Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Jan 4, 2012 in Boardgames

Sekigahara – Boardgame Review

By Rick Martin

Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. Boardgame Review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Matt Calkins. $55 

Passed Inspection: Beautiful mounted map and high quality, real-wood blocks and markers. Succinct rules with great examples. Author’s proceeds benefit charity!

Failed Basic: Box could be a little deeper for storage. A few rule questions not answered in the book. Low solitaire playability.

In the year 1600, Japan was a country torn between two dueling factions. Decades before, Japan’s Sengoku Jidai (Fueding States Period) had ended with Oda Nobunaga becoming Shogun over all of Japan. He began unifying the feudal lords (Daimyos) who for centuries had battled each other for control of provinces. When Nobunaga was assassinated, his loyal general, the lowborn Toyotomi Hideyoshi, rose to the level of Taisho. Had he been a nobleman, he would also have become Shogun but that office was off limits to the common men.


When Hideyoshi died, the kingdom was left in the hands of his young son, but the power of the state was contested between two of Hideyoshi’s associates, Ishida Mitsunari (tea master and general) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (master tactician and "loyal" general of Hideyoshi). These two men would pit their armies in battle, supported (and in some cases betrayed) by other "loyal" daimyo and their armies, in a climactic battle which would decide who would control Japan until the young son of Hideyoshi was old enough to claim power. While skirmishes took place all over the main island of Japan, the climactic battle took place on Oct. 21st on the plains and hills of Sekigahara. When the dust cleared, Tokugawa was the victor and Ishida was hunted down and executed. Fifteen years later, Hideyoshi’s son would be executed by Tokugawa for “disloyalty” and Japan would know a peaceful period unlike it had ever known in the past. This peace would last under the Tokugawa Shogunate for 268 years until Tokugawa forces were again engaged in a civil war and lost to the Meiji army.

The game’s components.

Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan is a block-based, strategic-level war game. Each turn represents one week of the seven-week conflict. Each unit represents roughly 5,000 foot soldiers, cavalry or arquebuse (musket) troops. Additional units represent leaders and their staff. The units are not represented on traditional counters but on black or gold wooden blocks marked with the crest (mons) of the daimyo’s army. Blocks are also provided for markers and representations of noted individuals such as Sanada Masayuki.

The blocks have their markings on only one side. With the Tokugawa player on one side of the map and the Ishida player on the other, each player can only see the composition of his own units until a battle takes place. This is a wonderful way of representing the all important “fog of war” and greatly adds to the tension in the game.

The rules are a succinct 12 pages with an additional six pages being given to a well researched background on the conflict and some very insightful designer’s notes.

The game itself uses no dice! The battles are decided by randomly drawn cards which are used to bring a particular unit into battle. The number of mons on a given unit correspond to its relative strength in battle, with cavalry and gunners providing bonuses to attack. Every seven points of strength in battle cause one casualty to the opposing player’s forces. The all-important loyalty of the troops can be influenced by “loyalty challenge” cards which, if luck and tactics pay off, turn an enemy unit in to a friendly unit for the battle. This saved me in a recent game when one of my armies was attacked by a superior force. I played two loyalty challenge cards and my opponent couldn’t challenge these cards. Suddenly an upcoming defeat became a victory in that battle as two large groups of warriors changed to my side.

The map of Honshu, the main island of Japan, is beautiful. This sturdy mounted map should last for years. Since the main island of Japan is mostly hills and mountains, the terrain that has the greatest effect on movement are major and minor roads. Leaders and the ability to force march your units also can extend the movement range of your armies.

Major castles are marked on the map and can be used in a defensive manner to save some units from immediate destruction. Rules are provided to cover siege warfare and, although highly abstracted, work very well to capture the feel of Japanese sieges as seen in movies such as Ran and Kagemusha. The capturing of supply points also factor into the game – providing victory points for strategic victories.

The game comes with wooden blocks, cubes and disks as well as two very nice bags to use for the blind drawing of blocks as re-enforcements and very helpful reference cards.

The rules even cover the Japanese philosophy of “victory in defeat.” A defeated force can actually gain more loyalty and a greater control over troops as they see how committed a given faction is to give its warriors’ lives in the name of the cause of uniting Japan.

I had only a few minor concerns with the game, namely that the box could have been a little deeper to accommodate the components. A few questions I had which have not been addressed in the fan forums are: can one loyalty card be used to cancel another player’s loyalty card? Do the Ishida or Tokugawa command blocks give a command bonus to subservient units as daimyo-specific command blocks do? If the attacker destroys one of his own units which has turned to the other side through a loyalty challenge, which side gets the card draw from the casualty?

The game is ill suited for solitaire play but shines as a two-player game. A full game can be played in two to three hours, and each game is so different from the last that replay is very high. A great value for the price.

All author’s proceeds from this game are being donated to the Japanese tsunami and earthquake relief fund! A wonderful philanthropic gift on the part of Matt Calkins of which I greatly applaud.

In summation, Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan is an amazing accomplishment and a very addictive game with high replay value. It is an instant classic!

Armchair General Rating: 95 %

Solitaire Rating (1 – 5): 1 (Poor choice for Solitaire Play)

About the Author

A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!



  1. I’m glad there are still companies like GMT putting out wargames like this one. It seems that if Avalon Hill could have held on just a little longer as an independent company they would weathered the storm of computer gaming. Today, most computer gaming is aimed at the FPS genre of buyers looking for twitch-based, high-end graphics experiences, but without the problem-solving challenges or historical themes of traditional wargames. Board-based wargaming fills that niche well, and also has a social aspect lacking in computer gaming.

  2. Great points Mr. Mark. I agree completely.

  3. Oda Nobunaga never became shogun.

  4. Technically you are right RJ but I didn’t really want the article to get into the exact nature of his position which was, in fact, Shogun in all but name based upon his conquest of much of Japan at that time. The focus was a review of the game and not an exploration of the nuances of Japanese history. Thank you for pointing that out though.


  1. Holiday Shopping Guide 2012 » Armchair General - [...] Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan (GMT Games) Beautiful mounted map and high quality, real-wood blocks and markers. Succinct rules…