There’s something about Mōri

Sengoku-Jidai with ‘To the Strongest.’

In 1571, the great Mōri Motonari died. Born into a small clan in Aki province, in a remarkable career he would lead the Mōri to become the dominant clan of Western Honshu. He was ably supported by his 3 eldest sons. An anecdote tells how Motonari gave each of them an arrow to break, and when they did so he handed them a sheaf of 3 arrows which they could not break. The message being that individually they were weak but together they were unbreakable. Akira Kurosawa used this anecdote in his epic film ‘Ran’ (based loosely on Shakespeare’s King Lear), though the third son, Saburo, rather spoils the effect by snapping the bundle of 3 arrows over his knee. . . Motonari, however, was no King Lear. He had his 2nd and 3rd sons adopted into the Kikkawa and Kobayakawa families, whilst his eldest would inherit leadership of the clan, thus providing a solid foundation for succession. Unfortunately, the eldest son, Takamoto, would die before Motonari, and rulership passed to his son Terumoto. So it was that on Motonari’s death, that the clan leadership passed to a relatively inexperienced 18-year old Mōri Terumoto.

Now, an ambitious neighbour may be keen to take advantage of this situation, and luckily for someone who is looking for an excuse to do a first game with a samurai project, there was just such a candidate. Ukita Naoie had been even younger than Terumoto when he succeeded to the leadership of his clan. When Naoie was 15, his father was executed by the Ukita’s overlords the Urakami clan. Naoie was spared, however, and given a fort and a small number of retainers. Naoie proved to be an able and loyal vassal to the Urakami and aided them in their bid for dominance of Bizen province. The power base he constructed, and the alliances he made, however were his alone. Eventually, in 1573, he would turn on the Urakami and seize Bizen for himself. However, for the moment, it is 1571 and Ukita Naoie is, rather implausibly, trying the strength of the new Mōri clan leader.

I’d done just about enough figures for a small game of ‘To the Strongest.’ Though the armies were obviously very similar in content, and the small size restricted the options for division into commands. The result was something of a mirror match. Both armies went with strong centres, the weaker commands were opposite each other by the village of Takomura, whilst the other wings faced each other on either side of a hill.

^ The Ukita form up in Hoshi (arrowhead) formation

^ The Mōri form up in Koyaku (yoke) formation

^Starting positions. Mōri Terumoto is in his honjin at the bottom of picture. His uncle, Kikkawa Motoharu, is up and to the right of him. Ukita Naoie leads his centre. The single base units are light infantry with guns or bows. The village of Takomura takes up much of the right flank.

^Ukita Naoie takes time out to pose for the camera, and helpfully suggests using a tripod from here on in.

The Mōri advanced into Takomura, and onto the hill on their left. The Ukita were hoping to hold each flank and attack through the centre, possibly getting through to Terumoto’s honjin and ending the battle.

^ The Mōri move into Takomura.

^And on their left, they move onto the hill.

^ The Ukita get a foothold in the village while the centre advances.

^ The Ukita contest the hill. This was a bit rash in hindsight. The Mōri hadn’t got very far in their turn, so I thought I would get a foothold on the hill to better support my centre. However, despite initial success, this was still a mistake. My third unit had got left behind and didn’t really contribute.

^The fight over Takomura begins. The Mōri would break the Ukita ashigaru quite easily, leaving the Ukita samurai to tenaciously hang on to their part of the village.

^ In the centre the Ukita are able to pressurise the Mōri, disordering two units and threatening to break through.

As is often the case with TtS, you can have a good turn where you inflict hits on the opponent, but don’t destroy any units. Then on the opponent’s turn they rally and leave you back at square one. The initial Ukita success in the centre couldn’t be exploited, as the Mōri hung on. When they counter-attacked, they were able to make their hits count.

^ The Mōri have rallied and are resisting the Ukita attack. The Ukita had a greater number of ‘heroes’ to compensate for the unit points differential, so their initial attack was more potent, but now it has fizzled out into an attritional contest.

^ On the Ukita right, the Mōri ashigaru have withstood the Unita onslaught and the Mōri samurai counter-attack and break through.

^ In the centre, the Mōri break through as well. The Ukita arquebus unit would turn and destroy the breakthrough in heroic fashion, but it would be too late. The Ukita right was broken and Naoie was forced to withdraw and confine his ambitions to Bizen.

So, what lessons learned? The absence of cavalry wings made for a more attritional battle, with little in the way of manouevre. And the small army sizes made any breakthroughs that occurred much more decisive. In short, the answer is the same as always: more figures! I think ultimately for samurai, a dedicated ruleset is necessary to fully capture the period (even if you don’t go in for all the clichés), and any ‘generic’ ruleset is going to struggle by comparison. But in the early stages of the project ‘to the Strongest’ gives a game with a smaller number of figures to keep the interest going.

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