Samurai (1998) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameSamurai (1998)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.50]
BGG Rank194 [7.44]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Reiner Knizia
Artist(s)Franz Vohwinkel
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

Fantasy Flight English edition

Introduction

Samurai is a game well defined by elegance – both in presentation and in the effectiveness of its simple, sparse rule-set. We gave it four stars in our review, noting that it’s a game where contemplation and momentum come together to create a something considerable more strategic than it might seem from a surface reading. The presence of fast units in particular creates such a danger to well placed plans that they distort everything around like a dense gravity well of anxiety. It’s a great game.

Now though we look at the other side of the Meeple Like Us coin – if you liked the sound of it from the review, could you expect to play it? Let’s surround the problem on all sides in the hope someone doesn’t jab an unexpected Ronin in the way.

Colour Blindness

We don’t start off well here – the caste tokens are black and the map doesn’t use colour as a primary channel of information but the tiles are drawn from a dreadfully inaccessible palette. Tile colours are green, a kind of purpley-blue, yellow, and red. While it’s possible to differentiate these colours under good lighting and close inspection they become easily mixed up when you view the board in the aggregate.

Colour blindness and tiles on the map

That’s a serious problem in a game which is about assessing strength and presence on the board, especially since close inspection is going to leak game information. If I see you eyeing up a particular part of the board I’m going to find my attention drawn that way. Maybe you’re bluffing, maybe you’re not, but you shouldn’t have to play a pantomime of feigned disinterest in order to make strategic decisions.

Close up on the corner

Given how the entirety of the game is playing tiles in the right place to achieve the right balance of influence with relation to your opponents this adds a massive burden to colour blind players. The art on each tile is broken up into different icons for different kinds of power but they all share the same art regardless of player.

Close up on tiles

Now, Samurai is a game from 1998 but this particular edition is much newer – from 2015 in a Fantasy Flight reprint. We tend to go easier in the writeup on games from antiquity but 2015 is recent enough that more effort should have been spent on this issue. It’s a perverse set of colour choices, and as such we can’t recommend Samurai in this category.

Visual Accessibility

There’s an awful lot of visual state in Samurai, and this is going to be a problem for anyone with visual impairments regardless of severity. For one thing, each player has a hidden hand of tiles and while these have clear numbers and icons they also occasionally have very small ‘fast’ icons on them. Which tiles have these will become easier to tell with familiarity but they can be overlooked. The more severe the visual impairment, the more likely this will be. Players with total blindness will be unable to identify tiles by touch since they’re all hexagonal and there are no tactile identifiers. Sighted support will be necessary and it can’t come from anyone who is involved in the game without losing almost all of the strategic and tactical depth of play.

As to the game state itself, it’s a little odd. On one hand, the amount of the board a player need consider will technically decrease as time goes by but the presence of switch and move tiles means that there are rarely parts of the board you can truly discount. Caste tokens on tiles can be differentiated by touch but the influence exerted by each player will not be easy to make out particularly in the larger three and four player maps. It’s easy to verbalise, but as we noted in the section on colour blindness asking the question directs attention towards the location referenced. That’s highly impactful.

Samurai map

More importantly a big part of the game is identifying where players have spent or conserved strength. Often the decision to play a tile depends on what tiles you think your opponent might have. That would be possible to hold in memory, at least to an extent, but being able to visually scan the board is a massive help there. You can ask ‘Do you have a four-rice played anywhere’ but again – you don’t necessarily want to direct attention to the reason for your inquiry. There is a lot of information on the board and it’s all of subtle impact. The presence of a two samurai for example exerts influence on all adjacent tiles whereas other intersections might be safe to ignore in the short term of a single turn. Close inspection is what permits that curation of attention. Once all the switch and move tiles have been played there is a lot of the board that can safely be discounted but until that happens it’s very risky to ignore any part of the game state.

We don’t recommend Samurai in this category, although it is playable if someone wants to make the effort. Losing the switch and move tiles from play for example would mean that as the game goes on more of the board could be safely discounted. The cost of that is very high though and it’s not what we’d recommend of people looking to get the full Samurai experience.

Cognitive Accessibility

The rules in Samurai are simple enough that I think it would, on that basis, be suitable for almost everyone:

  • Draw five tiles
  • Play a tile
  • If a hex is surrounded, add up influence and distribute tokens

As is often the case though, simple rules don’t mean a simple game and that’s very much the case here. Samurai is primarily a game about the intersection of opportunity, cost and timing. The right time to play a tile is almost always a complex calculation – you want to spend them when you are at the least risk of over-spending. It’s more complicated than simply surrounding a piece and counting – you want that counting to go your way, but not necessarily on that piece. If you can get someone to over-commit to a tile it puts you in a stronger position to claim later tiles. Samurai, like chess, requires a player to think ahead and conserve pieces until it makes sense to use them. Keeping control of the momentum of play is important and having an intuitive understanding of relative value is key to assessing opponent intentions. If you both have four castles, then a new castle is worth the same to both of you – it’s what will determine which of you claims the leadership. On the other hand if you have two castles and your opponent has four it would be a bad idea to act is if you both want the next castle the same amount, and equally bad for you to commit resources to a battle you can’t win in the long-term. Weaponising this value judgement between opponents too is a powerful tool – sometimes you might want to throw a fight because it’ll ramp up the tension between others. Playing Samurai well requires a very sophisticated understanding of the game state, human psychology, and the varying value of accomplishment. The explicit numeracy required in the game is addition and comparison but the implicit understanding of economic worth is stressed far more heavily and without support encoded in the board.

When we consider fast units, we have a whole other issue to deal with – that of a game flow that becomes malleable, unpredictable and with catastrophic consequences if it is not anticipated. Fast units can be played along with other units, in any quantity that is available, and this can rapidly change the game state to something unrecognisable. Particularly the switch and move tiles which take previously allocated units and bring them back into effect in a new context. Not accounting for this in planning is to actively plan for disaster. The malleability this brings into the game round structure is secondary, as far as cognitive costs go, to the unpredictable variation it imposes on game state. Everything has to be viewed with a degree of volatile distrust and that massively increases the possibility space of any tile placement. Playing without the problematic tiles too isn’t an option because the map is scaled to the number of tiles possessed.

For those with memory impairments a big part of play is knowing which of your tiles are still to emerge, and ideally what tiles an opponent is likely to have left. Everyone has the same distribution of tiles, and the board provides an ongoing reminder of which have been played from each player. However there are twenty tiles each and while there is a reliability to the distribution it’s still the case that knowing ‘stack composition’ will benefit a player. You wouldn’t lose anything by having that information visible on a cheat sheet though. Switch tiles are discarded rather than placed and it would be necessary to provide a visual prompt of this too.

We can’t recommend Samurai for those with fluid intelligence impairments but we can offer a recommendation for those with memory impairments alone provided a crib sheet of stack composition is provided.

Emotional accessibility

Almost all competition in the game is passive, through the medium of accreting influence over a shared map. The only area where this isn’t true is in the switch tile which is both targeted and often devastating in its impact. It can take a robust position and make it untenable in a single swift movement and can come out of nowhere since it’s one of the game’s fast tiles. The fast tiles in general can hugely undermine progress because they come in unpredictable quantities and can be sprung as an ambush that bypasses all the careful planning that may be in effect. The consolation there is that every player has the same tiles and so if someone does it to you you’ll get to do it to someone else later.

Score disparities are not especially high, and in any case are mostly relevant only when it comes to tie-break situations. Ownership over leadership is what determines winning in the first case and as such there’s a very face-saving way to rationalise a poor score – you weren’t investing resources in claiming caste tokens you were statistically unlikely to be able to leverage. Most players, through the sheer complexity of the game and the diminishing supply of tiles, will claim a number of caste tokens as a matter of course.

It’s technically possible for other players to act in concert to undermine another but there’s no incentive to do it and very little benefit without considerable negotiation and planning. It would be possible to force a ‘split’ of caste tokens but a lot of ill-will would be needed to encourage it. The game doesn’t do anything to give you a reason to be aggressive or manipulative in this way. Aside from the switch token there are no take-that mechanisms, no upsetting themes, and every single caste token will be claimed in the course of the game and every tile will thus be played. This covers up the entire map. Rather than it being a game where closure is impossible and thus perhaps frustrating, completion is a mandatory part of play.

As such, we’ll recommend Samurai in this category.

Physical Accessibility

Samurai suffers in this category by requiring fine-grained placement of individual tiles and also not lending itself particularly well to verbalisation. Consider this image of the map when the caste tokens have been placed but nobody has yet made a move:

Samurai map

How might you describe any particular hex here? ‘Left of the Buddha’ is not unambiguous. ‘Right of the castle in the left most segment of the map’ identifies two tokens. There’s a degree of refinement that will be required here because there’s not much in the map that can be used to offer clarity. There are some rough landmarks that can help, but they’ll be covered up during play. Manipulation of tiles too is done behind a screen and while a card holder can be used instead of this it’ll depend on the exact size and shape of the holder. Otherwise a supporting player would need to reach over the screen, without knocking it over, and select the correct tile for play in a location that might be difficult to describe.

Tiles on the map

Playing tiles is somewhat fraught because they have very tight constraints in which they’ll need to be placed. They’re reasonably frictive and anchored in a context that means they won’t fly away when nudged but you can see how untidy things get. Often tiles will need to be played in the centre of existing tiles and this will involve slotting them into place from above and then tidying up the mess. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker in this category but combined with the difficulty of verbalising specifics it’s not an ideal scenario.

With larger player counts too the board gets quite big – there are five segments that get slotted together and for four players all five will be used for 80 hex markers. You need a reasonably big table and the heat of the action might be at the opposite side of it. Sometimes too where people can’t easily see or access the tiles.

We can only very tentatively recommend Samurai in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The box prominently shows a male Samurai warrior, but given the name of the game it’s hard to begrudge that too much. I don’t believe, as I have stated many times, that theme is an excuse for poor representation but if you are focusing on a single character as a kind of emblematic figure for the game it’s hard to argue for representational parity. That said, there were women who were members of the bushi and were trained and active in the arts of battle. Even in the period referenced in the game women were expected to protect their homes in times of war and it would have been awesome to see the game include a bit of this. Women are often erased from history (I had no idea about women samurai until I did a bit of research) and it’s always a shame to see a missed opportunity to make a game’s trappings even more interesting. The little section at the start of the manual with the historical information about the game could have included some women samurai and talked a bit about their role. Considering though that the manual defaults to ‘he’ throughout I guess that would have been a bit too much to expect.

Introductory text in the manual

Samurai has an RRP of around £50 and that is eye-watering. The Fantasy Flight edition is undeniably lovely but it’s not like it’s made of rare oaks or filled with ancient spices. This is a game designed all the way back in 1998 and reprinted, and the price really makes it difficult to recommend. It’s definitely a great game, but there are lots of great games that we’ve discussed on Meeple Like Us and they don’t have such a poor price to playability ratio. Like many Fantasy Flight games, mostly what you’re paying for is air in an over-sized box.

We don’t recommend Samurai in this category.

Communication

There is no need for literacy and the game has no requirement of communication during play. It’s entirely language independent.

We strongly recommend Samurai in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Our negative recommendations in so many categories mean that this is an easy section for us to write – most intersections are handled by recommendations in individual categories. The only one that isn’t is when memory impairments intersect with physical impairments. The map can be very big with a full player count and if it’s necessary to keep scanning the board for played tiles we’d be inclined to recommend a different game is played. When we talked about memory impairments we pointed out that all the state you need is on the board save for the distribution of tiles itself but that was contingent on it being easy to look and make sure.

Samurai plays reasonably briskly – about 15 minutes per player in my experience. For a full player count it’s not exactly a short game but two players can easily churn through games in a touch under half an hour. If a player must drop out though the game can’t handle it very gracefully – the count of caste tokens changes with player count and there is a tight mapping between number of tiles and number of spaces. To claim all caste markers on the board, which is expected, all tiles must be played. It would be possible to randomly play tiles from a departing player’s hand but that would massively undermine the tactical and strategic scope of the game.

Conclusion

Samurai unfortunately doesn’t have a strong performance here, and it’s not all to do with the game design. It’s already proven successful enough to merit a redesign and a reprint so should a future version appear I’d expect it could make a number of improvements if anyone were so inclined.

Samurai, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessD
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryB-
Physical AccessibilityC-
Emotional AccessibilityB
Socioeconomic AccessibilityD
CommunicationA

It would be nice to see a better colour palette, some verbalizable landmarks, and a pass over the manual that removed ‘he’ in favour of more inclusive language. However, Samurai is also an example of a game that suffers from a massive degree of sticker shock and it highlights an unfortunate issue in the hobby.

The thing is – the idea of paying £50 for a board game like Samurai is something I personally don’t find to be a problem. After all, I did buy it. I want people working in this industry to be well paid and happy and arguing for ever lower prices isn’t a great way to make that happen. On the other hand, when a copy of Monopoly can be purchased for £15 or £20 that’s the frame of reference the majority of people have. The different economies of scale don’t get highlighted on the price tag. There’s a tension between game development becoming a sustainable career and it actually being affordable for those for whom £50 is not a casual expenditure, especially for a game that is perfectly enjoyable but not to the point I’d argue people beg, borrow or steal a copy.

This is why you should be arguing for your libraries to stock games, people. Get in touch!

There are a lot of problems with the accessibility of Samurai. That’s a shame because it’s a game that is absolutely worth your time – simple yet deep, elegant yet effective. It’s a four-star game according to our review. There is though equally good and more convenient fare to be found on this site if accessibility is a primary deliverable you need from your tabletop entertainment.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.