Skulls of the Shogun is a game created by Jake Kazdal, Ben Vance and Borut Pfeifer, three guys with extensive game development backgrounds who decided to go it independently as Haunted Temple Studios. We saw it in action last October, but I'd never heard of it before, and I was instantly charmed by the premise: a group of cartoon-y skeleton Shogun warriors battle it out in turn-based strategy, with no hexes to be seen."People get excited when they look at it and there's no grid," Vance told me. Shogun has all of the complexity of classic turn-based strategy titles like Advance Wars, Shining Force, and Battle for Wesnoth, but for some reason the removal of hexes (your characters are simply given a circle to move around in on their turns) makes it much more simple and accessible. "I think maybe there's something to, you don't maybe consciously think it," says Vance, "but you think, am I going to have to count squares and do some math? People don't like math."
Unlike other games of this genre, there's simplicity in the units as well -- players get access to only three types of units (Archery, Infantry, and Cavalry), as well as a sleeping general who can be awakened when the player needs a character with two moves per turn. Shogun who fall in battle drop their heads, which can be consumed by enemy units to gain more strength. And powered-up skulls keep their power, so the tide can turn multiple times in one battle.
The maps of the game provide depth as well -- you can conquer rice paddies to earn in-game currency, or take over shrines to win extra, specialized forces. A salamander monk has a powerful fire spell, and a crow monk can gust forces around to break up a line. Lose the shrine, though, and you've lost that fighter. Two teams can form a deadly alliance to share rice, but someone's going to get backstabbed eventually -- only one team can win.
Again, it's surprisingly deep and simultaneously accessible. The look doesn't hurt -- Vance says the character design is inspired by classic '60s anime and vinyl toy. The maps are grounded in real Japanese experience. Developer Jake Kazdal lived in Japan for a few years, and Vance says he "wanted to create something that kind of captured the feeling of living there through the seasons."
Currently, the maps are Haunted Temple's main focus, as the mechanics of the game are pretty much laid out. Vance says there will be a full twenty-map single-player campaign to play through, and at least five multiplayer maps as well, although those are currently being built and balanced out.
An actual release date is "not quite official yet," acccording to Vance. "We're talking to people." The team definitely plans to bring the game to the PC later this year, and it's practically made for Xbox Live (as you can see from the screenshots above), but Haunted Temple is still in talks with Microsoft.
Here's hoping it gets that release -- Skulls of the Shogun was one of the best titles on the floor of E3 this year, and I can't wait to dive in to the game along with other players who want to enjoy turn-based strategy without all the ... y'know ... math.