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In Sengoku, the player assumes the role of a Japanese clan leader during the warring states period, with the starting date being either right after the start of the Ōnin War of 1467, or Oda Nobunaga's rise to clan leadership at 1551. Similarly to Crusader Kings, Sengoku focuses on individual characters rather then abstract governments, and finding wives for your sons, producing heirs and pleasing your lord or vassals is as important as conquering lands and constructing buildings. It is not uncommon to see a so-far successful clan tearing itself apart because of a succession crisis, and if your clan leader dies without a direct male heir, it's game over.
In addition to the standard currency (which is used to construct certain buildings and hire soldiers for a leader's retinue), each character has a certain amount of honor. Honor can be gained by donating money to the emperor, granting titles to your vassals and through certain character traits. In turn, honor is spent by hatching plots, declaring wars and other “shameful” tasks. If a character's honor gets too low, his liege might order him to commit Seppuku, so maintaining your honor is sometimes even more important than being rich or powerful.
While the game shies away from historical Event flags, some historical events like the Ikkō-ikki rebellions or the Portuguese and Dutch landing in Japan are bound to happen in every game. Other then that, the game itself is basically a large sandbox with an overarching mission to control 50% of Japan, then convince the emperor to grant you the title of Shogun.
This game provide examples of the following tropes:
- A Child Shall Lead Them: Possible if a clan leader dies before his heir turns sixteen. This is especially dangerous since vassals are less likely to follow an underage leader and he can lose control of the clan in favor of a pretender.
- Alternate History: Though Your Mileage May Vary as you are only changing Japan's history and in a very limited sense – no matter what you do, it will still be ruled by an emperor and behind the west in terms of technology.
- Apathetic Citizens: Averted. Even if your feudal vassals are pleased you can still suffer through religious or Ikkō-ikki rebellions.
- Arranged Marriage: Finding wives for your sons and sending off daughters to ensure political favor is a big part of this game's diplomacy.
- A Winner Is You: Once the player controls 50% of Japan, petitions the Emperor and keeps the peace for three years, the game pretty much just pop a message saying "Well, congratulations, Japan is at peace and you won the game. Um, you can quit now if you feel like it".
- Balkanize Me: It is possible to convince minor vassals from a rival clan to join your clan or rebel against their own clan leader.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: Be ruthless in your conquest, fruitful in the bedchamber and generous to your cousins and you'll most likely end up with half of your lands being ruled by uncles and other relatives. Of course, intermarriage and rebellions are usually soon to follow.
- Character Portrait: Each character above the age of sixteen gets one.
- Chokepoint Geography: Terrain and province layouts grant certain bonuses for armies who attack or defend them, and patch 1.2 added the impassable mountains mod.
- Civil War: Once a clan gets large enough it is almost impossible to stop these from happening.
- Cosmetically Different Sides: Gameplay is almost identical no matter which dynasty you choose to play. The only difference is whether you choose a clan leader (in which case you have to fight other clans) or a minor ruler (in which case you're usually more concerned about plotting to form your own clan).
- Color-Coded Armies: All clans use the same color-swapped Samurai figure to represent their armies.
- Curb Stomp Battle: Newly-formed clans will sometimes form with only three or four provinces and quickly fall pray to the larger bordering clans.
- Deadly Decadent Court: On top of this, each landed character has his own court, and therefore, the ability to hire ninja and ronin. That is potentially a lot of deadly decadence.
- Easy Communication: Even in Feudal Japan, the player knows about everything that happens in his domain the second it happens.
- Everything's Better with Samurai: The standard soldiers of the Japanese clans.
- Fog of War: Strangely for a strategy game – averted. You can see everything that goes on in all of Japan at all times.
- Game Breaking Bug: The AI seems deathly afraid of risking his honor, meaning it is almost impossible to convince other leaders to join your plot or break away from their clans.
- Heir Club for Men: Producing male heirs is one of the most important aspects of gameplay.
- Historical Domain Character: All characters present at the game's start are actual historical leaders of their respective Japanese clans. As of patch 1.2, a new starting date was added to the game, set right after Oda Nobunaga assumes leadership over clan Oda.
- Hired Swords: The player can hire Ronin to serve in his own personal retinue.
- I Have Your Wife: Two-way and contractual in most cases, but ninja can be hired to play this trope straight.
- Honor Before Reason: There are game mechanics for this.
- Infant Immortality: Oh so averted. ANY character can die, including newborns and minors. If you're feeling extra evil you can also order Ninjas to assassinate a character, regardless of their age.
- In the Blood: Characters pass on traits to their descendants.
- Instant Awesome, Just Add Ninja: Ninjas can be hired to preform various stealthy actions, from burning down a guild house to weakening defenses and assassinating characters.
- Japanese Christian: Westerners make an appearance around the mid sixteenth century, bringing Christianity (and Arquebuses!) with them.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: An integral part of the game.
- Magikarp Power: Unlike other Paradox titles, there are no claim, casus belli, core or culture mechanisms so even the smallest of clans can become a giant monster clan in a couple of decades.
- Ninja: Notable in this game for being wandering clans who will work for exactly one year and then move on.
- Put on a Bus: The player can force underlings to retire to a monastery
- Real Time with Pause: Just like all other Paradox strategy titles.
- Relationship Values: Each character has an opinion of your character. Keeping these high is the only way to ensure the loyalty of your underlings.
- Risk Style Map: In proud Paradox tradition.
- Ronin: Goes with the whole warring clans business.
- Samurai: Naturally
- The Starscream: Goes with the whole samurai and clan business, to the point where there's whole game mechanics dedicated to dealing with such individuals or being one yourself.
- Succession Crisis: Managed to conquer a third of Japan? Your clan leader has five daughters and a six year old boy with a lisp? Good luck trying to hold your lands!
- The Emperor: While the emperor himself is not a playable character, the player can petition him for titles or donate to the imperial court to gain honor.
- Video Game Cruelty Potential: Oh so very much. If your honor is high enough you can declare wars on whomever you like, send ninjas to assassinate a rival's single male heir, revoke titles and banish to monasteries.
- Video Game Geography: For some reason the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is missing from the game. Japan also seems to float in the middle of the ocean as both Korea and China are not present on the game's map.
- This was done to keep the game focused on conquering Japan, not expanding elsewhere. Hokkaido in particular was omitted because Japan didn't begin colonizing it until late in the game's timeframe, so it seemed like an unnecessary mechanic for one area.
- We Have Reserves: Since armies are mostly made out of levies, it is sometimes useful to send them to their death, disband whomever was left alive, wait a couple of weeks and raise them again at full strength. The base manpower for levies never decreases so you can never get to a point where levies stop regenerating, as would normally be the case in other Paradox strategy games. There is also no visible "manpower" number for standing armies (retinues), like in other Paradox strategy games, so in theory nobody can ever run out of professional soldiers as long as they have the gold to pay for recruiting and upkeep.