In the distant past, long before they were known for milking Dynasty Warriors for the 6th billion time, KOEI carved out a niche for themselves making detailed, complex historical simulation strategy games. Their most famous series, depending on which nationality of player you ask, would probably be the Nobunaga’s Ambition or Romance of The Three Kingdoms series portraying Japan’s and China’s history respectively.
However, these aforementioned games are often criticized for being too long, too complex and too “dry” for the average gamer. In an attempt to cater to a new market, Kunitori Zunou Battle takes the opposite approach: creating a game with a very accessible and simple ruleset, yet resulting in deep gameplay. What results is possibly the best strategy game KOEI has ever created.One of the first things you’ll notice about the game is its aesthetics which hint at the game’s inspirational source: Kunitori Zunou Battle has a very “board-game” like appearance to it, with units appearing as chess pieces with their rounded bases. Of course, with KOEI as the main creators of the game, there’s also a very strong “Japanese” theme to it, being set in the Sengoku era just like its parent series.
Players start out with a handful of units in their home castle that they select before the game begins. Perhaps taking a hint from Sangokushi Taisen (an RTS/Collectible Card Game hybrid by Sega), characters are portrayed as cards with different stats and abilities you can unlock and level up.
However, due to the way the system is designed, “grinding” and stomping your enemy with overpowered rare cards is discouraged. A group of properly set up commons/uncommon characters can stomp a “Rare” only player. It’s nice when a feature like this adds spice to a game without being the sole determinant of who wins the game long before it even began.
Units can move one tile per turn and players will have to fulfill a victory condition to win. This usually involves taking over a number of territories, raising your gold income above a certain level (provided by said territories, especially Gold Mines) or wiping out a specific faction.
The game is elegant in its simplicity: Rather than having a billion menus with tons of available commands, the most common action taken by the player is simply to move to another space. It is played in simultaneous turns – everyone makes their move, and they are all resolved at the same time. It is what happens when units move onto each other which brings out the depth of the system.
While it might be a bit cliche by now, the “Weapon Triangle” is a tried and true method of game design. In this game, Calvary > Infantry > Rifles > Calvary (don’t think about the logic of that too hard. It’s not like Sword/Axes/Spears makes more sense.) Pushing the system to the extreme, rather than providing a slight bonus or penalty, units attacking a stronger type deal absolutely no damage at all, while attacking a weaker type deals double damage.
“Wouldn’t the game just descend into just using strong unit types against weak types, then?” you ask. Not so fast, because the game includes several other mechanics which throws you a curveball in planning your strategy.
Sounds overpowered? Well…
2) Split attacks – In Kunitori Zunou Battle, a large unit stack does not automatically translate into a higher attack power like other strategy games. If a unit does not rout the other, he deals a set amount of damage no matter how big his stack size is per attack.
However, rather than attack all at once in a giant stack, you may choose to have your units attack individually. This allows you to get more attacks in and thus more damage.
3) Movement speed – Units that are smaller execute their turn faster than units that are bigger. For example, a Size 5 Army will move before a Size 7, and then a Size 9 Army.
4) Skills – Units may have skills will randomly activate that may turn the tide of the battle. Unlike most other strategy games, you can see skills that have activated this turn, allowing greater strategy in utilizing them rather than relying on luck.
The implications of the ruleset are as follows: Small units can demolish larger ones in a blink of an eye, but they are always at risk of being routed. Good players will set aside just enough units they need for their task, while attempting to bait their opponents into a rout, and the other player will “dance” around in response, trying his best to maintain an assault. And you must always take into account skills which may toss a wrench into your best-laid plans.
Finally, there is one other possible action that may be taken: Trump Cards. These are special cards that can be played only once per game with drastic effects, such as cutting all your opponent’s units health by 1/3. Trump Cards are a game changer and can turn what appears to be a losing battle into a roundabout victory in the right circumstances, and mastering their use is a very important element of the game.
It’s not all battles and combat though! Every few turns, players will enter an “Internal Affairs” phrase, where they can choose to spend their gold to upgrade their units or their castles. The number of possible upgrades is determined by capturing special building (for example, stables affect how many Calvary units you can upgrade).
Players may also form an alliance with another faction. However, take heed: such peace is only temporary – in the end, there can only be one </Highlander>. Proper knowledge of both the art of war and art of diplomacy is necessary in order to come up on top.
There is a very strong element of “Yomi” in this game, as David Sirlin would put it… or in English terms, “Psychological Warfare.” There’s not many other turn-based strategy games, save perhaps competitive Pokemon, which can deliver such a satisfying feeling when you’ve outsmarted your opponents and foiled their plans.
It’s a shame that this game did not receive an English translation and that it seems to be very obscure even in Japan, despite having very positive reviews and achieving critical success (usually hovering in scores of 90+/100 or 4/5 stars). I personally believe that this is the best strategy game KOEI has ever created and one of the true hidden gems on the Nintendo DS, no small feat as the console has tons of those!
Thankfully, a helpful person has written an detailed FAQ on the game to help everyone who would like to play this game in English. I highly suggest this game to anyone who likes simple yet deep strategy games that can be completed in around 20 minutes max. Fans of Advance Wars in particular will probably find this game a fine addition to their collection.
Perhaps one day we might get an updated version on the 3DS… in English…