Product Review: Kagematsu

"Got an assignment for you if you want it," came the message from JD. "It’s a review of a product called Kagematsu. Interested?"

"Absolutely, boss", I replied, without hesitation. Then I popped open a browser to find out what I’d just agreed to review. Chewing idly on my pen, I browsed to the product website and read aloud the description there.

"It is Japan 1572, the end of the Senguko 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.

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…”

The things I do for my work…

Gameplay

Kagematsu is a game for 3-6 players. It’s a narrative-heavy single-session game that essentially replicates the above scenario with whatever flair the players involved wish to add to it. Simple enough premise, maybe a bit of a hard sell—I was already dreading trying to pitch it to my regular group, but I’d agreed to review the product, so I knew I needed to test it. I knew I’d never get everyone on board, but I figured my buddies are open-minded enough to go along with it for one evening, at least, long enough to get a sense of the game.

Only trouble is, Kagematsu, playing by the rules, absolutely must be portrayed by a female player.

"Crap. Do I even still know any female players?" I flipped through my address book, madly scrambling for contact info for someone I could tap to be our Kagematsu. Clearly, this was not going to be an easy task. Sure, for some groups there’s plenty of gal gamers around, but we are sadly still not quite at the stage where it’s a guarantee—and most if not all of the lady players I know are a bit less inclined towards the authority of being the DM. Finally, through begging, wheedling, and promising to speak in falsetto if we played online, I managed to wrangle up a prospective Kagematsu.

The things I do for my work…

Next came a more thorough reading of the rules. Bit of confusion there—the layout has certain concepts interrupted by illustrations or page breaks that makes it slightly harder to understand, but they’re simple enough. Weighing in at 40 pages, it’s a slim enough volume to be passed around and quickly skimmed by a few friends before a get-together to play it for an evening—kind of a party-game RPG. Sounds pretty fun, can definitely get behind that.

The rules themselves are a bit unpolished. There’s a stat, Pity, that serves no mechanical purpose that I could find. From a character creation standpoint—well, it’s almost entirely narrative, but there’s a pair of traits, Charm and Innocence, that you divide your dice between with no real reason to do so mechanically, and our player pool featured a couple of characters who were well defined narratively as being entirely one-sided on these stats, while remaining interesting and in the spirit of the game. Not a problem, so much, if everyone’s going to just have fun, but it’s not necessarily the most elegant, either.

The meat of the gameplay comes from narrative roleplaying scenes in which the village women attempt to gain progressively greater signs of affection from the Kagematsu player. This is represented by the women rolling their Charm or Innocence in a contested roll versus a number of dice specified by the particular Affection that they are trying to get. There’s a Charm track and an Innocence track—what I found myself wondering is why not simply have characters select a track for their character, and roll a fixed number of dice? That way you could introduce other Affection tracks as well—Exuberance, perhaps, or Childlike? The scope of the game could be broadened significantly by this.

Finally the day came and we sat down to play. I had decided to play Arashi, the last surviving member of the village’s oldest samurai family, whose twin brother was struck down by the Threat (whatever that was to be), leaving her alone in the world. I described Arashi to the others in the group, and then waited for their responses.

"I’m playing Princess Mars, a half-alien girl whose ship has crashed on this strange planet—" began one of the other townswoman players. I sighed and reminded him that the setting of the game was rather explicitly feudal Japan, and suggested gently that perhaps he could come up with something more in keeping with that.

The things I do for my work…

At the same time, though, there’s no real reason why the game couldn’t accommodate a more wildly varied genre and tone—mechanically and narratively it could as easily represent anything from a chivalrous knight-errant in Merry Olde England to John Carter saving the princesses of Mars. Restricting Kagematsu to be a male portrayed by a female, too, is perhaps limiting—why not a daring samurai-ko who is the object of attention of all the young men of the village? Why not a cybernetic warrior who must be taught to love so that his buried programming can be overridden, making he himself the threat?

Summary

For all its flaws, Kagematsu has a very entertaining idea at its core, one that probably justifies the price of admission. The mechanics aren’t perfect, by any means, but in this style of game they don’t need to be. It’s a bit bogged down by the Concept-with-a-capital-C that the creators had in mind during the inception of the game, sure, and by the inherent ties to a specific place and time that really have little to no representation in the mechanics or actual feel of the game in play. It could be well served by a broadening of scope and loosening of restrictions, but there’s no reason to hold back on picking it up because of that—if my group could pick out ways to do that within the few brief hours we spent testing it out, I’m confident others could as well.

It may not be the kind of game that suits every group—I’ve a number of friends who, even with the much broader scope and options I’ve imagined up as house rules, would never be interested in a game like Kagematsu—but if you’ve got the kind of group who don’t mind sitting down and doing some solid, rules-be-damned roleplaying for an evening and aren’t going to get frightened off by a bit of in-game romance, then there are absolutely far worse ways to spend your time and money than on Kagematsu.

Further reviews


Comments (3)

Wyatt (March 19th, 2010)

Your ideas made this incredibly dull-sounding game far, far better imo. Also your use of Samurai-ko is lauded.

Anonymous (March 19th, 2010)

The game mandates the sex of its players? Not even FATAL is that offensive.

John Kantor (April 2nd, 2010)

Have any of you ever played an indie story-telling game before? Obviously not.

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