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Review: Seven Card Samurai

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Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was a famed and prolific Japanese filmmaker.  Noted for masterpieces such as Drunken Angel, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, his movies were technical marvels and explored gritty themes surrounding the master-student relationship, heroes, man’s struggles against nature and of course violence.  They were also grueling to make.  Filming lasted hours and hours with abundant downtime for cast and crew.  So they demanded entertainment between takes and other tasks.  So Kurosawa invented this card game, Seven Card Samurai.

How to Play

Okay, actually none of that is true – though it ought to be.  Rather Seven Card Samurai was designed five years ago.  While it feels very much like a traditional card game, its provenance isn’t so exciting.

Borrowing loosely on Kurosawa’s most famous title – and I do mean loosely – players are feudal lords collecting samurai to protect their village’s rice from roving bandits.  Of course what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so you can send agents of your own to pad your own grain stores.  All that said, Seven Card Samurai is a pure set collection card game with a tactical “take that” element.  The theme is so irrelevant that the design has also been ported to zombies.  Same exact rules – just going for brains instead of rice.  Seriously.

Players start with a hand of five cards and a stock of ten rice tokens.  Each turn you draw two cards and then play two cards.  The first player to claim a set of seven Samurai made up of one to two colors between their hand and tableau wins.

Hired swords are less honorable and fewer points.
Hired swords are less honorable and fewer points.

The bulk of the deck comprises samurai cards of four suits: red, yellow, blue and green.  A Samurai set of all one color is worth 20 points.  If made up of six of one color and one of another then it is worth 15.  The value progressively declines the closer the equilibrium between your two colors in this set.  Also, each Samurai played to the table protects one rice token.

There are also four special cards.  Ronin are wild cards which protect three rice tokens when played to the table.  However, using at least one Ronin to complete a set reduces its value by seven points.  Bandits can be played to steal rice tokens from another player.  These are valued from 3 to 6, indicating the amount you can snatch.  Ninjas allow you to randomly discard a card from one opponent.  When played with a Bandit, you can even grab protected rice tokens.  Finally Shoguns let you look at another hand and choose one card to take.  If combined with the Ninja, you can look at the hand, take one and discard a second.

You may declare a Samurai set at any time during your turn.  However, you can only have seven cards on the table, and technically you lay your set down to claim it.  Therefore, you can’t go out if combined with the cards in front of you would put you over the limit.  The player completing a set earns points for it and then everyone also earns points for any rice counters they own.  A game lasts five rounds, highest cumulative score wins.

Protect the rice! (It's all we have to eat...)
Protect the rice! (It’s all we have to eat…)

The Genuine Kurosawa?

Commercial card games with custom decks have been a thing at least since Parker Brothers published Pit in 1904.  Since then numerous designers have sought to capture the strategy, feel and endless playability that countless classic card games squeeze from a mere standard deck.  Seven Card Samurai borrows Rummy’s set collection mechanic, condenses it and forces players to watch their backs!

That’s what the design essentially offers – a throwback experience in modern packaging.  Seven Card Samurai is extremely easy to teach and learn.  It plays fast.  Really fast.  While using a custom deck and playing by different rules, it nonetheless reminds players of games like Rummy, 500, Hearts and other old standbys enjoyed with family back in the day.  Or today, if you play them now!  While not deep, the design offers quick-moving choices, a bit of tension and some strategic tug-of-war.  Yet it’s also casual.  Perfect as filler or for family and social gaming, its replayability derives from those qualities as opposed to variability or inherent depth.

Set. Game.
Set. Game.

The special cards then toss in some interaction you won’t find in those classic titles.  Amazingly it proves equally balanced between just the appropriate weight and so frustrating you’ll be ready to throw your hand into an opponent’s face.  Maybe even a fist!  That sounds odd, but it’s all about a good mix of planning, risk and random opportunities.  If you enjoy old card games for their brilliant proportion of strategy and casual play, then you’ll take Seven Card Samurai’s spite in stride.  If you abhor blind luck, then not so much.

Early bandits are particularly annoying if you’re the unfortunate target.  Your rice stores can dwindle fast before your game hardly begins as you haven’t had time to protect them.  However, if someone is swiping lots of rice early on, she’s likely thieving at the expense of building any coherent set of her own.  Furthermore, now she has a pile of grain without any guards, thus a giant bulls-eye floating squarely on her.  Later in the round, you can afford some protection and bandits are played more judiciously.  Then it’s fun to pair one up with a ninja at an unexpected moment to slip some tokens out right underneath another’s nose.  So there are some fun options and a coupe ways to utilize even the same card.

[Insert Japanese word for 'bandit' here]
[Insert Japanese word for ‘bandit’ here]
If you do find yourself thoroughly trounced one round, your game is by no means finished.  There will be wild swings in fortunes and scores from hand to hand.  This is neither surprising, nor detrimental.  Again, that’s very common for traditional card games, as well.  Games are about the long run – or at least several hands.  You always have a chance make up lost ground.  Perhaps the more jarring experience are the equally wild swings in play time between rounds.  One can easily collect a set of seven samurai and/or ronin in just a few draws making a hand last all of a minute.  Other hands could take considerably longer.

The session length also depends on which strategy one or more players opt to pursue.  There are two.  You can claim the first set you’re able to accumulate – very quickly even if lucky enough – just to grab an immediate win and hopefully retain as much rice as possible.  Likely that will include four samurai of one color and three of another as it’s generally easier.  You won’t score as many points, but you’re still the only one with them.  Ronin will let you build that set even quicker, but again at the expense of lesser value.  Otherwise you can push-your-luck and hold out for a higher value set – one comprised of one color.  The reward is greater, but so is the risk of another going out first and leaving you sitting on a nigh empty sack of rice.

The extremely quick rounds can be frustrating at times, but at least they’re occasional.  Actually the only real quibble I have with Seven Card Samurai is the near Tarot-sized cards.  The large format, along with the hefty deck, make for difficult shuffling.  And that’s annoying givrn the number of times you’ll be shuffling.

Though illustrated with a nice watercolor style, and sturdy, these cards are too big!
Though illustrated with a nice watercolor style, and sturdy, these cards are too big!

So obviously there’s not much to Seven Card Samurai.  It’s not a deep title, but instead an easy to teach and accessible set collection game that tosses in a little nasty streak.  It varies wildly in both length and scoring, but it’s never too long and tends to balance out over multiple rounds.  With a few more tactics to pursue than the typical Rummy-style game, this modern title has an old soul and will prove a success with casual players and fans of traditional card games.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mindtwister USA for providing a review copy of Seven Card Samurai.

Long Grain Rice

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros:

Great choice for traditional card games crowd
Intuitive and familiar set collection
Simple and nice for casual setting
Rice scoring fun element to customary card play

Cons:

Wide variation in length of rounds
Lots of early bandits can be annoying
Low replayability for hobby gamers

6.5 Average

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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