Today in Goonhammer Historicals we look at gaming in Feudal Japan, a time of warring clans and factions with an iconic aesthetic.
For hundreds of years Japan had been ruled by the Shogun, a military lord who controlled all the authority while the emperor sat as a puppet on the throne; this great lord had a number of lords below him known as the Daimyo.
This system seemed stable until in 1464 trouble began to brew. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was without an heir and asked his brother who had become a monk to leave that path and follow on from him, then unexpectedly Yoshimasa had a son.
Two factions began to form around which would take the shogunate. The Shogun himself retreated to his Palace and the conflict spilled over into combat as two of the clans began to raise armies and form alliances with other clans until the whole country was split in half, with an Eastern and an Western army ready for war.
The Onin War – 1467 to 1477
This war saw a scale of war unheard of in Japan prior to this date, the two forces clashed and even those areas not directly involved in the fighting saw sanctioned raiding and private wars as all control and power evaporated away.
Over ten years the two sides fought in many battles, allegiances shifted, revolts occurred and neither side really advanced their objectives.
This initial War provides a great backdrop and number of opportunities for gaming, with large forces and a great amount of interesting battles and points that you can recreate; this war took place before the introduction of guns into Japan which came in the early 1500s so allows you to focus on the traditional styles of warfare.
The Sengoku Jidai / Warring States Period – 1467 to 1615
Following on from the Onin war the country descended further into chaos. Without the unifying rulership that the Shogun had maintained the individual Daimyo lords began to fight amongst themselves and to split up the country into a patchwork of feudal holdings.
The Daimyo fortified their homes and castles and began to politic and fight amongst each other for power and control of these provinces, uniting, splintering and conquering each other for a hundred years. During this time a great number of military advancements came, guns were introduced, long spears that served similar roles to western pikes took hold and the tactics of war began to shift.
Then in around 1550 things began to change and a number of Daimyo came to prominence, men such as Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Through clever allegiances and tactics the forces of the Oda clan formed alliances and pushed the boundaries of their control towards the capital, seeking to retake it and begin to reunify Japan. Nobunaga and then Tokugawa Ieyasu’s reunification of Japan is full of some fascinating battles, politicking and legendary actions and backstabbing. This push began the great series of conflicts that would end out the period but it would take more than 50 years and cost Nobunaga his life.
This whole period is full of wonderful opportunities with dozens of prominent names and their armies that you can focus on, with great battles and legendary tacticians winning against the odds.
The Battle of Sekigahara – 1600
After Nobunaga’s death Hideyoshi managed to unite Japan. He began to rule the country again, the first actual ruler in over 100 years, but Tokugawa had proved too powerful a rival and so to get peace a number of agreements had been made, including that Tokugawa’s forces would not be required to take part in an invasion of Korea that ended quite badly. These agreements left Tokugawa in a strong position.
Hideyoshi died shortly after, and once more the peace began to fracture. This all led to a dramatic final major battle; the Battle of Sekigahara had over 170,000 soldiers, involved a lot of tactical maneuvering and eventually ended in a victory which leaned on a dramatic betrayal.
This battle in particular has a number of board and chit based games, although the scale of it makes playing any part of it with anything but the smallest of small scale miniatures rather difficult.
The Edo period – 1603 and 1868
Following the warring states period Japan entered an era of relative peace. This is the era where a lot of samurai movies that don’t focus on wars are set, perfect for small skirmish games or the like that seek to recreate those cool samurai movie showdowns thar are mostly unsuited to larger scale wargaming.
Wargaming in feudal Japan
One of the oddities of historical wargaming is that sometimes, for a whole bunch of reasons, the kind of warfare that most frequently took place in a period isn’t the most commonly represented form on the table. That’s definitely the case for feudal Japan, where historically battles could be enormous affairs, with tens of thousands of soldiers in tight formations fighting over vast stretches of terrain. Huge sieges, enormous pitched battles and other features of mass warfare were common throughout the period. Despite this, skirmish gaming is much more popular, and you’ll find it is better supported in wargaming circles.
Part of the reason for this is that much of the iconic image of the period comes not from history but from films, both from Japanese directors like the legendary Akira Kurosawa, and Hollywood takes on the same subjects. Samurai movies are a familiar sight, and so it’s not uncommon to see cinematic samurai portrayed on the tabletop to the exclusion of more realistic massed battles. That said, it’s not a bad thing – the skirmish games available are of high quality, and a small model count allows you to really give your all to painting some beautiful and distinctive warriors.
One of the big challenges of this era is how iconic it is, but how few dedicated rulesets there are for it. We’ve picked the two best that we can find, but there are huge gaps here – if you know of a good game for the era, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What games should I play?
Test of Honour by Grey For Now Games
A skirmish game previously published by Warlord and now in its second edition with Grey For Now Games, Test of Honour is a fluid and cinematic wargame designed for fast and furious combats. You’ll command a group of a dozen or so warriors, with samurai, ashigaru, bandits and sohei monks all featuring prominently in the factions available. We’ll have a full review of the new edition next week.
Ronin by Osprey Wargames
A more traditional skirmish offering than Test of Honour, Ronin has a similar subject matter and supports small scale clashes between samurai, peasant soldiers, and other classic features of the period. It has a full point buy system meaning that you can tailor you lists right done to the finest of details, and the system is flexible but simple and easy to learn. If you just want to buy up some models that you like and play quick games of samurai fights, it’s hard not to see this as the obvious entry point.
What miniatures should I buy?
The purveyors of the only hard plastic multipart kit on the market, if you want samurai in bulk at 28mm you effectively need to go to Warlord Games. That said, it’s worth knowing in advance what you’re getting into – the plastic models are evocative and realistic, but they are extremely fiddly to put together. Three of our authors built them for our upcoming HTPE article, and they all agreed that though they were fine to get together singularly for a HTPE, they weren’t something any of us would want to build in large numbers. Again though, the competition is thin to say the least, and they do a broad range of plastic miniatures, including foot and mounted samurai, as well as ashigaru of various flavours.
A quick note here: the plastic Samurai are sold under the Pike and Shotte banner, but to our confusion, there don’t appear to actually be Pike and Shotte rules for them at current. There is a rules pamphlet in the starter army, but it’s not available as a PDF, so unless you’re going to buy that, it’s not playable. Hopefully this changes at some point.
There is another range of miniatures for this period on their website however, hidden away in their fantasy section! These metal miniatures are probably better suited for skirmish games, but are attractive sculpts and of a high quality.
Grey For Now Games
As well as making the new edition of Test of Honour, Grey For Now Games also sell a range of miniatures. These are explicitly designed for Test of Honour, and sold in packs with stat cards. That doesn’t stop you using them for anything else however, and they are characterful sculpts mostly in metal.
Veteran sculptors Alan and Michael Perry have created a range of metal samurai miniatures that are some of the most characterful and authentic on the market. They have a considerable range, covering all the major types of troop expected, with a good variety of poses in 28mm.
Steel Fist Miniatures
Another 28mm metal supplier, these focus in on a more specific period than many of the other providers, 1550CE – 1615CE. They are a clear labour of love, with a huge amount of effort having gone into ensuring that the details are accurate. There are also some absolutely lovely touches, with extremely flavourful details, ornaments and elements in every set.
As usual, if you want to play at 6mm Baccus is the place to go – they have a really extensive range for this period, divided into medieval and age of war samurai. You can expect the usual metal casts which are surprisingly suggestive and detailed considering their size. Of particular interest are the command elements which include full tents and camps.
Where to start
Ronin Starter (£81)
- Ronin rulebook from Osprey (£13)
- Daimyo and retinue set from Warlord Games (£18)
- Bandits and Brigands set from Warlord Games (£25)
- Samurai Heroes set from Warlord Games (£25)
This gives you a some fantastic miniatures which represent a great spread of different models with different capabilities in the Ronin ruleset. You can build yourself a more professional samurai force and opposing bandits, and have a lot of options to play around with. The miniatures are also really nice, with lots of beautiful characterful sculpts and details.
That’s it for Getting Started: Feudal Japan. We hope this has been a helpful guide to how to get into this exciting period of historical wargaming! Over the next few weeks, we’ll have more tiny Samurai content, including a How to Paint Everything guide, a review of Test of Honour, and some terrain building tips for getting your table to look appropriately Japanese. If you have any comments or feedback, then let us know in the comments here, on Facebook, or at email@example.com