Thursday, March 7, 2013

Resemblance Review: Samurai: The Card Game

In January I set out to try some games I had overlooked in recent years and I stumbled upon just what I was looking for in a discounted copy of Samurai: The Card Game.

In recent years Reiner Knizia has several of his most prominent board games into card or dice versions. Ten years after his auction / push-your-luck success with Ra, he released Ra: The Dice Game, a refreshing take on the original using dice mechanics and a nearly identical scoring system.

Dr. Knizia turned Lost Cities into his first Spiel des Jahres win with Keltis, a game that he would eventually spin off into a family of games including Keltis: The Card Game.

Samurai: The Card Game is based on one of Dr. Knizia's original tile laying trilogy and is a simplified card game version of its older relative known as Samurai.

Comparing Samurai to Samurai: The Card Game

Samurai Overview

In 1998, Reiner Knizia released what his become one of his biggest hits to date, Samurai. The game takes place on a board thematically shaped as the islands of Japan upon which two to four players lay tiles in order to surround cities and collect their influence in one of three possible types.

The three caste types are indicated by symbols of helmets, rice and Buddhas. Most cities on the board offer a single caste to influence, with several cities holding two castes and the largest city, Edo, offering all three castes. At the end of the game if you hold the most influence over two caste types you win the game. Otherwise eliminate anyone who does not hold sole leadership in one type and the remaining players count their minority caste holdings, the largest count wins.

Players play tiles in order to surround these cities and capture their influence. Tiles consisting of values helmets, rice and Buddhas played next to a city influence the matching caste type in the amount of their value. Additionally there are samurai tiles, which function as jack of all trades tiles that influence everything they are adjacent to. When a city is closed off, a caste piece is captured by the player with the highest influence in each type.

The game ends when all of one caste type are removed from the board or if four pieces are tied in the course of a game. Final scoring commences with the victor claiming the most caste support.

Samurai Analysis

Samurai introduced several innovative Knizia ideas in a single title in one of his most elegant designs to date. Samurai scales beautifully from two to four with three being a personal favorite for player count. Players must manage both their hand of tiles and the areas they are trying to influence as everyone is playing with an identical set of 20 tiles and once you've observed your opponent commit a particularly strong tile to one are of the board you can cautiously move forward with your plans elsewhere.

The key to success in Samurai is to assert dominance and then move your focus elsewhere, letting someone else close off a city for capture. The opponents action in this case is usually out of intent to capture a nearby city, but by-product or not, it rewards the patient player with efficiency. I came up with the phrase "play strong and move along" when I see this in board game design, and Samurai is one of the very best at rewarding this tactical element.

An infrequent outcome displayed for street cred 
The scoring structure of Samurai is one of the very best for creating excitement start to finish. In Samurai you've got to win at least one of the three castes, and if that means sacrificing scoring potential in the other two late in the game in a go for broke motivation, it has to be done. Scores are generally extremely close and tiebreakers are instituted frequently, and knowing this in advance ensures there is never a dull moment.

The one possible downside to Samurai is that it can pull the analysis paralysis condition out of even the least susceptible players. The game is designed wonderfully as each player has only five of their twenty tiles at any moment in order to eliminate overwhelming decision variables, but over the course of the game it is paramount to notice what tiles each person has played  in order to evaluate your own turn.

Samurai: The Card Game Overview

Samurai: TCG is an easy transition from Samurai in that it uses the same ideas in a simpler format. Players are attempting to capture the the three symbols, circles, squares and triangles. Each player has an identical deck of 15 cards, leaving out the special ability tiles used in the board game to streamline the game. Instead of the usual confines of a board, the card game will expand your over the playing surface during the game.

There is a deck of 44 cards filling the role of the cities in Samurai. Players start by dealing one card into the center of the table and taking turns playing a card from their five card hand adjacent to a city already on the board. 

Illustration A

When two an opening emerges after a player places a card, they may place the a city card from the face up deck onto the board to continue the flow of the game.

Once a city is surrounded the players with the most influence of symbols in that city capture those symbols, ties causing no capture.

In Illustration A to the left, after the green player plays the 2 card at the top of the board, scoring occurs for the center ●/■ city. The green player compares their circles influence to their opponents and finds that green's 4 (2 + 2 Samurai) influence is greater than red's 3 (the blue player can only influence ■), therefore green takes the ● for their scoring. Similarly the blue player's 4 beats green's 2 (the 2 Samurai) and blue takes the ■.

The game ends when either all of one symbol type are captured, everyone runs out of cards or the deck of city cards runs out.

Samurai: The Card Game Analysis

Samurai: TCG is a very approachable game for the casual gamer even if they are unfamiliar with the board game. It offers the same exquisite player scaling and the same cutthroat scoring system that creates the tense decisions that drive the game.

Samurai: TCG brings the "play strong and move along" aspect that rewards efficient placement, although there is often a rush in the final few turns to close off some of your open  conquests. The simpler game flow reduces the analysis paralysis as players can be more focused on capturing and less fearful about what their opponent has yet to play. It even offers an additional strategic element in knowing the next city that comes out and having the ability to determine where it goes.


I don't know why Samurai: The Card Game didn't have commercial success like several of Dr. Knizia's other spin-offs. It compacts everything I like about Samurai into a shorter playing time that can be played with casual players who may not enjoy the early learning curve of Samurai.

Samurai: The Card Game

Originality (0.75/1.0) - 
Theme (0.0/0.5) - TCG doesn't offer the little thematic elements its older sibling does
Pure Fun (1.0/1.0) - Decisions are exciting and not agonizingly painful to make
"Re-play-ability" (1.0/1.0) - Offers variety in the order cards are played

Strategy/Luck Ratio (0.5/0.5) - Players adapt and always have a meaningful decision to make
Player Scaling (0.5/0.5) - Two is strategic, four allows for some interesting battles

Parity (0.5/0.5) - Extremely close scoring, its up in the air until the very end

My Rating:
Overall 4.25/5.0 = 8.5 out of 10

I give Samurai is a 6.5 out of 10. I might even call the card game version "Diet Samurai" but it has all the flavor and none of the fat, offering a faster experience of a modern classic and a whole new menu item.