Review: Samurai Spirit

Samurai SpiritSamurai Spirit is essentially Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai in boardgame form.  The players are samurai tasked with defending a village from an onslaught of bandits that attack in three waves.  If the players can protect at least one family and one farmstead in the village, they win.  If the village falls, or if even one samurai dies, it’s all over.

I think I have an unhealthy relationship with co-operative games.  I love the concept in theory.  Get together with friends and work together to solve a problem.  The issue is that pure co-operative games almost all suffer from the same issue: “quarterbacking”.  Because these games are effectively a collaborative puzzle, and because there’s no hidden information, there are usually one or two “best” moves that the players can agree on.  Unfortunately, this allows for dominant and/or very experienced players to take over a game, while shy or less-experienced players end up feeling marginalized and often don’t actually get to play much of the game.  This frustrates me to no end, and yet I still rush out and eagerly buy each new co-op game that comes out, hoping for some innovation that fixes this problem.

Some games, such as Space Alert and Escape: Curse of the Temple, skirt these issues with a built-in time limitation;  players are so busy dealing with their own problems that they can’t hold anyone else’s hand.  Other games, such as Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, get around this with a “traitor” mechanic; perhaps everyone shouldn’t blindly listen to that dominant player, as he may be working against the group.

When I read that Samurai Spirit was going to be a pure co-operative game, I worried that no matter how good Antoine Bauza’s pedigree as a game designer may be, the game would likely suffer from quarterbacking.  After all, as much as I love Bauza’s co-operative classic Ghost Stories, it’s also one of the most striking examples of this problem.

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: When I picked up my copy of Samurai Spirit at Gen Con, I was a bit underwhelmed; the box seemed extremely small.  While there’s a lot more to a good game than several pounds of cardstock and wooden bits, nice components can add a lot of flavor to a game.  Fortunately, what’s in the box is well-crafted.  The character cards are thick cardboard, and the artwork is spectacular — each board contains a player’s samurai on one side, and its “spirit animal” form on the other side.  The bandit cards are similarly well-drawn, though I’d like to see more variety.  All of the cards of a given value (except for the 6-value “bosses”) have the same artwork.  The other bits (counters and tokens) are fairly standard boardgame fare.

The only real downer is the game board itself — it’s tiny!  While the board is serviceable enough, this game is designed for up to seven players.  At a large table with a lot of people, it can be hard to see the remaining barricades.  These are minor issues, and if these were the design decisions required to hit the game’s $30 retail price point, I feel they were worth it.

Accessibility: Samiurai Spirit is simple to learn, with only a few available actions available each turn.  On most turns, players will encounter a bandit, and will then choose to fight it or defend the village from its specific attack type.  The only other possible moves are to Support by passing the character’s unique ability token to another player, or to Pass, which takes the player out of the current round entirely.  I’ve taught this game to nearly a dozen people now, and almost everyone picked up the rules and basic strategy within a turn or two of starting.  I’m not sure the barrier to entry is quite as low as, say, Forbidden Island, but this definitely shouldn’t require a lot of gaming experience to pick up.

Depth: I’ve played Samurai Spirit several times now with a few distinct groups of people, and so far we haven’t come across an obvious best strategy.  While there aren’t as many moving parts as a more complex co-op game like Ghost Stories or Shadows Over Camelot, there are still difficult decisions to be made.  Ultimately, the samurai are attempting to hit their “kiai” values as often as possible — this is the point where the total value of the bandits a samurai is fighting matches his maximum fighting capacity.  Going over this value knocks the samurai out for the round, but hitting it exactly fires off a unique power and removes a bandit from the field of battle.  This can seem like a blind gamble, as in most situations the players have no idea which bandit card will be drawn next.

In fact, there are a lot of “press your luck” situations in the game.  Defending the village is another example: failing to defend against an attack type can have dire consequences at the end of a round, but keeping a character’s defend icons free allow a player to deal with a high-valued bandit card without getting knocked out.

Fortunately, there are some more complex (and subtle) choices.  While the Support action most obviously confers a samurai’s ability to another player, it can also be used strategically to avoid drawing a card.  Strategic passing can be useful as well; when the deck gets low, a player who has fulfilled his or her defense goals may want to bow out and let the other players get more chances as the icons they need.  When a character becomes damaged to half his starting life value, he shifts into a more powerful animal form (my first character turned into a katana-wielding raccoon — how badass is that?).  There’s a decision here as well: dying loses the game, but getting to half-health makes a character more effective in battle.

Theme: I really dig the samurai theme, and the gameplay mechanics fit in well.  The game effectively conveys the feel of defending a particularly vulnerable village from an endless onslaught of bandits; it may feel overwhelming at times, but it also feels like the characters are legendary heroes capable of fighting off the hordes.  Firing off a kiai power is particularly satisfying and effective, and the rare opportunity to chain two or three of them together is spectacular — watching a hopeless situation turn into a pile of dead bandits because of a clever play is quite rewarding.

Fun: The first few times I played Samurai Spirit, it was with a well-balanced group of four to five players.  We didn’t overthink most of the turns, and we mostly let players make their own decisions unless there was a very pressing need for a different action.  We actually hadn’t planned on playing more than once, but the game was so much fun that we wanted to keep trying new strategies to try to get a win.  The games flowed very quickly, with the first learning session lasting about 60 minutes, and the two subsequent games taking about 45 (with the final game including a win!).

I played a few nights later with a seven-player group consisting of different people.  The difference here is that we had several “alpha gamers” who wanted to analyze and second-guess every move.  This not only turned a fairly light game into a 90+ minute ordeal, but it made some of the less-dominant players feel left out.  A few times I even had to remind people not to simply take other players’ turns for them.  We won, but I had a lot less fun with this group.  Seven players seems like too many for a quick game; four or five seems to be the ideal number, but more can work if the players agree to keep the game moving.

Despite the one poor experience, I absolutely adore Samurai Spirit.  It contains traces of Ghost Stories without being a remake — this isn’t a Forbidden Island / Pandemic relationship.  The game flows with a beguiling simplicity, but there are enough subtle choices to keep things interesting.  The only major flaw is the aforementioned quarterbacking issue, which is more an indictment of pure co-operative games as a genre than anything specific to Samurai Spirit.  You may want to avoid this game if your regular gaming group has a tendancy to meta-game, or if it contains very strong personalities that may attempt to “take over” the game.

For anyone else, especially if you have friends who enjoy co-ops, Samurai Spirit is a charming, easy-to-play game with a deceptive amount of depth behind its simplicity.

4 out of 5

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