One Sentence Synopsis: Help the Samurai determine if the Wood Cut school has the chops to save the village.
Although critics and audiences may disagree over which of Akira Kurosawa’s films is his crowning achievement, I think there’s little room for debate in calling Seven Samurai his most well-known film. The movie pits a ragtag band of Samurai and their peasant allies against an extortionist band of marauders, developing each Samurai’s character as the movie progresses so viewers are emotionally invested in the group’s success by the end of the movie. The movie’s influence in modern pop and media culture is far-reaching, but is especially prevalent in cinema where it has received a re-themeing in The Magnificent Seven, a retelling in the anime short-series Samurai 7, and it can even be argued to have influenced parts of the story in A Bug’s Life.
The most recent adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s work comes in the form of Samurai Spirit, a challenging cooperative game for 1-7 players from renowned designer Antoine Bauza. Players each take on the role of one of the seven Samurai to help defend a helpless peasant village against bandits who are trying to burn their barricades, destroy their houses and farms, and kill the villagers. The game’s 3 rounds take about 30 minutes to get through if players are lucky enough to successfully defend the village until the end, with the intensity of the bandit assault increasing during each successive wave. In the end, if all the bandits are defeated and the village still has at least 1 house and 1 peasant remaining then the players are victorious.
The game is extremely easy to set up. The main village board is placed on the table with tokens for houses, villagers, and a number of protective barricades determined by the player number. The initial raider deck is randomly constructed from a number of bandit cards also based on the number of players, and goes next to the board. Players then select their Samurai, each of whom has a special talent and a special Kiai ability, and places a Kiai tracking token at 0 on their corresponding player board. Though players may opt to randomize their assignments, it’s much more beneficial to actively discuss the options and select Samurai with complementary talents. For example, Heihachi is able to pass even-numbered bandits to either his right or left, and Gorobei is able to ignore the penalties on even numbered cards. Having two players select those Samurai and sit next to each other potentially allows for some game-saving combos; that sort of forethought and positioning can be applied all the way around the group to maximize synergies.
Each of the game’s rounds proceeds in the same fashion, with players taking their turns in clockwise order. First, if a player has chosen to “confront” any raiders and place them to the right of their player board, then the player must apply the penalty showing there on the top-most raider. These penalties can range from nothing to dealing a wound to the samurai or even burning a barricade(or a building if no barricades are left). Next, the samurai may carry out an action: fight, support, or pass. To fight, the player flips the top card of the raider deck. They then have two options: the player may confront the card, in which case it is placed to the right of their player board and their Kaia tracker is moved up according to the raider’s value. Alternatively, if the player has a free slot to the left of their board for an icon that matches the icon of the raider card, they can choose to “defend.” If a player defends, that raider is essentially neutralized for the remainder of the round and they won’t have to apply its penalty. Players will want to make sure to defend the full three times each round since any of those icons without a corresponding raider on them at the end of the round will either cause the samurai to take a damage, or it will destroy a farm or kill a peasant. Defending is therefore not only highly useful to avoid up to three high-value raider cards or ones with penalities the player doesn’t want to get hit with, but its full use each round may even prove the difference between winning and losing.
Supporting enables the active Samurai to pass their special ability token to another player for use during their next turn. That can be nice in order to potentially help someone else mitigate an impending problem, but in exchange the top raider card gets placed face-down, without looking, into the Intruder stack at the top of the board. At the end of the round, cards in the intruder deck are flipped and if they show fire in their bottom-right corner, players must burn a barricade or house. It’s a calculated risk, and one that can either end with players breathing a sigh of relief or throwing their hands in the air and cursing as a raider they let sneak by ransacks the town.
Passing is the final option, and must be done if a player’s Kiai tracker has gone OVER their highlighted Kiai number. If that happens a barricade or house is destroyed, and the player is skipped for the rest of the round.
Now you might be wondering, what happens is a player hits their highlighted Kiai number EXACTLY? Amazing things. In addition to each samurai’s special talent which is always active, each has a Kiai ability that is extremely strong and is activated once that Kiai number is hit. Players might be able to add an extra barricade, or perhaps even discard cards from the raider or intruder decks. Additionally, the player gets to remove the bottom-most raider card they confronted, and remove that raider’s value from their Kiai tracker. In essence, hitting your Kiai number exactly is like getting a second wind, and players should work together to try and help each other hit that magic number if they’re teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed.
The samurai each have an additional…ability…should they ever take 2 wounds from raider cards. When that happens the player will essentially Hulk-out, flipping their player board to release their Samurai’s animal spirit which has increased health, and an even more powerful Kiai. I’d almost say you could just envision your Samurai tearing his clothes apart as he transforms into a bear, wolf, or other critter, but their clothes are surprisingly intact after the transformation is completed. Still, adding some “HRRARARARAR” sound effects to your board-flipping can be a nice touch. Players will want to exercise caution in taking those initial 2 wounds, however, since taking 2 more after flipping means the Samurai dies and the game is lost for everyone.
Even with the danger of losing after taking a total of 4 wounds, players are going to want to release their animal spirit at some point due to what happens at the end of each round. Once the raider deck is empty, or if everyone passes and the rest of the raiders are placed into the intruder stack, then the Samurai resolve any blank defenses on the left side of their player board as described earlier, and receive bonuses for each villager left alive. The intruder deck is also then handled per my previous description. At that point more, tougher raiders are added to the raider deck. At the end of the first round it’s one Leiutenant (value 5) per player, and at the end of the second round it’s one Boss (value 6) per player. Considering that a 5/6 value card is literally half the Kiai of one Samurai, and that those Leiutenants and Bosses have some pretty nasty penalties, having everyone turn animal by the last round is imperative to win.
I’m a long-time fan of Bauza’s Ghost Stories, so I was really looking forward to Samurai Spirit and I’m honestly surprised it has seemed to fly under the radar for most gamers. Having played the game I’m even more suprised because I think it’s easily one of the best strictly cooperative games on the market. At its core the game is one of simple mitigation; players are trying to mitigate incoming damage to themselves and the village for three rounds, and if they do that then they’ve won the game(the degree of success can be calculated using points if players choose). The sheer number of considerations at play, however, really help the game transcend that basic concept. There are LOTS of things going on here. Before the game even begins players must consider their talent and Kiai synergies, choosing their Samurai in conjunction with others and even adjusting their seating at the table accordingly. Potentially critical decisions are also made on every player’s turn. For example, deciding to confront or defend based on the status of both left/right tracks on their board, the overall status of the village, or what it might mean for other players. Figuring out the most opportune moment to unleash their animal spirit without putting themselves in danger of being killed, or possibly trying to hit their exact Kiai number to unleash their Kiai ability and make more room to confront additional raiders. Or maybe another player needs their talent token: is the payoff worth the risk of adding a raider to the intruder deck? Can the village sustain the loss of another barricade or house if it comes to that?
My favorite aspect of Samurai Spirit is that not only are there all of the aforementioned considerations and more during a player’s turn, but that they’re all decisions which are made together. There’s really no downtime where players just sit back and chill until the game comes around to them again, and I have yet to play a game of Samurai Spirit where there’s not constant debate and discussion happening around the table regarding what the best strategy might be to make sure everyone survives while still filling their defense icons, and preparing for the following round’s intensified wave. There are many moments of breath-holding as a player flips the next raider card and everyone gets to see whether their planning paid off, or if one of their teammates is going to get overwhelmed and another barricade burned to the ground. That engagement is helped further by the possibility of combos where players chain together card draws and special abilities to pull off some truly amazing game-changers.
Picture this: Heihachi is 1 point away from being overwhelmed, and he draws a 2. It looks like things are over, but wait! His talent allows him to pass the card, so he passes it to Daisuke on his left and stays in the round. Daisuke confronts the raider, placing it to the right of his board which makes him hit his Kiai value. As a result, Daisuke uses his ability to remove the last card in his combat line and give it to Gorobei, while also removing the next-to-last card from his combat line per the rules of hitting the Kiai value. Now Daisuke is out of harms way as well and able to confront a more raiders, and it just so happens Gorobei was able to place the card Daisuke gave him to the left of his board to finish off his defensive set for the round.
BOOM! Through clever use of abilities the Samurai took a situation that may have contributed towards their loss and turned it into a complete domination of the raiders for that turn. There is, of course, an element of randomness and luck-of-the-draw here, but it makes for occassions of fantastically tense gameplay. When the table erupts in cheers because the exact card needed is drawn, or everyone lets out sighs of relief because the worst was avoided, then you know people are engaged.
Like other titles from Antoine Bauza, Samurai Spirit’s components and art are also excellent. I was pleasantly surprised to find the game comes in a box that’s half the size of Ghost Stories, so it’s actually quite portable. Everything fits into the box’s insert very neatly and snugly, and in a stroke of genius Funforge actually produced an insert that can hold all of the game’s cards sleeved. Yes indeed, for those of us who like sleeving the cards in our games, especially for games that require a lot of repeat shuffling on each playthrough, we can rest easy with this one and don’t even have to ditch the insert! The cardboard components are all of an excellent thickness, and I love that the Kiai counters are Samurai-shaped meeples.
I really don’t have any criticisms of the game as-far-as gameplay is concerned. I think the mechanics are extraordinarily tight and engaging, the game moves surprisingly quickly for the amount of round-table discussion it generates, and the mechanics all integrate well with the theme. It also scales up beautifully, and I actually think the more players you have the better because of all the player interaction, and because the game seems to offer more of a challenge with 4+ players. Like most cooperative games there is still the potential for quarterbacking, but since there are so many things going on each turn it becomes a bit more of a chore to pull off than it might in other games.
In fact, the only real criticism I have for the game is regarding its theme, which I still absolutely love. My issue is that I also love Seven Samurai and the Samurai 7 anime based on it, and the character development in both the original and the anime is simply superb. Looking at the characters in Samurai Spirit, however, I just don’t feel those carefully-crafted characteristics shining through. The characters here have no real personality and no connection to their cinematic counterparts, and that seems like a hugely missed opportunity thematically.
Samurai Spirit will invariably get compared to Bauza’s existing, extremely popular cooperative game, Ghost Stories, so I’ll go ahead and weigh in on that debate. Samurai Spirit is undoubtedly lighter, and although it still poses a good challenge for players(especially with the increased difficulty modes Bauza includes) it’s definitely not as brutal as Ghost Stories. Even though it’s lighter and less difficult, however, there are more considerations for players each turn in Samurai Spirit and I enjoy the expanded player interaction those decisions and the exciting combos Kiai/talents generate. In Ghost Stories I also constantly feel like i’m just fighting a losing battle and trying desperately to hold on until the boss appears, but Samurai Spirit actually makes me feel like I’m holding the raiders at bay and gives me some glimmer of hope in reaching the bosses even if I’m going to get slaughtered once they come. The fact that the game seats 7 instead of 4 and works well at all its player-counts is also nice. In some ways Samurai Spirit is Ghost-Stories Lite, both in that the gameplay is lighter and the atmosphere isn’t quite as dark as Ghost stories. Calling it that, however, I think would be a disservice to what Bauza has accomplished with Samurai Spirit. Both games can, indeed should, exist in the same collection.
COG Takeaway: Samurai Spirit is, in my opinion, one of the best cooperative games of last year, and one of the strongest coop games in my collection. Bauza has managed to distill a Ghost Stories-like experience into a smaller box, and into a game that takes half the time while adding even more opportunities for player interaction and discussion, and still retaining a great degree of challenge. The components and art are excellent, the theme is integrated with the mechanics well, harder difficulties are included to enhance replayability, and the fact that the game can seat 7 people and actually scales beautifully up to that level means I can table the game more often since my game nights often have 5+ people. There’s a lot of game in this little box, and it hits a filler-game time point without ever feeling like a filler. For under $30, if you and your posse of would-be Samurai are in the market for a lighter, quick-playing coop game with good engagement then you should band together immediately and get your group a copy.