I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox
We've all been there right?
There being in the middle of a dungeon, dark and deep, kicking goblin arse and fighting the good fight, all for the love of a fragrant princess in a far away land. And when the goblin arse has been butchered, and we're able to breathe in the heady beauty of the princess, we've thought...
"Gee, this is the life, right here, right now, in the company of someone some kind of wonderful. What the heck were we doing slaving away in caves that stank of goblin shite for months on end?"
Enter Kagematsu, the game of samurai romance that turns this on its head, swapping gameplay that's mostly battlin' with a smidgin of romancin', for gameplay that's mostly romancin' with a smidgin of battlin'.
Samurai Romance Action
Here's the blurb from the back of the book:
It is Japan 1572, the end of the Seguko period of history. Like many transitions of power the country is filled with strife, warring factions pulling any able bodied men into war, leaving villages populated by only women, children and old men. Now a small, nearly indefensible village is living under the horror of a dangerous threat that casts its long shadow over the village. Without a defender, its people are almost certainly doomed.One player assumes the role of the wayward ronin Kagematsu, and the other players assume the roles of various women in the threatened village.
Enter Kagematsu, a wayward ronin fleeing a troubled past. Here is a defender for the village, if only he can be swayed from his meandering course. So it is that several young women conspire among themselves to win his affections and steer him to their cause...
Play unfolds in a series of scenes: the player of Kagematsu is responsible for framing a scene in which the ronin and one of the village women meet, and the purpose of each scene is for the spotlight woman to entreat Kagematsu to stay and defend the village when the threat finally descends upon it. The women have a number of Affections that they can deploy to win Kagematsu to them and in turn their cause: these Affections range from a chaste glance, to a kiss, to a declaration of love, and more besides.
Scenes are typically short, between 5-10 minutes: Kagematsu is pretty fast-paced and is played in one 3-4 hour sitting. Each scene features at least one opposed die roll between the players of Kagematsu and the spotlight woman. Play proceeds in turns around the table, with the players of each of the village women getting a handful of scenes in which to prevail upon Kagematsu to step up and agree to defend the village.
The role of Kagematsu is quite demanding, because the ronin features in every single scene in the game. Due to the way that the system uses the dice in these opposed rolls, the Threat that menaces the village is revealed gradually in a series of short interludes, which gives the game a desperate tone that lifts it above endless scenes of romance: these women have a furious purpose to their romancing of the ronin, because if he cannot be swayed from his course, they will be destroyed.
The player of Kagematsu also has to assign a point of either Love or Pity to the spotlight woman, based on how the Kagematsu character's player thought the woman's player conveyed their character's affection. Were the woman's actions appealing and genuine to Kagematsu's player? If so, award a point of Love. if not, award a point of Pity. Yep, a straight out judgement of the role-playing of another player is baked right into the game, since earning lots of Love is good when the game enters the end game. I love it.
When one of the village women finally manages to elicit a promise to defend the village from Kagematsu, the Threat is displayed in all its wickedness and it descends upon the village. A final opposed roll is made, and Kagematsu either defeats the Threat and saves the village, or the Threat is triumphant and the terrible fate of the women is sealed. There's more to it than that, but that's a general description of what happens during a game.
Gender Play, Front And Centre
One of the conceits of the game is that the role of Kagematsu, our wayward ronin, must be played by a woman. The roles of the women in the threatened village can be played by men or women, though given the predominance of men in the hobby, the women are likely to be played by men. With this hard requirement, the game adds a layer of gender-play to the game that is delightfully playful.
As mentioned above, it is the sole responsibility of the player of the Kagematsu character to frame scenes. The players of the female characters need to follow the lead taken by the female player of Kagematsu. There's nothing in the game that stops players from suggesting specifics of a scene to Kagematsu's player, but ultimately it's down to Kagematsu's player to establish.
It grates, only slightly but undeniably so, to have to continually defer responsibility to someone else... when the sole reason for that designation of responsibility to the Kagematsu character's player is because the ronin happens to be a man. In gaming and in life generally, I'm cool with responsibility being assigned to one person, but the reason for the assignation of responsibility had best not be for something as arbitrary as whether a person has a cock.
I'm fine to follow the lead of another, sure thing, but I'm also secure in the knowledge that if I chose to I could assume the reins of leadership. (Or at least make a play for it.) In Kagematsu, the option to lead is taken away from me purely on the basis of gender, and that bites. It's fun to play around with such things for the typical duration of a game of Kagematsu, but damn, it'd be helluva frustratin' to hit that outside of the game.
Here's what Danielle Lewon, the designer, has to say on the topic of her intent with the game:
My present purpose is a bit different but has the same intent, beyond playing a pretty fun game. I hope that men who play the game (as women) learn from the Kagematsu player something about what women respond to. The best mechanic, assigning Love or Pity, should make someone realize "wow, none of that stuff I thought was cool got me love". I have found that after playing some games makes me reflect on my life, relationships and how people interact with each other.Word.
Kagematsu is presented as a slim book with a loose screen of thicker paper folded inside.
The book is a slim digest-sized affair. The text is black and white throughout, interspersed with a handful of crisp line illustrations by Anna Kreider showing Kagematsu and the village women. The layout is functional, with each page sporting generous margins and good-sized single-column text that is neatly broken up so that you're never presented with a wall of text.
The tone is conversational throughout, as Danielle explains the process of play from start to finish in clear language, taking care to provide numerous examples to convey said process effectively. The system is very structured, but also very light, and the system is a cinch to learn directly from the text.
The paper screen is folded neatly inside the book and held in place by a narrow strip of black gauze that is wrapped length-ways around the book. It's a thin slice of letter-sized (?) paper, tri-folded, sporting some nice black and white illustration by Anna Kreider on the front, and some reference material for Kagematsu's player on the back. The screen is integral to the play, because the Kagematsu player rolls her dice in secret, keeping the result hidden behind the screen.
In play, the screen is a bit flimsy: it's easy for the Kagematsu player to roll her dice and knock the screen over, thus revealing the result of her roll, so a little care needs to be taken when rolling, such as using a dice bowl positioned directly behind the screen. I've since coloured in the front of my screen with crayons to add some colour. It's kinda nice to be playing a game that has a valid use for a screen again, since most all of the other hippie games I play are open games.
At the time of reviewing, Danielle has said that she doesn't have any plans for a PDF version. Aw.
I like Kagematsu, yes ma'am. It's laser-focused on exploring the power of romance, and the different takes each of the sexes brings to that theme, and the system winningly provokes play towards digging into that premise. If you're hungry for a thick slice of romance in all its guises, then Kagematsu'd be a fine choice of fare.
If the game I've described appeals to you, you might find the following links of interest.
an interview with the designer, Danielle Lewon
another Actual Play report, this time from The Forge
Andy Kitkowski writes about the kanji used on the cover
the lovely Italian translation of the game