Once upon a time I thought that I would like to know more about Sengoku Jidai, a period of Japanese history where firearms were appearing, but not yet entirely pushing aside the more traditional arms. Long ago GMT released a game called Ran, and it looked promising, being part of the Great Battles of History series. Then, one day I saw a copy in a discard pile and picked it up. I never tried any of the titles, and were not really terribly interested on them before I ran into Ran.
Ran has number of scenarios and every one of them has a separate map and counters of it’s own. A nice point from the historical perspective, and the counters are quite nice looking, and packed with information. Maps are quite nominal war-game standard, clear and purposeful and in a way pretty – but nothing really fancy. Functionality wins the beauty contest there. Then box contains a rulebook, scenario book and player aids – quite few of them because again every scenario has it’s own. Overall, the contents are quite nice for the kind of game Ran represents, and mostly functional. There is however a tad too many markers that are in constant use, and considering the smaller hex side, some places are bound to be cramped. Really cramped. Really, really cramped.
When I opened the rulebook first time, after reading the scenario book and getting genuinely interested in the game I realized something rather awkward – the rulebook appeared to somehow assume that reader had some understanding of the GBoH line of games, and perhaps even some previous experience. I would not perhaps vote the rules to be one of the worst ever written (because I have also played Mansions of Madness), but they are quite close contender.
What in a earth did Mr. Berg think when the rules of Ran were written? Perhaps he wasn’t, not in a way that he would expect anyone without previous history of GBoH to get into the series at this late, or alternatively, after writing so many variations of essentially same system he just assumed that the concepts are as clear to the audience as they are to him.
Second thing that occurred was to start thinking that perhaps it would have been altogether easier for author just a write one se to basic rules, and then write expansion to them for each subsequent game in the series, but I just might understand the reasoning why it was not done that way. Anyway, without any experience on the system(s), rules of Ran may be interesting read.
Flow of things
Ran has various period units, each with some special abilities and combat chart where it is indicated which unit is good against which. Shooting units are eiher bow, or musket armed and regular infantry has either pole arm or they are samurai infantry. Cavalry has either bow or they are heavy cavalry, but quite different of that in Europe. Armies are formed by contingents of clans, and each clan has a bit of everything. Because command system is clan based, fights form between little army clusters that contain various unit types instead of well defined concentration of ranged and line infantry that is perhaps somewhat typical in Europe. It is a nice feature, because the clans bring their own little challenges into play.
I have to admit that Ran does have interesting concepts, once you can dig through them. Contingent activation is quite straight forward affair, but then player has an option to attempt trump and perform action instead of the opponent. Trumping is good idea for what it is intended to represent, but again the execution is a little bit on the messy side and fact is that while option is present, it is not used as often as it could be.
At the end, it seems a bit heavy for needing to activate contingents in somewhat elaborate way, and obey command structure to do so only to realize that there are N cases under which the contingents are active anyway. Exceptions and conditions for certain simple things are at times overwhelming.
Because Ran is a tactical game, unit facings are important, and individual unit movement can be very tricky especially if lot’s of markers are at play. Instead of somewhat coarse grain system of damage, each unit has steps that can be lost, and once sufficient losses are amounted, unit is flipped and becomes disrupted. Then the loss count continues. It means that during battle considerable time is used to lift counters up, change markers, and then placed in same spot and same orientation again. Because hexes are very small, it can be tedious at best.
Winning and losing is dependent on the losses amounted, and once sufficient losses are caused, enemy contingent routs. Once sufficient amount of contingents have left the field, and/or other losses amounted the entire army routs. This is quite typical approach, however in Ran it means that once you already know you are loosing really badly, it is still a long distance call from actually amounting sufficient losses to lose.
A nice touch is the division of fight between the conflict between the armies, and the personal form of warfare. A little abstract in execution, and perhaps a tad too much dice rolling, the idea of Samurai combat is rather unique. It may not be always a game changer, but sometimes individual duels between samurai and busho does make that little bit of difference in the whole army level.
So, where does Ran stand in the game collection? Ideas are fine, scenarios are mostly interesting, albeit some are hopelessly one-sided but the game design lacks simple eloquence. I can understand some of the design choices – probably a carry over from other systems in the series, but then again, streamlined system would have been much better.
Good ideas that Ran have are perhaps not sufficient to make the whole game good. It is probably ok, and would certainly benefit from larger hexes. Rules are quite terrible, and perhaps living rules would resolve some of the issues.
So, Ran will probably sit on the shelf waiting for the time that I get into mood of continuing the journey through Sengoku Jidai.
I have to admit one thing though. Ran has demonstrated the agony of seppuku in a most desirable way. Once you know for certain that no faith in earth will change your fortune of war, you will still have long way to the blissful demise. I doubt that was the designer intention though.