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Desperate for more Shōgun after the stellar TV show’s finale? Board game Sekigahara is the perfect sequel

Even Blackthorne would give up his boat for this.

Image credit: Dicebreaker

Shōgun is one of the best television shows in years. Set during the very end of the 16th century, the small-screen adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 book follows British anjin - ship pilot - John Blackthorne as he lands in Japan and becomes involved with the machinations of Toranaga, a local daimyō who is contending with the threat from rival feudal lord Ishido and the Council of Regents formed by the late shōgun to reign while his son and heir comes of age.

Thousands of words could - and have, by those better placed than me - be spent on discussing what makes Shōgun an all-timer in the crowded landscape of prestige television. From its wry sense of humour arising from cultural clashes between the initially rebellious English interloper and his equally prickly Japanese companions - you must’ve seen the memes by now - to the deeply affecting drama and intrigue in its subtle exploration of religion, romance and tradition (which leads one character to offer the sacrifice of their entire family line - including themselves and their newborn baby - as way of apology for their impoliteness in one particularly affecting scene), Shōgun makes its relatively small timeframe and tight cast of characters feel as sweeping as something like Game of Thrones. (Which I’d argue it easily outclasses when it comes to delivering on the complicated relationships of its characters and the tense outcome of its conflicts - some shockingly bloody, others shrouded in the guise of etiquette.)

What makes the show even more captivating is that its narrative and complex themes are rooted in real-life Japanese history. Its gorgeous, cinematic depiction of the influence of European intrusion, the encroachment of Christianity and Japan’s own internal power struggles in the late 1500s is expanded through Clavell’s loosely fictionalised portrayal of key figures (Blackthorne is based upon actual sailor William Adams, Toranaga upon major leader Tokugawa Ieyasu) during one of the country’s most pivotal political and cultural upheavals.

Most impressively, Clavell’s novel - a whopping doorstopper at over 1,000 pages, and the first in the author’s six-book Asian Saga - manages to pull off such a compelling and epic story without being tempted to then delve into one of the era’s biggest and most important conflicts: the Battle of Sekigahara. While the book’s epilogue takes place after the 1600 clash between Tokugawa and Ishido’s real-life counterpart Ishida Mitsunari, the bulk of the novel only concerns itself with the lead-up to the conflict that would come to determine Japan’s political and cultural direction for the next 250-plus years.

The perfect way to follow up your watch of Shōgun is by playing through the history that followed.

As I write this, the Shōgun TV show is yet to air its finale - so nobody except its creators know exactly how its on-screen climax will compare to the events depicted in the book. That said, with just one episode remaining and confirmation that the series will only ever be one season long to keep it faithful to Clavell’s original story, it’s hard to imagine it deciding to suddenly veer off-course compared to the carefully measured source material and end with a Game of Thrones-style cacophony of CGI battlefields.

Still, given just how good Shōgun is, you might come to the end of the finale wishing there was more. While Clavell never felt the need to delve into the Battle of Sekigahara in his novels (the next chronological book in the series moves to 1840s Hong Kong), there are no shortage of books that explore the decisive events of October 21st 1600. For my money, though, the perfect way to follow up your watch of Shōgun is by playing through the history that followed.

Shōgun's Toranaga is a fictionalised version of the real-life 16th-century daimyō Tokugawa Ieyasu, who fought with Ishida Mitsunari (Ishido in the TV series) during the Battle of Sekigahara. | Image credit: FX

Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan is a 2011 board game designed by Matt Calkins that pits two players against each other - one as Ishida, the other as Tokugawa. The historical wargame depicts seven weeks during the campaign, concluding with the titular battle, as the two forces battled along the intersecting highways that formed the crossroads at the centre of the fight.

True to the uneasy alliances, betrayals and questions of loyalty seen throughout Shōgun, your troops’ commitment to your cause is a central concern in Sekigahara.

Each player has opposing objectives, for which Shōgun provides plenty of narrative background. Ishida is attempting to crush Tokugawa’s uprising by killing the commanding daimyō, while Tokugawa can claim victory by killing Ishida or capturing the child heir Toyotomi Hideyori to claim the position of shōgun.

True to the uneasy alliances, betrayals and questions of loyalty seen throughout Shōgun, your troops’ commitment to your cause is a central concern in Sekigahara. Players can use the cards in their hand to try and turn their rival’s troops against them, needing to manage their own units’ morale to avoid risking their fighting strength being undermined by a lack of belief. Deploying troops to battle also requires using the cards in your hand carefully, allowing for dramatic moments where smaller forces overcome staggering odds thanks to their tenacity and leadership.

Only each player can see which units their wooden blocks represent, adding an element of bluffing and deception to the board game. | Image credit: Sarah Jarvis

The intrigue and tension of Shōgun is imbued in the board game by its distinctive use of wooden blocks to present each player’s forces. The icons on the blocks can only be seen by their respective player, meaning that their rival must attempt to see through attempts to bluff and mislead before they rush into battle - something that the wily Toranaga in the TV show would no doubt excel at. A towering stack of blocks could be a ragtag group of weaker soldiers posturing as a mighty force, while a seemingly vulnerable single block or two could be hiding elite fighters ready to cut down unsuspecting attackers. Tokugawa and Ishida lurk among their troops too, resulting in a particularly deadly game of hide-and-seek as they each attempt to seek out and eliminate their rival without creating an opening to be defeated themselves.

While Sekigahara is epic in its scope, the gameplay that drives its sweeping simulation has been refined to a razor-sharp edge.

The twisting nature of battles in Sekigahara - where deceit and morale can be as crux to victory as the strength of your forces - makes for a thrilling showdown with far more subtlety and depth than slamming ranks of soldiers together. The importance of leadership and loyalty creates a game that feels deeply faithful to the real-life factors that influence the outcome of battles, and the skill of commanders beyond simply positioning their troops in the right place at the right time (though there’s certainly some of that too).

Best of all, those intimidated by the idea of a three-hour wargame have no reason to feel fear here. While Sekigahara is epic in its scope, the gameplay that drives its sweeping simulation has been refined to a razor-sharp edge. With players’ commands driven almost entirely by the cards in their hands - each drawn from a unique deck that neatly reflects the differing tactics of their respective leaders - the board game manages to distil its complex and enormous historical setting down to a beautifully elegant form. If you were able to follow the many winding threads of Shōgun, learning to play Sekigahara will be just as achievable - and rewarding.

The board game simulates seven weeks leading up to the conclusive battle, but the final outcome depends on the players. | Image credit: Dicebreaker

As for the historical background planted by Shōgun’s fictionalised account? Sekigahara is the ideal way to help that bloom if you’re interested in learning more about the real-life events and figures behind the characters. As light as the game’s rulebook is on dense mechanics, it’s generous with historical context and background - while it won’t be as comprehensive as a history book, there’s plenty here to set you on your way to appreciating how both Shōgun and the board game turn such sprawling history into gripping, accessible entertainment.

Shōgun and Sekigahara make for the perfect pair: considered, careful adaptations of real-life history, delivered with masterful artistry. Continuing the history seen in the TV series while also handing the opportunity to the players to weave in their own stories - just as Clavell introduced his own inventions to the original novel - Sekigahara should be the next stop for anyone desperate for more of the world and drama of Shōgun. What happens after Shōgun’s finale? You can decide that for yourself.

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