Review: Samurai

Players:  2-4
Ages:  10+
Time to play:  30-45 minutes

Samurai is a tile laying strategy game designed by Reiner Knizia and originally released in 1998.  It is part of the Knizia tile laying trilogy which also consists of "Tigris and Euphrates" and "Through the Desert".  This game has now been re-released as part of Fantasy Flight Games' "Euro Classics" line.  With the aim of upgrading and refreshing components and bringing these classics to a newer audience.

Samurai sees each player competing to gain favour with the three factions which are represented by three different types of pieces scattered around the islands of Japan.  Simply put, the person who has collected the most of each type of piece wins.

Now there's one thing that immediately stands out when you look at samurai and that's the beautiful game design.  It's always a joy to review a game who's artwork totally encapsulates the theme, such as the recently reviewed Sagrada which mimics the aesthetics of cathedral artwork perfectly.  But whereas Sagrada is a riot of colour, Samurai by contrast is clean and minimalist, borrowing heavily from Japanese art.

The innovative board, which is modular in design to cater for different player counts, is a real head turner when set up for play.  This is especially true when it's fully populated with the intricately moulded caste pieces of rice, castles and Buddhas.

Even the tiles and player screens are simple and clean, they're depicted in muted pastel shades which compliment the minimalist tone perfectly.  It's obvious that no effort has been spared in the redesign of this game.

Aesthetics aside, Samurai fundamentally, is a strategy game.  The object of the game is simple, to become the leader of the most castes (Religion, Commerce and Military) by capturing various pieces on the board using your "influence".

Now, once the modular board has been constructed according to the player count, the small pieces representing the 3 castes that you are trying to influence are seeded on the marked areas of the board.  As we mentioned before, the castes pieces are religion (represented by the Buddha), commerce (represented by the rice paddy) and military (represented by the castles).

Each player has a hand of five tiles which are face up in front of them (thought obscured from other players by a screen) and they can place one on the game board each turn. They also have a supply of face down tiles from which they are able to draw from throughout the game to replenish their hand.  These tiles are grouped into sets of Buddhas, rice paddies and castles and have various numeric values on each.  Each of these tiles are able to exert "influence" onto the caste pieces on the board when placed next to them.  The tiles can only exert influence according to their caste type.

In addition to the caste tiles there are wildcard tiles which can exert influence on any caste type.  Some of these are known as "fast" tiles which means that you can play any number of these per turn instead of or in addition to placing a standard tile.

There are a couple of extra tiles which give you additional benefits.  One tile allows you to re-use one of your already placed tiles somewhere else on the board.  The other tile allows you to swap two caste pieces on the board.

So you might be wondering - how do you exert influence on a caste piece? Well, if you were to place one of your Buddha tiles which has a value of three next to a Buddha caste piece on the board, then you now have exerted an influence of three over that piece.  If another player then places a Buddha tile with a value of four on one of the other places next to that same Buddha caste piece then they have exerted an influence of four over that Buddha caste piece (currently beating your three).
Once a caste piece has been completed surrounded by player tiles, it has effectively been captured (by someone yet to be determined).  The values of the surrounding tiles are added up for each player and the player with the highest influence over that statue wins it and hides it behind their screen.  If the influence exerted over the caste piece is drawn with another player then it is considered "tied" and removed from play.

The game continues until either one (or more) of the sets of caste pieces are exhausted or if 4 caste pieces have been removed from play due to being tied.  Each player then reveals the caste pieces that they have collected and counts them.  The player with the most caste pieces for a given caste is declared leader for that caste and receives its leader token.  If players are tied for caste leadership then the leader token is set aside for that caste.  The player with the most leader tokens wins.

If two or three players have one leader token each then their additional caste pieces are counted to determine the winner.

The underlying strategy to this game which becomes clear very quickly, it's a game about margins and being economical with your tiles.  Obviously, you have to beat your opponents to win a caste piece, but the real skill is beating them with just enough influence.  After all, there's no need to use a  "4" influence tile to win a caste piece when a "1" will do it.  But of course, you might only have a "4" in your hand right now.

This forces you to constantly evaluate your position, should you take pieces immediately, or wait for more efficient tiles.  Do you spread your tiles around the board around different pieces or focus in one area.  Should you watch the other players battle it out and steal their pieces at the last minute or keep away.  These decisions open the game up to both the strategist and the risk taker alike, making a game that can suit both styles of play.

Because each player has the same tiles, it means that no player can dominate the board.  Everyone who plays will take their fair share of wins.  This makes every game feel close, and close games always make people want to come back for more.

The closeness of each game comes down to the extremely well balanced mechanics and for me is one of Samurai's two key strengths, with the other being it's simplicity.  The game is so easy to learn that you don't waste time double checking the rule book or trying to keep a load of obscure rules in your head.  Instead you can focus completely on the task at hand, and become absorbed in the game as the drama unfolds before you.

I think that this mixture of simple rules and delicately balanced mechanics makes Samurai an excellent game for those who are new to board games.  It's so well weighted that a novice can feel like they've had a close game with an expert (even if they haven't) and the added bonus for new players is that games are really quick to play, especially for two players.  This means mistakes can be learned upon quickly and new strategies tried out.

Overall, there's not much wrong with Samurai at all - and what else would you expect from Reiner Knizia.  The fact that this game has been re-released is a testament to its enduring quality and appeal.  I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it to anyone.

You can pick up a copy of Samurai here.


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