Every so often, along comes a board game so perfectly silly, so wonderfully bombastic, so altogether joyous, that how could it fail? Like Starship Samurai. This thing is a Saturday morning cartoon realized in cardboard. Gigantic mechs socking each other in the rivets, warring clans courted and spurned, and fighter craft glittering between the stars. Surely it isn’t possible that such a thing could be a painful unmemorable slog that happens to contain some reasonably pretty miniature robots?
Coming from Plaid Hat Games, you’d expect a certain level of distinctiveness between, well, everything that Starship Samurai has to offer. After all, this is the creative team that produced sixteen totally distinct factions in Summoner Wars. Also the pleasantly unique warbands of Crystal Clans. Whether it was the vibrant not-summoners of Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, the hunters and agents chasing each other in circles in Specter Ops, or the fact that my band of survivors was nothing like your band of survivors in Dead of Winter, Plaid Hat has always known how to give its player avatars that extra pound of punch. That it’s what they do on the table, not what it tells you in the fluff, that marks two sides as recognizably different. And that, by being different, they become more than bits and bobs moving around on a table. They become characters.
For a game about gigantic mechs slugging each other in outer space, Starship Samurai has a character problem.
The issue is both physical and mechanical. Even a glance at the board will reveal the first issue. Go ahead, take a peek at the image above. See the problem? It’s one of visual clarity. You know those plastic rings you snap onto the bases of your pieces in a game like Rising Sun? They’re there to create a who’s who of the monsters and soldiers littering the board. That dragon belongs to the yellow player, while the demon belongs to the red team. This tells you important things about where and who to fight. In a game where you’ll be counting battle strengths as often as you’ll be slapping down pieces onto the battlefield, visual cues are an absolute necessity. It’s what stands between every piece mattering and none of the pieces mattering.
Starship Samurai, which does nothing to indicate who owns which of its most crucial pieces, seems to be operating under two assumptions. The first is that I’ll pick apart the ownership and battle strengths of its blank gray mechs every time I want to consider fighting somewhere. Or, maybe, that I’ll solve its clarity problem myself by purchasing or crafting an accessory. And the second assumption is even worse, because it seems to think itself worthy of its players caring enough to solve the first assumption.
To be clear, the problem isn’t the mechs themselves, at least not mechanically. Many of the game’s best moments arrive when they do. When Shingen transforms a raiding force into a crack squadron, or Tametomo uses his space-bow to wreck something from a distance, or Gozen grants some crucial tidbit of information before you have to play your battle card, these moments stand out because they’re the moments you planned in advance. They’re the arrival of the cavalry, the turning of a battle, or the slow crushing certainty of Masumune arriving on the scene.
And make no mistake, these moments really can shine. Each team gets two mechs at the start of the game, chosen by draft. This isn’t quite as exciting as picking them up mid-stream, the way more sure-handed games like Blood Rage or Inis or Kemet parcel out their most interesting and fearsome monsters and abilities at regular intervals. But it serves its purpose, giving you access to a pair of powerful war machines and getting out of the way.
It’s everything else that lacks oomph.
Consider the clans, whose allegiance is foremost to your iron-clad heart. Both the rulebook and the sides of the box go out of their way to describe these guys and their strategic importance. Sol Clan controls a network of outposts; the Rifters are a power beyond the borders of the Lotus Galaxy; Luna Clan is infamous for their spies and subterfuge. Not that you’d know it while playing. A clan of merchants, a clan of soldiers, and a clan of nobles are all good for the same thing: points. As planets are controlled and eventually conquered, clan markers are nudged along a track, their loyalty providing the occasional handful of points and nothing else.
By turn, this extends to the planets you’re so bitterly warring over. The difference between flavorful locales like Byakko City, the Genbu Asteroid, and Tengoku Tower is found solely in which clans they promote, with the occasional wealth token or action card slipped in there for variety’s sake.
But if the chunky miniatures fail to capture the lessons of Blood Rage and its kin, these clans and planets are a misunderstanding of games like Smash Up. There, everything was about the way the cards and locations ricocheted off one another, even to a fault. Even old Condottiere knew the importance of imbuing each fight with some measure of strategic concern, however slight. Here, nothing seems to matter because no yard of turf or overture of friendship is more or less valuable than any other. Because each clan’s value only grows linearly, there’s never any reason to solidify one allegiance over another. If one clan moves up two pips while two others move down one apiece, has anything truly changed? It’s the sort of story problem that’s ultimately a dirty trick question, and the only proper solution is to withdraw your child from that school ASAP.
Then there are the action cards, which work overtime to save the rest of the game.
These are earned the same way as everything else. Each player has four numbered order markers, ranging from 1 to 4, which you gradually assign to your board for moves, wealth tokens, pips of clan allegiance, or action cards. It’s the sort of system that sounds almost interesting until the rules clarify that picking a slot doesn’t actually block it for later turns; if you want to spend all your markers hoarding pointless wealth tokens, nobody’s stopping you. There’s even a chance you’re enjoying Starship Samurai more than anybody else at the table.
But I digress. The potential of action cards is twofold, either letting you deploy them into battle or amplifying a turn. And right away, most of Starship Samurai’s best ideas are found within the depths of that deck. Surprise reinforcements, cannons and shields that make planets more difficult to invade, huge jumps on the clan track — there’s a card for everything. Some options even force interesting trade-offs, like letting you scrap some of your ships to gain a huge reserve of wealth, or burning some points on a hostage card to force a rival to withdraw from a region entirely. If there’s something cool to be done, chances are it’s an action card that’s letting you do it.
Not that they actually rescue Starship Samurai from itself. For every cool moment, there’s a card that won’t do anything at all, or won’t sync with whatever’s going on, or simply won’t be worth the hassle of paying its cost. As before, the game’s toothless approach to control and conquest makes it difficult to invest in one triumph over another, resulting in a weightless zero-sum approach to even its most pivotal moments.
Weightless isn’t the term I expected to use to describe skyscraper-tall mechs wielding plasma bows and kilometer-long blades and wearing furs and capes that are more flashy than practical. This is the sort of game that ought to be accompanied by wailing guitars, not buzzing tubas.
Yet for all its bluster — and the intricacy of its sculpts — Starship Samurai is a walking stereotype, hoping that its miniatures and cartoon setting will distract the eye from the flimsiness of its kick. It marches from one indistinguishable fight to the next, fumbles its attempts to generate drama, and drowns its players in a tide of gray plastic. More’s the pity. Not even one of the most dynamic crews in the hobby could jump-start this particular husk.
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