Who Am I Now?
After being betrayed at the house on the hill, we regrouped for another set of games: this time our choices were Samurai and Katana, or Memoir '44. As I had previously played neither, and had never researched the former, I joined a group of five including James, Leo, Don, Steve and me. Sheldon and Steve R. matched up for Memoir '44.
As none of us had played S&K before, James (the owner) began to explain the rules to the rest of us. I began to regret joining this table at once, because based upon the rules explanation, the game seemed to be yet another variation of Risk (a "game" for which I hold no affection). It became apparent as we got into the game, however, that though similar in some ways to Risk, it requires a completely different style of play to win. Unfortunately, this enlightenment did not reduce the aforementioned regret. I must provide the disclaimer that we may have played some (or many) rules wrong, but if we were even somewhat close to the rules as written, this game doesn't deserve to see much table time.
The unfolding of the game is somewhat hard to remember (or perhaps I simply don't *want* to remember it). After a prolonged start, where we were trying to figure out how things worked, Leo took a large lead at one point, and was promptly beaten into last place. However, at game end I was in last place, and was last to act on the final turn. This put me in a Kingmaking position, as three of the other four players were clearly in contention for the win, and nothing I could do would even come close to getting me into fourth place. I did the "honorable" thing, and tried to ensure the closest possible outcome for those still in contention. In fact, the game ended in a two-way tie, and was decided by the *third* tie-breaker (the rules detail - I think - five levels of tie-breaker.).
I attribute my last place finish to the continued effort on my part to complete "monopolies". Controlling all territories of a particular color grants bonus honor (victory points) and koku (cash). Risk has a similar mechanism. Unfortunately, several factors combine to ensure that these bonuses are never a primary method for collecting points, but only "gravy".
The only real way to increase honor (points) is to attack and win, again and again, repeatedly. The emphasis is offense, because defense is very difficult. The map geometry is wide-open: that is, most spaces are "adjacent" to MANY other spaces due to sea travel. Sea travel is only hindered by the play of a single card, which only affects one player for one turn. The maximum size of your forces is extremely limited, and it is not possible to hold and successfully defend more than a few territories for very long. Some card events are extremely powerful, and can immediately eliminate your control of a territory. Thus, it is only really possible to take advantage of the "monopoly" bonuses if you are one of the last active players in a round. Otherwise, subsequent players will attack or play cards against you to break them up.
A significant "bash the leader" problem exists, as described above. The leading player each turn is the "Shogun". The benefit of being Shogun is that one free move can be made during your turn (movement normally costs money). The disadvantage of being Shogun is that every battle you lose, you lose honor (normally, honor is not lost with a battle loss). I'm sure the designer figured this would help keep the games close (the presence of multiple tie-breaking tiers would seem to confirm this), but it simply amplifies the leader bashing syndrome. Combined with unbalanced cards and a wide-open board, it leads to a game that just won't end.
I'm positive I wasn't the only player at the table who, by game end, was actively trying to help others win, just to get it over with. I hope to never play again. I await the inevitable rebuttal of the #1 fan of the game, who will come to the defense of the designer and demonstrate that somehow he is innocent of any culpability in the creation of this title.
The funniest part of the experience, in my opinion, was that James responded, when asked about how the game went (after 4 hours): "It was fun". Arrrrrgh. Of course, he *was* the owner. I admit my last place finish may be coloring my opinion...