Sengoku Taisen, Owari Prefecture, AD 1560

Sengoku: warring states. In the 1500s, Japan was rapt in civil war, with all samurai and stuff. Cool. Townships, settlements, people – those potential armies – were scattered about the country like dropped playing cards.

By 1560, the southern warlord Yoshimoto Imagawa had a formidable hand of fighters. He advanced into Owari prefecture, adding to his deck any rag-tag opponents he didn’t kill. Camped at Okehazama, with the military strategist Nobunaga Oda’s puny forces next on his list, he retired to the General’s tent. He was about to be dealt a bad beat.

Yoshimoto Imagawa was about to be dealt a bad beat

Oda, meanwhile, was well advised to sit tight. He didn’t. He left a skeleton force with a forest of banners to exaggerate their numbers, then advanced stealthily to Imagawa’s flank. A storm blew in and hid his men: they got real close. As the storm lifted, night fell: perfect.

Imagawa raged broad-legged from his tent and commanded silence from his revelling troops. They weren’t revelling. They weren’t his troops. He felt two swords, briefly.

Ukiyo-e of the Battle of Okehazama by Utagawa Toyonobu (1859–1886)
Yoshimoto Imagawa getting totally stabbed. Source

The victory was swift and efficient: most of Imagawa’s forces survived him, and Oda shuffled those cards into his deck. Japan resolved its civil wars under the lineage Oda helped establish. Oda’s name was inscribed alongside heroes of legend, Imagawa’s on Wikipedia’s List of Military Disasters.

Sengoku Taisen, Sam’s Town Ueno, Present Day

Sega Yokohama sign and Chinatown gate at night

My assault on Sega’s Sengoku Taisen was just as tactically adept

My assault on Sega’s Sengoku Taisen was just as tactically adept. I might have been well advised to stay away from its intimidating force: trading-card-based real-time strategy, buried deep in overwrought comicbook-olde Japanese and feudal-epoch military vocabulary. The entrance was guarded by replays of national champions and a battalion of hardcore players with high-stacked decks and overflowing ashtrays.

The one thing the game centre clerk didn’t expect was my advance. Under the daytime darkness of the Sam’s Town basement and sheltered by clouds of smoke, I was at his counter before he saw me. “Tell me how to play Sengoku Taisen!” Before he realised where he was, he was drawing explanatory diagrams and handing out free cards from under the counter.

Sengoku Taisen arcade cabinet coin slot and stacked 100-yen coins

Victory was mine. Faced with my tactic of using an unfairly advanced deck of free cards, the tutorial rounds didn’t know what hit them and the machine coughed up a shiny packet of spoils to expand my forces. If I’d been around in 16th-century feudal Japan, I’d have been emperor in no time.

Ooh, you beat me! simpered the game, and now that you’ve won those extra cards, you’ll beat me even more and get even more cards! Oh nooooo!

Too easy!

You’ll be emperor in no time! it whined submissively, You irrepressible tactical genius! Please stop playing me now before you win me too much!

Haha! Too late, game. Feel the crushing might of my newly expanded forces! Now who’s a massively profitable trading card series in its 12th year?

That’ll be 200 yen, please.

Touché

The line between hardware and feelies has been seriously blurred

Out of the fantasy. What is this game exactly? It’s war, it’s trading cards, it’s all in the hardware and the feelies – and the line between those two has been seriously blurred.

Sega has a piece of technology called a flatreader, which started out in a football management game collaboration with Panini 1 (natch). It’s a tabletop that can identify and locate special trading cards placed on its surface. The latest version2 can also read finger taps and full palms placed on top of cards.

Sengoku Taisen arcade screen instructions palm on card

Sengoku Taisen arcade screen battle

Sengoku Taisen arcade cabinet flatreader

Gameplay

The cards appear to be normal, cardboard trading cards, but the game magically recognises what’s printed on them, where they’re placed, and which way they’re pointing. Each one represents a bushou – a general – leading a unit of either spearmen, cavalry, or archers. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors: spearmen beat cavalry, cavalry archers, and archers spearmen.

Oh, wait, there’s one more: guns. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors Guns.

Sengoku Taisen arcade game warrior trading cards
Guns? Surely that’s not fair.

You arrange the cards at the near edge of the table, which represents your castle, and will advance to the enemy’s castle, which is modelled in plastic at the far edge. You slide a card forward and the little men scurry onscreen to that point on the battlefield. If you rotate the card, the unit rotates. Tapping or palming a card initiates certain special abilities, which may then call for timed pushes on the cabinet buttons to execute successfully. When your dudes get hammered because you have no idea what you’re doing, you bring them back to your castle to recoup – the machine doesn’t shred your cards or anything.

A foil packet is poked out at you by a dispenser

And if you’re victorious then, just like Nobunaga Oda, that legendary general who with oratory and charisma rallied defeated armies to join his cause, you get a foil bag of new cards poked out at you by a dispenser. Just like Nobunaga Oda.

Sengoku Taisen arcade cabinet card dispenser
With this shiny packet you are really spoiling us.

What else? There’s a handful of big, bashable buttons and an Aime smartcard point to save your progress. But in all honesty, Sengoku Taisen doesn’t really have much to offer except for rad samurai trading cards, a magic table, and a slot that hands out presents every time you play. Come on, Sega, make an effort.

The Sengoku Taisen Experience

I trespassed into a video underground.

I only played a little of the actual content of Sengoku Taisen, but the whole experience around it was an adventure. After traversing Sam’s Town’s cramped floors of outrageously convoluted medal games 3 and wall-to-wall “hores” consoles4, I had to isolate the clerk’s excited instructions from the game-centre cacophony. When I finally got in front of the game, it was dripping with Japanese text expressing a web of lore and logic woven for more than a decade since the first Sangokushi Taisen in 2005.

Sengoku Taisen arcade game instructions cards
These are double sided, making for 8 pages of start-up instructions.

It took me half an hour of study before I could even drop a coin, then another half-hour to finish the basic tutorial. I spent far more time on meta-game and ceremony (and taking photos) than on gameplay. It wasn’t easy, but I trespassed briefly into a video underground where certain people spend chunks of their lives. If Arcade Tokyo is a game, this was one of the best levels.

Sengoku Taisen arcade screen PRESS START BUTTON


  1. Panini logo

  2. Introduced in 2016’s catchily titled Sengoku Taisen: 1477–1615: Hi no Moto Ittou he no Gunki (Warring States Battles: 1477–1615: Origin of the Sun: War Tale of a Unified Island).

  3. Galileo Factory medal game at Sam's Town Ueno

  4. Star Hores poster at Sam's Town Ueno