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Review: Samurai

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Samurai box cover

The emperor has lost his hold on Japan, and the time has come to act. Enterprising daimyo muster their forces and try to win the hearts of the people by playing to their religious and commercial sensibilities and by applying force in proper measure. The catch is that everyone vying for the throne is of equal strength, so the true victor will be decided by skillful management of resources. Will you be the next emperor of Japan? Find out in Samurai!

How It Works

Samurai is an abstract tile placement game for two to four players. Players try to influence the three major castes in Japan–commercial, religious, and military–in order to secure their rule. The player who best captures pieces from these castes will be the winner.

Samurai set up for two players.
Samurai set up for two players.

To set up, players each choose a color of tiles and a matching screen. Players assemble the map of Japan scaled to the number of players. Next, players (in turn) place the caste pieces on the map. Finally, each player chooses a starting hand of five tiles to place behind the screen and shuffles the remaining tiles to form a personal tile supply.

On a turn, a player must play at least one tile. A player may also play any number of “fast” tiles (tiles with a red Japanese character). Then, players check to see whether any caste piece on the board has been completely surrounded on land. If so, the player who has the most influence on that piece (represented by the strength of tiles placed around the piece) places it behind his or her screen.

Most tiles bear a number and a picture–the number represents the strength of the tile, and the picture represents which caste it influences (samurai, ronin, and ship tiles influence all castes). Players have two special tiles in addition to these–one that lets them swap caste pieces from one location to another, and one that lets them move a tile that has already been played.

The "normal" tiles each player receives in Samurai. Usually a player can play only one tile per turn. Each tile has a strength and a caste type it affects. (The bottom middle is the swap tile, which lets you reuse a tile already played.)
The “normal” tiles each player receives in Samurai. Usually a player can play only one tile per turn. Each tile has a strength and a caste type it affects. (The bottom middle is the swap tile, which lets you reuse a tile already played.)

Once all pieces of one caste have been claimed from the board, the game ends. Players reveal their claimed pieces, and whoever has captured the most pieces of each caste (without tying) becomes the leader of that caste. If anyone is the leader of more castes than everyone else, that player wins. If there is a tie between leaders, tied players count the pieces they have in the castes for which they are not the leader; the player who captured the most pieces wins. If there is still a tie, the tied player who captured the most total pieces is the winner.

Samurai Showdown, or Much Edo about Nothing?

I am a longtime fan of Reiner Knizia’s games, but I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that before the new Fantasy Flight edition, I had not played Samurai. I owned the Rio Grande version once–I opened it, punched the tiles, read the rules, and turned the pieces over again and again in my hands–but I couldn’t convince anyone to play it with me, and I traded it away with great sadness.

But gaming groups and tastes change, dynasties come and go, and with the release of Fantasy Flight’s Euro Classics version, I recognized a renewed opportunity to correct this lacuna in my gaming education. And I am so glad I took that opportunity.

Fast tiles allow players to be sneaky.
Fast tiles allow players to be sneaky.

Samurai is part of what is often called Reiner Knizia’s “tile-laying trilogy” (which comprises Samurai, Tigris & Euphrates, and Through the Desert). But the tile laying in Samurai functions much differently than it does in either of those other games. Rather than tiles serving as bricks in a wall (as in Through the Desert) or as point generators and mergers (as in Tigris & Euphrates), tiles in Samurai represent influence. In fact, more than a tile-laying game, Samurai feels like a hand management game. Players each have a stock of twenty identical tiles, and with the same stock of tiles, players compete to claim the same limited resources on the board. Each tile has utility, and each one played in one spot means it can’t be played in another.

The player screens are quite useful in this game. They give a quick breakdown of tile distribution and are large enough to hide what they are intended to hide.
The player screens are quite useful in this game. They give a quick breakdown of tile distribution and are large enough to hide what they are intended to hide.

This hand management forms a good deal of the tension in the game. Do you deploy your 4-value tile now to scare off other players? Do you hold it to wrest control from an unsuspecting opponent who thinks they’ve got that caste piece in the bag? Fast tiles are a huge boon, allowing players to get more influence on the board in a single go, but most of the fast tiles are water tiles, which don’t cause pieces to be scored. Perhaps the weightiest decision in the game is when to use the Ronin tile. The Ronin is a 1-value wild tile–not very strong–but the Ronin is the only fast land tile. If you need to quickly surround a piece to cause a scoring before your opponents can interfere, the Ronin is indispensable. But you’ve only got one, so you have to make it count.

Fast tiles allow players to change the game state in one swoop. However, usually they can only be used as a final effort, since almost all land tiles are normal tiles. This is what makes the ronin tile so crucial to the game: it's the only fast land tile.
Fast tiles allow players to change the game state in one swoop. However, usually they can only be used as a final effort, since almost all land tiles are normal tiles. This is what makes the ronin tile so crucial to the game: it’s the only fast land tile.

Making it count is what Samurai is all about. Because every player has the same set of tiles, while players might be able to blame luck of the draw (although being able to choose your own starting hand should mitigate this complaint), the game really comes down to who plays better. And “playing better” comes down to spotting and exploiting opportunities while preventing other players from ruining your own. This isn’t easy since players will usually only get to play one tile per turn. That’s just one chance to play next to a caste piece, and a lot can change in between turns. The first tile played next to a caste piece will never score it, so the other players will always have a chance to respond. This is why you have to weigh carefully which tile you use: you don’t want to tip your hand too early, letting the other players know that you really care about the piece you’re going for. On the other hand, if you make a weak play for a piece, another player might snatch it from you before your turn comes around. And then there is the capital, Edo, which houses one of each piece, and several other cities that contain two pieces, which further impact the decisions you make.

Players always have to decide how much power to commit to Edo. There is power consolidated there, but if you stretch your resources too thin in order to take the city, it might hurt your chances elsewhere.
Players always have to decide how much power to commit to Edo. There is power consolidated there, but if you stretch your resources too thin in order to take the city, it might hurt your chances elsewhere.

Samurai, while not a pure abstract, nevertheless has the feel of a classic abstract game. Not much is hidden from the other players–only a player’s current hand of tiles (which, with only 20 tiles in the game, a player is holding 25 percent of their tiles at any given moment) and those pieces a player has captured–so attentive players should have a good read of what opportunities are on the board. But reading opportunities is not the same as reading the mind of another player, and the human element–the gambits, the bluffs, the big sacrifices–is what makes Samurai consistently interesting.

The scoring is another aspect that keeps Samurai interesting. Once again, Reiner Knizia has hit upon an ingenious system for determining the winner. A player who has captured a majority of majorities (which is hard to do) wins outright. Much more frequently, the game comes down to tiebreakers, and the tiebreakers are brutal. Overwhelming your opponents in one caste does nothing if you don’t win the game, because the first tiebreaker ignores the caste a player has a majority in. Players must usually try to conquer individual castes with just enough influence and still hold considerable sway over the other castes in order to stay competitive. Of course, if it comes down to the second tiebreaker, an overwhelming majority in the caste you’ve won is a boon. I love the scoring schema here: it pulls players in two directions (diversifying and doubling down), and it’s up to them to strike a balance between the two. Knizia has found the interesting decision space, balanced it on the edge of a knife, and wound the game up tight around it to make one of the tensest games I’ve played.

These tiles are completely superfluous...and also make explaining the scoring system easier.
These tiles are completely superfluous…and also make explaining the scoring system easier.

But not everyone will love it. For starters, not everyone loves tension as thick as this game produces. Second, and related, Samurai is very thinky. Being thinky means it isn’t much of a chatty game. The players around a game of Samurai are more quiet than active, and lookers on might think those engaged in the game aren’t having a good time, similar to how a game of chess looks to outsiders. For me, this isn’t a problem, especially since, because players are so invested, there’s usually a discussion after the game about what each player was thinking. Similarly, because players have the same twenty tiles and each tile represents an opportunity, careful planning is required. I’m not one who usually spends minutes pondering my turn, but Samurai has such weighty decisions, each one of which can tip the scale in one direction or another, that I find myself indulging in analysis paralysis. (Despite this, the game still finishes in 30-45 minutes, so it’s not as bad as it could be.) I understand these potential criticisms, but the game is good enough that I’m willing to put up with a little (or a lot of) silent deliberation.

One worry I initially had about Samurai is that it would become samey. The board is more or less the same from game to game, each player starts with the same twenty pieces, and players can pick their starting hands. Yet like the classic abstracts it comes close to emulating, Samurai is a game that gets better the more you play it. You begin to read the board in a different way than you read it your first game, and the tactics your opponents employ yield different possibilities for you. Samurai is a deep game of tactical decision making, and because human behavior changes and adapts, I imagine this game will stay perennially interesting.

This is what the battle is all about. These are also what Fantasy Flight brings to the table in a reprint.
This is what the battle is all about. These are also what Fantasy Flight brings to the table in a reprint.

The components in the Fantasy Flight reprint are gorgeous. I was initially wary of what would come in the box, because I much prefer the old Rio Grande cover. However, everything that comes in the box is well produced. Of course, the original’s pieces were also quite nice. For my part, while I loved the glassy pieces in the Rio Grande printing, the miniatures in the Fantasy Flight update are top notch, and the coloring and graphic design on the board and pieces provide wonderful window dressing while waiting for others to take their turns. I don’t think you’d go wrong with either edition, but surprisingly, I prefer the new one. I’m ready for Fantasy Flight to roll out more upgraded editions of classic Euro games, given the care they’ve shown with this one (and Tigris & Euphrates).

The firstborn among many brothers...? I certainly hope so.
The firstborn among many brothers…? I certainly hope so.

The game advertises play with two, three, or four players. It works at all those player counts equally well, although with four the game can have more downtime (obviously–there are more players who need time to think), and with two, since there is less hidden information, the game can become even thinkier and more cerebral. I think three is the sweet spot here, but I wouldn’t turn down a game at the other player counts. The rules offer some setup variants. The standard game involves players choosing in turn order where to place caste pieces on the board and players choosing their starting hand of five tiles. I can maybe see the draw of taking turns placing pieces for tournament-level players, but for the casual player (i.e., me), I prefer to place the pieces on the board randomly. I do, however, like choosing my starting hand of five tiles, although when teaching the game to new players, randomized tiles makes sense.

The back of the map tiles give instructions for how they fit together as well as which pieces are used to form the map, depending on the number of players.
The back of the map tiles give instructions for how they fit together as well as which pieces are used to form the map, depending on the number of players.

All told, Samurai is an incredible design. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not a game that I would pull out in every, or even most, circumstance(s), but it is a stunning work in board game minimalism. The rules can be taught in two or three minutes, but the implications of what players can do on their turns reverberate through the rest of the game. Samurai has a classic feel, and if you like purely tactical strategy games, it will not disappoint–it’s one of the best in its category. Samurai, now nearly twenty years old, still feels remarkably fresh. Rather than being dated, it bears the marks of a truly timeless game.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games for providing us with a review copy of Samurai.

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 10
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Summary

Pros:

  • Tense gameplay
  • Weighty decisions that provoke thought
  • Interesting scoring system that pulls players in opposite directions
  • Gorgeous components

Cons:

  • Gameplay is incredibly tense
  • Thought-provoking decisions sometimes cause analysis paralysis
  • Wonky Knizian scoring system
  • Gorgeous components belie the often abstract game underneath
9.0 Great

I’ll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion2 Comments

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