I don't know about you but I find it hard to wind down in the evenings. Sometimes my girlfriend and I sit there and 'watch' a tv show, but we'll both be scrolling through nonsense on phones or the iPad, so we never really properly switch off. It's the electronic distraction of modern life that's thrust me back into the arms of a relationship I'd ended in the early 90s - board gaming.
Board games are cool again and I couldn't be happier - I think people have rediscovered them because they offer a rare opportunity to collectively put phones away and reasonably demand undivided attention (a rare thing these days). I also think this return to cardboard offers a comforting slice of nostalgia, transporting people back to simpler times, memories of packed caravans on rain soaked family holidays or when time stood still round your Nan's house at Xmas. An era when people knew how to entertain themselves.
The hardest thing about getting a game up and running is convincing people to play it. The bit I dread is explaining the rules, this is where you end up wildly gesticulating whilst your friends blankly stare at you, incredulous, like Cops in a Sci-Fi B-Movie having an apparent 'UFO sighting' reported to them.
So trying to sell a midweek game of GMT Games' much revered Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan to my other half filled me with much trepidation. Sekigahara is a hidden unit strength block war-game that perfectly captures the lies, deceit and betrayal that characterised the infamous 7 week war to decide the future of Japan back in the 1600s. Like I said, this is strategy catnip to some, a yawnfest for others - a risky play. It's a good job the game looks so damn good. Sekigahara really is a thing of beauty, carved wooden blocks depict the units - glittering gold for the forces of master tactician Ishida Mitsunari and foreboding black for brutal warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. A hand drawn map of Japan's biggest island adorns the board along with sketched castles, routes and highways forming the landscape of feudal Japan. The most gorgeous facet of the game are the spectacular emblems (Mon) of each family that adorn both the cards and the playing pieces - this is a game of understated beauty, a tranquil simplicity.
The 7 week campaign to decide the future of Japan was an improvised and fluid affair with Feudal Warlords (Daimyos) constantly changing allegiance, switching sides or refusing to accept battle, making forward tactical planning difficult as you never quite know who you can trust. This is perfectly replicated in the game as you can only deploy the forces whose Mon symbols are present in the cards in your hand. This simple mechanism makes for some incredibly tense moments as a seemingly unstoppable stack of troops can be sent packing by a much smaller force through loyalty alone. Add to this the play of a timely 'Loyalty' card that can make your opponent's units dramatically swap sides and fight for you in the heat of battle, you begin to see how this game is filled with plenty of show stopping moments.
I love games that require very little back and forth with the rule book and I'm pleased to say that Sekigahara falls perfectly into this category, once you're down with how everything works you wont look back, and things clip along at great pace with very little downtime. The fact that you can't see your opponent's pieces really ramps up the tension and means that the soft drag of maneuvered wood can fill your head with perceived threats from all angles.
A strong narrative is vital for creating those gaming moments that live on well after the game's been put back on the shelf and Sekigahara is full of them - whether it be tales of battlefield desertion, epic castle sieges or the desperate attempt to protect Toyotomi's child heir from an aggressive usurper, the game is dramatic and at times cinematic.
Boardgames show you a side of people that you wouldn't normally see and I've certainly learned something new about my girlfriend after our first foray into the world of Sekigahara, she beat me comprehensively, and all I could do is watch in amazement as she adeptly pushed my forces off the map in a series of moves and bluffs that would have impressed the old warlord Tokugawa himself.