Dale Yu: Essen Preview #10– Preview of Shitenno (Ludonaute)

Time for yet another Essen Preview – and like the previous post – this one will focus on a particular game, Shitenno from Ludonaute.  (Previous preview posts can be found here) Now, plenty of folks have had a quick snicker when reading the title of the game, but it is a real Japanese word combining “shi” (four) and “tenno” (heavenly general/emperor).  As you can guess, the game is set is feudal Japan, and the players in the game take on the roles of these four great generals and try to take control of Japanese provinces.

Designer: Cedric Lefebvre
Publisher: Ludonaute
Players: 2-4
Length: ~60 min
Ages: 12+
Times Played: 3 with final prototype

Shitenno is the name of the upcoming Essen release from Ludonaute, a fairly new French publishing house (previously known for Yggdrasil and Offrandes).  I was immediately drawn to the game as I’m very interested in the feudal era in Japanese history, and the central mechanic of the game is one that I have very much liked in the past.  The mechanic is one of card splitting, where a player has a bunch of cards, has to split them into groups and then offer the groups to the other players to choose which ones they want.   Prior to Shitenno, I think the best use of this mechanic (previously) was in San Marco (by Moon/Weissblum) – but I find that Shitenno streamlines that game into a more cohesive package.

As the story goes, each of the players is one of the four great generals of the legendary Shogun Togukawa Ieyasu (who unified Japan at the end of the 16th century).  Each of the players will use cards to somehow control the eight different provinces of Japan found on the board.   Each province has a certain type of troop that it is partial to, and these are printed on the board.  Additionally, there is a stack of bonus tiles found on each province which have a random type of troop printed on them.  Each of these provinces can be controlled up to four times over the course of the game.

There are three different sorts of cards in the game: Koku cards (which provide anywhere from 1 to 3 money) and Troop cards which have one or two troops on them.  There are four different types of troops which can be found on these Troop cards.  The third type of card are the role cards – each player will have one role card each round and this card determines player order and each gives a different special ability.  From highest to lowest:

  • Daimyo – +2 VP each time you control a province this turn
  • Shomyo – +1 VP each time you control a province this turn
  • Sensei – you may flip over one of your control markers to the double side
  • Hashimoto – you get one virtual “wild” troop card to use this turn

Each round of the game is split into two phases.  In the first phase, cards are distributed amongst the generals.  A pool is created consisting of two troop cards per player in the game and one koku card per player – so in a 3-player game, 6 troop cards and 3 koku cards.  They are placed face-up so that all players can see them.  Then, the player with the current highest rank creates a subset of these cards – which can include as many of the common pool as the splitter wants.  The player splitting the cards also adds one of the role cards to this subset.

A Bushi card - one of the troop cards

Once the set is created, the highest player then offers this set to the next highest in order who can either accept it or pass.  If the second player accepts it, he takes the cards and adds them to his hand, and is out for the rest of this phase.  The highest ranked player (initially the Daimyo) than makes another set and offers it to the next highest player (initially the Shomyo).  If the second player passes, the set is then offered to the next person in order.  If all other players pass on the set, the highest ranked player takes the cards himself.  When this happens, the player who is the highest ranked still in play gets to make the next set of cards.   So, by the end of this phase, all of the cards will be distributed amongst the players, and each player will have a new role card.

In the second phase, each player has the option to play cards to take control of the different provinces.  As mentioned earlier, each province can be controlled up to four times – with each successive control yielding more victory points.  Players take their turn in order based on the role cards, with the Daimyo going first.  When trying to control a province, there are two options available.  First, you can try to bribe your way in… You can spend koku cards equal in value to the VP of the next available space.  If you do so, you place your marker on that spot and mark your victory points on the track.  You could also try to use your troop cards to take over a province.  To do this, you have to play cards which have troops that match the symbols on the board (and topmost bonus tile) for that province.  If you can do this, you mark the first available slot with your marker and take VP equal to the number you just covered up.   Regardless of which method you used to control the province, you take the topmost bonus tile and place it in front of you.  Each tile has a special ability on it which can be used at any point on your turn (this turn or future turns).

  • Switch – change any one troop or koku into any other troop type or koku
  • Draw a card – draw a troop card from the top of the deck
  • +1 – gives you an extra troop or koku from a card that you have played

During this phase, you may place up to two of your control markers, though you are not obligated to play any cards at all if you choose to wait.  Each player, in turn order, gets the chance to take control of  up to two provinces, and it is possible to control the same province immediately again.  When all are done, there is a check for the game end: if any player has used up all of his control markers (12 in 2p, 10 in 3p, 8 in 4p) OR if there are no koku cards left in the koku draw pile, the game moves into final scoring.  Otherwise, the game goes back into the card distribution phase and the current daimyo gets to start splitting up the cards again…

Background art from one of the Provinces

At the end of the game, there is some small bonus scoring.  First, you score 1vp per Koku in your hand.  Then, each province is evaluated, and whichever player has more control markers in each province gains a 6VP bonus.  It is in this bonus scoring where the Sensei’s special ability comes into play – as each of the control markers which have been flipped over to their yellow side have a value of two!  If there is a tie in number of control markers, whichever player placed a marker earliest wins the 6VP bonus.  Whichever player has the most points after bonus scores are added wins the game!

Dale’s impression:

So overall, I have very much enjoyed Shitenno.  I feel that it has taken a great mechanic (the card splitting) from San Marco and other games and streamlined it a bit which, for me, makes a more cohesive game.  I like the fact that I pretty much concentrate on the cards and which combinations I need to capture provinces.  I don’t have to worry about penalty points or getting a Doge card to trigger scoring.  I like the fact that Shitenno allows you to concentrate on just one thing – the cards.

The role cards each have their own benefit, the value of which changes based on what you have in your hand and where you are on the board.  The Daimyo (+2 per control marker placed) is obviously worth more when you have a lot of cards in your hand and have the possibility to take two provinces on your turn.  You also get to start splitting cards in the next round.  I find that I like the Shomyo the best because you still get a VP bonus when you control provinces, but you are also in the best spot (IMHO) for cards in the next round as you get the first right of refusal next round.  The Sensei helps you plan for the endgame bonus and the Hashimoto gives you a lot of flexibility on your turn with the free wild troop.

I have played Shitenno now five times, in all possible configurations (2p, 3p, 4p).  The game definitely plays differently with each number, and I think that this is a good thing.  The main difference is in how the role cards come out.  In a 4p game, each role will be played each turn.  This results in a lot more bonus points scored as well as a lot more double valued control markers which definitely changes the dynamic behind which provinces you decide to make a move for.  In games with fewer than 4p, some roles are left unplayed each turn, and in fact, I find that there is some interesting strategy in trying to control which role(s) remain out of the game.  There is also some cool interplay not knowing for sure who will split the cards next turn (because if the Daimyo isn’t guaranteed to be placed in a group).

The game moves along fairly quickly with the majority of the “thinking” time spent in the splitting of cards and decision making over whether or not to accept an offered group of cards.  Once we were comfortable with the rules, a 2p game clocked in at under 30 minutes and a 4p game is just over an hour.  That game length is right in my sweetspot, and certainly contributes to my overall enjoyment of the game.  I think that it will do well at Essen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if distribution deals for other countries are established at SPIEL.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Nate Beeler: The rest of the game apart from the splitting mechanism isn’t terribly interesting or difficult; if you can claim something, you do.  Sometimes you may have an option of what to claim, but usually that’s straightforward, too.  So the whole impetus for wanting to play this game rests solely on the back of the splitting mechanism.  And how does that hold up?  As Valerie points out, it grinds the game to a complete stop.  Without exception we could have played another game in the downtime while waiting for the splitter to split the twelve cards and four roles (in a four player game).  As with others of the family, San Marco and …Aber Bitte mit Sahe, playing as the splitter is the most difficult part of the game, so we couldn’t really insist on playing faster.  With those other games, the splitter role also provides a chance to control things a bit.  You know your opponents’ positions completely and can judge how your different packets will be accepted.  Because hands are hidden in Shitenno it’s really hard to judge what others will want, and therefore really hard to make feasible packets out of the large volume of cards.  Further, you have to take into account how the board position will change by the time your role gets a chance to go, which takes even more calculation.  That’s even more downtime.  In the end, I’d much rather play those other games than this, despite the fact that I’d say I’m naturally inclined toward this underused mechanism.

Jonathan Franklin: I don’t love the splitting mechanism, which is at the core of this game.  I find it more stressful than fun.  Having only played Shitenno with four, that means splitting, likely splitting again, and finally splitting into two piles, for the final other player to pick which of the two they want.  I admire the design of the splitting in Shitenno because you are creating sets of cards to either entice other players or to try to slip through to you, but splitting three times per turn is paralyzing and therefore time-consuming for the splitter.  The problem is that you have lots of information and can think too much.  I think those who can play this game as a medium weight game will have a wonderful time with it.  Those who have AP or worry about missplitting and thereby having others claim you handed the game to third player might find it more stressful than fun.  This is not a knock on Shitenno so much as a comment on the mechanism it chose to incorporate.

Lucas Hedgren: So, Shitenno feels so much like San Marco to me. Except, we are set-collecting instead of moving bits around to score majorities. Early on, grabbing as many symbols as possible seems like the way to go, rather than trying to make sets. Later sets are worth more anyway, and there is no hand limit, so no worry about losing your cards. Grab spots when the bonus helps, or when you get bonus points from your role. Don’t when you don’t. Splitting is fun, trying to make sure you get at least something that works for you, and trying to entice your opponents into taking the pile you don’t want. But, overall, I found the game outside of the splitting to be straightforward, so your opinion will rest on your feelings about splitting.

One interesting thing I sort of realized in my second game with the money: They are always worth the number of points on the card. If you keep them to the end, they are worth face value. If you play them during the game, you spend, say, 6 of them to claim a spot worth 6 points. You can possibly get bonuses for your role, and you can increase your chances at a majority, but for the most part, straightforward 1:1 ratio. But, with each spot you claim on the board, you get a bonus. So, spending money early is better, on the lower valued spots, as you get more bonuses for your money. I used this to my advantage in my second game to win by a fair amount. I don’t think this is a flaw, just something I didn’t realize initially.

Valerie Putman:  I really want to like the “I split/you choose” mechanism in a game but usually I find that either:  the splits are really obvious (easily divided “evenly”) and the mechanism loses its importance or the choice is interesting and the game grinds to a halt as the person doing the splitting considers all of the permutations.  The latter is painful because there is really nothing for the other players to do but sit and wait–they generally can’t plan their next turn because it entirely depends on what they end up with in the split.  Shitenno did a fairly good job of walking the line between these two ends of the spectrum, but it does lean towards the more interesting, but more prone to analysis paralysis, end of the scale.  The game built around the mechanism is fun but nothing particularly innovative.  I would be very happy to play the game a few more times and I’ll have to see if it ends up being a keeper long term.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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4 Responses to Dale Yu: Essen Preview #10– Preview of Shitenno (Ludonaute)

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    I really like the pie-splitting mechanism–for obvious reasons–and I can completely agree that designing a game with this mechanism that does not produce unbearable amounts of downtime is the main challenge. It’s probably the reason we haven’t seen it used more often.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    That’s why my favorite pie-splitting game is San Marco with FOUR players, not three (unlike the rest of the gaming world). When you’re just splitting for two, you can do an intelligent split that takes your needs and that of your opponent into account without it taking forever. San Marco with 4 is a punchy, fast-moving game (at least it is for us). Dale’s description of Shitenno has me interested, but the opinions of the others has me a bit leary. I guess that’s the problem with a democracy!

  3. Jonathan Franklin says:

    Larry and others,

    You owe it to yourself to try Shitenno and come up with your own opinion. If I were not cursed with a desire to remember what everyone has and how to make the perfect splits to get what I want, the game would have been 33% faster. My issue with the game is really an issue with me not being able to let go and just let the game flow. There are enough levels of depth to consider with the split that I did not feel comfortable winging it. Your mileage will almost certainly vary from mine.

    – Jonathan

  4. Blake Morris says:

    I think Jonathan has put his finger on the spot. I have no memory skills, so my inclination is to make the lots as close to equal (and as little dangerous) as possible. I have only played this once, but as soon as everyone understood the selection mechanism, the game rolled very quickly and felt surprisingly short. Since I have always thought San Marco to be too chaotic, Shitenno is much more my speed.

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