A Sengoku Monster Hunter Review

Finally I have gotten my hands on Sengoku, and it is pretty cool! Since it is what is on my mind these days I figured hey, why not do sort-of-review-but-also-sort-of-a-ramble about it. It is a 15mm miniatures game about monks, wandering samurai and their retainers fighting off small incursions of yokai, varying in size from the benign to the downright monstrous. The game is for 1 or more players, who are cooperating against the game, though you can assign someone to roll for and control the monsters should they want to.

It is of skirmish level, and each player controls at most 6 miniatures, with 5 of them being followers and retainers. The interesting one though is the Hunter, who are the protagonists. They gain experience, skills, injuries and equipment. While the hired retainers come pre-equipped and with poor life insurance. Much like the henchmen in Frostgrave.

Conflicts are resolved through dice rolls, where you are trying to reach a threshhold of successes. Each die have a 50/50 chance of being a success, but each success brings a reroll to the table. So this is a sort of variety of the exploding 6's seen many other places, and it works quite well as every roll off is tense and every time you see a monster getting a success you get that sinking feeling of "oh shit, there is more to come". It also leads to an interesting curve in chances with higher dice numbers, since some with combat 3 isnt just a little bit better than someone with combat 2, but rather have an extra dice in the pool that can generate additional hits. And monsters with high combat can really bring the pain if you let them. But you of course have ways to circumvent that as the player as well, your character can perform a certain number of actions per turn, which can be raised. Since you have the ability to spend actions during monster turns as well, you can use these to parry or evade attacks, or even provide swift counter-attacks before more enemies can close in.

Where things then get really interesting is in the way that encounters and their monster tokens come into play. You see, during setup you blind pick and spread out a number of monster tokens on the board. More players or higher difficulty = more tokens on the board. And as you approach them or move about, the markers react and get revealed, resulting in enemy patrols, extra loot and events.

The game's 6 included scenarios have their own special markers (and of course additional rules). And this is such a sneaky and ingenious way to design your own scenarios too. Creating your own pool to draft markers from for a mission can give a lot of variety or theme. Lets say we want a mission centered around some villagers being kidnapped by Oni, you would add some Oni markers, maybe even the possibility of a shaman. Maybe a Darkness marker or two, some traps and enslaved villagers to rescue and finally a few of the general markers. And that's an instant scenario.

But of course writing your own can add a lot of flavor to an encounter too. As I found out with the Lair of the Spider Demon scenario I played. While consisting of a pool of 12 Markers, where you blind draw according to players and difficulty, things would pan out differently each time. And even should you begin to get to know the pool as I did through my few attempts, it just becomes a part of the planning as you begin to take precautions against the kind of things you could and probably will run into (Venom Vapour and Mind Web I am looking at you two.) It gives things a feeling of procedural generation in the same vein as roguelikes does it. You know that a specific zone likely contains these enemies and this kind of trap, but never exactly where or when they'll show up.

To go back to the mention of an "evil" player, you could have ths person serve as a sort of GM as well, being the one to actually build the pools from which the encounters have their markers picked.

And on top of that the very elegantly designed markers also serve two additional functions, beyond scenario construction and fog of war. First of all as tokens to keep track of conditions, lets say I stumble into a marker and reveal it to be the evil Mind Web, rather than removing this component, I simply place the marker near the affected character to denote his affliction until it is resolved. And markers are also straight up experience tokens, when you resolve an event on a marker you place it on your character sheet, same goes for picking up an item revealed from a marker, or a monster killed. Then you simply tally your markers at the end of the mission. My inner game designer is sending Steven Danes, who wrote the rules, an acknowledging nod at this point.

So does the goodness end here? It does not! Another major thing that really made an impression on me is also their post-game. For skirmish games with campaign components, this one contains all the regular bells and whistles; you can learn skills, buy equipment, hire new followers, roll on a recovery table, and can sustain permanent injuries. However one thing I find really cool and something I haven't seen that often is the need to pay dues and maintenance on things. Often in games like this all your earned credits, gold coins, loot or whatever is just for you to spend in a candy store of upgrades and things. But having to donate some of your earnings to the local temple or guild, as thanks for your free training as well as repairing ruined equipment makes things feel more down to earth in a sense. Likewise there are also quite a few other "home upgrades" you can perform, like hiring cartographers and spiritual council. And should you be aligned with a guild or the eagle knights you will climb through ranks as you get more experienced and earn new titles and benefits of your standing, such as the badge of authority, medals of bravery and an entourage of the guilds finest should you reach the rank of grand master.

And finally something really cool as well, their expedition framework. You see the source of the yokai are the mountain, from which they flood down through the hills and into the lowlands. Each of these three zones add difficulty modifiers and of course increased rewards. But to reach the mountain you must first travel through the other areas. A process that consists of playing connected missions increasing in difficulty. The best part about this is the notion that you are away from your clans stronghold, so you cannot make repairs, hire new followers or such while on the expedition, and instead you must buy supplies in bulk, on top of the additional cost for food according to the number of days spent on the trail, and then head of. It makes expeditions into the furthest reaches something to save up for, and a tense process as well since you not only need to survive the initial skirmishes when approaching the mountain, but will also have to make the trip home.

If I had to make just a minor nit pick, which I probably should in order to avoid accusations of favoritism, the terms Demon and Devil are used a few times here and there which took me a moment to grasp. There are centipede demons, centipede devils, snake demons, snake devils and spider demons too. I sort of guessed from descriptions that devils are meant to be these half-humans mockeries where as the demons are these overgrown and grotesque version of the animals, but it is terminology that is easy to get lost in as it is often used interchangeably elsewhere. Especially when their half-snake half-human sculpt on their site is called Female Demon Snake. I can see why they would want to increase accessibility by giving things more common names, so instead of having yari, shuriken and katanas, you have spears, throwing knifes and swords. This goes doubly for some of the monsters as well. With some having titles like Demon Monk, Giant Snake and Goblin. What I'd prefer seeing is a how they have presented the Kasa Obaka, since they have given it both a japanese name followed by a laymans name: Umbrella Ghost.

Also I would've liked to see more of their miniature line in the games rules. Things like the Nue, Soba Shop Peddler, Tsurube Otoshi and their Rokurokubi (who I otherwise plan on using as a snake devil). And the Nurikabe who are a love of mine only see use as tokens that have certain in game effects, rather than fully fleshed monsters. But I expect all of these monsters and likely more to be added at a later point if the game proves popular. I have at least done what I can, and am now awaiting my bulk purchase of little warriors...