By Andrew Joyce
Reiner Knizia. The double-breasted suit of boardgaming: timeless, classic, reliable. The very first Reiner Knizia game I played was Polynesia, and I have to admit I was underwhelmed. It was a mathy, themeless affair: the game was interesting, but also bland, and more bland than interesting. I knew, I just knew, that there had to be a reason for geeks to speak breathlessly of “the good Doctor’s” games, but Polynesia was not the way to experience it.
My next stop in the Knizia Pantheon (Knizia-thon? Panthizia? Knizipanth?) was Ra, one of the classics of his auction trilogy, and the twelfth game ever added to Board Game Geek. After only one play, I crafted a card-based print’n’play version of the game. I was hooked. Ra had all the magic of player interaction that I love, and it wrapped it up in an easier-than-expected auction/set collection game. Ra may still be my favorite set collection game.
But this isn’t a Ra review! No, we’re going back even deeper, to the third game ever added to Board Game Geek. After my initial taste of greatness, I descended deeper into the Knizia rabbit-hole, playing Modern Art, Tigris & Euphrates, Medici, and Samurai. I became an unabashed Knizia fan. I handed out leaflets on the street. And though I’d like to talk about all of them, we’ll just stick to heralding the praises of one of these designs: Samurai.
The Magic Moments
From the moment you open the box, this game exudes a bit of mystique. No matter which edition you have, Samurai is a gorgeous game. The map pieces fit together like a puzzle, laying out a huge map of Japan…hexy! What’s more, you and your opponents will immediately want to fight over the little polished black figures, which fall out of the box like so many piano keys.
Fighting is exactly what you’ll be doing. You are trying to place hexes on the board to exert control over different cities in feudal Japan in three main areas: religion, farming, and military. The player who collects the most influence in any two of these areas is crowned the winner, but more often you’ll be fighting for the scraps and have to descend to the tiebreaker rules. As player pieces gradually fill up around the cities, more and more of those ebony-black pieces are claimed, and you get more and more desperate for that one last buddha, or the one rice paddy that you need.
The screens in Samurai make this all a strategic and thoughtful exercise, because you’re never really quite sure what your opponents have unless you have a perfect memory. But that’s OK, because it encourages all the posturing, bluffing, and saber-rattling that you’d expect of a bunch of insecure feudal lords.
As the board fills up, your choices gradually dry up as well. Everyone around the table is trying to figure out just how many of the remaining pieces they can win…and if that will be enough for victory. This is such a satisfying balance to execute! Like many abstracts, you are trying to set up places where you are assured success, which you can then ignore while you take the battle to other parts of the map. Every turn matters: don’t waste time closing up a city which you’re already certain to win – you can come back to it later.
I could go on and on about the magic of Samurai, but I’ll wrap it up with this: Samurai is a 45 minute game that makes you care about what the other people around the table are doing. It’s light, and yet you will be desperate to corral a little black piece, and keep Tim from getting it at all costs! I love a game which leans on relationships around the table to be great, and Samurai is exactly that game. If you’re not afraid of an abstract-ish, give Samurai a shot — it’s definitely one of my favorites in that medium-weight range, and I don’t see myself ever getting tired of it.
The Tragic Moments
But no game is perfect…so let’s spend a little bit of time on the pitfalls you might experience should you try out Samurai. First off, here’s the biggie: this game is an abstract. Unlike Tigris and Euphrates, there’s not a ton of thematic tie between your actions. And that’s OK, but if you’re looking for a rich Japanese theme here, that’s not going to happen. But if you can take this abstract for what it is – an abstract – you’ll have a great time.
A harder critique to address is the “Puerto Rico” problem. It’s entirely possible that a less-experienced player will throw valuable pieces to an opponent, totally throwing off the game. In fact, this can be such an issue that I prefer to teach this game two-player: this gives me an opportunity to coach someone a little more, teach them a few tips and tricks, and prime the pump for a multi-player game (and to slip a little magic in my tragic section, this game plays delightfully with two, taking on a much more chess-like feel because all information is essentially open).
Unfortunately, “2-4 players” on the box front is becoming a tragic for me. I absolutely love Samurai, but my Sunday night game group? 5 guys. My Saturday night game group? Way more than 4, and usually we’re playing 5 to a game when we split up. That leaves my Monday night gaming, which is 2-3 player only. That’s a frustrating limitation for a game that I enjoy so much, and it’s a shame that I can’t bring this one out in more scenarios. I would love to get my hands on a version of Samurai that could play 5 simply and elegantly.
So Dr. Knizia, do you have room in your Knizipanth for a five-player version of Samurai? You know where to find me. I’ll be playing Samurai, because it’s still so, so good.