Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 14/08/2015

Quick little review of 7 Ronin

7 Ronin. Badger’s Nest. Game designers: Marek Mydel and Piotr Stankiewicz.

Great game!

Okay, the review is slightly longer than that. 7 Ronin is a new 2 player board game of simultaneous moves, fog of war and incomplete information by Piotr Stankiewicz and Marek Mydel. I managed to squeeze in a couple games in a long overdue gaming session with my buddy Aram a few days ago and he managed to pick up his rare stateside copy of the game in Seattle. The premise for the game is basically the film Seven Samurai. One player takes the role of seven “good guys” (tools of the authoritarian regime) who are protecting (extorting?) a community against up to 50 bandit/ninjas that are attacking (liberating?) the village. I won’t get into the mechanics of the game too much, except to say that each player assigns their units (ronin or ninjas) on a secret board and then reveals where their units are, there are a few tactical choices depending on where they’ve deployed and then the effects are tallied. The ronin try to run the clock out by either surviving 10 turns or killing all the ninjas. The ninjas win if they control five village spaces or kill all the ronin. For a more complete review of gameplay, take a look at this nice review from Space-Biff.

Rather than talk about the gameplay, I’d like to spend my rare blog post ink on the value the game could have to our community. As it is, the game is already an elegant, quickplaying (30 minutes), easy to learn and fun to play model of asymmetric warfare. I could see it being used as a quick introduction to the basic principles for a non-military professional audience. They would learn a lot about guerrilla tactics and the fog of war and have fun doing it. There is slightly more narrative and story to the game than the excellent but abstract Guerrilla Checkers from Brian Train and less complexity than the brilliant games like Andean Abyss or Labyrinth by Volke Ruhnko, which, though very good games for wargamers, may be too complex for a non-gaming audience to learn. See Rex’ excellent post on A Distant Plain and some reflections on some other recent asymmetric wargames. As a big fan of elegance in game design and simplicity in execution, this game won me over quickly.

But in writing this review, I can also see two more uses for this game in the classroom:

  1. Unpacking and exploring narratives in conflict. As I alluded to above, the stereotypes of “protector” vs. “bandit” found in Seven Samurai and perpetuated in its ilk in cinema and in other games like this one (see Stronghold, men defending against “creatures” and Shadows over Camelot, knights (men) taking “heroic actions” against the shadows), are based on narratives of, yes, men, protecting the vulnerable (usually women, but 7 Ronin has one (1) female ronin!), from the darkness and the other…. Unfortunately, the other defend games like Stronghold and SoC are too long to use in a classroom exercise. But I could see real value in constructing a quick rule set for two opposing players that describes their own side – depending on how the rules are written, the “ronin” could have been hired by the villagers to protect them or sent by the despot to conquer the village or simply there to extort their own rents. The “bandits” could be bandits, or liberators. Either side could be recast as men or women. Their relationship with the people of village could be written in a variety of ways. It would be fascinating to hear the narratives that would develop from the game play depending on the background briefs provided to each player. The game designers have already explored this narrative and viewpoint concept a little, by providing each player with a planning mat that reflects their position – the ronin have a nice silk-painted mat on which to plan, the bandits have a rudimentary mat sketched in sand and marked with stones.
  2. Modeling local development priorities with competing interests. The game is so simple and so elegant, it could easily be recast as a PRT in a complex environment game with 2 (or 3?) sides, demonstrating the complexity of development and meeting local needs in a fragile setting. One side could play the role of a PRT or other “comprehensive approach” development actor, attempting to “clear, hold, build” in a complex setting, while the other player takes on the role of insurgents (liberators?) attempting to interrupt development and stability, and/or create their own stability through local law or autonomy. A third player could be the village, trying to survive, perhaps leaning toward helping one side or the other as the promise of stability and safety becomes more meaningful. As it is, the game has a lot of these features – the ninjas can insinuate themselves among the community to increase the rate at which they can enter the village, targets for the insurgents are the well, the granary and the path which all have different effects on the effectiveness of the ronin and the bandits — modelling, perhaps, winning the hearts and minds of the host community. A student of Iraq or Afghanistan would already see much in the metaphor of the Seven Samurai – with a small amount of tweaking it could be a very instructional game.

7 Ronin isn’t a perfect game – I think it is really tough to get the bandits up and running and it takes a full play before the icons make any sense/are intuitive – but it is near perfect for what it is. I’ll pick up a copy when I get a chance and I hope to hear about it making into a classroom. Who knows, maybe I’d even design the PRT variant… stop laughing, Rex.

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