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Subject: Honour: Trading your grandpa for weapons rss

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Mark Bigney
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Senji is the latest boardgame from Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, whose previous collaborations include the highly acclaimed Shadows over Camelot. Senji combines diplomacy, conquest, and economics in 90 minutes.

And you get to trade your Grandpa for weapons.

Senji is a contraction for Sengoku jidai, the Japanese term for their Warring States period of history. The Emperor is old and without heir, and 3-6 players represent warlords trying to force the Emperor to declare them Shogun--and hence the ruler of Japan. One does this by scoring sixty points before anyone else can.
(note: this review is of the French Asmodee edition)

Components: There are many, many cards. There is a deck of Samurai cards, a large deck of hanafuda (lit. “flower card”) cards, and each player gets their own deck of diplomacy cards. The cards are well-illustrated and of very nice quality. There are 18 plastic figures for the Samurai, 36 plastic fortresses in the six player colours to represent control of the various provinces, tokens for armies, order tokens, and--best of all, in my estimation--nine beautiful custom dice. There's also a 4-minute sand timer (it's huge!) and, of course, a board of Japan.

People have complained that the samurai figures are all identical and merely differentiated by stickers on their banners, but in my opinion that's just grousing. The plastic bits are nice, but by no means the main draw--I much prefer the attractive cards. The cardboard is typical Euro fare—thick, well-cut, nice finish. All in all, Senji’s components are very well done, making it an attractive game.

Gameplay: (this is a summary only) Each turn consists of the four seasons. Before each turn, it is determined who gets to host the Emperor--this is player with the highest score. Whoever hosts the Emperor sets turn order, which is a large advantage. I find this a really clever mechanism. Normally the player who's currently winning has a huge target on their back, and Senji is no exception--but at least they get a significant compensation.

Winter kicks off with the player hosting the Emperor turning over the sand timer. This gives players 4 minutes to trade diplomacy cards. There are no restrictions on trading--you can trade with whomever you see fit, however you see fit. The trades need not be even, nor need they be made publicly—you are even encouraged in the rules to leave the game table and negotiate in secret. You can also trade cards for mere promises, though the latter will not be enforced.

There are three kinds of diplomacy cards: family members, military support, and trade deals. Family members are hostages; if you give someone a family member, if you then attack them they may execute their hostage. This nets them points at your expense. Military support cards can be called in later so as to bolster an attack. Trade deals can be cashed in later to get more economic cards, namely the hanafuda cards.

There are two twists to the diplomacy cards: first, your own cards can never be used by you! They can only be employed by your opponents, so the only use that you can get out of them is trading them. Secondly, all the diplomacy cards have the same backs, and you are allowed to trade any card(s) for anything—the upshot of this is that the grandpa you gave to your trusted ally might have been traded to yet a third player. You tend to discover this when your armies arrive at said player’s doorstep, much to your chagrin (to say nothing on the chagrin of your dear, late grandpa).

After the 4 minutes of Winter, Spring kicks off. Everyone gets to put an order token face-down into each of their provinces (you start the game with three provinces). There are three different orders: military recruitment (add two armies to the region), economic development (draw two hanafuda cards), and move (move any armies you like, often resulting in attack(s)). Every player does this simultaneously.

Summer follows. The player hosting the Emperor (remember her?) activates each province in whatever order she desires. This power is huge. She can use this to reinforce a province before it is attacked, or attack a province before it is reinforced—or simply allow a region to produce hanafuda cards before it is overrun. It is not uncommon for players to bribe the one hosting the emperor with a card or two simply to get preferential turn order.

When a province is activated, the order token is revealed and executed. Drawing cards and adding armies is very straightforward—but then there’s combat. You can attack by land or by sea, the latter being slightly riskier. Resolution of an attack is simple. First, the player being attacked may execute any hostages she has of the attacker’s family. After that, you take the nine “Dice of Destiny” and start the bloodshed. Each die shows the symbol of each player on its six sides, and each symbol counts as one point of strength in the fight. Each army counts as one point of strength, as well.

The first thing that happens in combat resolution is that one die is set aside per samurai, each showing the symbol of the owner’s family. So if you have two samurai and five armies, you’ll start off with seven points in the conflict. Some samurai also have special powers, though not all are related to combat. Then you roll all the remaining dice, setting aside any that match the symbols of the two players involved in the fight. There’s one last thing to do, and that’s call in military favours. Each player simultaneously plays a military support card face down (or, if they don’t have one to play, a 0 “dummy” card that each player has) in an attempt to claim some of the remaining dice. A military support card of a given player will be worth 1-4 symbols, based on the value of the card.

Example: Black attacks yellow. Black has five armies and two samurai, yellow has six armies (the province limit). Black is currently winning 7-6. The 7 remaining dice are rolled, showing one black, two yellow, three red and one blue. Now it’s 8-8. But black has a red military support card of value 2 and plays it—this lets him claim two of the three red dice (he can’t claim the third die because the card is only of value 2). Yellow played a blue support card of value 3, granting him one die (he can’t claim any more because there aren’t more blue dice to be claimed!). So the final tally is black 10, yellow 9.

The consequences of victory are simple and brutal: loser loses all of her military forces there (armies and samurai), winner loser an equivalent number of armies but no samurai. Yes, you read that right—mutual annihilation is perhaps the most frequent result of combat. The winner keeps or gains control of the province, putting her nifty plastic fortress on the province. The winner also gains points—as many points as the total number of armies killed if the winner was the defender, twice as much if the winner was the attacker. In the above example, black would have won 22 points—quite a tidy sum for one attack, especially given that the goal is to get to 60!

Autumn: After all the provinces have been activated, the players—in the order designated by the host of the emperor, of course—can cash in their hanafuda cards for points. Hanafuda cards have a number, a colour, and possibly one of three symbols (sun, animal, or tanzaku). This is where the game’s “set collection” aspect enters into it (more on that later); there are a variety of combinations worth a variety of points. For example, you can turn in 4, 8 or 12 cards with different numbers, and that will net you 4, 12 or 24 points. Alternatively, some sets are based on colour, others on symbols, etc. One type of set will get you new samurai. It’s also during autumn that you can cash in your trade deals with other players, forcing them to give you one of their hanafuda cards.

In addition to scoring points via hanafuda cards, you can also score points with diplomatic cards. If you have obtained a card from each of your five opponents, you can hand them all back—this magnanimity earns you 10 points and embarrasses all your opponents, who each lose 1 point. You can also host your opponents’ family members for points, but then you are not able to execute them later.

After all that, you determine who hosts the emperor next year—and you start again at Winter.

Evaluation: Senji manages to blend diplomacy, military conquest, and pseudo-economics into a 90 minute game. And it’s awesome. It combines elements of other games into a tighter, more compelling package. While I enjoyed aspects of A Game of Thrones’ gameplay (like the order programmation), overall I found the game uncompelling—the diplomacy was tacked-on and amounted to whining, and the victory conditions were uninspired and led to a slog-fest. Dirk Henn’s Shogun I found overlong, too computational for little payoff, and very static. Senji is pretty, always leaves you with something to do, and has many clever mechanics. The hosting of the Emperor means that the leading player, while targeted by many and at a disadvantage during the diplomacy phase (who wants to trade with the leader?), has a bargaining chit. The diplomacy cards structure the bargaining while also allowing you to trade them in for points if you don’t want to use the associated favours. The military system encourages both aggressive attacking and holding territory. Most of all, though, the multiple ways to score points are extremely well integrated.

The biggest problem with Senji, in my estimation, is that it doesn't scale well. With less than six players, the game suffers. I personally will happily play with five or four, but am loath to play with three--and even I will admit that four is pushing it.

Some have claimed that Senji is merely an overlong set-collection game with an overemphasis on luck. I would submit that the one criticism explains the other; if you think all there is to Senji is collecting hanafuda cards, then you’re voluntarily putting yourself at the mercy of the card draw. Spending some time and resources setting up an attack would probably be a better plan. Others have claimed that Senji is an overly complicated Euro/war game with an overemphasis on luck. My response to this is much the same as the other claim; if you’re only attacking, you’re ignoring a lot of the game. Furthermore, if you don’t set up your attacks well, you will be at the mercy of the dice.

More legitimate criticisms include the game’s complexity level; although I find the rules nice and intuitive, many other players don’t. The proper use of diplomacy cards, for example, stymies some people, as well as attack resolution. Perhaps I just explain the rules poorly. And yes, there is combat, and the penalty for losing can be extremely harsh—-so if that turns you off, avoid Senji.


But yeah. I think Senji rocks.
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Peter Vrabel
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Paragraphs. They'll make your text a lot more readable.
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Mark Bigney
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LordStrabo wrote:
Paragraphs. They'll make your text a lot more readable.


Hm. There were paragraphs, and then not. I'll put them back in.
 
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Aaron Silverman
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Gyges wrote:
People have complained that the samurai figures are all identical and merely differentiated by stickers on their banners, but in my opinion that's just grousing.


I went to look at the game photo gallery. The plastic troops are all the same color. . .and so are the stickers that differentiate them!!! The only way to tell the units apart (shy of painting 'em yourself) is by the highly stylized letters, which aren't that clear to begin with.

I suppose you can tell them apart by the color of the army counters stacked with them, which makes it not unplayable, but this is still a truly astonishing design choice. What were they thinking? The only answer I can give is that they weren't.

Hopefully the eventual English edition will fix this.

BTW, that was an excellent review. You really gave a solid impression of the game without going into unnecessary detail. I'm a total sucker for this sort of game (note my high ratings of Shogun and A Game of Thrones ).
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Mark Bigney
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SpaceButler wrote:

On a more general note: Comparing this game to A Game of Thrones or Shogun is a little strange in my opinion.


Senji is a rather unique game, and thus doesn't have many comparable Euros that are straightforwardly similar.
AGoT has secret order markers and has been described as a game where diplomacy and military support from one's opponents is important--and I have heard several other gamers compare Senji to it after having played both.
Shogun also has order programmation, and tries to integrate military conflict with economic development. And it has the exact same theme. Similarly, I have heard people compare it after having played both.

Glad you liked the review.
 
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Mark Bigney
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DJ Kuul A wrote:
Gyges wrote:
People have complained that the samurai figures are all identical and merely differentiated by stickers on their banners, but in my opinion that's just grousing.


I went to look at the game photo gallery. The plastic troops are all the same color. . .and so are the stickers that differentiate them!!! The only way to tell the units apart (shy of painting 'em yourself) is by the highly stylized letters, which aren't that clear to begin with.


True. In fairness, since I have the French edition and often play with people who can't read French, I play with a player aid I made with all of the Samurai powers translated. It becomes easy enough to remember which player has which Samurai. Also, I can't think of an easy way they could have coloured the flags to differentiate them, given that there are 18 different Samurai.
But yeah. The script is too stylized.
 
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Aaron Silverman
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If the desired price point didn't allow for enough Samurai to include a few in each player color, then I for one would've been perfectly happy to use counters instead of figures (not that I dislike figures or anything).
 
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Murray Fish
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Great review - thanks for that!

I'll have to look out for this one.
 
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Georg D.
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Gyges wrote:

Evaluation: Senji manages to blend diplomacy, military conquest, and pseudo-economics into a 90 minute game.

Did you manage to play all your games within 90 minutes? I only played two 3-player games and both lasted longer than 90 minutes - and with more players you will have more time since there are more regions in the game...


SpaceButler wrote:

On a more general note: Comparing this game to A Game of Thrones or Shogun is a little strange in my opinion.


Well in my opinion there is a good reason to compare them. I read the books of 'the song of ice and fire' a few years ago and afterwards played 'The Game of Thrones' and my first thought was: 'great game but for the theme I had hoped for less military and more diplomacy' (I must confess that the degree of diplomacy depends on the people you play with...)

Now I read the rules of Senji and my first thought was: 'sounds great that could be the game I expected Game of Thrones would be.'
After playing Senji I think it IS a great game but for the theme of 'Song of ice and fire' it perhaps has not enough military-aspects *g*

So there are some reasons to compare them as both claim to be a mix of military and diplomacy and both use hiden orders...


Fluxx
 
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Etienne Aubert
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Just to clarifie why the Samurais figurines aren't colored :
There are actually 18 differents samurais in the game ( i mean Generals ), which has each his own special ability.
They aren't linked to any player, and can be obtained during the game.
In this case, the box should have contained 18*6=108 figures.

Personnally, as a big fan of this game, japan and figures... i've just added my own figures, replacing army tokens by Samourai figures, and Samurai Generals by Mounted samurais

http://www.plasticsoldierreview.com/Review.asp?manu=ZVE&code...
http://www.plasticsoldierreview.com/Review.asp?manu=ZVE&code...


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Mark Bigney
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Fluxx wrote:
Gyges wrote:

Evaluation: Senji manages to blend diplomacy, military conquest, and pseudo-economics into a 90 minute game.

Did you manage to play all your games within 90 minutes? I only played two 3-player games and both lasted longer than 90 minutes - and with more players you will have more time since there are more regions in the game...


90 minutes with all six players is about right, if they've had experience with the game. In my experience, a game with the full complement of six, if they're all newbies, lasts about 2 hours. The second game is noticeably shorter. With a full complement of veterans (not that I have had the pleasure of playing that way yet), I wouldn't be at all surprised if the game lasted 80 minutes or less.
 
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Kyle Cantrell
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How many rounds on average occur before someone reaches the 60 point mark?

-KyleC

 
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Mark Bigney
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KyleC wrote:
How many rounds on average occur before someone reaches the 60 point mark?

-KyleC



In my experience, somewhere between four and seven.
 
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I'm really bummed that this is only good with a large group. I guess that means I won't be buying this one.
 
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stormseeker75 wrote:
I'm really bummed that this is only good with a large group. I guess that means I won't be buying this one.


Other 'Geeks recommended it with 4-6, and say it's best with 6 - Is 4 players a "large group" for you?

*re-reads sentence* Hrm. That sounds a bit confrontational - I mean it in earnest. Read "curiosity" into my tone, if you could.

Eric
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Mika Suominen
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Gyges wrote:
DJ Kuul A wrote:
Gyges wrote:
People have complained that the samurai figures are all identical and merely differentiated by stickers on their banners, but in my opinion that's just grousing.


I went to look at the game photo gallery. The plastic troops are all the same color. . .and so are the stickers that differentiate them!!! The only way to tell the units apart (shy of painting 'em yourself) is by the highly stylized letters, which aren't that clear to begin with.


True. In fairness, since I have the French edition and often play with people who can't read French, I play with a player aid I made with all of the Samurai powers translated. It becomes easy enough to remember which player has which Samurai. Also, I can't think of an easy way they could have coloured the flags to differentiate them, given that there are 18 different Samurai.
But yeah. The script is too stylized.


all too true!
considering the fortresses are pretty as wedding cakes but also pretty useless, the only things that disturb me in this game design are:
1) i'm so vain that i would like to have a more precious symbol for hosting than that stupid hour-glass
2) there's one female samurai but all figures are male
3) using six colours the flag stickers could easily have made a very visible difference between samurais: 6 x 1 colour + 12 x a field diagonally divided into two regions (out of 15 possible), quite similar to some ancient japanese flags.
BUT i think the best solution for "what samurai?" is to ask for the card from that player, then you can see all the facts, including kami colour.
i could not find a listing of samurais and their "forces" from files, can someone help?

thanks in advance, mika
 
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