Game Review: Highly Thematic Japanese Tactical Card Game “Sashimono”

sashimono tactical battle card game box - reviewIt’s 1600s feudal Japan and you’re a warlord, preparing your troops for battle. Battles in this era are quite formalized, however, with troops trained to be offensive or defensive. Rather than squads and battalions, specialist teams are known as “Kumi” and are generally categorized as polearm units (melee), ranged units, and cavalry. A group of nine Kumi are known as a “Sonae” and they were expected to demonstrate ingenuity and adaptation to changing battle conditions, making them surprisingly autonomous. Sonae are united under war banners worn on the backs of the soldiers and samurai called “Sashimono”.

The game Sashimono by Joshua Sprung and Lore Chase Games is a tactical card game for 2 players with a separate solo mode. You are in charge of a Sonae and deploy specific Sashimono to achieve victory conditions and earn points; the first player to earn sufficient victory points is the winner. Need better troops? You can replace the Kuni in a Sonae or train them to gain advanced skills.

Underlying all the complex Sengoku Period Japanese, the game itself is fairly straightforward; your 3 x 3 grid of soldiers battles your opponent, one row of your troops versus one row or column of theirs, or vice versa. Cards have offensive and defensive values that are added up and compared: If the attacker has more offense points, they win. If the defender has more points, the attacker loses and loses one of their troops.

SASHIMONO GAME COMPONENTS

Here are the three types of Kumi (“troop”) cards:

sashimono card game review - kumi cards

The Nagae-Gumi are melee troops, good for defense but not offensive at all. That’s denoted by the two downward pointing blue triangles along the top: Two defense, zero offense. The Teppo-Gumi are the opposite, ranged attack troops with two offensive points per card and no defensive value at all. The Kiba-Tai? They’re basically the samurai of your Sonae and are good at everything, with two offensive and two defensive points.

Troops battle, but that’s not what wins the game. You win Sashimono by deploying your Sashimono, meeting each of their individual criteria for victory and earning points. Here are three exemplary Sashimono:

sashimono card game review - sashimono cards

Notice that each has a unique vertical banner and the cards are broken into five vertical sections. The top has an icon indicating which of the two major armies are represented: blue are Mitsunari troops and yellow are Ieyasu troops. Notice that the leftmost Sashimono has both: That’s just historical color in this instance because Kobayakawa Hideaki started as loyal to Mitsunari but later switched to Ieyasu.

The second horizontal section is the victory condition for this particular Sashimono. Earning points happens in two stages: You “bow” or rotate a card 90-degrees to denote that you have achieved the victory condition required, then on your subsequent turn you actually claim the points. Why? Because the other player might be able to change things and take away your victory condition, meaning you cannot earn the point. Tactics. With that in mind, notice that Hideaki’s score condition is “Bow if a player has a [Kiba-Tai/samurai] adjacent to two or more [Teppo-Gumi/rifles].”

The third row are bonus actions playable when you place a Sashimono on the field of battle if you meet the iconographic condition. Again, focusing on Hidaeki, his first action is “Fudai”: Flip any number of [Kiba-Tai/samurai] face down, drawing 1 Kuni card for each flipped over”. The bottom row offers a different action: “Tanegashima”, which requires two Teppo-Gumi/rifles in the active row or column. If that condition is met, then you can choose a column in any Sonae [e.g., your opponents!] and flip all their cards facedown. They can discard two Kumi cards to block it if they can do so.

Those are all the cards that together comprise Sashimono. Each player builds a 3×3 grid of Kumi (troops), then places Sashimono cards on the outer periphery to select the active row or column, then do battle and try to train the troops and move things around to defend from attacks while seeking to meet Sashimono victory conditions and win the game.

SOLO MODE: YOU VS THE KAGEMUSHA

I opted to play the game in solo mode, hoping it would be a fun, tactical game. In this mode, I have the only Sonae in the game, with the automaton opponent having a row of Sashimono and row of Kumi representing their entire grid of troops. Dealt out, they start with one of each Kumi troop type and three random Sashimono. Like this:

sashimono card game review - kagemushi hand

In solo mode, it’s up to you to keep track of whether the opponent’s Sashimono victory conditions are met and need to be “bowed”; if they achieve the needed victory points before you, they win.  This means that their conditions are your ‘avoid’ conditions.

Confused yet? Let’s look at the full table layout for a solo Kagemusha game:

sashimono card game review - starting conditions tableau layout

In the center is my 3×3 Sonae as per the starting layout with five up, four down. You can’t quite see, but every facedown card has a 1 attack, 1 defense point value. On the left are my own Sashimono and Kumi that are my “hand”, while on the right are the Kagemusha’s hand, a starting position of three Sashimono and one of each of the three types of Kumi. The one card on the edge of my Sonae grid is the Kagemusha’s starting Sashimono, denoting where its army is in comparison to my Sonea.

HOW TO PLAY KAGEMUSHA SOLO MODE

Turns alternate between you and the automaton. On your turn, you choose between a deployment and action turn or a score and bonus move turn. The Kagemusha always takes the same basic turn; score, battle row, column, or draw a Kumi card, draw additional Kumi cards to ensure his troops are at least three strong, then move his Sashimono that signifies his army’s location.

After one full round, the Kagemusha’s Sashimono is over the second column of my Sonae (troop grid):

sashimono card game review - ready for battle

If you count that column, I have 3 attack (red triangles) and 5 defense (blue triangles) on my cards. His row of Kumi are a Nagae-Gumi, a Kia-Tai and two Teppo-Gumi:

sashimono card game review - kumi troops

This means that he has 6 attack (the red triangles) versus my 5 defense on the column he’s attacking! Fortunately, I can discard cards from my hand at 1 defensive point per card to bolster my troops. Since the attacker wins a tie, I end up discarding two cards to fight off his attack. Woot!

If he would have had two Nagae-Gumi in his Kumi row instead of two Teppo-Gumi, he would have attacked the closest row to his Sashimono, which would have had a very different outcome: The top (closest) row of my Sonae to his Sashimono are only 4 defense and 4 attack (look at the photo to see what I mean), meaning it would have been harder for me to defend against his attack.

I can deploy my own Sashimono on one of the edges of the Sonae grid on my turn, utilizing the actions listed on the card if I meet the conditions, and attacking his Kumi with my row or column depending on which troops are actually in the row or column I’ve identified as the aggressors. Back and forth, with his Sashimono slowly circling the grid clockwise and each of us attacking or defending as the cards dictate.

DANGEROUS SASHIMONO IN THE KAGEMUSHA’S HAND

I almost lost the game in a single move with this set of cards, however. I got to the point where I’d flipped over one of my facedown Kumi cards and was poised to flip over a second one when I realized that two of the Kagemusha’s Sashimono would then have their victory conditions met:

sashimono card game review - kumi troops trained

Since the basic game is played to two points, if I wouldn’t have changed my mind, that was a potential instant loss. Not so good, and a violation of famous Japanese military tactician Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s dictum “Fight only after creating conditions of victory.”

A half-dozen rounds later, I did manage to achieve a decisive victory even as I ran out of Sashimono in my hand, as you can see below:

sashimono card game review - game end layout

Notice that two of the troops on my Sonae are stacked: Those are “trained” troops and significantly change the strengths of the tableau with both the column and rows affected. Note also that the Kagemusha’s Sashimono has advanced all the way to the bottom row of my Sonae; I’ve never played a game where I didn’t win or lose within one rotation of the grid.

THOUGHTS ON SASHIMONO THE GAME

First off, as I imagine is obvious, I am fascinated by the history of Japanese feudal warfare and the thoughtful way that troops were trained and deployed to ensure maximum flexibility on the battlefield. But game designers must carefully balance theme and clarity in developing any highly thematic title, and I never really felt I got the rhythm of playing Sashimono in my brain. It’s a constant challenge to understand the iconography, terminology, nuances of Sashimono winning conditions, and implications of turn steps for the player and the automaton. There’s a fun and straightforward tactical card battle game here, but it’s hard to find the heart of the game with the overt and confusing (for this gamer, at least) theming.

I imagine it would be a different game with two players, each of you building, rearranging, and bolstering your own Sonae as you plot your attacks and seek to achieve victory conditions on your Sashimono cards that your opponent cannot reverse and block. I chose to play solo, however, and while the Kagemusha is ultimately a fairly straightforward automaton, I found myself flipping through the rules book endlessly, even after playing through a half-dozen games.

This could be remedied by a rewritten rulebook and additional quick reference cards and sheets that detail everything you need to know on each turn. There’s no reason that Sashimono shouldn’t evolve into a great go-to tactics game, either solo or for two players. As it currently stands, however, I’ll simply warn you to be prepared for a long journey before you remember all the rules, nuances, and implications of each and every move while playing Sashimono.

Sashimono card game, from Lore Chase Games. Coming to Kickstarter thru November 2021. MSRP $29.99.

Disclosure: Lore Chase Games sent me a copy of Sashimono in return for this candid writeup and review. 

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