information
Ran is available directly from GMT Games, as well as from or through your local board game shop.
As always with board games, if you are interested to learn more, check out the relevant Board Game Geek page.