Tabletop Review: Ikusa
by Alex Lucard on September 8, 2011

Ikusa
Publisher: Avalon Hill/Wizards of the Coast
Price: $79.99 ($69.17 at Amazon.com
Release Date: 08/19/2011
Age Range 12+
Get it Here: Amazon.com

Generally, when a product has been released three times under three different names, that’s a bad sign right? Well that’s not necessarily true about Ikusa. This game has been released previously under the name Samurai Swords and Shogun, but the game has developed a cult following in all its forms – with copies on Ebay hitting up to $300. Wizards of the Coast has been on a roll as of late in regards to board games, with things like Castle Ravenloft getting rave reviews from gamers and critics alike. I myself reviewed Conquest of Nerath back in July and I really enjoyed it. As a long time fan of Japanese history, culture and language, Ikusa seemed like it would be a strategy game right up my alley. So was it?

Ikusa is a game for two to four players, although the two person version of the game involves each player controlling two armies each. The goal of Ikusa is to conquer feudal Japan. There are two ways to achieve this goal. You can either kill all of your opponent’s Daimyos or conquer a set number of provinces. There are 68 provinces on the map. In a three to five person game, you’ll be trying to collect 35. In a two player game, you’ll be after fifty. The game is VERY slow moving and expect a round to take between thirty minutes and an hour, depending on how many people are playing. So if you’re looking for something a little faster paced, you might want to look elsewhere.

The game is very either a far more intricate version of Risk or a slower and more unwieldy version on Conquest of Nerath. Depending on what you are used to playing. To start the game, players pick one of the five colour armies provided. The colors are a bit ugly and Avalon Hill probably should have used so very different ones, both for aesthetic value and to prevent mixing up. Depending on the lighting, the purple and blue armies almost appear to be the same shade. Armies consist of six different types of figures. Even though each army contains seventy-two figures, you will run out of specific piece types by about the half point of the game. In our four player game, we ended up using the leftover army (pea soup green) as spares.

The six figures types can be seen on the following chart. Click on it to bring it to full size. Please note that “Combat Value” is the number a figure must roll equal to or less than on a d12 in order to hit. Yes, under. Since most games like this look for a higher number, this little paradigm shift through us all for a loop at first.

There’s a little more to these characters than this one page guide. Characters attack in a certain order (Bowmen, Gunners, Daimyos, Swordsmen, Ronin, Spearmen) and characters all have a certain cost to hire. For example one Koku (the currency of Ikusa) can get you either 1 Bowmen, 1 Swordsman & 1 Gunner, 2 Swordsmen, 2 Gunners, and 3 Spearmen. You can’t purchase Daimyos. In playing the game, we found the best choice to buy were Bowmen (for their high combat value and first strike), Swordsmen (two with a high attack value for a coin) and Spearmen (for a gigantic en masse attack). Again, there aren’t nearly enough pieces for the game, but there’s a lot of detail to these very tiny figures. They are very light though, and if you try rolling dice on the board, characters will go flying from the minuscule vibrations.

The Daimyo are special pieces in several ways- chief of which being that they never actually are palced on the board. Instead you have Army markers (flagbearers) for them. The actual Daimyo pieces are relegated to a card along with several other figures that act as the “hit points” for the Daimyo. This is a rather wasteful mechanism because it is the chief reason you’ll run out of character pieces in the game. Each Daimyo card (three per army) gets the Daimyo figure and four others to act as hit points and a flagbearer to act as an experience point token. So out of your seventy-two figures, you end up using eighteen (a full FOURTH of your army) as tokens. It’s worse when you realize you buy units as hit points instead of actual figures on the map. So if you want a powerful Daimyo, get used to running out of playing pieces. The daimyo are your leaders and so it makes sense that they are extra powerful, but this is a poorly thought out mechanism. Instead of using figures, they should have had a card with hit point maximums and yet you move a token around on it. Either that or provide each player with at least three to four more figures of each type.

To start the game, characters are dealt province cards. How many cards you get are determined by the number of people playing. The cards you are given are the provinces you control at the start of the game. So really, it’s all about luck in terms of what you get. In our four army game, Blue started off with almost the entire island of Shikoku, giving them a tactical advantage. Meanwhile Orange was scattered all over the place, leaving it especially vulnerable. The power of the cards. From there you place a single Spearman on each province you control and then randomly determine turn order for the first round of play (by choosing markers). After that, everyone gets their starting Koku (money, remember?) and then they can start to place reinforcement Spearmen on the board. You get twelve reinforcements and you place two at a time on provinces you control. This set up takes a VERY long time, especially since you have to sort through all the pieces, find the ones you need and set up all the Daimyo cards. Setup takes well over half an hour for two people and it gets exponentially longer the more people you have playing. Again, this is a VERY slow moving game so be prepared for that fact going in.

Ikusa is played “rounds” consisting of nine different segments. Unlike most games where each round would have a player go through his or her nine segments and then jump to the next, each segment is different. Some might go all at once, while others might have you go in turn order. This will be more than a little overwhelming to people new to these type of games and I have to admit that even I feel that things could have been streamlined for a better play flow.

The first segment is “Planning.” In this segment all players divide their Koku between five categories: Turn Order (Segment 2), Build (Segement 3), Levy Units (Segment 4) Hire Ronin (Segment 5) and Hire Ninja (Segment 6). You can’t hold any Koku back and this ends up being a silent auction of sorts. Once you’ve all bid, everyone turns their trays around to show what they bid and the results affect the next eight segments of the game.

The second segment is “Turn Order.” Basically you look at the bid Koku and whoever bid the most Koku goes first, the next goes second, and so on. If there is a tie, the players that tied do a random draw just as they did at the beginning of the game.

The third segment is “Build.” Here for every two Koku, you put in, you can build a castle or turn a castle that has already been built into a fortress. Once built, castles and fortress are permanent and if you lose that province, the enemy gets control of them. Neither building offers any offensive advantage but they do provide a tremendous defensive one. A castle provides you with four extra spearmen when being attacked and a Fortress provides you with five ronin. You will run out of castles incredibly quickly, which again shows the lack of pieces problems with this game. The rules say that once you run out of castles, then too bad – even if you bid for one. We all had a serious problem with that and ignored that rule. Much like army pieces, Ikusa should have provided some more castles and fortresses – at least six to a dozen to be exact.

The fourth segment is “Levy Units.” Here you use Koku to buy figures. The caveat is that you can only place one unit per province you control in a given round. This prevents an en masse gang up against a single province, but it also takes away a degree of strategy from the game. This coupled with the fact you can’t have more than five units on a single province at any time not only neuters the game but makes it move at a snail’s pace. Again, these are some rules that could have been excised in order to speed the game up and streamline things.

The fifth segment is “Hire Ronin.” Here for each Koku you spent on this option, you get two Ronin. Ronin are only useable for a single round and after buying them, you place the figures on the card(s) on the province(s) you control. You only have to reveal them when you attack or defend and by placing them on the corresponding province card, you don’t have to worry about a player cheating, or being accused of cheating. The Ronin have a nice combat value (5), but since they are temporary, they really aren’t worth hiring. We found even three Spearmen were better as the value was only off by a single point, you get three of them for the coin and they are PERMANENT. Ronin are only useful for surprise value and for breaking stacking limits, as they are the only pieces you can have that let you go above a maximum of five per province. Still, in the long run, we all found Ronin to be kind of a worthless purchase compared to everything else.

The sixth segment is “Hire Ninja.” Only one ninja per round can be hired and if there is a tie, no one gets it. Again, this makes for a waste of cash and eventually, no one hires the ninja because people would rather get their money’s worth. Once hired the Ninja can act in one of two ways: assassin or spy. If using it as a spy, the Ninja’s controller gets to look at how an opponent has placed their Koku before they place their own. This tends to not be very useful for much of the game, so it’s a rarely used option. The Assassin option is more useful, but only by a little bit. Assassination rules are a bit backwards but I’ll provide them so you can see how weird they are. First, Then ninja’s controller rolls a die. If it is 1-8, the assassination occurs. If it is 9-12, it fails and the assassination target can try an attempt of their own. For the retaliation strike, a 1-8 is failure and a 9-12 is a success – so it is the inverse of the previous roll. This tends to be forgotten when a revenge attempt occurs. If a Daimyo is assassinated, its card based figure is turned on its side and the unit on the board can’t attack, defend or move for the rest of the round.. You would think assassination would be it for the Daimyo though, but it isn’t. As long as there is another piece on the Daimyo’s card, you simply remove one of those and reset the experience marker. Only when the Daimyo has no pieces left on its card (it can replenish one per round) does it permanently die. Now, because the ninja attack occurs BEFORE combat but after pieces are levied, it is all but impossible to actually TRULY assassinate with these rules. At best, this is an expensive way to slightly weaken the Daimyo. We all found that the Ninja, like the Ronin, was mostly useless and just prolonged the round more than it needed to.

Segment seven is “Wage War.” Yes, we are finally getting to combat. Unfortunately instead of combat being pretty straight forward, you have segments within this segment. First everyone gets a chance to move their Daimyos to an adjacent province that they control (number of provinces they can move is equal to its experience level). Second, battles are declared by turn order (see the first segment). Turn order is important because when a province is attacked, it can’t choose to attack that round themselves. So you could sacrifice a weak province force, lose a figure and call it a day to prevent the larger more powerful army from conquering something. This is about as strategic as the game gets. Battles occurs using the d12 provided in the game. Again, you need to roll the figure’s combat value or under to hit. After pieces have gone and casualties are removed, the attacker can call off the battle or keep going. If one side is completely wiped out, the player gives up the province card and it is now effectively up for grabs. Combat can be quite long, especially if all of you are of the mindset of “kill or be killed” and there isn’t any retreating.

Once the battles are done, players can move their figures around by turn order. You can move the Daimyos first and then provincial forces. Note that if you move a piece onto an empty province, you automatically get it. You have to leave at least one piece on a territory you control however. Again, turn order becomes very important here.

The eighth segment is simply removing the hired ronin from the board and the ninth segment involves handing out Koku so that you can start the next round. The Koku you earn here is 1/3rd of the provinces you control rounded down. After that, it’s repeat all of this until the game is done.

After extensively playing Ikusa I’m afraid I can’t recommend the game for the $80 price tag it comes with. The rules are cumbersome, it is extremely slow moving and a single playthrough will take several hours…and feel even longer. The game needs more pieces and the rules aren’t very friendly to the people playing it. You’ll end up wanting to make house rules just for the thing to move faster. Worst of all, the game is impossible to come back from once you are in a bad way. Once one or two players conquer a few provinces and end up making even one or two more Koku than the others a round, it’s pretty much game over unless everyone unites temporarily to take the current dominant player down. One of us said that she found the game so boring she lost interest half way in and only kept playing for the sake of the review. You do find yourself sitting for long stretches while everyone is sorting through pieces, deciding what they want to do and it can get dull, even for people like myself who enjoy strategy board games. It’s funny because Wizards of the Coast released a board game earlier this year which I’ve mentioned several times in this review already – Conquest of Nerath. It’s basically a faster paced and more interesting version of Ikusa set in a high fantasy setting. It addresses pretty much all the complaints people will find with this game and is cheaper to boot. In retrospect I wish we had all played this game first as it wouldn’t have seemed so lackluster by comparison.

The bottom line is that Ikusa is a neat idea, but it’s too slow moving for some, too unfriendly to the players for others, and too unwieldly for others. I have no doubt there is an audience for the game, as it’s been around for some time and original versions of the game go for a LOT, but it’s also easy to see why it has gone out of print several times and a few name changes to boot. It’s a neat concept and I can see why it has fans, but for the average person just looking for a tabletop game to play, this is a little too much to pay when there are cheaper and superior options out there. Sure this is the only one set in feudal Japan, but it’s also bogged down with some strange rules and not enough pieces. It’s an interesting game, with moments where it caught our fancy, but at the end of the day, none of us felt this was a game we’d want to play again, and that pretty much says it all.




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