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Subject: A Comprehensive Review... With Some Bias rss

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StevenE Smooth Sailing...
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This Review is of the C&C Aspect of Samurai Battles

{The short version of my review}
Of all the C&C games Samurai Battles has edged out Napoleonics to take first place in my collection, and I still have plenty of love for all the others…


I need to admit that I am a big fan of the C&C series and the Samurai genre. Having met Richard Borg this summer I also became a bigger fan of the author. When Samurai Battles became available for preorder in the spring I signed up for two copies. I also own multiple copies of Battle Cry, Memoir ’44, Ancients and Napoleonics along with two of each associated expansion.

I am always amazed how Richard manages to bring out the flavor of each time period he applies his Commands and Colors system to. He is definitely not a one trick pony. Each game builds on the basic card driven system but introduces new mechanics that fit the time period nicely. Are the C&C games war games, simulations or just abstract representations? Everyone has their own opinion… I think each game is a combination of all three with very unique flavors. If you enjoy any of the C&C games the game play of Samurai Battles will not disappoint you as there are some new twists on the game’s mechanics. Because there is already an existing line of C&C games it is only natural to find and make comparisons between them all.

Components
The box for Samurai Battles is big… big because there is a lot under the lid. One will wonder how all the parts will get back into the box once assembled.

Documentation:
I was worried when I opened the box and found that the Art of Tactics documentation was produced nicer than the C&C documentation. The C&C rule book looks a little plain, rather minimalist almost like an afterthought (my opinion), in comparison. The C&C rules are laid out much like we are used to in other C&C games. One thing missing that would have been nice is an index. The C&C player aid is ok but could have been more comprehensive.

Figures:
The figures are actually small models. They can be assembled without glue but I chose to trim down the pins and glue the figures. The figures look fantastic when painted and placed on the board. I would recommend leaving them on the sprue, give a good warm soapy wash and a nice coat of primer. I removed each infantry figure as I assembled them and left the cavalry figures on the sprue while painting them. I painted the horses first and assembled the riders after painting them. The trays probably should be used because I would be afraid to touch them frequently for fear of potential breakage of spears and bows. The plastic used is a firmer plastic than that used in M’44. It is unfortunate Zvezda did not use the same plastic from its earlier samurai figure releases… well maybe a plastic somewhere between the new and old. Storing the miniatures will be a problem. I found some low profile plastic storage containers at a local thrift shop. I store both armies in 6 different containers with no padding, just be careful when transporting or removing them.

Knowing that Zvezda has existing figures of different unit types makes it agonizing that we only get 5 types of units in this set (Ashigaru bow, rifles and spears and then samurai naginata and cavalry). We definitely need medium and light cavalry as well as more samurai foot units... we can't forget warrior monk units either.

Cards:
The cards are passable and probably should be sleeved. I was hoping for cards with more life in them because these seem more Spartan than those from C&C Ancients. They are printed on a thin card stock. It would have been nice if they were printed on stock like those from C&C Napolionics.

Dice:
The dice are not like those from Battle Cry or Ancients. They are wooden (they may be plastic but at least they feel light enough to be wood) like those from Memoir ’44. The only difference is that they need to have the sticker faces applied… Wasn’t a problem for me, shouldn’t be one for others. Engraved or pre-printed dice would have been nice (always good to have a wish list).

Boards and Terrain Tiles:
For me the boards and terrain tiles are probably the weakest components of this game. The boards come in six individual pieces and are printed on both sides. One side is an unobstructed field where each hex face is numbered while the flip side has pre-printed rivers where each hex face is also numbered. The numbering of hex faces is for the AoT game system. The board is 12x11 hexes which seems too deep for C&C purposes (units tend not to move quickly and the deck only provides a few cards allowing additional movement).
I found the choice of texture for the boards to be unattractive(?). The terrain tiles also do not compliment the board or the game's theme. I find the woods tiles melt into the board and become lost, much like the new Battle Cry woods and hills melt into the new board. Samurai Battles tiles and board appear to be trying to look like actual representations thus losing out on being thematic (scroll like or block print).
Are the board and tiles functional for C&C? Yes
Do they fit the theme of the Sengoku period? I don’t think so, not like Ancients or the original Battle Cry… your mileage may vary

I do understand why the numbering is on the boards but wish one side was a hex field with no numbers while the other side was the same field with numbers. It would have also been nice if the pieces would have been hinged ala the Memoir '44 Breakthrough boards.

Something else to mention (good news/bad news) is that this game ships with plastic elevation hexes, GREAT!!!!, but unfortunately these hexes have a notch in the center which requires the tiles have a small cutout to fit the notch... This is not all bad if you like the terrain textures. The notch can be painted a olive green or gray to blend with the woods or hills.

Rules
The layout of the rules is like what we’ve seen in other C&C manuals. They flow in a logical manner but this time lack any visual rules examples. This may be problematic for new players but seasoned C&C gamers should be ok. The rules would have benefited from a subject index at the back.
The basic C&C rules apply to Samurai Battles. Play a card, order units, move and battle, apply results then battle back. However, there is nothing basic about the new mechanics.
The major additions are Dragon Cards, Honor, unit status (ranking) and the effects from retreating. Dragon cards augment Command Cards and are playable when being the active or defending player. Dragon Cards are only playable when paid for using Honor tokens. Dragon cards can be very wicked, especially when your opponent least expects it. Honor tokens are gained during the scenario setup and when the Honor symbol is rolled on the battle dice. The only unit type that cannot gain honor are Rifle units.
When attacking, players must consider the rank or status of units when engaging in close combat. Briefly, cavalry units are of the highest status and ignore one cross sword result from infantry attacks, additionally, heavy units ignore one cross sword result from medium units and two from light units, while medium units only ignore one cross sword result from light units. This seems very thematic to me.
Retreating from battle is handled differently in Samurai Battles and can be a very bad thing in this game. Briefly, light and medium units lose 1 Honor token, heavy units lose 2 Honor tokens while attached leaders lose an additional token and lone leaders lose 3 tokens. Honor tokens must be spent to retreat and heavens forbid you do not have enough to pay for a retreat. Lacking Honor will result in a 4d attack that applies first to the retreating unit and then spills over to nearby units. Leaders forced to retreat have the choice of losing Honor or committing seppuku (ritual suicide) thus gaining 5 Honor tokens and denying opponents a victory medal.

Scenarios
There are only 8 scenarios for the C&C aspect of Samurai Battles, three of which were printed incorrectly and have since been revised by Richard Borg. PDFs are not available as of yet. The corrections were a minor inconvenience that caused much initial concern but do not detract from the game play. I will admit that each scenario is a puzzle with no obvious solution.

The scenarios in Samurai Battles focus on open ground battles with limited use of terrain. I hope we will see future scenarios that use structures and possibly sieges.

Game Play
Setting up the board for C&C scenarios is pretty fast as terrain used is pretty minimal. There are a couple scenarios that use many river tiles. Setting up the figures can be time consuming. To aid in my setup I have painted a band around the bases of the figures, green for light, blue for medium, red for heavy and cavalry, and purple with white dashes for leaders. I use the movement trays and insert the smaller unit flags (square, triangle, circle) to the tray. The ashigaru spears are a little problematic because they extend well into adjacent hexes. I find that the spears end up getting tangled up with opposing bow and cavalry units.
Once setup Samurai Battles plays out very well. The ebb and flow of battle feels very thematic to me. There are many things to consider during your turn. Which Command card to play, is there an applicable Dragon Card to play, are there enough Honor tokens in reserve for possible retreats, am I prepared for a counter attack. The non-active player must also pay attention as he or she can play dragon cards out of turn. As I mentioned the dragon cards can be very wicked, they frequently limit the number of dice rolled or the number of units to be ordered. They can also beneficially augment command cards. There are cards where leaders call each other out for a personal duel, and cards that allow a unit to change sides because of clan allegiances… feels like epic history when the cards are played at crucial moments.
In the many face to face games I have played most have come down to a climatic last couple of turns. It is not uncommon for games to have a high body count, most units will take damage. It is also not uncommon for swings of fortune to occur from good card play and dice rolling. I’ve been down by three or four points and was able to win by defeating many damaged units. Unbalanced you say? Maybe so, but the opportunity for epic comebacks is equally available to both sides because of the Dragon cards. Knowing when to play them is crucial to wining… poor dice rolling or card play by the opponent is also helpful.
When I first started playing this game and thought the game was a lock for victory I found the tide could quickly change. In Samurai Battles the game is not over until your opponent has been decapitated. The head of the snake must be removed to prevent it from striking at you. My advice is to play to win, show no mercy and never let your guard down until victory is won.

The Future
In my conversations with Richard I know that Samurai Battles has been developed greatly, probably more than he let on to me. He hinted that there are more defined unit types to be released, play tested scenarios that are ready to go, and many possible expansions that encompass the region (Korea and China).
I hope Zvezda will consult with Richard and take his lead on how to promote and expand this game. I know Zvezda is a model/miniatures company but they stand to sell a lot of miniatures if they understand and grow in the direction the gaming community wants. Unfortunately Zvezda has yet to post on BGG, this could be because of the language differences (Russian vs English). I hope they hire someone bilingual so we can move forward soon.
Feudal Japan is a relatively unknown theme for many non-Japanese people. The Western world has only been exposed to the history through movies or translated writings. Yes I know there are some of us who have studied Japanese history (academically or for fun) but we are in the minority. Japan was (and still is to some extent) a closed country making knowledge somewhat difficult to get. Many of the old texts have yet to be translated and that which has been translated is likely not appreciated by our instant gratification culture (my opinion, and it does not apply to everyone). Once more of us know the history of Japan we can develop new scenarios and campaigns… Yes, we will also need a scenario editor.

I would like to see some form of siege and more use of defensive works in future expansions.

Summation
Samurai Battles is a great game and has captured the flavor of what I know and appreciate of the Sengoku period of Japan. It is unfortunate that Zvezda did not consult any of the other C&C games or read through the forums to garner what the C&C community likes or dislikes about each game, if Zvezda did research the games in the system I don’t think they understood what they learned.
Was it a mistake to put two rule sets in one box? I don’t think so. The C&C following is big and probably a large force driving sales, more so than just the Art of Tactics followers.
In this review I pointed out what I thought were problems with the components. Please don’t let this dissuade you from playing or buying the game because it is a lot of fun to play. I have only broken one spear from mishandling… the figures do seem fragile but have proven to be durable (I will however keep them away from my kids).
Would the game be better with blocks? Maybe, but blocks probably would not be as esthetically pleasing, especially when the miniatures are painted. I may do a set of blocks for when I travel.
The board and terrain tiles were my biggest complaint. I am working to correct this by making my own board and terrain that is more in line with the theme (my opinion).

I love the theme, period and this addition to the C&C system.
I give Samurai Battles a 10 for game play and an overall 9… I dinged it one point because of the board, terrain tiles and lack of diagrams in the rules.


Make sure to check out the player aids in the files section as they are very useful.

[Edit]
Corrected misspellings and grammar
Added hex elevations
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Yours Truly,
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There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we'll know better next time.
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Nice review.
Tangential question:
Quote:
Are the C&C games war games, simulations or just abstract representations? Everyone has their own opinion… I think each game is a combination of all three with very unique flavors.


As someone inexperienced with war games: what's the difference between war games and simulations? I think of them as being essentially the same thing, being at the far end of the theme/mechanism integration spectrum, at the opposite end as, for example, the GIPF series.
 
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StevenE Smooth Sailing...
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You'll be surprised by the coming answers to your question... Apparently there is a significant difference. whistle

Regardless, I appreciate the C&C games for what they represent and accomplish in a relatively short time.

Many people call C&C a beer and pretzel game... I prefer a stronger drink and something more satisfying than pretzels when I play these games but that is another topic.
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Kevin Duke
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Minor rules correction. I believe the "rifle" units can gain honor in close combat.

And the corrected scenarios are indeed available as PDFs.

I was surprised your criticism of the terrain art did not mention the green rivers. While I can grant that cartoony pure blue rivers may be "wrong," I certainly would not have minded something in the game that was both not more suggestive of water and less "yecchhy" to consider water. Having the slots for the plastic hills on all terrain types (incuding the rivers) just tells us about Zvezda's limitations, either on die cutting or imagination.

As to the review and the expectations, I felt some sympathy for the makers long before the game came out. If it had been only Art of Tactic rules, folks would have focused only on the minis and Zvezda's performance history, but by including C&C rules, people kept talking like the game was coming from GMT or the Battlelore/Mem 44 folks, all of whom have strong reputations for "support." that has led to a wide range of disappointments, based on false expectations. "I would have preferred..." in a review is an example.

But as for reality, Zvezda has whiffed on any support at all so far, and Richard only a little. We have seen a few rules explanations from him, but at the time he was referring to correcting the scenario PDFs (which still have a mistake) he also promised a few new scenarios as a makeup for the errors. Whiff there also.

For me, the game is remarkably different from other C&C titles (tho I was not familiar with Battlelore, which I read is the closest match) and I like how the game plays a lot. I've come to realize we are "on our own" here and this is one time when fan scenarios and variants (like expanding the very short list of unit types) will be vital. Zvezda's other Sam miniatures provide a very good starting place for some more unit types (medium cavalry, mounted archers, different infantry) and scenarios we can make up, especially hoping for folks like the OP who have a background in the subject. For me, just incorporating a "draft" of each side picking a couple extra units to add to a given scenario adds some wrinkles.

My opinion is, if Zvezda doesn't make a major game change in support, that this game is going to fade. Their WW2 game had a slow but steady pace to new releases, but a slowly building fan base with no high expectations on the front end. The dynamics are very different this time and I hope they realize that the bigger sales C&C brought them do come at a higher level of customer expectation.

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Will Miner
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I bought this game just for the figures ,,so i can pimp my other period Japanese games ,,,
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Nicholas Gauthier
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Good review, and as someone who owns all six of the C&C type Borg games (yes, and Westeros too), I agree with almost all of it. Its interesting how such a new idea takes longer for people to wrap their heads around. Wonder if we'll ever see a review that tackles both game versions? That would really take a while to do...
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Steven Goodknecht
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Steven,

Very good review and as it is your third wargame review, you have been added to the BGG wargame reviewers geeklist here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/127822/in-praise-of-bg....
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Thanks for the thorough review. Wish you'd included some pictures though.
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