Samurai You Win, Samurai You Lose
I’d open with a historical anecdote, but unfortunately my knowledge of pre-20th century Japan basically boils down to the Total War series and that one time I read the first quarter of James Clavell’s Shōgun. Instead, I’ll point out that Samurai is another classic title from Reiner Knizia, along with Blue Moon Legends and Tigris & Euphrates, that has been given new life by Fantasy Flight Games. And much like those others, Samurai is so much more than it first appears.
As one of a handful of daimyos, your goal is threefold. Well, strictly speaking it’s onefold — unite Japan under your rule — but the road to the shogunate is paved with three different types of tiles, all of which must be considered if your footing is to remain sure. After all, to control an entire nation, one must have the support of more than just a few loyal samurai retainers. Commerce, religion, and the military all play their part, and whichever daimyo can bring the majority under their thumb will rule the day.
And just like that, Samurai boasts an impressively well-rounded approach to the concept of war. Much like how Tigris & Euphrates portrayed control over ancient Mesopotamia as a balancing act between religion, agriculture, trade, and royalty, with some insurrection and outright greed thrown in for good measure, Samurai’s portrait of fourteenth-century Japan is painted in layers. It’s more about exerting the right sort of influence than storming castles, more about subtly unraveling an opponent’s plans than breaking their arms. Then again, sometimes the right sort of influence means a naval blockade or an encampment of samurai right outside a contested village.
Okay, so here’s how it works. Each player has an identical set of 20 tiles, of which you’ll have five in hand at the start of each turn. About half of these show influence in those three areas — rice for commerce, the Buddha for religion, and a castle for military — and by placing them next to cities and settlements, you’ll exert that flavor of influence over it. Sometimes you’ll even be able to position a tile to appeal to more than one neighboring settlement. Problematically, each of these three types of influence only extends over its own sphere. Prove to the peasants that you can support them with rice and you might earn their affection, but the priests and soldiers residing nearby will remain ambivalent. That’s where your military comes in. Sure, you could try to sway everybody’s loyalty on their own terms, but why bother when some samurai will get the message across just fine?
This is Samurai’s first major tradeoff. Boats and soldiers are persuasive across all castes, but they don’t usually sway the population quite as effectively as rice, Buddhas, or castles. Furthermore, you can’t control what sort of influence you’ll be holding at any given time, forcing you to make smart moves despite the limited options in your hand. Sometimes it’s best to make minor adjustments far from the heart of the conflict; at others, you’ll have just the right tools to manipulate the outcome of contested settlements.
Since they provide the tokens you need once the game ends — an event that might come sooner or later depending on how the war progresses — taking control of those settlements is absolutely vital. Capturing them sounds easy enough, each commerce, religion, or military token awarded to the player who has the most influence over it once the settlement is completely surrounded on land, but in practice this is where Samurai gets truly interesting.
For one thing, most turns will only see a player placing a single tile. Play too low and you’ve just made it easier for someone else to snake the settlement from you, play too high and you might have just wasted a useful tile on a spot that nobody would have contested. Then again, maybe it was your intent to scare people off. Either way, Samurai is often a game about taking as much as you can for the smallest possible investment. While it can be pretty to fill up an area with lots of purple tiles, it’s even better to let a pair of enemies squabble over a settlement before making one or two well-considered adjustments and seizing the loyalty of the people for yourself.
Evoking the feel of a daimyo plotting against his enemies in some windswept castle, surprise moves and sudden strategic coups come early and often. Some tiles, boats for instance, are considered “fast,” and can be played alongside others, suddenly capturing a settlement or turning the status quo on its head. Even a settlement that might seem guaranteed to an opponent can have a change of heart when a navy appears on the horizon. Other tiles, like the one that lets you swap the pieces between two settlements, make for sudden shifts in fortune as entire rounds of preparation evaporate in an instant.
Samurai’s core might seem basic, but there are so many ways to manipulate the proceedings. Scaring people off with high-value tiles, making disconcerting bluffs about your strength, quietly seeding the map for later coups, or transforming the state of the board with a single well-timed play are all options that might not seem apparent right at first. And that unexpected depth extends to the rest of the design: the way the map is perfectly modular, allowing different numbers of players to squeeze in, or how its thematic sensibilities seem over-abstracted until you realize that you’re furrowing your brow and brooding — brooding! — just like a daimyo hunched over his war-map. Your mouth curves into a deep frown. Your eyes squint. Because you’re concentrating, obviously. Sheesh.
And that’s when you realize, Samurai proves that it’s good to be shogun.