War never ends, does it? You think you’ve made things right with your civilization, you’ve spread to the stars to reach vast resources. But apparently humankind just gets bored easily, so rather than looking around and saying “hey, we’ve got nearly limitless resources and plenty of space!” you think “let’s make a clan and go to war with other clans.” Plus, the Emperor died leaving a void of power. Plus, you’ve got these giant samurai mechs anyway. Might as well go to war to rule the galaxy. I mean… for honor.
How It Plays
Starship Samurai pits each player against the others in a battle for control of the galaxy by conquering planets and influencing the 8 minor clans.
Player components include a player board with space for units and actions, several fighter ships, a carrier, two mechs, money tokens, and 4 action tokens labelled 1-4.
Each Samurai Mech has a unique power. There are 8 mechs in the box, which are drafted at the start of a game so that each player has two. Mechs are powerful fighting units, and their special abilities allow for destroying enemy ships, earning extra money, moving around the board, or gaining bonuses in combat.
Players alternate turns doing one action at a time. They choose one of the 4 actions and assign one of their action tokens to it – the value of the token determines the level of the action. Players can also spend money tokens to boost the level.
The actions allow them to move a number of units, gain money, gain influence among the clans, or draw action cards – the amount of each action equaling the aforementioned “level.”
The main board is made up of 1 planet tile per player. Each planet has spaces for 7 units, and hosts a special bonus that is activated when a player has control of that planet at the start of their turn. Finally, a scoreboard tracks the favor of each player with each of the houses.
Player units can’t target and destroy each other directly. Instead, you’re going for majority strength on each planet. A few action cards or Samurai mechs can destroy units; in addition, if you move a Mech to a planet whose spaces are full, it automatically destroys the weakest unit there. Action cards may also provide boosts, bonus activities, or special protections – for a cost, during a player turn.
After each player has finished their four actions, there is a combat phase. For each planet, all players present get a chance to total up their strength and play a combat action card to affect the result. In the end, the player with the most Strength earns points and claims the planet as their own,and clears all their ships off. The other players remain on the board.
Once all combats are resolved, new planet cards fill in the empty spaces on the board and a new round begins. The game ends when all planet cards have been used. There is a final round of scoring where players earn points for the planets they’ve collected over the coarse of the game. Then, whoever has the most points, wins!
Space: The Final Frontier
I have a problem with Starship Samurai.
It’s a strange sort of problem, but first let me be upfront about something: Starship Samurai is not a bad game. It’s got decent card art, fun miniatures, a solid production quality. The gameplay is fairly well balanced, at least after a couple plays. The mechanics seems solid enough. It’s simple enough to teach and learn.
I’ll go further and say you have some strategic and tactical options to choose from, and it plays in a reasonable amount of time.
Here’s my problem: take away the first two sentences of this section, and what I wrote could be said of hundreds if not thousands of games. “Exceedingly decent” is a phrase that comes to mind. Starship Samurai is perfectly functional, but my problem is that it just doesn’t really stand out among the crowd.
Honestly, at this point even a box full of well-designed miniatures is so commonplace it barely means anything. The theme is it’s most unique feature. The idea of flying giant Samurai mechs around the galaxy has no small appeal to me.
But the game is just a game. It’s streamlined and simple and… I dunno. It just doesn’t resonate with me. And while there is a crowd of people out there very excited to play and replay this game, I wouldn’t be surprised if within a year or two it was nearly completely forgotten.
The core mechanism – choosing which number to use on which action each turn – has some promise to it, I suppose. I just never felt the weight of my actions. I had choices, sure, but while I could see how my options would earn me points, none of it felt like it meant anything.
The board itself felt static. It’s difficult to turn over control of a planet once the spots are claimed. Maybe one planet per round fell under solid contention, but since your units can’t directly destroy each other, you had to rely heavily on action cards to make a dent in the board. If you didn’t draw the more aggressive action cards, you weren’t going to change much.
So you could get a few coins, sure. It’s pretty easy to calculate how much you’re going to need in a round for the cards and abilities you wanted to use. Yes, you can stack coins under a fighter to empower it, but not quick enough to make your force stronger than the established defender.
Even when it came down to the actual combat, things tended to be pretty much set. The combat cards played rarely made a difference.
Maybe it’s just the lack of different abilities. You get your mech powers, sure, which are nice – but generally pretty static. The most fun mech is the one that blows up a ship every turn, which lends for more activity on the board. The others provide defensive or movement bonuses, which is all well and good but not particularly exciting.
But the clans you influence are indistinguishable, as are the planets. You’re just earning points on a track, which in turn earns you more points. There’s no reason to influence clan A vs clan B other than which one gives you the most points. No bonus abilities or advantages to be claimed, nothing to make it mean anything. Yay points, I guess.
The planets give you something, but it’s just more points. Either money, or clan influence – leading directly to points – or just points directly. No real reason to fight for one planet over another. Planet A gives you 1 point. Planet B gives you 1 influence over a Clan, which gives you 1 point.
Perhaps what bothers me the most is simply how low-risk everything feels. You have a small fleet, but the board quickly crowds up and on many rounds I couldn’t even use every ship I had if I wanted to. Every ship comes back in the next round, so you actually WANT to use every ship. There’s no sense of shortage, no feeling of “if I use my ships HERE I won’t be able to use them over HERE” since you don’t have the actions to get them all there anyway. I was happy to draw action cards that made me spend my ships instead of money, because I wanted to do something with them. That seems silly.
It seems easy and accessible. Don’t worry about making a mistake early on, or accidentally over-committing ships anywhere. You’ll just get them back!
If this was the only board game in existence, I wouldn’t say we were suffering, but with 6000+ games coming out each year, it’s not worth keeping on the shelf. There are plenty of other space combat games out there.
Oh, and worth noting – while overall beautifully designed, the game lacks any kind of component to distinguish which player is controlling which mech in any given game. The only reference is the picture on the cards sitting in front of the other players, and with each mech being a whirlwind of blades, pointy ends, and limbs, it’s not easy to distinguish them quickly between the card and miniature. You’ll have to ask frequently. This is a bad design choice.
I think I’ve said enough… no, probably too much. Yes, you get a bunch of ridiculous, samurai-themed mech miniatures, plus a glob of spaceships. Yes, you’re in space, fighting for control over planets with an emphasis on tactics and strategy versus dice rolls and luck. But there’s just nothing exciting going on here, nothing to compel you into playing further into the system. This feels like a game published simply because games must continue to be published for the publisher to stay profitable. With myriad good games out there to be enjoyed, I just can’t recommend spending money on this one – as “good” as it may be.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Starship Samurai.