Reiner Knizia’s Samurai Delivers Solid Strategy Game in an Elegant Presentation

Posted: May 10, 2011 in Strategy

Having created more than 500 board games, I can assume that Reiner Knizia has no issues with breaking the ice at parties. In the iTunes store, his games have made quite the impression with a gaming audience looking for a heavy dose of intelligent strategy. From classics such as High Society and Poison to more light fare including Monumental and Roto, Reiner’s theme-oriented games are all thought provoking entertainment. The latest addition is Reiner Knizia’s Samurai by developer Conlan Rios and his team. With strong AI and online play, elegant presentation and responsive touch controls, Samurai successfully brings its game of conquest to iTunes.

Over the past few weeks as I’ve traveled around for work, spending countless hours at airports and even more hours alone in hotels (well, maybe not completely alone), I found myself playing my preview version of Samurai more than any other game on my device. To be successful, the game requires a balance of intellect and cleverness, and that’s why I appreciate the game as much as I do. Put bluntly, Samurai doesn’t insult your intelligence which can’t be said for the majority of games in the iTunes store.

Based on the board game, Samurai is set in feudal Japan and centers on the island of Honshu where 3 classes of society (or castes) exist: Religious, Peasant and Warrior. Like the corporate boardroom, the premise is simple—influence and capture as many of the castes as you can. The task, however, requires a bit more gamesmanship and planning that definitely gives your brain a workout.

Visually, Samurai is beautifully presented with a map of Japan. Vibrantly colored and accompanied by an orchestral soundtrack to exude a sense of urgency, the game is polished. I know that’s a term many reviewers toss around, but polished aptly describes Samurai. Players will notice the elegance of the interface and appreciate it the more they play. While this wasn’t an issue for me, one issue some is that at any given time, the view of the map is limited with no ability to pinch-to-resize and requires dragging the screen to see other areas. However, tapping on the screen shrinks the map to provide an overview of the entire map.

Also, a helpful tutorial provides a basic walkthrough of gameplay which I strongly suggest for beginners. Something I would have liked is a single button on the game screen where I could access tutorial information at any time. As is it now, you have to navigate through the Menu and click through a few pages, but nothing significant. In addition, the dev has incorporated useful tips that appear at the start of each game which fits in nicely without being overly intrusive.

The game is set up so up to 4 players can participate either via AI, pass-and-play, and through online play. For a two-player game, the map consists of Honshu. For a three- and four-player game, additional islands are added which adds to both the challenge and the chaos associated with the gameplay. The online play has profiles which include global scoring, honor level, achievement title, and number of games won, lost, and drawn. The option exists for fast games (5 min/turn), to slow games (3 day/turn) and keeps track of all moves in a current game. And to keep games progressing, you can simulate a player’s move if their time has elapsed. Also, a Chat section allows players to communicate with others and keeps a log of conversations. Frankly, this is all very intuitive and easy to use.

For this review to be useful, it makes sense to provide an overview of the gameplay. As mentioned, 3 primary caste systems exist, represented on the map as figures placed individually in a hex and in some cases, in trios in a single hex. Players are each provided 20 tokens and these tokens have numbers indicating influence and represent different castes.

Two types of tokens are available: Slow and Fast

Slow (you can place one token per turn)
Helmet
Peasant
Buddha
Samurai—wild cards that influence all three castes
Redeploy (special)

Fast tokens (you can place multiple ones of these)
Ronin—similar to Samurai and are wild cards
Ship—placed at sea and are wild cards
Figure Swap (special)

In terms of the special tokens, Redeploy and Figure Swap, they have special attributes that can impact the outcome of a game. Redeploy allows the player to take a previously slow token and move it to any empty hex, while Figure Swap switches the position of any two figures still on the board. Both come in handy if for example, you previously placed a token in an area where it’s useless because all the adjacent figures have been captured.

At the beginning of each player’s turn, 5 tiles are presented for the hand. Players can choose to handpick those tiles or have them randomly selected by adjusting according in the Options menu. I would strongly suggest beginners select the random hands option to make the game more enjoyable until you have a few games under your belt.

To capture figures, players exert influence by dragging and placing tokens on land hexes adjacent to that figure. Depending on what type of device you’re using, the tokens are a bit on the small side, although most won’t have any issues making out the different tokens. Once a token is placed, players can either tap the Done button in the lower right or undo the move. A useful feature included by the dev is that figures will glow to show which player is winning it (e.g. Red means Red Player), while a white glow means no player has the upper hand. This serves as a useful way in planning your next move. And, as captures occur, arrows appear to show which tokens contributed to the capture. For the beginner, the arrows further help with understanding how the game works.

Samurai is a game of strategic planning, requiring a bit of thought and planning several moves ahead. Considering this is based on a board game, the iTunes adaptation of Samurai is really top notch and easily one of the better ones you’ll see for this type of game. For example, when using the special tokens such as Redeploy and Figure Swap, a placeholder appears that holds the token to be switched. While it’s nothing spectacular, you’re grateful that the dev didn’t take this for granted as a player.

At the top of the screen, a chart for each player shows which figures have been captured during a game. Tapping the chart for that respective player provides an overview of available and played tokens for each player. Again, this is an option that can also be turned off prior to the start of the game, and unless you’re an advanced player, you’ll want to leave this on.

Figure majorities—when a player captures the most of a figure type—are the essentially the goal of the game. But there are several ways to win in Samurai.

1. All figures of a single type have been captured or tied (buddhas, helmets, peasants) or any 4 figures are tied (illustrated in the upper left and lower right corner represented as the Tied Islands).
2. 2 or 3 figure majorities win; 1 figure majority also wins if no one has 2 or 3
3. If both players each only have 1 figure majority, the tie is broken by how many other figure majorities outside of theirs they have captured
4. If no players have a majority, the one with the most captures wins.

If you haven’t played Samurai before, the game can be confusing and even slight frustrating. However, the more games you play, the more the game makes sense. At the conclusion of each game, a score sheet summarizes captures and majorities. One of the best things about Samurai is the explanations. Often, strategy games can leave some players confused about what occurred and why. Not Samurai. In fact, an Explain appears at the bottom of the score sheet that when tapped provides an explanation of who won and why. While nothing elaborate presentation wise, it’s a nice touch that other devs should consider if applicable. What Samurai doesn’t have is an achievement system in the traditional sense. The game does keep track of a player’s win/loss record and a player will attain different levels of rank based on victories but otherwise, this is as far as it goes.

Now, how does Samurai translate in overall experience on your device? In a strategy-type game, the big concern typically surrounds the AI and the level of difficulty. In that regards, the AI in Samurai is solid regardless of the number of players. If you’re looking for a mindless or silly game, Samurai would not fall into category. In fact, this is not a game that most will zip through without much thought. Yet, Samurai is simple enough that you won’t spend a huge amount time thinking about your next move.

I will say that Samurai for me provides a better game experience played with two players. Samurai in with three or four players delivers a nice challenge, but the gameplay can be borderline hectic and even confusing as you try to maintain a sense of everything that’s going on. Don’t get me wrong, the game is still very entertaining especially when playing with friends online, but probably not advised for those still wet behind the ears. And the ability to change the degree of difficulty through options selections should appeal to advanced players. Overall, if you’re looking for a solid, yet challenging strategy game with replay value that doesn’t insult your intelligence, Samurai comes highly recommended.

Albie Meter: 5 Stars (overall polished game with an elegant interface and visually appealing presentation; strong AI and online play and replay value; rules can be confusing for some especially beginners; nice amount of options; most importantly, exercises both halves of your brain)

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