Converting ‘Great Battles of History’ to the tabletop.
The question of which rules to use for samurai battles is a tricky one if, like me, you want a set that organises armies into large groups of small contingents. Most sets of rules divide units by weapon type or social class (samurai v ashigaru) into units that are much bigger than their historical counterparts. That may be fine for Western armies of the 16th century, but it’s not a good way to deal with the armies of the Sengoku-Jidai, in my opinion.
Thinking about possible solutions, 3 options came to mind. Firstly, convert Perfect Captain’s Wars of the Roses rules ‘A Coat Of Steel.’ These rules let you build up units with mixed bases of men at arms, archers, bills, spears etc. They also have a mechanic where armies can be raised by generating contingents of bases and grouping them into units. This would form a great basis for Sengoku organisation. The downside is that it would take a phenomenal amount of work converting the immense number of cards and counters into more suitably Japanese equivalents, as well as having to re-do the combat mechanics. While this solution seemed the most likely to be successful, I didn’t think I’d ever get round to seeing it through.
The second option was to tinker slightly with Peter Pig’s ‘Battles in the Age of War.’ These let you mix bases of spears, bows and guns in ashigaru units, but keep samurai bases separate in their own units. I think it should be possible to create units from samurai and ashigaru bases, and have a morale grade based on the percentage of samurai remaining in the unit. This will probably be the next thing to try, when I’ve got some more bases done.
So onto the 3rd option. Looking outside of tabletop rules, I found two Sengoku era boardgames as part of GMT Games’ ‘Great Battles of History’ series. The older ‘Samurai’ and the more recent ‘Ran.’ We decided on ‘Ran’ not least because it has no stacking, so would be easier to convert. The rules are free to download from the GMT site, but the games’ results tables are not. You can at least read the rules to get some idea of whether they will work. The first issue was converting the hexes used in GBOH to the tabletop. Obviously, you could just change the hexes into measurement unit of base-widths, but we decided to go with a square grid instead. Now, I know some gamers don’t like square grids, and I’m not going to try and put forward a defence for them. Suffice to say I like the clarity of movement that they provide, removing any ambiguity of positioning. If you don’t like grids, then I’m sure the rules will work just as well converted to conventional measurement.
We used some carpet tile terrain that had been made by our club’s talented base-board maker. These were terrained on the non-carpet side, and divided into 10cm squares for ‘To the Strongest’ rules. We re-imagined those squares as each comprising four 5cm squares into which one of our 40mm square samurai bases would fit. The tiles retain some flexibility, so we hoped to use them to create some hilly terrain by laying them over large hills augmented by folded blankets.
^ The carpet tile terrain.
Converting the hexes into squares was relatively straightforward. We had to extend the Zones of Control to better be able to cover flanks properly, and came up with a convention for diagonal moves (first one cost 1 point, subsequent ones cost two). Otherwise the game ported over quite easily. An army in Ran is composed of several ‘clans’ under an overall commander. Each clan is composed of various bases of cavalry, samurai foot, ashigaru spears, bows and teppo (guns). So, a clan now looks more similar to the representations on battle screens and what we know of how units were constructed. Though this does mean that a lot of ‘units’ are used in wargaming terms, a boardgame is well-equipped to deal with that number of ‘counters.’
The mechanics of command in Ran are as follows. The overall commander activates a number of clans based on his ability. Clans that are fighting an enemy are automatically activated. Starting with the player with initiative, a clan is activated and does all its movement, combat, rallying etc. That clans commander can then roll to try and get another phase based on the commander’s ability. If he is successful, they get another phase (up to 3 phases can be had in a turn). However, the opposing commander can roll on his ability to try and ‘interrupt’ a second phase and activate one of his own clans instead. The interrupted commander is finished for the turn. So there is a lot of movement back and forth of initiative during the turn.
Combat is rather attritional, with units taking hits from attacking as well as inflicting them on bad results, so getting 3 phases in a row is not necessarily game breaking.
So, on to the game. Following the skirmishing along the Takahashigawa in our ‘Lion Rampant’ campaign, the Mori launched an invasion of Ukita territory.
^ The Mori in the foreground and right. The Kobayakawa are on the Mori left, while Kikkawa leads the Mori right. The commander, Mori Terumoto, is in his honjin in the centre. The Ukita are led by Ukita Naoie (who doesn’t have a honjin yet). Togawa Hideyasu (black sashimono) are near the village, while Ukita Hideie leads the Ukita left.
The Mori hoped to use the Kobayakawa to pin the Togawa in the village, while also possibly being able to support the centre. Kikkawa would attempt an oblique attack against the Ukita left, while the centre would try and prevent the Ukita centre from intervening.
^ View from the Ukita side.
^ The Togawa move into the village
^ The Mori right advances against the Ukita left. The green counters indicate areas of woods where the terrain has had to be taken off to accommodate the figures. The Mori centre try to prevent the Ukita centre from crossing the stream. The Ukita samurai have white sashimono, which may get a bit confusing in later photos!
^ Kikkawa’s command begins a desperate fight with the Ukita. Chaos and heavy casualties on both sides ensue.
^ The Ukita begin to cross the stream covered by teppo fire. On the left, the Kobayakawa are moving towards the centre, leaving the Togawa in the village.
^ The Ukita centre seeks to cut off the Mori right from its centre and relieve the pressure on its own left. The Togawa can be seen leaving the village, trying to catch the disengaging Kobayakawa before they can join the fighting in the centre. On the Ukita left, the Mori are having marginally the better of it.
^ The Ukita left attempts to break off combat. Unfortunately, some of its engaged units don’t hear the order and are left behind. These are quickly overwhelmed by the Mori, who are then able to send fresh troops forward. In the centre, the fighting continues with no real advantage to either side.
^ The Togawa catch the tail of the Kobayakawa, forcing them to turn and deal with the new threat. Kobayakawa abandons his intention to support the centre and turns and mauls the Togawa.
^ The Ukita left has broken, and Kikkawa quickly gathers his freshest troops to attack the Ukita centre. With the Togawa breaking as well, the writing is on the wall for the Ukita. The centre is last to break leaving the Mori victorious.
Overall the game worked well, better than I thought it would to be honest. The rules also accommodate single combats and individual acts of heroism by individual samurai, as well as a few bushido-based cliches which you can feel free to include or not depending on how much you buy into their historicity. The way the activation works is really good, and enables you to better reflect capable commanders as well as being able to be bold with commanders who have a good personal combat score.
On the minus side, the game is very marker heavy. Each unit/base can be taking up to 7 hits and possibly also a disrupted marker. This, along with the large number of units can lead to a lot of clutter. The rules are relatively complex, so it might take a few games to get the hang of it, too. We had some issues with unit bases and terrain bases occupying the same square, but Japanese battles tend to be fought in closer terrain so that’s always going to be an issue. I would think it’s easier to deal with if you’re not using a grid. The biggest problem may be getting hold of the game in the first place. It’s not in print so you’d have to scour various game stores to get a copy. When you do find one it’ll probably cost around £50.