Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Let’s just state this upfront: Samurai is my favorite Knizia design.
Why is Samurai exceptional? In short, the game checks every little box for me right down to the theme. In classic Knizia fashion, the rules are simple and the game is deep. It is a borderline abstract, but many of Knizia’s designs are similar. In Samurai, players place hexagonal tiles on a map of Japan to capture three types of tokens: rice, high hats and Buddhas. I guess symbolically, they are meant to represent three spheres: economy, politics and religion. On the hexagonal tiles are printed different symbols that represent these three spheres along with a numerical value. For example, a Buddha-3 or a high hat-4 would represent the sphere and strength of influence for each of these tiles when they are placed adjacent to the appropriate token. Tile values go from 2 to 4 for each sphere. Thus, placing a Buddha-3 tile adjacent to a Buddha token will gain you 3 influence points toward the capture of that particular Buddha. Similarly, a Buddha-3 tile will have no influence whatsoever when placed right beside a high hat token. In addition to the standard tiles for these three spheres, there are tiles that feature a samurai. These samurai tiles are wild tiles that will exert an influence on all three types of tokens. The value of the samurai tile goes all the way up to samurai-3. Because of how potent that tile is, you only get a samurai-3 tile. Finally, there are two special tiles, a few ship tiles that can be placed on water and also several tiles printed with a special character that allows you to place multiple tiles each turn. More on that later.
At the start of the game, a map of Japan is assembled and depending on player counts, the size of the map will vary. With 2 players, you will only play with Honshu while at 3 and 4 players, Hokkaido and Kyushu/Shikoku are respectively added to enlarge the play area. With this modular board arrangement, the game scales extremely well with all player counts. Once the map is assembled, players will semi-randomly assigned tokens to different villages and towns scattered throughout the hexagonal array superimposed on the map. Villages will accommodate one token will towns will take two. Edo, the capital city will contain all three types of tokens. Now that setup is complete, players will take their own set of 20 identical player tiles, choose 5 and shuffle the rest, placing them face down as the draw deck.
In a standard turn, players will usually place a single tile on the map, assess if any tokens are captured, then draw a new tile to replace the hand. Then the next player gets to take a turn and so forth until the game ends. When placing tiles, players get to choose which tile they want to play from their hand of 5 and place them on the hexagonal grid on the map. The majority of tiles are land tiles, but three of those tiles are ships that can be placed in the ocean surrounding the towns or villages. Players draw back up to 5 tiles at the end of their turn. A token is assessed when all the hexes surrounding the token are occupied. The total influence on the token is calculated and the winner takes the token and place it behind a screen. It is possible for ties to occur when more than two players share the highest influence for a token. In which case, the tied piece is removed and placed beside the map.
Now, there are times when players can play more than a single tile using tiles that depict the character 侍 (read as “Shi”), which means Samurai in Kanji. In Chinese, the character means “to serve” or to “wait on others”. There only 5 tiles with this character: three ship tiles with values 1 and 2, a samurai-1 tile and a special tile. Playing tiles with 侍 means it is a free action in addition to your regular tile placement. In essence, you can string together as many 侍 tiles as you want before placing your regular tile. In addition, there are two special tiles. The first special tile with 侍 allows you to swap tokens from two locations. This is the only tile you don’t actually play directly on the map. The other special tile which has a zero value allows you to pick up and replace a previously played tile with the 0-value tile. The tile you swapped must be immediately placed on the map. Most commonly, you would pick a previously resolved high value tile and place it somewhere else on the map to compete for a token.
The game continues until one type of token or four tied pieces of any type is removed from the map. Then comes the victory conditions. For all that is good and great about Samurai, the scoring and victory conditions remain the hardest to explain for new comers. Basically, to win Samurai, you want to control the majority of pieces in at least two types of tokens. If you have outright majority in two categories, you win. However, that is not easy to achieve. If you fail to get both majorities, then you must win at least one majority from any of the three types. However, winning one majority is not enough because it will only get you to the second stage of scoring. For all players that own a majority, and ties are not counted, the winner is the one who captured the most tokens in the second highest sphere of influence. If there is again a tie, you check the number of pieces in the third and final sphere of influence. If there is again a tie, you count the total number of captured pieces and the winner is the one with the most number of pieces. If this sounds unusual, well that’s what makes Samurai different.
I think what Knizia wanted to capture in Samurai is this very unique scoring matrix. To win, you have to gain the majority of at least one of the three types of tokens. Having done that, you then look at everything else you captured. This sets up an interesting problem when playing the game: how much do you need to collect of one type of token before you concentrate on diversifying? It is pointless for you to capture all the Buddhas on the board, get into second round of scoring, only to lose because you have nothing else to compete with. So at some point, a conscious choice must be made in deciding to capture just enough to win a majority of a single token and then go all out to win more of the second category. This is what I think Knizia is aiming for with Samurai. Sure, the scoring is slightly more convoluted, but absolutely unique. Unfortunately, this makes rules explanation a little harder and also creates a few interesting scenarios for scoring that lead to frustration. Most of the frustration in scoring happens because of ties. Because ties by definition is not a majority, it is possible to secure outright victory if opponents tie on pieces. For example, if Akira owns a majority of high hats with 4 pieces and Cheung and Vivek tie for buddhas and rice paddies at 4 apiece, Akira wins. Clearly, even though the losing duo have the same number of pieces of their respective tokens, that can’t win without an outright majority. You may end up capturing more pieces, but still lose the game.
Because the scoring is what it is, it is important to pay attention to the distribution of the tokens that are being picked up by others and what is remaining on the board. There is a clear aspect of hidden trackable information in the game. Because ties are useless for determining majority, tracking where pieces go become even more important and a case can be made for playing the game without screens so you can tell what other pieces are being picked up and by whom. I haven’t played without a screen before, so I cannot really comment. However, with two players, the issue is moot because you can easily tell what you opponent has collected behind the screen. For that reason alone, we don’t use the screen with two. It would be interesting to play the game with open information. I suspect it will lead to more strategic moves, but also feel that kingmaking will become a problem.
A game of Samurai is all about paying attention to the details and getting the timing right. For some tokens on the map, a minimum placement of two tiles is all that is needed to surround and capture the piece. For some places like Edo, six tiles are required to surround the capital city before majority scoring is assessed. Timing your tile placement is key to winning. You want to be opportunistic and steal a token from someone without exposing your own pieces to the same sort of attack. The worse thing you can do is to place a weak, low value tile near a token and having your opponent swoop in and win the piece by placing a tile just high enough in value to steal the majority. Instead, you want to set yourself up so that you can do exactly that to your opponent. The game facilitates this opportunistic aggression by giving you a chance to play multiple 侍 tiles to drop in for an unexpected grab. The 侍 tiles not only boosts your numerical superiority in a contested area, but more importantly it completes an area for scoring when your opponent least expects. You cannot feel too safe if you surround a Buddha token with weak tiles and having two adjacent areas still open for attack if you know your opponent hasn’t yet played the samurai 侍 tile.
In addition, the special 侍 tile that allows you to swap tokens is game breaking when used at the right time. With one tile, you can cripple your opponent’s strategy on both sides of the exchange. Imagine your opponent surrounding a Buddha with a combined influence of 7 points while you happen to have a value 1 samurai around it. By swapping the Buddha with a high hat and completing the area for assessment, you will win the high hat token while leaving your opponent in ruins. Now, if you plan carefully enough, you can pull this off and benefit from both sides of the exchange and crippling your opponent in one fell swoop. I am telling you, the feeling of pulling this off and the resulting despair from your opponent is just…delectable.
As I wrap up my final thoughts for this review, I realize that I have listed a bunch of negatives for the scoring matrix and indeed, it can be an issue for some. In retrospect, I really should not like this game as much as I do given the issues with scoring. Yet, despite being unusual, I still love the game and embrace the scoring because it brings so much nuance and strategy to the table. While the game plays well at all player counts, it is only recently that I realize Samurai is superior with 2 players. There is still luck of the draw, but you know exactly what you have, what your opponent is aiming for and how to plan a counter-move to thwart their majority. I think the game is more a chess match with two players and I love it. The only gripe I have is that I wish others would love the game as much as I do. I still struggle to find an audience for this game.
Samurai has been with me for almost 2 decades. I have the Rio Grande black rectangular box edition and because Knizia rarely tweaks his classics by adding promos or expansions to his completed games, I am keeping my well-worn copy of the original. The game will probably in my permanent collection and I am disappointed that it will soon go out of print again as Z-man has declined to continue with the publication of the series (Ra, Taj Mahal and Tigris Euphrates being the rest). Here’s to hoping that a new publisher will step up to the plate and allow the next generation of gamers to taste the joys of a classic.