Seven Polish Samurai
After spending my best years waiting for a board game adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, like a hero of old comes 7 Ronin in from the billowing dust, sword in hand, to the rescue. His weathered eyes flash, crinkle, and the corners of his mouth twitch upwards as he points to the hills behind my village.
“Ninja!” he hisses.
“Huh?” I reply.
For whatever reason, Polish designers Piotr Stankiewicz and Marek Mydel were happy enough making 7 Ronin a near-perfect homage of Seven Samurai, with the one exception that its bad guys are ninja rather than your average cut of bandits. But what’s in a name? They’re still out to steal food from a helpless village and they still fall beneath the oiled blades of samurai like stalks of rice harvested by a farmer’s sickle. As far as I can tell, they’re bandits with a fancy title.
Okay, so “bandit” it is.
Other than that, nearly everything about 7 Ronin mirrors its source material admirably with an escalating fight to the death (or at least a fight until winter arrives) between samurai and bandits. It’s ultimately a game of foresight and deception, both sides planning out their moves on a personal map, deploying samurai or bandits to defend or raid various parts of the village, then lifting their screens to reveal where their forces will clash. Even here, 7 Ronin’s attention to detail is pleasant to behold, the samurai map of the village appearing as ink on silk while the bandits plot their attacks on a crude sketch in the sand. Planning your moves on either map is easy in theory, as simple as placing your warriors into one of the village’s various areas, but surprisingly agonizing once you start trying to preempt your opponent’s moves.
With a few notable exceptions, nearly all of the game’s real decisions take place during planning, because once those screens are lifted there’s little more to do than move samurai and bandits onto the map and see what happens. But the game’s best trick is how it generates two very different flavors of drama once the samurai and bandits engage in battle.
Consider the samurai. There are only seven of them, but each has their own specialty, like the swordsman who can kill a single bandit each round without being struck back or the scary dude who sends his opponents scurrying to adjacent areas. During the first few rounds, these heroic warriors are nigh-invincible, slaying multiple enemies with little trouble. By the third or fourth round, however, all those wounds begin to take their toll, even your heaviest hitters growing precariously close to that final sacrifice for the innocent.
The samurai, then, are playing a game of endurance, trying to rotate their strongest warriors between the toughest concentrations of bandits. Making matters trickier, some of the samurai are best served by heading to where the bandits won’t be, like the archer who snipes an unlucky soul out of the bandit player’s reserve, the healer who can only remove wounds from friendly samurai if he’s left in peace, or the cavalryman who can ride between hotspots as long as he isn’t pinned down. There’s nothing quite as discouraging as sending your healer out to the field to prepare his medicines only to have him distracted by a surprise trio of bandits.
On the other side of the coin, the bandits are doing everything they can to gain a foothold in the village without losing all their men. Unlike the samurai, individual bandits don’t have special abilities. Instead, they can make use of the town’s various areas, but only if they manage to fight past the samurai defenders. For example, they can poison the village well or shoot down from the watchtower to hurt the samurai without engaging them directly, raid the grain storehouses to attract new bandits to their cause, or unlatch the cattle pen to force a samurai to spend the next turn rounding up a bunch of unruly cows. And if the samurai are proving too smart at blocking their attacks, they can also take control of the hidden passage to make an extra incursion after the maps are revealed or send spies disguised as peasants into the town square — useful for sneaking in additional attackers on later turns, though once discovered these unarmed bandits make easy sport for the samurai.
Life as a bandit is tough, split between managing a force of dwindling thugs and playing the opportunist, examining the samurai player’s moves and trying to evade their toughs or kill off their weaker fighters. Worse, samurai victory is as easy as surviving until winter. The bandits lose men to starvation as time passes, putting them between a rock and a whole bunch of pointy objects with every passing round.
Then again, the bandits only have to take over a portion of the village to win, with the otherwise worthless fields being their priority. A handful of dead samurai might make for a great bullet point under prior experience on any bandit’s curriculum vitae, but filling your belly for a season is more important.
7 Ronin won’t appeal to everyone. It’s light enough that it starts to feel samey after a few plays, and while I’m loathe to call it unbalanced, the samurai are distinctly easier to get a handle on than the bandits. It’s also terrifically difficult to lay hands on, only available in Poland at the moment. For the determined ronin, that may only prove a temporary setback; for the rest of us, it’s probably as insurmountable as staring down forty bandits.
Even so, 7 Ronin is a fantastic light game for two players, filling half an hour with all sorts of martial drama as you outsmart, outmaneuver, and outguess your opponent. Or send a whole pack of bandits to their deaths, as is wont to happen. Or get half of your samurai killed. Don’t feel too bad — even some of the Seven Samurai didn’t make it.