Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Review: Samurai

Samurai is a classic game by master game designer Reiner Knizia. It supports 2-4 players and plays in well under an hour.

Samurai is set in feudal Japan where players attempt to influence land (represented by rice fields), religion (represented by Buddhas), and government (represented by high helmets). Like most Knizia games, this is basically an abstract game that's been dressed up in a theme but in this case, the theme is beautifully done and the game itself is a masterpiece.

The playing surface is a beautiful four-piece board that represents the major islands of Japan. It's a modular board that is assembled differently depending on the number of players. With two players, only the major island of Honshu is used. With three players, the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku are added. And with four players, the island of Hokkaido is added.

Each island is made up of a number of hexagons with cities, towns and villages evenly distributed throughout. There are 13 Plexiglas pieces for each of the three categories: High Helmets, Buddhas, and Rice Fields. These are scattered about the villages, towns and cities.

Each player receives an identical set of twenty hexagonal tiles and a playing screen. Five tiles are chosen as the player's starting hand. The others form a supply from which the player randomly draws throughout the game.

Players take turns placing tiles on the board in order to exert influence over the neighboring pieces. Some tiles exert influence over only one type of piece, other tiles exert influence over all neighboring pieces. Whenever a piece is surrounded it is captured by the player who is currently exerting the most influence over that piece.

The end game scoring is relatively unique. If any one player has a clear plurality (more than any other single player) in any two categories, that player automatically wins the game. Otherwise, all players with a plurality in one category set aside all their pieces in that category and count up the their remaining pieces. Whoever has the most wins the game. Any player that doesn't have a plurality in any of the three categories automatically loses. It's an elegant scoring mechanic that rewards players for doing well in one category without ignoring the other two.

Samurai is a highly tactical game. There is ample opportunity for surprise maneuvers and outthinking your opponents. There is some randomness due to the order that tiles are drawn but this is more than offset by the five tile hand and the fact that in most games you will end up playing nearly all of your tiles so the randomness merely effects the order in which they can be played. The game is extremely well balanced and the pacing is nearly perfect. In my eyes, the only flaw is that as the game progresses and more pieces are on the board to consider it can sometimes take a while for some people to decide where to play.

Samurai is a masterpiece and it belongs in every serious gamer's collection.


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