Sangokushi Taisen is a long-running and popular series in Japanese arcades, its initially strange mix of collectable trading cards and real-time strategy turning out to not only be incredibly good fun but also commercially successful; it has spawning multiple sequels, Japan-flavoured spin-off Sengoku Taisen, heaps of merchandise and even a traditional trading card game, too.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that Sega wanted to give arcade goers something to keep them occupied when they weren’t battling away in the arcades, and in 2007 they had their first stab at translating that arcade feel to the domestic market with the imaginatively titled Sangokushi Taisen DS. It proved to be a hit and fans were rewarded with Sangokushi Taisen Ten a year later, reworked to be both closer to the latest arcade version — 3.0 — and yet also offer plenty for single player gamers to do as well.
The basic premise is simple enough to understand. You and your opponent are on opposite ends of a battlefield, and your job is to attack their castle and destroy it while preventing them from doing the same to you. To keep everyone on the offensive there’s a short timer in place and as with most arcade games the rules are that the person with the lowest health when it runs out loses the match.
Of course, before you even get into battle there’s a bit of deck building to do – do you want just a few powerful generals out in the field or an army of weaker ones? Will you restrict yourself to a single faction or is the penalty to your total morale pool worth including a few good Shu troops into your Wei deck? Decks are very small; you are allotted eight points to spend on your team and cards can cost anything up to three, so it’s important to create a deck that works well together and has a clear play style. Your team is further complimented by a tactician card that doesn't directly enter battle but instead can offer useful buffs instead, such as reducing the respawn counter on KO’d cards or giving everyone a boost to their attack power.
Once you've chosen your team of wannabe castle-destroyers it’s time to go out there and do battle, and this is where the game really sets itself apart from both classic trading card games and traditional real-time strategy fare. The lower screen is where all the important decisions happen, with the stylus moving your troops around as you’d expect them to, but what makes it especially interesting is the (appropriately enough) arcade-like manipulation of the cards to perform special attacks – like spear-men striking at enemies if you quickly jab the card in their direction, and cavalry charging if you give them enough clear ground to build up speed. This adds a feeling of control and personal skill to the game – a powerful card is useless in the wrong hands, while a clever player can turn things around if they know how to use all the abilities available to them.
As well as online multiplayer, this DS version of the game has two main ways for Sangokushi fans to while away the hours: an extensive campaign mode and a series of challenges against pre-constructed decks to thoroughly test your abilities to the limits. The campaign covers various parts of the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms story, and requires players to conquer a particular target within a limited number of turns while defending their own freshly-liberated castles from attack. This extra layer of pre-battle territory management is a welcome one, and something that would be great to see return in a sequel.
Which brings us to some unfortunate news; even though the Sangokushi Taisen series continues to do well in arcades, this DS release is sadly still the most recent home version available. The 3DS and the Wii U would make perfect partners for the series thanks to their dual screen design, built-in touchscreens and online capabilities, but for whatever reason Sega hasn't graced us with even an idle rumour about a new home port yet. On the other hand, that does mean this region-free game is still the best version around, and the English language hints and tips on the official website will definitely help those curious enough to give this excellent strategy game a chance.