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Dave Shapiro
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Senji is an unusual game. Most players that have never tried a game where diplomacy plays a significant role, may be somewhat lost, even feel uncomfortable when first encountering this. The grand-daddy of all of the diplomacy games is Diplomacy (Avalon Hill). It was first published in 1959, the same year as Risk was introduced into North America. It is a very demanding game and there is no ‘middle ground’ - players either love or despise the game. There have been numerous implementations of the Diplomacy system and even more games where a diplomatic event is incorporated. As with anything in the gaming universe, some worked and some flopped.

Two of the more successful games with a diplomatic aspect are Dune and A Game of Thrones. In both of these game, diplomacy may well decide a player’s fate yet, unlike the grand-daddy (Diplomacy) it is not the sole factor. In these two games alliances shift continuously altering the playing field. Often an alliance will last several turns but just as often an alliance is nothing more than the precursor to a stab in the back. In both A Game of Thrones and Dune, all players are not created equal - a perfect balance does not exist at the start of the game. Players must develop strategies based on their initial positions and abilities. Senji is a member of this group of games. All of the description above could easily apply to Senji.

As with the two games mentioned above, each player in Senji controls a particular faction (family). The goal is to score points and there are numerous ways to accomplish this. Each of the family/factions differs slightly at the start of the game and each individual family/faction will differ from previous incarnations from game to game. All of the families receive a set of cards that differ slightly from everyone else’s cards; while interesting, this usually does not play a significant role in determining strategy. At the same time, players are given their choice of three different Samurai, each with a unique ability and value. The special ability can, and usually is, an integral part of the player’s strategy. Some of the Samurai are stronger characters while others, though helpful, will not determine the course of the game. Unfortunately there is an inverse relationship between the strength of a given Samurai and the value (for scoring purposes). Each player selects his initial Samurai and that determines his initial victory points. Selecting the Samurai can become quite the conundrum. Do you want some powerful Samurai, sacrificing the early lead in victory points for later potential gains, or take a less powerful (and sometimes useless) Samurai that will allow you to host the Emperor (control turn order)? By choosing one of the lesser Samurai, will you be able to insure that you will host the Emperor or might some other player grab that by picking an even worse Samurai? From the very start, the player is confronted with these double edged decisions.

Initial position on the map is one other factor that differentiates one family/faction from another. Some areas are less likely to fall under attack (at least early in the game) than others. Position combined with the player cards and the initial Samurai presents each player with a unique challenge. Though similar to both Dune and A Game of Thrones, Senji’s differences are not as extreme as those found in the other two games.

(Note: the game has suffered some criticism for this as it is claimed to be ’unbalanced’. I suggest that this is from players unfamiliar with games of this type. It is not intended that each player start with identical attributes but rather each has certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, in Dune one faction starts with but one unit on the board while two other factions begin with ten times the number!)

Once the game begins, each turn follows the same program:

Host the Emperor
Diplomacy
Orders
Resolve Orders
Trade/Score

Each of the steps listed above are labeled with seasonal themes. Determining who will host the Emperor is simple - the player with the most victory points grabs that position. This basically sets a huge target on that faction while rewarding the player with a potential advantage. Whoever hosts the Emperor determines the turn order for the resolution of actions. This can be critical and every player will benefit from obtaining this trophy. As an example of the power of this position consider the following situation: Player A wants to attack Player B who wants to attack player C. Whoever is hosting the Emperor determines which of the three plays first. For our purposes assume Player C is chosen. C moves all of his forces into an attack on A which is successful. Player B now conquers Player C’s undefended area and does not suffer an attack from Player A. Another possible play would be that Player A is selected to attack first and is successful against B allowing C to conquer A’s area. (Note: the ‘orders’ (actions) are secret so the Emperor’s host, though determining the order, does not know what has been programmed.)

(Issuing orders follows the diplomatic phase in the game. I am discussing it here - prior to discussing diplomacy hoping that it will clarify some of the purpose for diplomacy.) As in the game Diplomacy, all areas under a player’s control are given secret ‘orders’ which consist of moving/attacking, building additional armies or production of resource cards. What to build/do is critical and difficult to decide as there are so many factors the player is confronted with. Building additional units prohibits the accumulation of resources while producing resources prohibits expansion into additional areas or the production of additional armies. Tough choices and none of this is accomplished in a vacuum. No player can ignore the potential actions of his opponents; the board is too interconnected to ever allow for a feeling of comfort.

It is in the diplomacy phase that players can make any sort of deals/alliances with other players. Family cards can be traded (these allow for scoring victory points or obtaining other, scoring cards.), plans laid, etc. Each player receives a player aid that is a small representation of the map board. This permits players to negotiate away from other players. As in any game with diplomacy, even leaving the room with an opponent you have no expectation of negotiating with, will cast suspicion. In addition to hard core planning and negotiating, diplomacy encourages psych games (a meta game). What keeps this from bogging down (as can happen in so many of these games), is the 4 minute timer. This limitation prevents anyone from procrastinating or suffering from the infamous ’analysis paralysis’ - 4 minutes and it is done; not a minute more. This diplomatic effort is necessary for survival but often results in an unexpected gain or loss.

* Over many years of gaming I have discovered that there are players that are simply uncomfortable with any type of diplomacy in a game. These are the purists; for them, games should be Chess-like in that a player has his own strategy and it will succeed or fail based on his actions alone. It is not my intent to criticize these types of players; it is a matter of taste. Neither side of a debate on the inclusion of diplomacy in a game is correct or dominant. It is important to recognize that some players will simply not enjoy this aspect of a game. In addition to this, diplomacy in a game requires a degree of personal involvement not found in other games. It introduces a bit of reality to any game. When one makes a commitment in Senji, or any of these types of games, even though it is ‘only a game‘, their personal integrity is on-the-line. Often, what has occurred in a diplomatic ’stab’ will resurface in comments made during a completely different game. It is the nature of the beast. *

The combat system in Senji, though not similar in execution to Dune, is as unique as that found in Dune. A key component in any military excursion is an allied family and that can only be obtained through diplomacy. The two mechanics are joined at the hip. Each segment of the game has the potential to make or break a player’s possible victory. To ignore the advantages to a well timed attack borders on ignorance. A large battle can advance a losing player into near victory. What is especially enjoyable is the uncertainty of success, very similar to that found in Dune. Unlike a Dune battle there is a considerable amount of knowledge available to the Senji player prior to the battle. (In Dune each player secretly selects a leader, the number of units involved and two power cards that will affect the battle. In addition to this, the leader may actually be a ‘traitor’ - a follower of an opponent’s clan resulting in a total loss!) Senji is not as chaotic as Dune in battle resolution. In addition to the points gained in a successful battle, an opponent loses an area for executing orders. This can take the leader out of the game for a period.


During the final phase of a turn players can do several things foremost among them is trading in the cards they have produced or traded for earlier in the game. There are a variety of possible combinations and most of the cards can be applied to different sets resulting in different rewards including victory points, additional samurai, etc. Even in this phase the player is confronted with many choices. What to submit for points this turn quite likely will affect actions on the following turn. Nothing in Senji is completed in a vacuum.

Senji has a stiff learning curve. This is not a game that can be played once or twice a year with any expectation of competency. All of the systems are integrated and each turn affects the next. The rules are sufficiently simple that a casual gamer would have little difficulty understanding the mechanics yet the interconnectedness of the underlying system is near opaque for the first few plays. This game is deeper than it first appears. Senji with five or six players is outstanding. There are methods for playing with three or four players and, though not as great, provides a game that is much better than the majority of games available. It is common for A Game of Thrones to require 3 or more hours, Dune absorbs four or more and Diplomacy very often exceeds six hours - Senji with 3 or 4 players clocks in at about an hour and the 5/6 player versions only a bit more than that. If you enjoy any of the Diplomacy variants, Dune or A Game of Thrones and have not tried Senji, you are doing yourself a disservice. If you want an intense gaming experience but do not want to commit (or can’t) the hours required for one of those games listed above - Senji is a perfect substitute.
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Blue Fox
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Excellent review and commentary, well spoken.
 
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Maciej Welc
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qrux wrote:
Initial position on the map is one other factor that differentiates one family/faction from another. Some areas are less likely to fall under attack (at least early in the game) than others.

Knowing that and hosting an Emperor may let you to issue some surprise attack.
On the other hand if you succeed it will result in an alliance formed against you. Will you be able to counteract that?

Indeed Senji is not a game of balance. It is a game of balancing on the edge. Double edge.
 
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Cory Hockman
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Norcross
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This game sounds better and better the more I read about it. Why do I not own this yet. I've been playing a lot of Bushido, and while I don't think this will replace it, I feel it will be an easier alternative.
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