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Subject: Review: Samurai rss

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Michael Cheong
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Overview
Samurai is designed by all-too-famous Reiner Knizia, and published by Rio Grande Games. Set in medieval Japan, players vie for control of the throne of Japan by winning the support of the 3 castes of Japanese society: warrior, priest and peasant. Typical of Knizia’s games, Samurai is inherently mathematical, using numbered tiles to carry the game through, making the theme pretty much irrelevant beyond the visual aspect of the game (Ra, anyone?).

Components
I have mixed feelings about the components of Samurai. On one hand, the game board is quite a pleasure to behold. Rather than being a typical, rectangular, fold-open board, the ‘board’ is actually made up of 4 fragmented puzzle pieces that are pieced together to from the map of Japan. The faded hues used are pleasing to the eye and suit the “medieval Oriental” theme well. Each player is also given an identical set of hex-shaped, colour-coded tiles and a cardboard screen to mask the player’s tiles. These are also well illustrated and the tiles are language independent.

On the flipside, there is the box cover. I don’t find it to my liking because it feels “Orientalised” rather than authentically Japanese. That’s my take. The black plastic figurines are nice, with the exception of the high helmet, which reminds me of everything except the warrior caste of medieval Japan. Bizarre. Besides these minor quibbles, it’s generally a well-produced game.

Setup
Samurai benefits from being a language independent game, because setup and gameplay are relatively intuitive. First, players have to choose the tiles they will start with. This can be done randomly (best for novice players) or chosen specifically. Each player starts with 5 tiles and there are no restrictions on the type of tiles chosen.

During this setup phase, players also have to place the figurines on the various cities scattered across the map. Once again, placement can be done randomly or players can take turns to place the figurines in a strategic manner. Most cities have a single building, some have 2 and Edo, in the centre, has 3. Basically, there must be a figurine for each building; so, most cities get 1 figurine each, the double building cities get 2 and Edo gets 3. A city cannot have 2 of the same figurine, so Edo has 1 one each type and the double building cities have 2 different figurines. Players start by setting up Edo first, then placing figurines for the double building cities before moving on the single building cities. To simply reiterate, there are 3 different types of figurines representing a different caste: buddhas (priest), rice (peasant), high helmet (warrior).

The Tiles and What They Do
Players take turns to place tiles on the map of Japan, which has a hex-grid superimposed upon it. Each player can only place one tile per turn, but you can play any number of “fast” tiles, which I will elaborate on. Wherever a tile is placed, it exerts that player’s influence on any pieces adjacent to it. However, not every tile can exert influence on all pieces adjacent to it. This is dependent upon the picture illustrated on the tile, which I will describe in detail.

First, there are the caste-specific tiles. The picture on these tiles corresponds to the caste that they exert influence upon. Therefore, there are tiles with a buddha illustration, a high helmet illustration and a rice illustration. These tiles can only influence figurines of the same type and neither of the other 2. The numbers on these tiles range from 2, 3 and 4 (more on the numbers later). Then, there are the samurai tiles. Unlike the caste-specific tiles, samurai tiles are generic, meaning that they influence all figurines adjacent to them, regardless of the caste they represent. The numbers on these tiles range from 1, 2 and 3. Finally, there is the replacement tile. This tile can be used to replace any existing tile on the board belonging the player who plays the replacement tile, then use the reacquired tile in the same turn to play elsewhere on the board. This tile can only be used to replace regular tiles, not “fast” tiles. Each player has only one of this tile, and its numerical value is 0. All of the tiles mentioned here are regular tiles, meaning that only 1 can be played each turn.

The remaining tiles are all “fast” tiles. This means that any number of these tiles can be played in addition to the one regular tile played per turn. However, “fast” tiles can also be played as if they were regular tiles, if the player so wishes. There are mainly two kinds of “fast” tiles: cavalry and ships. For all intents and purposes, cavalry and ships have the same characteristics as samurai tiles, in the sense that they are non-caste specific. While cavalry tiles are played on land like all other regular tiles, ship tiles are played on sea spaces. Both cavalry and ship tiles are numbered either 1 or 2.

The final remaining tile is the switch tile. Unlike all other tiles, the switch tile is not played on the game board. Rather, players play the tile in front of them, and then use the switch tile’s power; that is, it allows the player to swap the positions of any two figurines on the board legally (meaning that double building cities still cannot have 2 of the same figurine). Each player has one, and it is also a “fast” tile.

The numbers on the tiles, which I’ve promised to explain, represent the amount of influence exerted by that tile. So, a tile with 3 has more influence than a 2, but less than two 2 tiles. Players capture the figurine if their adjacent influence is higher than anyone else’s (this is where the math comes in!). The total influence is counted when all the land spaces adjacent to the city are filled. For cities with more than 1 figurine, the influence exerted upon each is calculated separately. Figurines tied for influence are removed from the board without going to anyone’s score.

Scoring
I’ve been taught 2 different end-game conditions. One is when all of one type of figurine is completely claimed or tied. The other is when all the figurines have been cleared. Regardless, scoring is still the same for both, but it’s still very complex. There is a clear winner is any player has the most of any 2 types of figurines. Otherwise, only players that have the most of any 1 type are in contention; the winner is decided by adding the total figurines of the other 2 types that the player did not win. If there’s still a tie, then the sum total of all figurines is calculated.

Gameplay and Strategy
Alright, enough about “how the game works”. How well does it play? If you’re a fan of Knizia-type games, you’ll probably enjoy this. There is a lot of mathematical planning and strategy involved. As most figurines as claimed on the knife-edge of 1 influence, the key to winning this game is by calculating the way to use your tiles most efficiently. Bulldozing Edo with tons of influence only to lose out on the rest of the cities because your remaining tiles are rubbish is a sure-lose strategy. Balance and calculated risk are tenets for a winning strategy. Wrapping your mind around some basic probability (“what chance will that player have that one tile which will beat me?”) helps too.

That said, while the game is fundamentally mathematical, it’s not to the extent that numbers cripple gameplay. I’m an arts student who hates math, yet I enjoy the game very much. A long-term, flexible strategy will easily match a sharp mathematical mind. This is because the game rewards players who plan ahead, but allow their plans to change according to the circumstances they find themselves in. For instance, a player could have chosen his starting tiles aiming to win rice and high helmets, but if the buddhas look there for the taking, a flexible player can easily shift his strategy to win the game. Overall, while it’s a game of calculation, Samurai isn’t Math Magic in Japanese disguise.

For newbies and non-gamers, Samurai is a good game to bring out if the crowd enjoys logical, tactical play, or has moved on from Catan. An experienced player has the advantage, certainly, but the basic concept of the game is so easily understood that a new player can easily catch up and challenge the experienced player. For anyone interested in trying the game before buying it, Klear Games has a 10-game demo here: http://www.klear.com/new/games/samurai/ The AI is pretty good and is one of the best boardgame to PC conversions I’ve seen.

Conclusion
Samurai is a classic Knizia game, with a rather much tacked on theme but an otherwise good game. It plays in about 30-45min, which is manageable. I’ve not tried with 2, but it fares very well for 3 and 4 players. The only downside about the game (for me, at least) is that it leaves me feeling a bit mentally exhausted and I don’t usually feel like playing it after a draining day in school (must be the math snore ). I find it less mentally taxing than Ra (too much calculation) but more challenging than Great Wall of China (Samurai-lite, if you fancy). Besides that, Samurai is an enjoyable game. 8/10 from me.
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Jeremy Carlson
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Wheaton
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Nice review! Thank you for writing it, because I've be eyeing this one for a while. Its odd that you write that it works well with 3-4, which I'm sure it does, but most people say this is only good as a two player game.
 
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Michael Cheong
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hughthehand wrote:
Nice review! Thank you for writing it, because I've be eyeing this one for a while. Its odd that you write that it works well with 3-4, which I'm sure it does, but most people say this is only good as a two player game.


Thanks! I take pride in writing my reviews

Well, I suppose it depends on what you're looking for in the game. I don't know about a 2 player game, but with 3 or 4 players, what you get is an ever-shifting landscape. You could've been crafting the most elaborate plan, but if the 2 players before you place tiles that screw up your plan, you're gonna have to think of alternatives, and fast, if you haven't already. I like that kind of intensity which I don't think you'll get in equal measure with a 2 player game. I think 2 players will be good if you're looking to pit wit against wit. Just my humble opinion!
 
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Michael Cheong
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Oh, let me add maybe it's best if you try the PC demo first and see what's to your liking
 
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Sight Reader
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hughthehand wrote:
Nice review! Thank you for writing it, because I've be eyeing this one for a while. Its odd that you write that it works well with 3-4, which I'm sure it does, but most people say this is only good as a two player game.


I've found that it's one of those rare games that play equally well with anywhere from 2 to 4 players.
 
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Schuyler DuPree
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Great review! I'm an experienced Samurai player (50 games or so), count the game in my personal Top Ten, and always enjoying hearing what newer players think.

Although I love the game (and Knizia games in general), there is one downside to Samurai that you didn't mention. When playing with four (and sometimes with three), care must be taken to ensure that the most experienced (strongest) player does not sit to the immediate left of the least experienced player, otherwise the weaker player will be setting up the stronger player with easy plays all night long, dramatically upsetting the balance of the game. In fact, it may be a good idea to have the strongest player go last, since it's difficult to win playing fourth anyway. meeple
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Sight Reader
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Schuyler wrote:
care must be taken to ensure that the most experienced (strongest) player does not sit to the immediate left of the least experienced player,


Good point. Completely forgot to mention that: the seating of players is crucial. It's always best to have players as evenly matched as possible.
 
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Patrick Jamet
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Schuyler wrote:
When playing with four (and sometimes with three), care must be taken to ensure that the most experienced (strongest) player does not sit to the immediate left of the least experienced player, otherwise the weaker player will be setting up the stronger player with easy plays all night long, dramatically upsetting the balance of the game. In fact, it may be a good idea to have the strongest player go last, since it's difficult to win playing fourth anyway. meeple

Hello,

I'm not sure about that. Of the three remaining players, the stronger one is the one who's the least favored by the errors of the weakest, because he can win even if not favored. Also, the fair way to play is when each player is favored by the weakest of remaining players except for the stronger.

The better placement is : 4 => 3 => 2 => 1 (=> 4)

In the reverse order (1 => 2 => 3 => 4 (=> 1)), each player is favored by a weaker one, except the weakest one who has no chance to win.

Pyjam.
 
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