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Game Preview: Sake & Samurai

Andrea Ligabue
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After the debut of Munera: Familia Gladiatoria in 2010, I was interested in seeing more from new Italian publisher Albe Pavo. Admittedly Munera is not really a top class game, but it was a good first release – and the attention that Albe Pavo devoted to the illustrations in and graphic design of that game, as well as historical details used, kept my interest alive.

In case you feel the same (or are discovering Albe Pavo for the first time), here is an overview of the publisher's next release, Sake & Samurai, scheduled for Q3 2011, starting with an interview of designer Matteo Santus.

Liga: After the gladiators of Munera, now you have samurai; it seems you are fascinated by warriors and history, doesn't it?

Matteo Santus: Yes, we love both warriors and history – and of course we also love sake! In fact, we are working on a number of projects, and many of them are about neither history nor warriors, but in this case, we follow the same background path as Munera: Swords of the past!

Liga: At first glance, the game appears somewhat light, but by going through the rules and playing the game, you discover something deep and strategic. Who is the target of this release?

MS: We designed the game with the purpose of creating a sort of party game, something fast and fun to play, but with the strategic depth necessary to give it longevity and real fun.

I think that many people would like it. People who love to play easy games with friends will find in it a fun way to pass an evening (by playing multiple matches), but in addition people looking for strategic choices and competition will find it interesting because Sake & Samurai is not just a party game!

(Liga must have a different definition of "light" than I do. —WEM)

Liga: Most card games usually suffer from too much randomness. Do you think you have eliminated this problem in this game?

MS: In Sake & Samurai every card can be played in at least two different ways: to take actions or to use its text. And you have many choices to do: different actions, different cards. The randomness of card games is moderated by the number of choices you can do. Draw a card with useless text? Take an action, as they're always useful! For as long as we playtested the game, we never received comments like "I was unlucky with my hand" because you can use everything in different ways! Of course you might not find a specific card you want, but that's the game! Can't find a naginata? Use a katana! Both can kill! :-)

Liga: Munera was released less than one year ago and now you are ready with a new release. How long did it take to design and playtest Sake & Samurai?

MS: We always have multiple games under development and the playtesting phase can be vary from little more than a year to more than three years. I must admit that Sake & Samurai came very fast to a stable level and it took a little more than a year to develop it, playtesting intensely. We work every day on our products because we want to be sure that they are ready when published!

Liga: Is there something you want to share with us about this game before it hits the market?

MS: In Sake & Samurai we designed a very fun way to have dead samurai keep playing and doing so in a totally different way! Sake & Samurai is about drunken samurai killing each other, but we didn't want to have a samurai killed too soon, with his player then having nothing to do but wait. So we designed the Ghosts of Enma, the God of Death, who are thirsty for sake from the living world! In my opinion, that's a really fun way to play Sake & Samurai because the Ghosts play in a totally different way. (During the game, for example, they use the back of cards because they are dead and see things from the other side!) I want people to know that while Sake & Samurai is a game about cruel dueling in which samurai die easily, no player is eliminated from the game!

Now for some details about how to play. Note that I have played an early prototype version of the game, with almost final rules but with provisional materials.

Players are thirsty and fierce samurai ready to make all efforts to drink the last glass of sake. To win the game, you must be alive at the end and have drunken more sake than any other player.

Each player starts with a small board, a samurai card, and a katana card. Each samurai has different skills and life points. Each turn you play up to two cards, use your followers, draw two cards, and decide the weapon you'll have in hand during other players' turns.

There is no game board, but the players are separated from one another by "step counters". At the beginning of the game you are three steps away from the samurai on your left and on your right; during the game you can move left or right, switching the side of the step counter. It's a brillant way of maintaining the relative positions of samurai without using a real board.

During your turn you can move, attack or drink, or you can use the special text on a card to play followers, weapons, objcets or events. The game features simple rules and a lot of options.

Drinking sake (which you need to do to win the game) requires you to place a sake counter on one of your played cards (weapons, samurai, objects), which means you then lose the special effect of this card – a smart way to simulate the effects of alcohol. When the last drop of sake has vanished from the masu, players start the final round.

During the game samurai (and followers) fight each other and often die. Killed samurai become Ghosts of Enma and can work together to kill the other players in order to win the game together. In the end, the winner could be a single living samurai or all of the dead ones.
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