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There’s a sparseness to the design of Samurai that is typical of Reiner Knizia’s work – a mathematically inspired elegance in a game that wears its theme as lightly as an easily discarded cloak. It purports to be a game of feudal conquest – of bringing a recalcitrant Japan to heel after the failure of the Kenmu restoration in the 14th century. As if often the case with this particular designer, this is a framing rather than a genuine attempt to marry the mechanisms to the setting. Knizia games are fetishistically reverent of mechanisms, and that often leads to an experience that is profoundly disconnected from the emotional centre of play. The best I can say about Samurai in this regard is that it feels like the theme is a disinterested afterthought rather than something actively at odds with the design. Like the largest majority of Knizia games though you don’t play it for the theme. You’re opening the box for the graceful interlocking of systems that mesh together with all the frictionless accuracy of a Swiss watch. You’ll get plenty of that here.
All of this is to say – let’s put aside the Samurai part of the game. There wasn’t room for that in the box save for that which could be expressed in a few aesthetic fripperies. You’re laying down military tiles to capture caste tokens for religion, commerce and military advantage, but those tiles could have been anything. Your job is to surround and overwhelm cities, towns and villages with the right influence to claim their resources for yourself. Those resources, likewise, could have been anything. Samurai is the name of the game, but it’s not the point of the game.
Each player begins play with has a stack of twenty tiles that represent forces of various dispositions – religious influence, commercial power, and military might. Five of those will be in hand at any one time. Each player places down a tile, one per turn, at a location on the map. These tiles exert influence on all adjacent tiles and so each placement must be done in lockstep with how they impact on the shifting mesh of influences around the board. When all land tiles around a tile have been claimed, any token at the centre is captured and the player with the most influence in the appropriate caste claims it for their prize. Most tiles you play have strength in only one specific area but there are numerous wild tiles representing samurai, ronin and ships – these exert influence on all three castes. Having ownership of the largest number of tokens of a specific caste grants you leadership in that area of Japan. Ownership of a majority of leaderships grants you victory in the game. The more common scenario though in games of three or more players is that it will break down into finnicky infighting determined by the number of caste pieces collected from castes in which you are not leading. Essentially you’re looking to claim leadership if you can, but to make sure your other conquests will back you up in the event of a draw.
Some tiles are marked with a ‘fast’ symbol and this means you can play these in addition to your normal tile and in any quantity – these can rapidly shore up weak areas or in the case of ships occupy otherwise unusable sea spaces to give support to a heavily contested tile. Once per game you’ll get to swap the location of a special tile and something of yours that was previously deployed. Each player will also have one special ‘switch’ tile that lets them switch any two tiles on the board – including those of their opponents. Where your opponent is strong you can make them weak… but they’re going to get the opportunity to return the favour at some point in the future if they so desire.
The great thing about Samurai is how all of this actually creates emergent, spendable resources that have a value only loosely coupled to their documented strength. The tiles are all of varying power and varying influence but that doesn’t necessarily mean some are inherently better than others . The real resources you have to spend are momentum and precision. Your most powerful tiles shouldn’t be spent too freely – over-commitment in Samurai is a cardinal sin. It’s what wins you battles but loses you games. However, your smallest tiles shouldn’t be wasted either – they should be spent to break ties so as to leave you with your freshest troops for bigger, more fraught engagements. Weakness in Samurai is often a virtue if it lets your unexpectedly place your thumb on the scale of a weighing.
More important to understanding Samurai is that you’re not spending these invisible resources of precision and momentum to capture tiles. Or rather, that’s not why you’re using them. You capture the tiles as a by-product of the real battle in the game – that of psychology. Every tile you lay down will impact the contest on two other tiles – every caste token is located at an intersection. The move you make to capture a tile might be a side-effect of your real goal – to force your opponent to play tiles in excess of the value you place on the caste pieces you might be able to claim. Your real war here is with the balance of power that is represented by the board as it exists and the tiles that you have in your hand. You want people to be sending their best warriors to capture a castle you’ve already mentally abandoned, knowing it will sap their strength for the real contest to come. That’s what I mean by your hand representing momentum and precision – the winner here is not necessarily the one that acts the most decisively or strikes the strongest. It’s the one that plays the right piece of the right strength at the right time. Any time you overspend in the purchase of territory it should make you feel a little uneasy.
In a well matched game of Samurai everyone would be playing troops as conservatively as they could, and the entire experience would grind down into one of mental calculation and the evaluation of risk versus return. However, remember those fast tiles I mentioned earlier? They’re the magic grease that ensures that doesn’t happen. Fast tiles can come at you in staggering quantities if someone has enough of them in their hand and they will act to upset the plans of even the most contemplative warlord. The risk of a sudden, unexpected capture is what leads to wise leaders hedging their bets – spending more resources than they would if they could assume a single leisurely tile per turn will enter the board. It’s dangerous in Samurai to leave things in a state of flux because they won’t necessarily remain so, and when that happens it’s only rarely in your favour.
Look at the scenario shown in the image above – the rice token on the right is currently in contention with blue having a claim of six and yellow having a claim of three. It looks like it would be safe for blue to assume it’s going to go to them since there’s only one land space left and they can thus claim that token at any time with any tile. Yellow likewise might be happy to let that contest remain open, knowing that they have a four-rice tile they can throw in at any point to claim the token. However, in doing so they’d almost certainly let the blue player collect the rice token and the Buddah token in the city off to the left as well as the castle token below it. All it would take is a one samurai tile to get all three of those. Both players might be happy to leave it up to the other to waste a move to give the other advantage.
Ronin and ship tiles though are fast, and there’s nothing to stop any player for throwing as many as they have into the map in one mighty rush. Perhaps yellow will play their four-rice tile after all, and then a two-strength ronin in the bottom left to claim two rice tokens and a castle. The mere risk of that happening means that Blue will almost certainly want to consolidate their position before they’re sure if it’s necessary. It’s not a bluff, or a feint – it’s something more primal. It’s the gamification of loss aversion. We feel loss twice as intensely as we feel gain. Playing down a tile to gain three caste tokens feels like you gained three caste tokens. If yellow snatches them away when you thought you had them locked down it feels like you lost six.
When we spoke about XCOM we discussed how the app is needed to make sure that you’re constantly in a position where you make mistakes, otherwise the rest of the game is dully predictable and easily optimised. Samurai has a similar kind of flow – between two ideally matched opponents playing a slow, glacial game of chess positioning there wouldn’t be anything of merit here. It’d be too easily for everyone to map out the implications of every move. The simple fact that occasionally a counter-attack will arrive en-masse is sufficiently risky, and sufficiently uncertain, that it’s important to play more loosely. If you play Samurai with a purely intellectual outlook you’ll almost certainly find yourself losing – if not the game, then certainly any sense of interest you may have had in proceedings. You need to play Samurai partially from the gut and that’s a welcome feature. It grants a viscerality that the lightly honoured theme would otherwise omit.
The presence of fast icons on certain troops throws a lot of otherwise dispassionate mechanistic thinking into the blender. My favourite bit of genius in here is that the tile that permits you to switch any two pieces on the board is also a fast tile. This by itself adds so much risk to even the most rigorous placements that it’s genuinely unsettling. You don’t know if your opponent has it in their hand. You don’t know when they’re going to use it. You don’t know where. All you know is whatever they do you’ll wish they hadn’t. They’ll move your best troops from their best tile to somewhere they do no good at all. They’ll take your four-strength military tile and set it to lay siege to a pair of rice paddies. In the process they’ll take their samurai that was previously there and bring it into the fray of an set of engagements you thought you had locked down. Then they’ll bring in a couple of ships to shore up a weak position and close off the contest with a ronin. Suddenly in one turn everything went from bright sunshine to dark despair with all the jarring impact of a shiv between your ribs. You can’t look at the board of Samurai as your fixed dominion. It’s a Rubik’s cube of influence that someone might twist in an awkward way at any time.
Samurai then is a game of misleading perceptions. It’s possible to look as if you’re losing badly and then pull off an epic win at the end because as time goes by the state of play begins to clarify considerably. If someone has managed to collect five castles, let them have them. Go for rice and religion – sure, they’ll be the military leader of Japan but that’s true if they have five castles more than you or one. If you’re both fighting teeth and claws out from the start you might both lose as a result. You can play a waiting game here, withholding your strongest forces until you know your opponents are running on empty. Having a hand of strong tiles knowing your opponent has already spent their best troops means you get to take command of play at exactly the time you can best assess how many resources you need to commit and to what castes. Samurai is a game that permits scheming and biding your time. It rewards the canny conqueror provided that conqueror knows when it’s time to act. Leave it too late you’ll be destroyed. Move too early and you’ll be vulnerable. Precision is more than about allocating the right tile to the right contest – it’s about doing it at the optimal moment. There’s no point mounting a cavalry charge against the temple if you’ve already lost the agricultural and moral base of the country. On the other hand, maybe your first forays into the map can be to setup a bitter rivalry between two other players – make them battle for leadership of one caste in the hope they don’t notice you making progress in the others. The enemy of your enemy… is also your enemy. But that doesn’t mean you need to broadcast the fact.
Samurai is a genuinely absorbing game – simple and elegant in its ruleset and full of an understated intense complexity in its game state. It progresses with solemn inevitability right until the point someone breaks out the cavalry and things start to move very quickly. It encourages players to tightly couple spent resources to perceived value and then nudges them in the side saying ‘Shame if anything happened to all this you’ve been building, eh?’. It lets your own fear of loss drive you to make mistakes that would be galling were it not for the fact everyone else is doing exactly the same thing. It’s a great game and I commend it to your attention.