Few films can have had such an impact on our hobby. Kurosawa stands up there with the directors-for-gamers greats list as well. Yet the film has never been the subject of many games, although I have seen a few Western derivatives over the years.
This is the first of an occasional series that I hope will inspire you to at least look at the film again from a wargamers perspective. I have the BFI restored version (chapter titles below refer to this edition) that includes a most informative documentary and leaflet.
There are two series of events I'm not considering – the chases in the woods after a prisoner and guns. In these one (or 3) protagonist(s) goes after a specific goal. The other is the probing attacks. You don't need my help.
In the film the tactically competent Kambei relies on the inferior tactician unnamed bandit leader letting him gain local numerical superiority on ground of his own choosing.
“OK, hot shot, how would you have done it?” Lets look at the ground**. There are 4 points of entry:
small entrance through a paddy field between buildings (partway along the tail)
high ground entrance with a second, internal wall (tail of the “Q”)
stream entrance with paddy fields and open ground in front plus dismantled bridge over narrow stream. (tip of the tail)
The bandits advantages are slightly superior quality, firepower and time.
The defenders discipline and internal lines of communication plus numbers (40 vs 42 – yes, 42).
I'd have 2 teams of 6 experienced (possibly older) men for the woodland and paddy field & high ground entrances. The first will have a few horses with instructions to make noises like a larger cavalry force trying to keep quiet. The second will show themselves, yell, throw rocks, just to keep the defenders on edge. Each will construct shooting positions for “visiting” archer and arquebusiers.
Of the rest 20 of the youngest/least experienced will be chosen to rest during day and work during dusk to dawn making long pikes and fascine type bundles the length of the 2nd entrance paddy. (If the defenders didn't spike it underwater-). These are thrown into the paddy with much noise to keep the defenders awake.
The remainder will stay in view of the bridge entrance, but not close. They will taunt and heckle the defenders while appearing lazy – as if they have the “cushy” job.
The attack will come on the first available moonless night:
The wood entrance will come under fire and abortive cavalry charges designed to confuse and hold.
The high ground entrance will be attacked by the 8 using long pikes to engage through the barrier.
River crossing is to be charged by the 20 night-acclimatised again using pikes to engage. The rest will work around this barrier to take the defenders in the flank. Once defeated they will rush to the other paddy entrance to take the defenders in the rear. Meanwhile the spearmen will form a barrier against intervention by the forest entrance party who will be engaged by the whole force next.
I'm not overly bothered about results. I want to recreate the feel of the film. Be sneaky, set this up with something different (such as gunfighters, pirates, even warg riding orcs attacking a Rohan village – you could be as inaccurate as the film and have 7 wood elves).
I spent a full 20 minutes making the first game board and the village is a very, very rough mock-up that's a test for a better version that will come in the fullness of time, then be used for everything.
The Fortress. Chapter 20. Or perhaps it should be called the hidden barn. This is the one the peasants could have handled themselves. Ringing the place with bamboo spears and skewering anything that moved once on fire. There are 2 structures, a large storehouse to the left and a central communal sleeping area making one large L shaped building tucked up/into the rockface. Most people getting away from the fire headed for the store, these were ignored once past the ronin. Until one pulls out an arquebus.
There seems to have been no guard. Having set fire to the structure they kill any man coming out of the entrance then work their way back to a wall on the over side of the pond to secure their retreat. This battle kills about 8, as there is 32 left for the first attack.
The first battle (Chapter 24, as 20 & 21 are the probes rather than a full attack) The bandits attack the forest gate, being let through piecemeal, then everyone stops for lunch. I've taken my game from when Kikuchiyo returns (chased) with an arquebus and the river crossing is taken, with an all-out attack on the forest entrance and a running battle covers the village.
The final battle Chapter 27. This one is a desperate gamble. The bandits are down to 13, the villagers about 30. They should have cut and run and looked for a smaller victim.
This first play uses Battlesworn. Why? The wargaming equivalent to chess but played with variable pieces and no formal movement. As such it lends itself to this type of game which is like a chess set problem. These rules have proved effective with Samurai in the past. There is the opportunity for progression. The peasants gain skills, confidence and weapons while the ronin diminish in number.
Fighter works well for the average trained sword-bearer.
Brute for those carrying a no dashi (large 2 handed sword) or particularly vicious yari (spear).
Rogue fits well for the peasants while under supervision working as a unit and experienced bandit.
Rabble is used for peasants or bandits in headless chicken mode. (These are your chess prawns)
Hidden Fortress. This game is possibly the smallest area Battlesworn game? Make no apology for using goblins – I want to emphasise that the bandits are coming out as a partially armed mob half blinded by fire and smoke and I don't have enough different types of peasants. My bad. I'm also using my Medieval Japanese, whose armour represents that shown in the film rather than the historically accurate Age of War.
The Heroes 4 fighters
Bandits 4 fighters, 6 rabble (3) 4 Rogues, 1 sniper. Each is represented by a different coloured dice and a D6 worth are pulled at random at start of round..
The heroes win if they make a fighting retreat around or through the pond. The bandits win if the heroes do not.
The next two represent the middle part of the battles rather than the start – as I cannot see another way to do it.
First Battle.Bandits from the river barrier. 4 rogues. Dismounted cavalry 4 fighters (centre). Cavalry 2 (from forest) (4)
Defenders. 6 Rabble (centre) (3), 3 Rogues (high ground), 4 Fighters (forest), 1 Archer (high ground), 1 Brute (forest).
After playing, you may consider swapping 2 rabble in centre for 1 fighter from forest.
The defenders win if they reclaim all the barriers.
Second Battle. This is the mix we played below.Bandits 3 Cavalry (forest) (6) 4 Fighters & 1 Arquebusier/Leader (centre) (2)
Defenders. 4 Rabble (centre) (2), 3 Rogues (high ground), 4 Fighters (forest), 1 Archer/leader(centre) (2), 1 Brute (centre).
Since playing I'd suggest:
Bandits 2 Cavalry (4) 4 Fighters, 1Shooter & 1 Sniper/Arquebusier/Leader (centre) (3)Defenders. 2 Rabble & 1 Fighter (river) (2), 3 Rogues & 1 Fighter (high ground), 2 Rabble & 2 Fighters (forest) , 1 Archer/leader(centre) (2), 1 Brute (centre).
First Game, Hidden Fortress. Tony took the bandits, I set my 4 in front of the building*. Tony got “4” and pulled sniper, fighter, rogue and rabble. I engaged the fighter and rabble who died, his sniper went wide for a shot, causing my end ronin to duck into the water.
Next Tony rolled a six. NOW he can roll a 6! Giving him another 3 rabble, 2 fighters and a rogue. My right hand ronin took on a killed a fighter, then charged the sniper only to be intercepted by another fighter. The next along dodged a bullet by diving into the pond. I lost my first ronin.
Only a “3” this time, another rogue and 2 final rabble. I sent mine screaming into the mass to kill a rabble and a fighter.
Tony used his reactions to move his injured fighter and 2 rabble off-board.
I started my withdraw process. Tony swamped my furthest fighter in his last fighter and rabble which I countered with my 2.
The rabble died, leaving a clear shot – equals- Tony rolls a 6 & 1, shot bounces off armour as my ronin dodges. We both lost a fighter, so both plummeted to 50% at the same time.
Tony moved up a solid line of rogues preventing me from escaping, thus unable to win.
We watched the chapter 20 again and I think we got it pretty much spot on.
The huge mat. *This was my first attempt at building with bamboo place mats layered on cardboard. The building base is vinyl tiles and the wall are supported by roofing nails. The secret is to paint the mats first.
The game mat comprises a vinyl tile with a carpet tile on top that was treated with ground in no-more-nails and a hard scrape of green paint. The water layer was a mixture of glitter glue and sepia ink. I've since put a double layer of PVA and the contents of a (dried, used) lemon and ginger tea bag. Not the best mix, but I'm working on it.
Game Two, the First Battle.
It was a bit confusing but we took our time and made sure that we knew who-was-who.
I again took the villagers and started by sending my poor rabble into the fighters. My plan was to feed in my fighters-. Tony's cavalry took on one of my fighters before breaking through to take up threatening positions.
My rabble started to die steadily so I fed in my brute. That didn't go as well – he died in 2nd round.
So I sent in another ronin, I take out a fighter. In goes the cavalry and down goes the last of my rabble. The centre now looks like a proper scrap, corpses everywhere and everyone engaged.
Tony now retired the cavalry to start threatening my other gate force. Heading towards a wounded ronin I'd pulled back, a heroic rogue gets in the way but pays the cost. Tony does a blinder with the dice and sends all 4 rogues at a ronin who goes down for one wounded.
That was my 50%. I guess the remaining ronin would grab a horse on sneak into the forest leaving the villagers to their fate. The ability of cavalry to retire from combat probably won the game, once the cavalry were free I should have attempted to engage with my rouges and brought the ronin in faster rather than as a drip-feed. Really, I blame the dice!
Game Three, The Final Battle. Please note that I radically revised the lineup and positions for this one once played, see above. It's easy to seem all-knowing on a blog but I'd prefer to show you how I got there.
We started traditional. Tony's leader shot at mine, a fighter took on my brute. Then I bet 3, Tony 6 so my 3 rogues went for his leader to be intercepted by his 3 remaining fighters. This fight went on for ages.
I sent my fighters into his cavalry, killing one then the others headed for the centre, taking on my leader while he had no reactions. Didn't work though – another dear cavalry.
In the centre we had a rules problem. Now I've been watching the film repeatedly, but Tony had avoided it to keep a clear mind. Tony's leader wanted to get out of the line of fire and the rules didn't help. If you were being shot at or spelled you can dodge or counterspell. You can intercept, yet you cannot dodge. So we worked it like a reversed dodge. When charged, he won the bid so went off at a tangent into a building, his assailant stopping at the door. I couldn't resist sending in my brute! Bang! Reduced to red! I sent him and a rabble against the leader, but he killed them both. The long scrap finally came to a conclusion and the last bandit fighter died, reducing Tony to 50%. I won one!
**The Table. I sketched this while watching the film, trying for playability rather than accuracy. Scene 1 shows a view from the top of the high ground, as do chapter 8 & 9, which includes the walk-around. The village had 23 buildings but 3 were burnt outside the perimeter. At the beginning of the film and in chapter there are some good shots of the village prior to fortification. The basic shape of the village is a “Q” a square plan coming down the side of a hill, a side road with 3 exits. The forest and high-ground entrances are higher than the river crossing. There are hints of smaller rat-runs and gardens plus lots of fenced areas. Once I'm happy with the layout I've now to decide how detailed a table I want to make. Watch this space.
If you want to do it easy, map out the main areas using the edge of the game area as buildings.
We thought we would celebrate with some of our favourite wargaming tipple, Sainsbury's (full leaded) ginger beer in true Japanese fashion.
Not so good hot, perhaps it needed to be hotter? Needs research.
Not so good hot, perhaps it needed to be hotter? Needs research.