Skulls of the Shogun preview: Turn-based strategy for Dummies

Turn-based strategy games have always been up there with creased jeans and Styrofoam as among my biggest turn-offs. There's something about the static, menu-based gameplay that runs contrary to what I usually look for in a game.

So when my girlfriend wants to check out Skulls of the Shogun at PAX, I reluctantly decide to indulge her. It's good to try new things. Little did I know I was about to discover a highlight of the show.
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I get to talking to Haunted Temple Studios' one-man founder, CEO, lead designer, artist, animator, director and producer, Jake Kazdal. (Kazdal is joined by three other industry vets, who make up the whole of indie developer Haunted Temple.) "I want to make a turn-based strategy game for people who don't necessarily play turn-based strategy games," he tells me. This certainly piques my interest as I go from uneducated charlatan to the perfect candidate to test Kazdal's hypothesis.

Still, I'm skeptical. Even the supposedly approachable Advance Wars (on GBA and DS) left me running for the hills after 90 minutes of tutorial. So imagine my surprise when I learned to play Skulls of the Shogun in a mere 20 minutes.

The rules are simple: each player (up to four) has a shogun; a mix between a king and a queen in chess. The shogun is powerful -- the only unit capable of two strikes in one turn -- but if he dies, the game is over. Supporting each Shogun are three kinds of soldiers: infantry (a basic grunt equipped for melee), cavalry (able to move wide distances with their mounts) and archers (the only unit capable of long range attack). The final unit I saw, the fox monk (which must be summoned through a shrine), can heal a unit or its raise defense.

Skulls of the Shogun does for turn-based strategy what Paper Mario did for RPGs.

Beyond these elements, there's only one resource to manage, rice, which can be harvested by laying a unit over a paddy and haunting it. The rice will automatically allocate to its paddy's host, unless it gets overtaken by an enemy.

But where Skulls of the Shogun gets its name is from possibly its most innovative feature: fallen soldiers leave behind their skulls, which can then be retrieved to grant a stat boost to the unit that picks it up. Retrieving three skulls will transform a unit into an uber-powerful "Oni."

Movement is radial rather than grid based. You can move a piece anywhere within a certain radius, take a strike, and still retreat with the remainder of your unused move distance. "It never made sense that one guy couldn't walk between other guys," says Kazdal, criticizing the restrictive nature of grid systems. "I didn't want to artificially limit things that way." You can still create defensive barriers by placing units in close proximity to one another, but friendly units can squeeze through their comrades hassle free.

Of course, there are still numbers governing the gameplay -- no turned-based strategy game, it would seem, can completely avoid them. But Skulls of the Shogun does for the genre what Paper Mario did for RPGs: It keeps the numbers small. Most units start with 10 hit points; and skulls can give them an additional 5 points each. Even I can grasp these manageable digits. Plus, I only saw one kind of terrain buff, where being behind cover gave enemies a chance of missing. That's it. No fussing over what effect grass, pavement, sand and all that nonsense might have on your units.

While this simplified design might appeal to dummies like me, I was concerned that hardcore strategy fans might react negatively to the streamlining. "We wanted the same, if not more, complexity in the strategy," producer Borut Pfeifer explains, comparing Skulls of the Shogun to the genre standard. "We don't have a strict rock-paper-scissors balancing. It's more that units have differents advantages and disadvantages."

The gorgeous art style is inspired by 1960s anime, and Kazdal has taken care to preserve its effect. "I wanted to make the HUD as unobtrusive as possible," Kazdal says, "so that everything that's on screen looks like it belongs there." This has been employed in several clever ways: A unit's health bar is disguised as a flag it carries; skulls rotate around their hosts; and enemies will raise their weapons if they're in range to counter an attack. Units can still be highlighted to glean their stats, but for the most part, everything you need to know is visible at a glance and integrated into the gameworld.

Inevitably, I make a lot of rookie mistakes. I leave powerful units with insufficient backup, get greedy and go for one too many enemy rice paddies, and let my fox monk die. It's not long before my better half slaughters my forces. Usually when I lose to someone who's out of my league, I assume a defeatist attitude, figuring I'll just never be as good as them. But not this time.

In my half hour with the game, I went from complete novice to someone who knows what he's doing and is dying for a rematch. Haunted Temple Studios has yet to lock down a publisher, but it aims to release Skulls of the Shogun in 2011 on PC, XBLA and PSN. Only then will I have my vengeance.


Jeffrey Matulef is a handsome freelance video game journalist based in Portland, Ore. His work has appeared on G4TV, Eurogamer and Gamasutra, among other places. He attended PAX 2010 as independent press.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.