English language edition
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For centuries, Samurai have represented unfailing courage, imperturbable loyalty and internal harmony. There are three Samurai forces: peasants, clergy and nobility. The way to power leads through these three: peasants, represented by rice fields, clergy, represented by Buddhas and nobility, represented by high helmets. To become a Samurai, one has to be supported by one of these forces and have strong connections to the other two. Each player has an identical force and they deploy their forces to the spaces around the power figures. When a figure is surrounded, it is captured by the player with the strongest sympathetic force. To win, a player must gain dominance in one of the powers while getting better support from the other powers than the other players.
Descriptions don't do games justice. I expected Samurai to be good based on the positive comments and the good ratings, but reading about the actual gameplay left me unconvinced. It seemed like a lot of counting and math. But I liked the look of the board and pieces, so I ordered it.
We love it. From the first time opening the box we were impressed by the elegantly simple mechanics of the game, and repeated playings have proven consistently interesting and entertaining.
One of those "professional" reviews said it didn't feel Japanese. Maybe not, but it does make me feel like a tile-slinging Samurai. Each move is careful and deliberate, and at just those crucial moments -- Sha Pow! -- a lethal blow. Executed like a real warrior.
Kudos to Knizia.
Samurai is one of Reiner Knizia’s best games. There is something about this game that I absolutely love. It’s probably a combination of things: I love the attractive board. I love that the game pieces feel “substantial” and high- quality. I love the decision-making and strategy. I love winning the pieces and adding them, like trophies, to my collection. I love that the game scales well for two or more players. I love that it’s short. I even love the ancient Japan theme.
I’ve played Samurai about five times. So far, it’s a favorite of my gaming group, which consists of me, my wife, and another couple. I’m not usually very excited about abstract games. But for me Samurai feels less abstract (and much more fun) than chess, Torres, or Knizia’s game Lost Cities, for example.
This game does require some thinking, so I wouldn’t call it a light-weight game. But the brain-burn is merely medium and is eased by the shortness of the games. You could have to wait a little for others to analyze their next move. But this hasn’t been a problem in the games I’ve played (and my wife is one who tends to take long turns in these types of games).
In my book, Samurai is a “must have” game.
1) easy to teach new players - really takes less than 5 minutes!
2) every game is different - as the 3 objects to be controlled is scattered differently across the board everytime.
3) little randomness - players have great control over many parts of the game; from where objects start out, to which objects/areas you choose to attempt to dominate, to which soldiers you choose to deploy.
4) plays fast - i dont know how one reviewer found the game long because every game that we've played plays quickly. 30-40 mins. of course, over-analyzing will make games longer!
5) cracks your brain just enough not to give you a headache! yup, the best part is that it makes you think but not so much that your head aches after a game!
6) skill counts - yup, here is one game you cant accuse the winner of being lucky - no way!
7) for all ages - my 6 year old loves it and is as good as his granddad!
It starts placidly: Players place, one by one, the three types of figurines they need to collect to win, in the towns and cities of the Japanese islands. The battle for them is waged by laying tiles that exert their numerical influence on any adjacent prize space, and the highest values gain the awards when a city is completely surrounded. Very soon, intense local battles rage all over Japan. Two special tiles grant privileges and can dramatically change fortunes in the endgame. The first to capture a majority of two or three groups of figurines is the outright victor. Operating in a foreign environment with unfamiliar rules can be confusing as well as exhilarating. The almost inscrutable secondary methods for determining the winner might even bewilder an inexperienced victor. Don't you like surprise endings?
When we learned a couple of years ago that Reiner was working on a "gamer's game", I, like many another, got very excited. He is so prolific and targets so many different markets that it would be unreasonable to expect me or anybody else to like all his games, but when he is in this mode, there are very few who can stand alongside him and none who can pack so much play into a relatively short space of time. The game, Euphrat & Tigris, appeared last Essen and has been gathering plaudits and prizes ever since. Then we learn't that there were more in the pipe line and life took on a very rosy glow. Durch die Wüste made its debut at Nuremberg, now we have Samurai and it is clear that the three of them form a set. All three are tile laying games -- OK, in DdW the tiles look like camels, but they are tiles really -- and in all cases the object is to place them in such a way as to score points and to capture things. It is not a similarity that you can push too far, because one of the characteristics of Reiner's work is that he doesn't recycle his ideas to anything like the extent that other prolific designers do, but there is a common thread of inspiration, even though there is no overlap in the actual mechanics.
The setting this time is Japan and the aim is to collect three types of objects -- pointy things, round things and square things. Apparently these represent high helmets, Buddhas and rice fields, but, attractive though the pieces are, if you hadn't told me what they were I wouldn't have guessed and in my circle the square ones were immediately rechristened Mintolas, with big Ian receiving his usual instruction that he was not to eat them. The board comes as a four piece jigsaw showing the four main islands of Japan, together with surrounding coastal waters. On the islands are the capital (Edo), three major cities (Kyoto, Sapporo and Akita) and an assortment of villages. The helmets, Buddhas and rice fields are placed in these settlements in the opening phase of the game and after that it is a matter of capturing them by placing tiles so as to surround them.
The tiles come in three main types, each showing a symbol and a number. Type one shows one of the three types of object, type two a samurai and type three a ship. Each player also has a couple of "switch tiles", which are of tactical importance in the play, but which needn't concern us here. The concept underlying the capture of the various objects is that of "influence". As soon as all the land hexes adjacent to an object are occupied by tiles, the object is captured by the player with most influence over it. Tiles of type one only influence the object shown on them; the samurai and the ships influence all three objects. As an example, let us suppose that Akita contains a helmet and a Buddha, that the four land hexes adjacent to it are occupied by a "3 helmet" and a "2 samurai" from you and by two "1 samurai" from me and that I also have a "1 ship" in an adjacent sea hex. You take the helmet by 5 points to 3 and I take the Buddha by 3 points to 2.
The game begins with each player selecting 5 of their 20 tiles to form their initial hand. This is done in secret and the tiles chosen are placed behind your screen. The remaining 15 tiles are mixed face down to form a pool from which you will draw replacements as the game proceeds. Next, players take it in turn to place objects on the board. There are 13 of each type, three go into Edo, two into each of the major cities and one into each village. The only restriction is that a city cannot contain two objects of the same type. This phase, the choice of tiles and the placement of objects, is where you have an opportunity to set up some sort of strategic plan and then to try and produce a board that will suit it. Thereafter it is a matter of taking it in turn to place a tile and draw a replacement, though the switch tiles referred to earlier and the fact that some tiles can be placed in addition to your normal placement add tactical spice and stop this becoming too much a matter of simple counting.
The normal ending of the game (though as in DdW there is an alternative) comes when the last object of one of the types is captured. Players then lift their screens and everybody reveals how many objects of each type they have collected and now (shades of E&T) we have another Reiner special. If one player has the most figures of two or three types, they win. If, as is likely in a four player game, nobody has managed this, then each player who has the most of one type becomes a contender for victory. In all this talk of "most" it has to be a clear lead that you have; tied first places don't qualify. Contenders now set to one side the objects that got them past this first hurdle and count how many objects they have of the other two types combined. It is this second number that determines the victor. This means that to win you have to walk a very narrow line, concentrating enough on one type to establish yourself as a contender (not easy with four players, only three types and only 13 of each type) but not so much that you don't have enough of the others and end up failing at stage two.
So much for the plot, how does Samurai measure up to the two earlier games and does it have a genuine Japanese feel to it? The first of these is the more important, but the second is also worth asking, partly because some of you find your level of enjoyment enhanced when there is a proper marriage of game and theme and partly because the rule book itself expresses the hope that it is something the game has.
The game, like the two earlier ones, is a well crafted, multi-player abstract. With a lot of games that are published, you have the feeling that there were aspects that the designer could have done better. I never feel that with Reiner's games. You may like the concepts in them or you may not, but it is always the case that the presentation of the ideas is as accomplished as it can be made. That is again the case here. This is one very polished game and there is a lot packed into it. Not everybody is going to like it, because some will find it too dry and abstract and some won't like the fact that you have to concentrate and count if you are to entertain any hope of winning. It is not a game where you can be successful with a "flying by the seat of your pants" approach. Others will like it because it is interesting, very skillful and because it calls for concentration and thought. You need to know your own taste and make the call accordingly. If you liked both the other two, and particularly if you liked Durch die Wüste, Samurai is a must purchase; if you are averse to the abstract and the cerebral, you are probably better giving it a miss.
As for the second and lesser of my two questions, for me the answer is "no". The shape of Japan makes it a very good choice for the game and the graphics and components do an excellent job of capturing a Japanese feel. Hans im Glück were giving Franz Vohwinkel almost equal billing with Reiner in the pre-Essen publicity and he deserves it. But the game itself doesn't feel at all Japanese to me. The archetypal Japanese game is Go. (Chinese in origin I know, but the Japanese took it over and made it their own a long time ago.). In that, the idea that the Japanese understand better than anybody -- the influence on the space between of groups of relatively distant objects -- comes through as strongly as it does with their gardens. (And the Japanese are like the British in that if you want to understand them, you should begin by looking at their gardens.) There is none of that here. In Samurai there are no long range influences; everything is short range and about counting and watching. That it is not to belittle the game, simply to say that it doesn't feel Japanese. I'm also not convinced that you could have a 45 minute game that does; they may rush around a lot in their day to day lives, but their art is leisurely and contemplative. The insistence on speed and getting things over quickly is a Western thing. Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai runs for 200 minutes in its original version; when it was released in the West it was cut down to 140 and the remake as the Magnificent Seven came down even further to a few minutes over two hours. Same story in all three cases; the difference is how quickly do you want to tell it.