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Matt Thrower
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When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun's decapitator.

In a darkened room four figures sit in silence hunched around a low table. They are starting intently at a board on which sit some shiny, ceramic looking figures.

He cut off the heads of a hundred and thirty-one lords. It was a bad time for the empire.

Suddenly the stillness is broken. One figure leans forward and places a tile on the board.

The shogun just stayed inside his castle and he never came out. People said his brain was infected by devils.

After a short pause, another figure leans forward and places a tile on the board.

My father would come home to mother each night and he would forget the killings. He wasn't scared of the Shogun, but the Shogun was scared of him. Maybe that was the problem.

Still in silence, a third figure reaches for a tile and, without warning, changes direction to scratch his nose. Then he places the tile.

Then, one night the Shogun sent his ninja spies to our house. They were supposed to kill my father, but they didn't.

But the break in routine is short lived. Stillness descends. The fourth figure places a tile.

That was the night everything changed, forever.

Then we wait. Another tile is laid, then another.

That was when my father left his samurai life and became a demon. And he took me with him.

After several more tiles, one of the figures reaches across the board and picks up a ceramic figure. Momentarily the other figures stir in acknowledgement.

I don't remember most of this myself. I only remember the Shogun's ninja hunted us wherever we went. And the bodies falling. And the blood."

Once more the silence returns.

Samurai

I checked out this game because it was short and seemed to have attracted near-universal acclaim, so I figured it was a no-loose situation. Plus I’ve always had a passing interest in the Samurai – nothing terribly historical sadly, but the weapons, armour and other artefacts of feudal Japan on display in the British Museum must rank amongst the most astonishingly beautiful things in the collection. So the theme attracted me – and the box cover seemed to promise to fulfil that theme at least to some extent.

Rules

Like an awful lot of the good Dr. Knizia’s games, Samurai is hard to explain in words but not actually very difficult to play. If you want to learn how the game works then you’ll do a lot better downloading and reading the rules – there are even a number of tutorials online to help you. But here’s a potted summary anyway, as is traditional.

The game is played on a stylised board of ancient Japan and its surrounding sea, divided into large hexes with major population centres marked. The actual playing area changes depending on how many players in the game and can extend to accommodate smaller islands around the main one. On each population centre one or more figures is placed. There are three kinds of these figures – a Buddha, a helmet and a rice bail.

Each player has a small screen and a stack of hexagonal tiles. These tiles come in various sorts. The bulk have a picture of one of the figurines on and a number from 2-4. Some have a picture of a Samurai on and a number from 1-2. There are also ship tiles with a number and a bunch of “special move” tiles. At the start of the game each player has a hand of five of these tiles behind his screen which can either be dealt randomly or selected by each player, as the group prefers.

Players take turns in placing a hex tile into an empty land hex on the board. The tile exerts for that player an amount of “influence” equal to the number on any figures adjacent to the tile that match the figure on the board. The samurai tiles and the ship tiles (which can only go on the sea) exert influence on all the figures adjacent to them. When all the land tiles around a group of figures are filled with hexes then the total influence each player has on each figure is calculated and the person with the most wins the figure which is placed behind his screen. The special move tiles allow you to do things such as swap around the position of two of your already played tiles. Some tiles also allow you to play a second tile. You then replenish your hand back to five tiles.

The game ends when the last figure of any one type gets captured – this is usually well before anyone has come close to running out of tiles. The players then reveal how many figures of each type they have captured and then work through a Knizia signature bizarre scoring system. If one player has captured more figures of two or three types than anyone else then he wins. In practice this almost never happens so you’re down to the intricacies of the system – all players who have the “most” of one figure type are eligible to win so they count the total of all their other captured figures, with the one who has most winning. If there’s still a tie (and there often is) then you count total of all captured figures with most winning. If there’s still a tie at this point then it ends as a tie.

Gameplay

Samurai is first and foremost an analytical game with a fair amount of number crunching. At each turn you make you need to plot what you need to capture to make sure you stand a chance of winning. To do this you need to look at the board, calculate the influence other people’s tiles are having on the figures, internalise which tiles they’ve used (because this is important in trying to figure out what counter-moves they can make) and then select the best from your hand to play. The game is fairly short – ending in 30-45 minutes but because it’s an analysis game you do sometimes get downtime as players sit and consider their moves.

For such a short game, Samurai certainly manages to squeeze in quite a lot of analysis. There are various factors to consider beyond the obvious ones stated in the above paragraph. For example, when and how is it best to use your special tiles and ships? When is the best time to close off the tiles round a figure to capture it, and can you thwart an opponent by not helping to provide tiles to close off a figure? How best to time your tile placement to ensure that, at the death, you’re going to be the one with enough influence to capture the figure? I could go on: like all good Euros there’s a surprising amount of variables to consider from the deceptively simple set up.

You’ll note that my description of the skills required includes the word “timing” a lot. That’s because it’s pretty key in the game. It’s probably the biggest thing that differentiates new players from more experienced ones. An important point to realise is that if you think far enough ahead it’s often possible to work out the best timing, although the random drawing of tiles in your opponents’ hands can scupper it for you on occasion.

Samurai also has an important memory element. Unlike a lot of games with hidden scoring it’s possible in Samurai to keep track of what other players have captured and set your plans accordingly. Indeed it’s near essential to do so, given that the scoring is often extremely tight. One can deduce that this is a deliberate part of the design from the fact that with two players, scoring is not hidden, presumably because since each player captures more figures, keeping track in your head would be too difficult.

The Samurai Experience

I have attempted so far to give an even-handed analysis of what might be enjoyable about the game and the sort of skills it employs so you can work out whether it might appeal to you. Given my introduction, this may surprise you. Well, even-handedness ends here.

The point of my introduction is to contrast the richness and excitement that surrounds the fact and fiction of the Samurai with the bone-dry, tedious experience of playing this game. The two tally not at all. The only way in which I find this game evokes any sense of feudal Japan is that this is probably a game they would have enjoyed in feudal Japan, had it been invented in those distant times.

So what, you might ask – it’s just an abstract after all. Well sure but that’s just the point. This game has nothing, nothing at all to tie it to its supposed theme – even in the relatively themeless world of Euros this sticks out as an abstract in Samurai’s clothing. So why even bother? Why take a theme that has meaning and interest for many, many people and which frequently evokes many passions around warfare, art, history, honour and dump it on this dull, soulless framework? The guy on the cover seems to be saying “please get me out of here, and at least into a cheap martial arts film!”

The key problem with the game is that is has absolutely no tension. Abstracts lack many of the things I find help draw me into a game - some gamblers excitement, some social interaction, some thematic narrative. Without that the only thing left to keep me interested is tension. Sure you can do the analysis, and sure it’s challenging analysis, but if there’s nothing in a game to draw me in beyond the analysis then I’m just effectively doing a nicely-dressed maths puzzle. And maths puzzles aren’t really my thing. It isn’t about the game being abstract or about it being an analysis game – there are other games in the same arena I enjoy, and others I can at least respect. But this is just so mechanical as to be pointless. Might as well watch gears turn.

What’s so surprising about this is that the elements would seem to be there to inject some tension into the game. There is some player interaction since the value of your play depends on watching and waiting to see what other players are doing. Hidden scoring (hideously over-used and abused mechanic though it is) ought to help. But they both fall flat. The player interaction doesn’t happen because you can normally figure out to some degree what’s going to happen – all the tiles played are visible on the board so as play progresses it gets easier and easier to work out how other players are likely to respond to your moves. So nothing actually comes as a surprise. The hidden scoring is undermined because it isn’t really hidden – the game encourages you to go through the unrewarding rigmarole of memorising other players’ captures which not only makes the hidden scoring pointless but attaches an amazingly high priority to carrying out a completely mundane task. As if that weren’t enough, the other capability of hidden scoring – creating a tense endgame – gets completely torpedoed by the byzantine scoring which not only succeeds in draining any possible excitement out of counting up but frequently results in tied games.

Conclusion

I took the time to try and give an insight into what might be appealing about this game before savaging it because I knew that there were gamers out there who would find some appeal in what the game offers. Why they find it appealing is quite beyond me. Here all I see is an abstract, cloaked in a pointless and distracting theme, without the depth and majesty of Chess or Go, without the ingenuity of Yinsh or Hive and without the wide, multiplayer appeal of a game like Blokus. Why play this when you can play one of the titles I’ve just mentioned?

What Samurai does have going for it is that it is short. Because it is short, when it comes to rating on the BGG scale I find myself rating it higher than I feel it probably deserves. After all, when it comes to the crunch I would certainly play this game again if I was with a group who loved it and was begging me to do so, secure in the knowledge that it’d be over soon and we could play something more engaging. It’s not actually a bad game; it’s just so … empty. After my first play, I gave it a six. After my second that dropped to five but I kept playing because I felt I had to be missing something given the regard in which this game is held. After a third game it went down to four and there it’s stayed ever since. And I remain extremely thankful that I don’t game with a group who are likely to beg me to play this game and hold good on the statement I made above.
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Sheamus Parkes
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Gotta say, that's pretty similar to my feelings on it. How the heck Through the Desert turned out *sooo* much more fun in my opinion, is beyond me.
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Malcolm
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Very good review...

time to move on to the 36 chambers?ninja
 
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Matt Thrower
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kowalskie wrote:
Very good review...

time to move on to the 36 chambers?ninja


Hah! I'm amazed anyone from BGG spotted that, let alone someone else from the UK!

In point of fact I thought 36 chambers far inferior, whatever its exalted reputation might be.
 
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Mike Adams
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MattDP wrote:
Here all I see is an abstract, cloaked in a pointless and distracting theme, without the depth and majesty of Chess or Go, without the ingenuity of Yinsh or Hive and without the wide, multiplayer appeal of a game like Blokus. Why play this when you can play one of the titles I’ve just mentioned?


Since you asked, because I enjoy playing a lot more than the others you mentioned. So do others in my game group and my family. That's all. I wish I could explain it better, but it just clicked with me and I enjoy it.
 
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Necessary Evil
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Matt,

I couldn't agree more. I picked up this game a number of years ago, based mostly on ratings here. I played it a few time and it has not be played much since then. Even the wife found it boring.

I would say its good for non-games except there is little chance they will grasp the scoring on the 1st try and so are guaranteed to be frustrated by that. This is a classic Knizia, an abstract game with tacked on theme and a weird scoring mechanic. I am sure fans of abstracts will like it, people looking for riveting game play or theme should move on.

-M
 
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Malcolm
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MattDP wrote:
kowalskie wrote:
Very good review...

time to move on to the 36 chambers?ninja


Hah! I'm amazed anyone from BGG spotted that, let alone someone else from the UK!

In point of fact I thought 36 chambers far inferior, whatever its exalted reputation might be.


yeah, saw the review title - which made me take a look. then saw the first line and thought 'strange reference to see on BGG - especially from someone in the UK!'
 
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Beau Bailey
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MattDP wrote:
kowalskie wrote:
Very good review...

time to move on to the 36 chambers?ninja


Hah! I'm amazed anyone from BGG spotted that, let alone someone else from the UK!

In point of fact I thought 36 chambers far inferior, whatever its exalted reputation might be.


36 Chambers is awesome. It just has the excellent rough raw brutality that makes it a great listen.

And you didn't point out that the opening is from Shogun Assassin, tsk tsk. Yes, GZA used it well but you have to give credit to the original.

Oh, yeah, back on topic... I don't like this game either and completely agree with your review.
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Stephen Sanders
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Very well written and expressed. Thumbs up. Agree with you about the theme, but I do not agree that it is so devoid of tension. You are on edge at critical locations where you have the opportunity to score big, but have to wait for your opponents to respond and hope they don't play a switch token or close it up with multiple moves. I still give it a nine, but no longer the ten I initially did.
 
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sunday silence
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I have a question for you all: Do you think the game would play differently if it werent for the special cards (i.e. the switcheroo card, etc.)? In that case, I think the game would have perfect info. and then wouldnt it lead to drawish type of situations? It concerns me from what Ive read that the only way this game works is to jigger it with random elements like the special cards. But that is based on a reading not on play, hence my question.

Also: is the game subject to kingmaker syndrome?
 
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Justin
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sundaysilence wrote:
I have a question for you all: Do you think the game would play differently if it werent for the special cards (i.e. the switcheroo card, etc.)? In that case, I think the game would have perfect info. and then wouldnt it lead to drawish type of situations? It concerns me from what Ive read that the only way this game works is to jigger it with random elements like the special cards. But that is based on a reading not on play, hence my question.


the specials operate on the board, and the board is open. one can calculate exactly what is possible with each of them, so i don't agree that their effects are random.

what is random? player order, perhaps, and the contents of your opponents' hands unless their draw pool is empty. you can figure out what's in their pool though.

Quote:
Also: is the game subject to kingmaker syndrome?


yes. sitting next to weak players helps too. i think that's true of most games. mitigate by matching skill levels, eliminate by playing with two.

my only real complaint is that there is a strong first player advantage in two-player games. i expect it to affect multiplayer too, but i don't know if it gets better or worse.
 
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Justin, Karen, Acacia, and Janek
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LOL! I haven't listened to The GZA forever! Great reference!
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Conan McNamara
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When the GameGeeks came to live out their name
On the game board...
With the tiles laid, the hexes played
The figures captured, now gone
From the mental plane, to spark the brain
Yo Knizia, flip the track!

Pretty exciting to come across some Wu-Tang lore on the BoardGameGeek.
 
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Mario Thompson
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You cannot defeat my Wu-Tang style!

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