Sengoku preview: heirs and graces

Tim Stone at

sengoku01

My proudest gaming achievement of August 2nd, 2011? Up until an hour ago I'd have said it was turning a barren Caribbean island into one of the world's biggest llama wool exporters (See the next British issue of PCG for my Tropico 4 review). Now I'd have to say it was inseminating my niece in Sengoku.

Don't worry. The act wasn't nearly as sordid as it sounds. The niece in question was eighteen at the time, and my wife. My pride largely stemmed from the fact that I was heirless and getting-on-a-bit (63) and I'd been unsuccessfully trying to get her sister (another one of my wives/nieces) knocked-up for the previous ten years.

Okay, perhaps the act was as sordid as it sounds.

To understand how I came to be my son's great-uncle, you really need to read the following account of my first brush with Paradox's latest grand-strategy behemoth.
 
Though the turnless Sengoku comes emblazoned with that scary Paradox logo, and is dotted with many unfamiliar Japanese words, it's actually surprisingly easy to get to grips with. Guided by pithy tool-tips and instinct, I was initiating plots and organising public works within minutes of starting my first campaign.

The target of those early schemes were my northern neighbours, the purple-bannered Kikuchi. Playing as the leader of my Shogun 2 favourites, the Shimazu, I figured I'd start by attempting to undermine the prospective enemy with the help of some other local clans. This proved easier said than done.

Initiating a plot is as simple as clicking a button, but maximising its chances of success means finding willing co-conspirators. The Otomo clan seemed like natural partners, so I set about winning them over with financial gifts, marriage offers, and goodwill visits. While the brown envelopes and brides did strengthen the bond between us, a visit by my newly appointed Master of Ceremonies seemed to erode it. Odd. After several years of careful buttering-up, the Otomo were friendlier than they'd ever been, but frustratingly they still weren't prepared to do the dirty on the Kikuchi.

I decided to change tack and start directing my beneficence towards the ruler of a nearby Kikuchi province. Sengoku models the full feudal hierarchy meaning it's possible to nibble away at a neighbouring clan by persuading vassal lords to defect. Once again sweeteners were dispatched, unwed family members dangled, but the improving relationship between us never seemed to reach the point where my target was ready to jump ship.

It was around this point that my first avatar popped his clogs/sandals, and I realised I should have taken much more care with my early matchmaking. In my eagerness to forge links with the Otomo clan, I'd married my sole son and heir to the two-year-old daughter of their leader (a leader who happened to be married to my daughter). Due to my lack of fore-thought, the Shimazu were now led by a middle-aged man with no kids and a toddler-niece for a wife.

Hadn't one of those tooltips mentioned something about losing the game if you died without a male heir in place? It had. I was heading for ignominious defeat unless my new avatar could somehow produce a boy-child in the next 20-ish years. My head swirled with questions, some of which were rather unsavoury. When would my infant wife be ready for reproductive duties? When would I be incapable of them? Could I take a mistress? Could I adopt?

The situation seemed desperate until I noticed that other clan leaders had multiple spouses. Me and my naive 21st Century Protestant assumptions! All I needed to do was find a more mature missus, and pray for the patter of tiny feet. As the leader of one of the most powerful clans in Medieval Japan, surely the ladies would be queuing up to share my futon.

It was only when I started scouring other courts for suitable second wives, that I realised that I'd missed the matrimonial train. While I'd been busy befriending the Otomo, my peers had plainly been busy hoovering up every eligible female in Japan. Everyone but me had at least four baby-makers at their disposal. I couldn't find a single potential partner that wasn't a) decrepit or b) a babe-in-arms.
      
Depressed, I decided to vent my frustration in a time-honoured male way. I went to war.

Military matters in Sengoku are unspectacular but refreshingly simple. After declaring war using honour points (a form of diplomatic currency) you 'raise' the troops that are automatically generated by region improvements, and direct them towards enemy provinces.  My assault on the Kikuchi began promisingly with the capture of Kuma province. Soon however, I was struggling to hold my own as purple-bannered armies counter-attacked in force. Realising things were spinning out of control and hurriedly recruiting Ronin (supplementary mercenaries) probably wasn't going to help, I issued a truce request. Thankfully, the request was accepted.

With Shimazu dominion extended, but her warrior-class depleted, I decided it was time to return to  power-politiking and home improvements. For the next few years I used my three minsters to upgrade castles and villages, sow dissent in Kikuchi provinces, and foster relationships with potential allies. Just as before, the alliance-building seemed to go well-ish, but no-one ever seemed willing to join me in a spot of intrigue.

By the time my wife's generic girl silhouette finally changed to a portrait of a young woman, I was 57. Time was fast running out. During the years that followed, I watched the message interface like a hawk. Announcements of castle upgrades and courtier deaths came and went, but the news I was dying to hear never arrived. Was it me? Was it her? My head swum with corrosive questions.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. With Japan still in the grip of a nationwide lady shortage, I finally agreed to marry the only eligible maiden of child-bearing age around - the other daughter of my Otomo-leading brother-in-law. I was now married to both my teenage nieces. I  was, officially, a degenerate.

I also decided that if I was going to die sad and childless, I might as well die sad, childless and steeped in glory. My troops were levied, and sent north towards Kikuchi territory. This second conflict played out similarly to the first. After an initial gain, things start looking dicey and I sued, successfully, for peace. It wasn't the decisive campaign I was hoping for, but it ended with a bit less purple on the map so there was reason to celebrate.

It was looking like I was doomed go down in history as the man who (almost) eliminated the Kikuchi but couldn't produce an heir, when something amazing happened. 

At the venerable age of 63 (a fairly miraculous innings by Medieval standards) one of my weary samurai-sperm somehow managed to meld with one of my second wife's youthful eggs. I became a daddy at long last. If this wasn't reason enough to clang the temple bells, my first-born was blessed with a penis meaning the noble Shimazu clan continued for at least another generation.

I might have been an incestuous cradle-snatcher with a patchy military track record and no allies, but I saved and quit feeling faintly elated. Sengoku is plainly a very strange game. If you're growing a little weary of the Total War formula but find most Paradox games too dense and intimidating, this is definitely one to keep an eye on.