Osprey have been knocking out a great series of small skirmish games over the last few years. Turning their hand to everything from secret agents and steampunk to pirates and robots, it would be a glaring omission if they didn’t have a samurai game. Luckily they do: it’s Ronin.

ronin

There are few skirmish level games set in feudal Japan (or things very like it). Bushido and Daisho leap to mind. Ronin is a bit more historical than Bushido, lacking any of the mystical stuff (although there are some resources on the Osprey games site to add in mythical creatures). Warlord have also got Test of Honour which aims to fill pretty much the same niche as Ronin, but is more of a game-in-a-box offering with special dice and cards required to play and plastic miniatures in the box. Compared to that, Ronin takes the “toolbox” approach to rules, giving you endless flexibility and options, across a wide range of factions and periods.

Force composition

 

There are lists for various different factions in the rulebook:

  • Bushi (soldiers and their samurai masters)
  • Ikko-ikki (sort of a regional militia, often rebelling against the samurai)
  • Sohei (warrior monks)
  • Bandits
  • Peasants
  • Koryu (students and masters from a martial arts school)
  • Koreans
  • Chinese

The latter two are used to fight skirmishes set in the Imjin War (Japanese invasion of Korea), while all the rest are good for fighting in Japan. The default period is the Sengoku Jidai, but there are extensive notes on going earlier or later, including lists for a whole slew of new factions such as Mongols, Yakuza, Shinsengumi and troops for the Boshin War.

Ronin battling bandits in "Seven Samurai". The authors have made sure you can field anything you've seen in a movie.

Ronin battling bandits in “Seven Samurai”. The authors have made sure you can field anything you’ve seen in a movie.

You build your force using points, although some other restrictions exist which can get a bit complicated. For example you can build a Bushi composed entirely of samurai, but if you include any ashigaru then you have to include twice as many ashigaru as samurai, and there are restrictions within the ashigaru too. A 200pt force will usually come in at about 10 miniatures, but if you go for really elite troops could be as small as 5. So it’s a really easy game to get into.

Troops have a rank 1-5. Rank 5 is a legendary warrior, and will cut through low-ranked troops in true heroic fashion. Well-trained samurai are normally rank 3, ashigaru and other low-grade troops are usually rank 1. Some rank 0 troops also exist, these are basically untrained peasant chaff.

Generally speaking though the system is actually pretty flexible, within limits. You shouldn’t have any trouble making all sorts of odd forces. There’s nothing to stop you fielding a tiny elite band of mounted samurai, a horde of peasants with samurai hired swords, Wako pirates raiding Chinese villages, or a Nobunaga-style ashigaru pike and shot detachment.

Characters can be upgraded with skills, such as being made an expert with a particular weapon. This makes them much more deadly, allowing rerolls. Also on the list are skills like deflecting arrows, being a master of tactics and the ability to tolerate more damage. These walk the line nicely between heroic and fantasy, making the game cinematic without being over the top.

Overall top marks for the army composition system from me. It ticks all the right  Kurosawa movie boxes, while still being solidly historical. It’s flexible and there are a good range of factions. Some reviewers have pointed out that the author notes that some factions are best suited to fighting certain foes. I don’t think they’re too out of whack, but if you’re the kind of gamer who wants razor sharp balance then maybe stick to the author’s recommended match ups, or you might need to balance them in other ways.

Command and Control

Activation is alternate, within each phase players pick one figure and complete its actions, then the other side does the same. Who starts first is a roll off at the start of the turn, but you can buy a skill for your leader to influence that roll.

Turns sequence is:

  1. Roll for priority
  2. Movement (bows can shoot here too)
  3. Close Combat
  4. “Actions”, including firearms and second shots from bows.
  5. End phase

Movement

Pretty simple stuff, a figure can move up to it’s maximum move stat, and the rules cover things like terrain and leaping in and out of windows. Moving and fighting inside buildings is an important part of the game, so you’ll need some Japanese buildings that have interior detail. That pretty much means Blotz4Ground or Sarissa at the moment, as the lovely Oshiro buildings are solid castings and the Plastcraft ones don’t have interior detail.

Deployment

The game can be played on an area as small as 2x2ft, but a decent sized force is about 200pts for which the book suggests 3x3ft. There’s a terrain generator included for the imaginatively challenged who haven’t mastered the art of putting terrain on a table (or tournament players, I guess…)

Deployment is usually subject to the scenario rules, but often you dice to see who sets up first. Either way it’s quite varied, “line up on opposite edges” is the exception not the rule, which is ideal for a skirmish game.

Combat

Instead of just rolling a dice to see if you hit the enemy, hand-to-hand combat in Ronin involves a nice simple resource-management game.

Each figure generates a number of counters equal to its rank, and at the start of combat can divvy up this “combat pool” between attack and defence. Each attack token allows you to make one attack, each defence one can boost your defence roll against enemy attacks making you very hard to wound.

Benkei fights Yoshitsune on Gojo Bridge. Legend has it that Benkei had defeated 999 attackers.

Benkei fights Yoshitsune on Gojo Bridge. Legend has it that Benkei had defeated 999 attackers.

It’s an elegant mechanic, adds tension to the game and allows you to get down to the level of the figure and role-play a bit. Should your samurai go on the offense or defence against this particular opponent, or go for a balanced fighting style? It also adds tactical depth. Need to stop the enemy coming over a bridge? Stick your high-ranking Sohei monk on there and have him go 100% defensive like Benkei at Gojo Bridge. He should be a rock that multiple opponents will struggle to hurt.

Damage is inflicted by opposed rolls, and you can spend additional counters to influence a roll (certain skills also do this). Armour is very effective. Generally what this means is that a well-trained samurai in heavy armour will be able to fight against several scumbags simultaneously. Most samurai are rank 3, so a samurai fighting two rank 1 rebels could allocate two tokens to attack and one to defence, allowing it to attack two opponents and to boost one defence roll. The rank 1 guys fighting the samurai have two tokens each, so will pool their four tokens. They’ll need to allocate at least two to defence if they don’t want to get cut down quickly, leaving two for attacks.  The samurai will have better armour and stats, so this two-on one matchup is probably still not enough to stand a good chance of taking the samurai down. You really need to apply overwhelming force to the tough guys, and the rules allow you to fight up to 4-1 if a warrior is isolated from supporting friends. At those kind of ratios things start to go downhill quickly for even the best fighters, as they need to allocate more of their combat pool to defence to block all the incoming attacks.

If your modified attack roll beats the opponent’s defence roll and his armour bonus then you’ll inflict some damage, which can be either a stun, light or heavy wound or an outright kill. Armoured troops will tend to pick up lighter wounds, but the effects do stack up. Less armoured troops fighting good opponents are pretty likely to be killed outright (presumably a big decapitation where the swordsman holds the pose afterwards for the camera). Fights between two highly skilled opponents are tense, with both sides able to make multiple attacks and defend well. Certain weapons will give you bonuses to things like initiative (pole arms) or damage (no-dachi).

Firearms are very deadly against troops in armour, but have short range and are painfully slow to reload. If you have a bunch of ashigaru carrying teppos you’re likely to fire one volley at point blank then the lads will be drawing their wakizashis and going toe to toe with any angry samurai that survived a shot to the face. Bows are rapid fire weapons, but pretty unlikely to drop foes stone dead, you’ll just soften them up by inflicting small wounds. Samurai horse archers can be great harassing weapons, but are expensive and arguably you’d be better off spending all those points on a swordsman who can wade in and cut people in half.

The combat system is where Ronin really shines. The interplay of the combat pools, skills and the different quality troops make the action tense and full of nuance. A highly skilled warrior is a pretty fearsome thing to behold as they battle their way through multiple enemies, but they need to be smart about who, when and how they attack. Both players are involved at all times, attacking and counter-attacking constantly. Again, it feels like a nice balance between heroic and realistic, just like a Kurosawa movie. Which let’s face it is exactly what we want from a samurai skirmish game.

Morale and Psychology

The real warrior monks were constant thorn in the side of Japan's samurai rulers, and they're a tough faction in the game.

The real warrior monks were constant thorn in the side of Japan’s samurai rulers, and they’re a tough faction in the game.

If you take too many casualties too quickly or lose your leader and it can force a morale roll, if you fail it you drop to “wavering” status. Fail another one and you start routing, at which point your chance of achieving your objective becomes pretty remote. Different factions have different morale values, and some special rules such as peasants getting braver the more they outnumber the enemy.

The main exception to all this is the warrior monks, almost all of whom are “fearless” allowing them to ignore morale checks. These guys will always fight to the last man no matter how badly they’re getting hammered. Some other factions can buy that as an upgrade for individual warriors, but it’s pretty much the sohei trademark and makes them very tough cookies.

Victory Conditions

As a skirmish game Ronin works best when the scenario sets the objective, but for a straight up fight your objective will probably be to inflict multiple simultaneous casualties and make the enemy fail their moral check. Or just kill them all, which against the sohei is your only option anyway. There is a Victory Points rule, and some factions get special rules such as samurai getting extra points for taking heads, and losing points for being killed by a lower-ranked enemy (oh, the shame!).

The game includes several generic scenarios:

  • Skirmish (straight up fight, with victory points scored for kills, etc)
  • Capture (capture an object and run off with it)
  • Duel (like a skirmish, but starts with two champions facing off while everybody else watches)
  • Defence (defenders outnumbered 2:1 and must hold a terrain feature)
  • Assassination (a group of six ninjas attempt to take out the leader)
  • Tournament (two equally matched groups fight a series of one-on-one duels)
  • Defend the Village (obvious Seven Samurai ripoff! Defenders have to keep the civilians alive)

On top of this it wouldn’t be hard to make up your own. Japanese history and legend (not to mention the movies) are full of small-scale events that would make great games. I would have liked a few more scenarios to be honest. Given that one is a special ninja-only fight and the “tournament” is a bit ritualised, there are only five normal ones and probably only 2-3 that you’ll regularly play.

That being said, North Star (who officially pimp the game) have released three more generic scenarios in their newsletter (Escort, Hold the Bridge and Seize the Shrine) and Wargames Soldiers & Strategy magazine published a nice one for the Imjin War in Korea in WSS83.

The author does include a very simple experience system at the back of the book that would suit little narrative campaigns, and these seem like a good way to generate scenarios.

Yes, but is it fun?

If you like samurai movies, you will love Ronin. It’s characterful, heroic and bloody with a rule set that pitches at a nice sweet spot between detail and playability.