Games vs. History: An exploration of the Battle of Nagashino in war games

By Joe Fonseca 06 Nov 2018 0

Whether on the tabletop or behind a computer screen, one of the major purposes of historical wargaming is to recreate a battle or campaign as accurately, respectfully, and/or interestingly as possible. Hours spent pouring over maps, OOBs, and contemporary accounts creates an engaging experience as the weight of history suffuses the movement of each counter or digital regiment. Yet even the best planning and research often cannot sidestep the pitfalls of historical memory.

Oscar Wilde’s assertion that art is “the telling of beautiful untrue things” seems accurate, if unfortunate, for most artistic recreations of the past, wargames included. Cannae, Gettysburg, Gallipoli, to name but a few, have become such a part of the collective consciousness that the reality of the subject matter can become hard to distinguish behind the layers of paint, paper, and film that so elegantly cloak them. It therefore becomes interesting and, I would argue, important to explore how media in general, and wargames in this case, interact with the past they seek to represent.

The purpose of this series of articles is not to call out wargames that get history ‘wrong’ but rather to explore how cultural factors and popular images impact the expression of historical events in wargaming.

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The Battle of Nagashino

The Battle of Nagashino (June 28th, 1575), fought amidst the colour and chaos of Japan’s Warring States period (1467-1603), may not conjure the same ready images as Waterloo or Gettysburg in the West, but in Japan it occupies a similar near-mythical status. The battle itself has been the setting of numerous period dramas and TV adaptations, Akira Kurosawa’s popular film Kagemusha (1980), and almost every videogame, wargame or not, that takes the Warring States period as it’s backdrop.

The Battle of Nagashino’s enduring popularity stems from its magnitude. Not only did it see a once powerful Samurai Clan come tumbling down forever, but it also, allegedly, revolutionized warfare in Japan. The story sees Takeda Katsuyori, son of the revered statesmen and warrior Shingen, drive his clan to ruin by foolishly attacking the entrenched and more numerous forces of Oda Nobunaga, first of the unifiers of Japan. Though they advised against the attack, Katsuyori’s generals dutifully rode out to meet their death with bravery. The Takeda clan had a reputation for their fierce cavalry charges, but Nobunaga came prepared. Three thousand matchlock rifles, a palisade to protect them, and the revolutionary tactic of volley fire left thousands of Takeda’s best dead and dying across a muddy battlefield. A stirring tale of arrogance, duty, and the importance of innovation.

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In Total War: Shogun 2, Nobunaga’s matchlock gunners make quick work of Katsuyori’s famed cavalry, just as they do in the tales.

Unfortunately for the romance of that description, recent scholarly research has done quite a bit to unravel this traditional narrative. Takeda’s siege of Nagashino castle, the reason for the battle’s occurrence, and a flanking force sent by Nobunaga to trap Katsuyori, have partly undone the claims of arrogance. Though it is accepted that Nobunaga brought a good deal of matchlocks, the number, and his use of ranked volley fire, is still debated. The most contemporary source doesn’t mention the new tactics and the terrain wasn’t conducive to volley fire. The real threat to Takeda’s cavalry seems to have been the terrain itself and the optimal position that Nobunaga was able to secure before battle was joined.

Some scholars argue that the growth of the mythologized version of Nagashino came about as a direct result of the nation building that accompanied the modernization of Meiji Japan (1867-1912) and persisted since. The young Imperial Japanese army (IJA), wishing to instill good virtues and pride in Japan’s military history, commissioned from its officers’ in-depth reports on famous battles of Japan’s past. Most of the conclusions reached in these reports, it is argued, coincide with contemporary issues the IJA faced, making it difficult to take them at face value.

The following three games contain scenarios dedicated to the battle of Nagashino. They each represent a very different style of wargame, dealing with different gameplay issues and narrative feel.

Sengoku Jida: Shadow of the Shogun

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Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun is the most traditional of the three games examined. A predecessor to the wildly popular Fields of Glory II, Sengoku Jidai is a robust wargame that offers the deepest tactical gameplay of the three. Its version of the Battle of Nagashino sees the player take command of the ill-fated Takeda army. Happily, the geography is mostly correct and the number of men on each side, roughly 30,000 for Oda and 15,000 for Takeda, is close to the accepted numbers in contemporary accounts. Oda’s forces outnumbered, out positioned, and outgunned Takeda’s in all tellings. I fought the battle twice.

In my first playthrough I decided to follow Katsuyori’s orders and charge my cavalry across the field while a flanking force, led by Yamagata Masakage, rolled up the left. Appropriately, the stream and palisades broke my charge. I would not find success fighting as Katsuyori wished and, to be fair, neither did he. My second attempt was more rational, benefiting as it did from 450 years of hindsight. I opted to push hard on the Yamagata Masakage’s flank, while sending the venerable Baba Nobuharu on a feint to the right. The AI was clever, and never abandoned their fortifications, though they sent their reserves to counter my feint, resulting in a hard-won Takeda victory.

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Yamagata Masakage’s famed Red Brigade punches through the soft left flank, exposing Nobunaga’s underbelly.

Sengoku Jidai’s representation of the battle falls on the modern side. The robust wargaming system allows the designers to place appropriate emphasis on the role of terrain and fortifications, while still allowing for experience, armour, and the presence of famous generals to impact the outcome of engagements. Nobunaga’s defence isn’t positioned as the first use of volley fire in Japan, instead the units of matchlock men are treated as they are throughout the game, reflecting the more modern understanding of the growing ubiquity of firearms during the Warring States period. The only scruple I have with the game is unit composition, and it is entirely forgivable.

There is evidence to suggest armies of the Warring States period did not neatly divide themselves into units of similarly armed fighters, but rather fought in mixed formations. Sengoku Jidai’s tight units betray the fact that it is, above all else, a wargame. Reducing units to almost indistinguishable blobs only limits tactical choice, and it is remains an acceptable adjustment to ensure engaging gameplay. In the end, Sengoku Jidai offers a rewarding attempt to challenge the odds and see Katsuyori victorious in a manner that mostly mirrors the modern understanding of the battle.

Total War: Shogun 2

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Total War: Shogun 2 presents the battle of Nagashino from the Oda perspective. Instead of focusing exclusively on the relatively static defense set up by Nobunaga, the game situates the battle as part of a larger clash, including the siege of Nagashino Castle and Nobunaga’s flanking force. This proves to be necessary, because the actual battle at the palisade as represented in Total War is quite simplistic. It is clear that the focus is on the spectacle.

Total War: Shogun 2 is still a pretty game, and when it was released it couldn’t be matched in terms of large scale 3D battles. The geography is unfortunately quite bland, but it is nice to see Nagashino castle feature prominently in the second half of the scenario. The animation and uncharacteristic uniformity of the units makes this battle of Nagashino feel more like a film set piece rather than a historical recreation. But there is something in allowing the player gets to sit back and see hundreds of Takeda cavalry charge to their doom while watching smoke rise and spears flash. The numbers on either side are much smaller than in reality, with the total soldier count barely exceeding the number of matchlocks Nobunaga was supposed to have brought. But in the haze and confusion of a pretty 3D battle, it’s hard to take note.

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The Aftermath of the first wave. Takeda’s second wave approaches while Oda spearmen retake positions between the palisades.

The reduction in scale and limited player options are countered by the second half the battle, which sees Oda’s forces, including the flanking force, marching on Nagashino Castle to relieve it. This allows for more tactical options from the player, especially when deciding how best to use the flanking force. In the end though, Total War’s offering of Nagashino is light, pretty, and while relatively current in its representation, taking the flanking force and castle siege into consideration, the simplicity of the set up and homogeneity of the units makes it hard to recommend repeated playthrough. Boot it up and marvel at the movie-like spectacle.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Nobunaga’s Ambition is a very different wargame. A venerable series stretching back to 1983, developer Koei has produced 15 iterations of Nobunaga’s Ambition, along with similar titles dealing with China’s Warring States period. This is a grand strategy game with roleplaying elements. It is similar, in a way, to Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, in that the player must make sense of a complex tapestry of relations, alliances, and grudges, to succeed.

Nobunaga’s Ambition has a distinctive flair to it, aided by the still image cutscenes that introduce historical scenarios, in-game events, or crucial moments during battles. The game plays out like a Japanese period drama, and while some might find the constant interruptions annoying, I felt it gave the game a certain charm, and helped enmesh me in the fully romanticized version of history that it seeks to present to players.

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This happens every few minutes, or less. Historical Battles in Nobunaga’s Ambition are about the story.

There is no attempt at modernizing the representation of the Battle of Nagashino here. Nobunaga’s Ambition fully sides with the romantic classical interpretation of the battle. Nobunaga mentions many times that he will revolutionize warfare with his new tactics, and the number of matchlocks is brought up again and again. In fact, during a playthrough as the Oda forces, I attempted to reposition a unit.

This led to a cutscene where Nobunaga himself threw up his hands in disgust at my insolence, said warfare would have to remain the same since I wouldn’t listen, and abandoned the battle to be fought by his hapless and much abused vassal (and future murderer *spoilers!*), Akechi Mitsuhide. Playing as the Takeda side leads to a much different ending, and much more engaging battle, though the same interruptions occur whenever leaders achieve certain objectives. Katsuyori’s story is given a few twists, like the surprise arrival of reinforcements to help drive the attack home. The game is fun, and it is interesting to see a very different perspective on the Battle of Nagashino, but wargamers may be off put by its emphasis on drama and character.

Conclusion

Though modern scholarship has eroded some of the more spectacular facets of the traditional telling of the Battle of Nagashino, the weight of the affair, both militarily and culturally, continues unabated. The battle did see the end of the Takeda clan as a force to be reckoned with, and none can argue that matchlocks were not becoming a more integral part of the Japanese battlefield by this time. While Nobunaga’s Ambition forewent modern reinterpretations, it is entirely fitting that such a perspective would be taken given the style of the game.

Total War: Shogun 2, while limited by its 3D engine, offered a spectacle that evokes the sense of urgency for the defenders and despair for the attackers at seeing the cream of the Takeda crop laid low. Sengoku Jidai, by offering the most hardcore wargaming, allows players to seek a different conclusion, and better understand the difficulties facing Katsuyori.

Further Reading

  • Conlan, Thomas. Weapons and Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior, 1200-1877 AD. London: Amber Books, 2008.
  • Fujimoto Masayuki. Nagashino no Tatakai: Nobunaga no Shoin, Katsuyori no Haiin. Tokyo: Yosensha. 2010.
  • Leadbetter, Nathan H., “Invented Histories: The Nihon Senshi of the Meiji Imperial Japanese Army.” In Asian Studies, 01 June 2018, Vol. 6(2)
  • Ota Gyuichi. The Chronicles of Lord Nobunaga. Jurgas Elisonas and Jeroen Lamers trans. Brill, 2011.

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