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Subject: War in feudal Japan - a second look at Samurai Swords after it's Ikusa reprint rss

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Chad Geister
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I bought this game back in 2000 while on vacation in Washington, D.C. We played it one time back then, got overwhelmed, and it has sat in my closet since that time. With the impending birth of my first child, we're setting up the nursery, which means pulling out all the games from the guest room closet and finding a new home for them. In the process, I found my old copy of Samurai Swords and decided to play it before it gets re-retired. After the playthrough, it has been decided to keep it around and definitely get some more plays in.

Components
Looking at the game, a few things stand out. First, there is a lot of plastic in this game. Five different player colors, with piles of figures for each color in four different unit types. A ninja figure in black, and several ronin figures in grey. Additionally, there are sturdy plastic tokens to serve as currency. The player trays are something I haven't seen other places, with a nice styrofoam tray that holds your availble units, hides your expenditures, and gives you little compartments to spend your income on any given turn. Lastly, with Samurai Swords, the player order tokens are katana with diamonds printed on the blades. I know in the reprint, the swords are replaced with cardboard tokens. Otherwise the components look like the same set. All of my components are of good quality, and are still in good shape after storage for 10+ years. There is some slight warping of the army boards, but not enough to prevent figures staying stable on them.

Mechanics
Starting with set-up, there are two ways to do it. You can deal out a handful of cards to each player, and they set unit on those territories, then alternate placing on any available area (Risk-style) until all territories are claimed. The other option is to deal out all cards and each player gets what they get from the random distribution. The second method makes for some more diplomatic interaction at the start, but both work fairly well for setup. Play progresses through until one person controls 35 provinces. If this seems too long, there is an optional rules to play to one player's elimination, and the player left with the largest number of territories wins.

There is a special mention for game mechanics. You have two types of military forces in the game. You have three daimyo-led armies that can hold up to 15 unit, gain experience with successful battles (they can move an attack more in one turn), and are your primary means of aggression in game. If you lose your last daimyo, you are out of the game. You also have provincial forces, or up to five military units per space on the game board itself. These are primarily for defense, but will make some small scale battles to advance into weakly held territory.

Play progresses through a few phases, which actually move pretty well once everyone understands the basic rules.
The phases are: planning, turn order, build, levy units, hire ronin, hire ninja, wage war, remove ronin, collect koku.
Planning – in the planning phase, you allocate all of your koku to the various bins on your planning tray. Once all have allocated, remove the screens to show what you are doing.
Turn order bid – players take a turn order marker of their choice based on their bid, with players bidding nothing randomly selecting from whatever is left at the end.
Build – this is an all or nothing bid. You either didn't bid here, or you did and can build one castle or upgrade one castle to a fortress. These provide bonus defense units to the space they are in.
Levy units – In turn order, you place units that you hire onto the board. The biggest thing to keep in mind here is you can only place one unit per province.
Hire ronin – take money spent here to take ronin figures and place them on face-down territory cards. They get revealed when you attack, defend, or move them.
Hire ninja – whoever spent the most gets the ninja this turn. You can use him to assassinate or spy on opponents. If the highest bid is a tie, the ninja sits the turn out.
Wage war – in turn order, everyone wages war. More on this later.
Remove ronin – all those masterless samurai you hired return to the master tray.
Collect koku – you gain income based on the number of territories you control.

War is conducted over four phases. First, you move daimyo's armies into and through adjacent friendly territories, potentially picking up units along the way (turning provincial into army units). Next, you declare your battles by placing arrows pointing from provinces towards enemy provinces. The third step is rolling the attacks of your armies. The final step is moving forces into unoccupied territories, and moving provincial forces to adjacent friendly territories. An important point to remember is that you have to leave at least one unit in any territory that you control. That signifies your control over it.

The rolling mechanic for combat is fairly simple, but I pulled it out to explain a little clearer. You start by rolling for all ranged combat units (bowmen and gunners), the opponent removes casualties, then you fight with melee units (daimyo, swordsmen, ronin, and spearmen), and casualties are removed again. Combats continue through this cycle until the attacker declares a halt to hostilities, or the defender is wiped out. In the event of a naval invasion (attacking through water), the defender gets one free round of combat rolls that the attacker doesn't get to roll. Then combat proceeds as normal.

Review
Pros:
Daimyo experience. By successfully utilizing your armies, your daimyo's gain more experience, which allows them to move and attack more territories in one turn. This gives you incentive to attack with your armies, as you gain more versatility by using them. This keeps you moving and on the offense, as defensive uses of your armies don't get them more experience.

Conflict. This is a wargame. You create and enact strategies to take over feudal Japan. When playing the game, the only way to get ahead is to create tenous alliances with neighbors until you get into a position where you can backstab them to push for the win. If you aren't planning on waging war against your neighbors, or want to try turtling, you won't care for this.

Ninja. Any game where you can hire the services of a ninja is good, right? This single piece in the game can either swing entire strategies or see little use during the game, but it adds a level of depth to the overall gameplay that most of my gaming crew enjoy.

Army management. You have to plan out your actions a turn or two in advance to really maximize your gameplan. The limits on placing one unit per province, but being able to place as many ronin per province as you want, really influences how you manage your invasions and army building plans. Forgetting these details can turn this whole game into a front-line, massed army smash-up, rather than strategic army recruitment.

Streamlined economy. Your koku must always be spent, in its entirety, every turn. This prevents that one player than likes to stockpile stuff for a giant push later, and forces you to constantly enact your plan, which tends to emphasize aggressive play.

Cons:
Complex interaction of evernts. The first few times you play, you'll either miss some rules or refer constantly to the rulebook to check things out. If you don't mind a learning experience, this won't bother you, but you can't really dive into this without some foreknowledge and get it all right.

Aggressive play required. With just one or two defensive players that tend to turtle, this game can bog down incredibly. The only way to win is to wipe out an opponent or take a lot of territory, so sitting on your current mini-empire doesn't help you progress.

Kingmaking. It can be quite common for someone that suffered a bad blow to intentionally weaken themselves against a different opponent. The net result is that they still lose, but they try to give the victory to a different player at the table, rather than allowing the front-runner to achieve victory.

Backstabbing. Non-aggression pacts are common in the early game, but the knife in the back will be coming later on in the process. It has to in order for a clear winner to differentiate themselves. If you cannot handle betraying someone, or being the target of betrayal, this game is not for you.

Conclusion
My group likes it. It moved from a closet storage game to an actual game in our rotation of playable games. We like a good dice-rolling army game, and this one adds a nice bit of diplomacy and strategy to that process. If you like a good conquest game, this one should fit your plans fairly nicely.

Good luck in all your gaming endeavors.

Interested in my other reviews? Check out my Geeklist
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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A number of your cons I would call pros.
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Benjamin Maggi
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cgeister wrote:
Kingmaking. It can be quite common for someone that suffered a bad blow to intentionally weaken themselves against a different opponent. The net result is that they still lose, but they try to give the victory to a different player at the table, rather than allowing the front-runner to achieve victory.


This concept, if established by the intended victim before the attack, may successfully be negotiated to help them survive. Unfortunately, it is a common occurence in this game but I don't mind it too much. If I am not strong enough to entirely eliminate them then perhaps I shouldn't attack them right now.

One other Con: poor set-up potential if using cards. Whomever gets the "Southern" (or left) portions of the board to start off with can take over that large island and dominate the game. And, anyone forced to start off mostly in the middle is usually doomed to die early.

Still a great game, though.
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Nathan
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Another con:

Player elimination. One player eliminating another is often a sign that their ultimate victory is soon pending (as they gain control of their vanquished foes provinces). However, I have played a few games whereby a player was eliminated a little early from the game. In a couple of instances another hour and half or so remained before a victor was determined. Not fun sitting on the sidelines for that long.

This does not seem to happen often however. maybe just a "half" con?
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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Nath1975 wrote:
Another con:

Player elimination. One player eliminating another is often a sign that their ultimate victory is soon pending (as they gain control of their vanquished foes provinces). However, I have played a few games whereby a player was eliminated a little early from the game. In a couple of instances another hour and half or so remained before a victor was determined. Not fun sitting on the sidelines for that long.

This does not seem to happen often however. maybe just a "half" con?

How is this not a "pro"?
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Nathan
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whac3 wrote:
Nath1975 wrote:
Another con:

Player elimination. One player eliminating another is often a sign that their ultimate victory is soon pending (as they gain control of their vanquished foes provinces). However, I have played a few games whereby a player was eliminated a little early from the game. In a couple of instances another hour and half or so remained before a victor was determined. Not fun sitting on the sidelines for that long.

This does not seem to happen often however. maybe just a "half" con?

How is this not a "pro"?


If it is a "half" con, then by definition it is also a "half" pro.
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Jed Wilcox
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Benjamin Maggi wrote:
Whomever gets the "Southern" (or left) portions of the board to start off with can take over that large island and dominate the game. And, anyone forced to start off mostly in the middle is usually doomed to die early.


Not if they play right. Throw a fortress down in the middle of the map, and your generals can use this as a defensible base of operations, leveling up each turn and attacking whichever target is weakest. Starting from the middle of the map, there are lots of easy targets.

Also, "whoever" is the correct word here.
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alfred smith
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Benjamin Maggi wrote:
[q="cgeister"]

One other Con: poor set-up potential if using cards. Whomever gets the "Southern" (or left) portions of the board to start off with can take over that large island and dominate the game. And, anyone forced to start off mostly in the middle is usually doomed to die early.

Still a great game, though.


In a lot of the games that I have played, the player in that Southern left position in still alive at the end of the game, but does not win the game because someone else is in a better position to eliminate the last army of another player and win the game!
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Dan Fielding
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But how is the Ikusa version DIFFERENT from previous? What rules changed?
 
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Christian Kalk
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Gronak wrote:
But how is the Ikusa version DIFFERENT from previous? What rules changed?


AFAIK, the rules have 't changed at all, although there are a couple clarifications in the rulebook.
 
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