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Designer Diary: Seven Swords

Oscar Arévalo
Spain
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Microbadge: Gen-X Games fanMicrobadge: Stalag 17 fanMicrobadge: Constantly thinking about game designMicrobadge: Seven Swords fan
Board Game: Seven Swords
The first idea for Seven Swords came to me six or seven years ago after watching, for the fourth time, the Akira Kurosawa movie Seven Samurai. I took my notebook and started with a draft of the village, with its entries and a central square. The idea was to create a co-operative game in which each player could control one samurai, while the rest of the samurai and the villagers were there to help these players fight the bandits, which would be controlled by the game system.

The idea filled three or four sheets, but it didn't please me, so I forgot the idea. From time to time I thought again on the project and took back the notebook, adding new notes, new rules, different mechanisms that fit in the game — but they did not match each other, and I couldn't find a way to match them.

One day, returning home on a train, what I needed came to mind. The game would be based on the last battle of the movie, which involved two groups: the samurais and villagers, and the bandits. The idea was set in my mind, but instead of working on it, I again watched the movie — after which I had the base idea of how the main mechanisms of the game should be.

In all action movies (as in most stories with several leading roles or co-leading roles), there is a moment when one or more of them die. It doesn't matter that the heroes seem invincible; the spectator knows that one of them will fall. This was the idea I wanted to develop: It didn't matter how good or powerful the characters were as there would come a time when one of them would die.

Board Game: Seven Swords
Prototype game board
And then — out came the rule of sectors.

The village has seven sectors, or game areas, and as the battle progresses the scene in which one of the heroes must die comes closer. Of course, the game is made so that a clever player can read the strategies of his enemy and (one hopes) save his samurai from the trap — but each turn this becomes more difficult, and in the end there will be a moment when a samurai, possibly several, will die. That is why the samurai are so hard to kill by a bandit's hands in normal combat, but as the script says, one must die. There is no turning back. Someone must fall victim to a lost arrow, a long shot, an ambush, or other evilness.

How to translate that idea into the game? Just as a movie is limited to a certain number of minutes and a novel to a certain number of pages, the game would have a limited number of turns before you learn whether the samurai repeal the bandits or the bandits defeat the brave samurai.

So, again, I divided the village into seven sectors, and the bandit player — as the game was no longer co-operative — has a card in each sector. Each turn, the bandit player must discard one of those cards; the samurai player won't know for certain which sector belongs to each card, but he will have some clues. On a certain turn, the bandit player discards a sector card in order to kill the samurai in that sector (his time is over), and the samurai player cannot do anything to avoid it (the script says so). In this way, as the game progresses, the samurai player acts under the pressure of knowing that he must think through each movement well as the bandit player can possibly kill a samurai without the need for hand-to-hand combat. Thus, the samurai player's plans must change according to the strategy revealed by the bandit.

The other basic rule in this game was the actions.

The samurai have different actions grouped into three categories: combat, movement and leadership. To combat hand to hand or to shoot a bow, the player must use the combat action of the samurai; to move around the village, he uses the action of movement; and to order the villagers to attack or to close palisades, he uses the leadership action. Once a samurai uses an action, he cannot use it again until the action tiles restore these actions.

What are those action tiles? The three basic tiles have a value of seven actions; if the player chooses one of these, he has seven actions to play with his samurai this turn. After playing one tile, the player must place it face down — and if he chooses to play this tile again, he'll have only three actions instead of seven. One difference: If he chooses the red tile, his samurai will be able to attack again, even if they have fought before; if he chooses the blue tile, all of his samurai can move again; and so on.

The game includes two other action tiles. One gives few actions, but it's useful because its B side removes two action tokens of whatever kind from samurai. The final tile gives only one action, but its B side removes all action tokens from samurai so that the player can once again play any of his actions. On top of these decisions, the bandit player gets his actions from both the sector cards and the actions played by the samurai player, forcing the samurai player to be careful with his choice of action tile; after all, the more actions the samurai player takes, the more actions the bandit player has.

The samurai player starts the game with all of the victory points, and he must stand his ground for 18 turns. The bandit player must lunge into the village with a good plan if he wants to win as the time stands against him.

Board Game: Seven Swords

In the first games, when players are less experienced, the samurai player can't react well to his errors or setbacks, while the bandit player has never-ending troops and can often afford to keep attacking without worry of a bad movement or plan. Thus, I recommend playing twice, with players switching sides and summing their victory points from both games to determine who wins.

Another important aspect for the samurai player is the setting of the villager houses, the bows, the palisades, the rice, and the samurai themselves. All of this encompasses the preparation of the village for the attack. With this material, he can try to mislead the bandit player by making him believe that the higher values of points are in well-defended places so that the bandit player wastes a lot of time infiltrating them, while ending up with few points.

The bandit player should try to mislead with the sector cards to catch the samurai he wants to kill, or to move him out from the sector from where he wants to enter the village. He must keep in mind that he has six possible entry points to the village, and he can attack from different places at the same time, forcing the samurai player to divide his forces or else surrender sectors. The bandit player will need his three kinds of troops to achieve his objective: The bandit tokens are useful for blocking the samurai and opening the palisades, and they cost little to play them; the archers are essential to support attacks against places with a high defense or to hurt the samurai; and the mounted bandits, because of their movement skill, are a perfect choice to take out supply tokens from the village. These mounted bandits can also support attacks or win the control of a sector quickly.

But I won't reveal more strategies. Each player develops his own, and they will undoubtedly be better than those I revealed in this article. I hope that everyone who plays Seven Swords has a good time and is inspired to develop new ways of playing the game. Greetings to all, and thanks a lot for reading me!

Óscar Arévalo
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