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Subject: The long road that led to Senji rss

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Dave Maynor
United States
Peachtree City
Georgia
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While travelling for work, I came across a shop that still had a copy of Senji on its' shelf. As part of my goal to always try to support local gaming when I travel, I had to pick it up. This went well beyond my normal price range for this kind of purchase, but since the game was out of print, I made the exception.

This wasn't a blind buy, as I had played Senji a few times before. At our local gaming shop in Spokane, WA there was a store copy that laid dormant until my son and I decided to try it one day. All the pieces still in their cardboard sheets like new, we started punching them out and reading the rules. Our normal group gathered to play Legend of the Five Rings (the CCG) so the theme was fitting, little did we know how spot on it would be.

That first game of 5 led to a game with 6 the same night. Then the following week, another play. I offered to buy the store copy but the owner (damn you Bob) finally got to play once, and refused since he loved it and wanted to keep his copy. Here it is over a year later, and I finally have my own copy, and have introduced it to 3 more people, who seemed to enjoy it.

This game, of all games, has turned into a sort of quest for me..... so here is a mini-review.

First, the components-

In a word, gorgeous. The theme is a comic book style of art infused with traditional Sumi-e. From the art on the Hanufuda cards to the actual miniature Samurai, everything is excellent. The cards feel a bit thin, but not cheap, and sleeving would solve any concerns... and these cards WILL see some wear.

Game Play -

The game takes place over the course of a number of years, each year marked by 4 seasons. Each season is a distinctly different play style from the others, and for some, this can be a turn off. But for those who like variety, who like allowing multiple skill sets to come to bear on your chances in a game, this is amazing.

Each year starts with determining who is hosting the Emperor. All of you are competing to become Shogun, so you want to attain the highest honor with the Emperor, and whoever has the current highest honor hosts this years Winter Court. As a little back story here, in feudal Japan, it was common for court to be held each winter, forcing each family to travel, and often leaving family members in the capitol to be used as influential bargaining chips... see hostages.

The host is a very powerful position, so you will have everyone else out to get you on any turn you are in control, or trying to curry your favor. Fear not, the game makes it difficult for them to outright destroy you when you get into the lead, for you are in charge of all timing for the year. More on that later.

Next you move into the Winter phase, and host turns over the included timer (a little hourglass/sand timer) which will run for 4 minutes. During these 4 minutes, you will be trading cards from your hand that represent your offer to other Daimyos (family leaders) in the coming year(s). You can give them the offer a trade, the offer of military assistance or even turn over a family member into their care to secure an alliance. Nothing is off limits during this diplomacy phase except Hanafuda cards. It is worth noting, you can never play cards of your own color/faction, they are only useful once traded.

Agree to not attack? Sure. Agree to both attack the host? No problem. Offer trade cards of another player you happen to have? Yup! You can trade to the host for favorable timing of your actions even, again more on this in a bit. It is even suggested that you can move away from the table to make these bargains, away from prying earns and eyes. However, at 4 minutes, the host needs to call time, and all transactions must stop.

After winter ends, you go into spring. Spring is a planning phase, and each player will choose one of 3 actions he make take with each of his current provinces. One each they will place a face down marker that represents either a Move action which can also lead to an attack, a draw action which allows the drawing of 2 more Hanafuda cards or a Recruit action which allows for 2 more military units to be added to the province. This shows that no matter what approach you are taking, controlling provinces equals having options to act. You can play the game avoiding all military, but your chances are greatly reduced. No province can hold more than 6 military units either, and as combats are brutally fatal for both sides, the game is not so much about holding territory, as it is a constantly changing landscape.

Moving into summer, we now resolve our actions on each of our provinces. There is a caveat to this however..... the host determines the order they resolve. And not the order each player acts, but the order each province resolves. Did you trade the host a useful card so that you could reinforce before your neighbor attacked you? You didn't?

When a move action results into one army moving into another, combat ensues. The attacker rolls all the included dice, which have symbols on each face representing each family/faction. Each die face that comes up with 1 participants faction counts as a military unit in that fight, added to the physical military units on that particular space on the game board. yes, you can move your 3 units onto an opponents' 1 unit, and roll ALL support for him, thus losing.

Combat is not a raw numbers game however, as you can sway battles. First, your Samurai may participate which adds one successful die for your faction automatically, plus any other effects of their special abilities. Also, each player will reveal one card at the battles resolution. Remember those military support cards you traded for in winter? This is where they come into play. If you show a card with another players symbol, you get to use their die as support for your military also, up to a number of die equal to the number on the card. But, if the opponent also plays a card of that player, only the highest card draws their support in that battle. After the battle these cards go back to their owner.

Once the final tally is in, a winner and loser is determined, and it is time for casualties. The winner automatically loses as many military units as he destroyed. If you attack a province of 3 military units with your 4 units, no matter the outcome, if you win you will only have 1 unit left there. Battles are bloody, and they do not lead to strongly reinforced territories.

After all provinces are resolved, we move to fall. this is the time all those Hanafuda cards get turned in for scoring opportunities. They are a set collection mechanic, but they actually represent economic gains within the year. You can use them to gain honor, or recruit new Samurai to aid your cause. Again, the host determines the order each player may turn in their cards, and this can change things. All those trading cards in Winter with a ship on them (you DID trade away cards, right?) now come back to you. But when a player hands you a trade card, you have to show him as many cards from your hand as the number on the trade card, and he gets to choose and take one. So you may have a great set to turn in, and another player yanks away one critical card before you have a chance to turn in. You did bribe....err.... pay your respects to the host so you would go first, right?

After each year completes, you check who is in the lead. The leader is the new host of the Emperor, and the previous host gets to choose if there is a tie, and the game moves on.

I know, for a 'mini-review' this got long, but there is just sooo much going on in this game worth mentioning. There are more details on combat and Samurai and such, but this flow in and of itself covers quite a few gaming skills. We have negotiation, we have territory control, we have set collection and there is even some risky die rolling in the combat element. All of it comes together beautifully.

Now, the game says it will play with as few as 3, and it has mechanics to adjust based on number of players, but I really don't think it shines until you are at 5 or 6. Once everyone gets the flow of the game, it really is great. I personally think it is one of my top gaming experiences overall.
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Stefano Crespi
Italy
Bologna
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Glad you've completed your quest, Dave.
Thanks for sharing.
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Joe Reil
United States
Barre
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Good review. I'm fond of this one and I think its generally underrated.
 
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Nice review! Got it when it was released, played it on four - didn't really work, but will give it a try with six in a few weeks time.
 
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Joe Reil
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badmojo wrote:
Nice review! Got it when it was released, played it on four - didn't really work, but will give it a try with six in a few weeks time.


I played it a few times last year - just played another one tonight. Tonight was with four, which is less than ideal, as you say, but it's still a good game.

What that really hammered home for me is that it's a deeper game than it appears to be on the surface and I really need to get in a couple of 6-player games soon so I can put it through some paces.
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