Enough about games where we’re either trying to blow each other up or monopolise tulip production in 16th century Holland, there’s a whole world of games where it’s you and your friends working together against a hellish opponent, the game itself. These are excellent games for someone like me who’s constantly trying to ruin other people’s productivity with board games. They are great gateways, unlike competitive games you don’t have to worry so much that the first games will be you pounding them into the floor for the first few games, and you can spread the teaching experience over the whole game rather having to front load it all. Most importantly, they encourage everyone to be chatty all the time.
Samurai spirit is one such game, with up to seven samurai defending a village from bandits in the style of the film Seven Samurai. Except the part the movie left out where the samurai occasionally turn into animals. Each of you will be one of the fantastic looking samurai as you work your way through a deck of bandit cards for three rounds, adding in slightly harder enemies at the end of each round.
Each individual samurai will be playing essentially a game of blackjack, the bandit cards all have a number and you will be deciding to draw and fight a new bandit or pass, taking care to not go over your samurai’s particular ki limit. There are a couple of extra aspects to the game to help you out with this, the samurai all have a passive ability that makes drawing bandits less risky, passing cards off to other players or getting a peek at the bandit before you would draw. Also there are slots to the side of your combat track where you can put bandits without having their number count against your ki value, these slots need to be filled by the end of the round or some bad stuff will happen. Balanced against these helping hands drawing cards is still risky and a constant nag. At the start of your turn you apply a penalty based on the most recent bandit in your combat stack so you want to be drawing new bandits if the effect is particularly painful like dealing damage to your samurai, also remember the need to fill your slots on the side before the round ends.
With that said passing isn’t the worst thing in the world, you let one bandit get past and while these have a chance to do damage to your village it isn’t a guarantee, then you hand off your passive ability to another samurai to use on their turn. This choice to pass or not and who to give your ability to is a major part of the team decision making. It’s definitely a choice I need to take more rather than just rabidly drawing cards in pursuit of the coolest thing in Samurai Spirit, activating my ki ability.
When your combat line hits exactly your ki limit you remove the top bandit from your line, allowing you more room to fight, and use your very powerful ki ability. This might be killing two bandits straight off the top of the deck or removing the bottom bandit from a player’s combat line. And I haven’t even mentioned the animal forms. When your samurai has taken two wounds you will flip over your board onto an incredibly cool looking animal samurai, your ki limit increasing so you can fight more enemies and also upgrading your ki ability. But you need to be careful since four wounds will see you dead.
Speaking of dead that is one of the ways for you to lose Samurai Spirit, if any one player dies you all lose. You will also lose if at the end of any round you have either no farms or no families left, these can be lost through bandits burning them down or if you fail to put bandits in your farm/family slots. Difficulty wise I have only beaten this once but it’s quick and light enough a game that I don’t mind losing and playing again. It’s certainly rough but not so bad I don’t get to the final round. I think over several games I’ve got my head around the balance of deliberately taking wounds to activate your animal form and accepting some barricades and farms getting burned down to avoid getting overwhelmed.
The main problem this kind of game can have, Samurai Spirit being no exception, is when a more knowledgeable player railroads the group into set decisions. This can take other players out of the action and in the worst cases have one player constantly passing because handing their special ability off is more efficient than them actually doing anything. This is a fault that is by no means unique to Samurai Spirit and somewhat inherent to the genre, but it is always worth trying to restrain yourself for the benefit of less experienced players, I for one should be doing this more.
So Samurai Spirit get a wholehearted thumbs up from me, its small-ish and quite cheap but will probably get you quite a bit of play time. The quick pace will see a game completed in less than an hour so it’s also good for play on a train or similar situation. It also goes into the small group of games I’ve managed to play while quite hammered, which always earns a game points from me.