Tuesday, 9 August 2011

revisiting Samurai Swords

I bought Samurai Swords in 1998 I think, and I have a lot of fond memories of it. That was before I got into the boardgaming hobby in a big way. I only played the game at most a handful of times a year, and every time I wanted to play it, I had to make arrangements early with a group of friends and allocate a full day for it. I have not played it since getting into the hobby in 2003. I simply never got around to revisiting it. When I learned that a new version, renamed Ikusa, was coming out (and it already has by now), I told myself I must find time to revisit this game. So on 31 Jul 2011, I finally did.

It was a full 5-player game (the ideal way to play), with Allen, Han, Azrul and Soraya, and here's how it went.

  • Red - Soraya
  • Orange - Azrul
  • Purple - Han
  • Blue - Allen
  • Green - me

Note: In real life, north is more or less in the direction of the upper right corner of the gameboard, but for ease of reading I'll treat the upward direction of the gameboard as north, right is east, left is west, down is south.

This was the start of the game. Provinces were randomly distributed, but players could decide which six provinces to reinforce with local garrisons and where to put their three armies, i.e. they could decide which area to use as their power bases. My (green) provinces were scattered everywhere. I decided to try to concentrate on Kyushu (medium sized island in the west) and Shikoku (the other medium sized island next to Kyushu), placing one army on each. I later placed my third army at the eastern tip of Honshu (main island), because no one seemed to be interested in that area and it might be easy pickings.

Han (purple) had a good cluster in eastern Honshu. He reinforced those, but for army placement (if my memory and eyesight don't fail me) he placed two in western Honshu and one in eastern Honshu.

Allen (blue) and Soraya (red) had scattered provinces like me. Allen had one army near the western end of Honshu, one on Shikoku, and one in the north eastern part of Honshu. Soraya had one on Kyushu (to my dismay), one in central Honshu and one in eastern Honshu.

Azrul (orange) had a moderately good concentration in the central south part of Honshu and Shikoku. He placed two armies in this area, and the third one in the western part of Honshu, which was not far away.

First round. Only Azrul and Soraya built castles, Azrul in north western Honshu to protect his army, and Soraya in central Honshu to protect hers. In the first round no one was allowed to attack armies, which gave an opportunity for daimyos (feudal lords who are also generals leading their respective armies) to gain experience and to establish their areas of power. Not a lot happening yet this round.

Round 2. Right off the bat, Han (purple) attacked and destroyed 2 of Allen's (blue) 3 armies, utilising ronin. Ronin are mercenaries, which can be very useful. When you levy regular soldiers, you can only add one soldier per province, but when hiring ronin, there is no such restriction. The downside is they will leave your service at the end of the current round; but still, using them at the right time can be very decisive.

Killing off the 2nd army of a player can be a risky move. When the 3rd army of a player is destroyed, that player is eliminated, and whoever kills the 3rd army gains all his lands and all his remaining soldiers. The winning condition of the game is to own 35 provinces at any point in the game, so you must be careful not to let any opponent easily gain a bunch of provinces.

Han built a castle at the western tip of Honshu to protect his army. Allen's army on Shikoku left the island and came to the central south area of Honshu. He destroyed one of Azrul's (orange) armies, and now had a castle. Shikoku was now fully taken over by Azrul. I (green) was on my way to monopolise Kyushu. Soraya (red) was creating a more consolidated presence in central and south eastern Honshu.

Although Allen (blue) had lost 2 armies, he still had many provinces, and since he only had one army to spend his money on, it became one monster of an army. Still, with only one army, and his provinces being mostly quite far from this army, these provinces were gradually eaten up by others. I (green) sort of managed to achieve my initial goal of owning the north eastern tip of Honshu. I had lost all my other holdings on Honshu. I now had two armies in Kyushu (western-most medium island), and had destroyed Soraya's army, so it was a matter of time for me to completely take over Kyushu.

Final round that we played. We only had 4 hours, and decided to end the game after this round. See that fortress (i.e. upgraded castle) at the centre. That was built by Soraya (red) to protect her last remaining (and weakened) army, but the army had now been destroyed by Han (purple) and the fortress taken. In this round Han had spent money to bid for turn order, so that he could be first to go and could attack Soraya's army before anyone else did so and also before it moved out of reach. When Han gained Soraya's provinces, he had a total of 31, only 4 short of the required 35 to win. Azrul (orange) did small and distributed attacks, and by game end he owned the second most number of provinces. I (green) preserved all three of my armies for quite long, but I made some rash attacks and lost many men, and eventually one of my armies too. Han was the only one to still have all 3 armies (although weakened). Azrul and Allen both had one army at game end.

Although we didn't have an official winner, Han was the obvious leader and MVP at this point. So all hail the daimyo killer!

At the start of the game, there were three armies in this four province island of Shikoku! There must be gold or something.

In a 5-player game, there would be some vacant provinces during game setup. Coincidentally two of them were right next to each other. See how this attracted the greedy people. Four armies in this area!

There were many armies in this area.

One of my armies. The flagbearer piece is used to mark the experience level of the daimyo. The flag also matches the army piece on the gameboard. An army can hold at most 15 soldiers, including the daimyo himself. In this particular army I have (top to bottom, left to right) 1 daimyo, 1 bowman, 2 swordsmen, 2 gunners and 2 spearmen.

This was the first big army-to-army battle when Han (purple) attacked Allen (blue).

Allen's last remaining army. At one point it was fully fleshed out with 15 soldiers. The lazy grey guys lying around in the background were his ronin.

Our lonesome ninja was never hired throughout the whole game. A ninja could be used to attempt to assassinate a daimyo. If successful, the army is immobilised for that round, and another soldier in the army will be promoted to the position of daimyo. If the assassination attempt fails, the ninja can be used by the intended victim against the original master. The ninja can also be used to spy on one opponent's spending plans in the following round (if not used for assassination).

The last battle of Soraya's (red) last army. Han (purple) spent money on securing first in turn order, and planned his attack path this way (strictly speaking you only need to declare the first attack, but of course everyone knew he was aiming for the red army). Only experienced daimyos can attack more than once per round. The most experienced daimyos could attack four times!

This particular game that we have played had much action in the early game, but kind of sputtered out later. We fought much and lost many men, causing us to be short on soldiers, and armies became weak too. A little anti-climatic. We rarely bid for turn order, and no one wanted the poor ninja (maybe he didn't do enough advertising). We did make good use of ronin. There were some castles built, but not many.

The first thing I thought after the game was it is not really all that great afterall, now that I have been exposed to many other games. Not that it's a poor game, just that it is not as awesome as I used to think it was. I'm still happy to play it if I get the chance, but it is now mostly a nostalgia game for me, an old friend whom it is good to catch up with once in a while.


Peter R Stone said...

Thanks for reviewing the game. I bought my copy in the late 1980s, I think.
Personally, with 5 players, I think its one of the best multiplayer gamers I've seen, though I have not played as many as you lol.
Key strategies we found were to build up the army cards as soon as possible, soaking spare units off the board to do so, using the army against enemy provinces with only 1 defender to give it enough wins to allow it multiple moves, then getting bidding to get the first turn sword, and using that extra movement to unexpectedly attack other player's weaker armies.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Yes, indeed the armies are crucial to winning the game. In this particular game 4 players were new, and I was rusty, so we probably didn't play very optimally. The game should be more interesting when everyone has some experience with it and know what to watch out for.

Cecrow said...

It's unbelieveable the ninja was never hired! In our every game he's a hotly contested item and it's common to hear groans around the table from all the losing bidders. He can make or break a stratgegy. I'm also accustomed to seeing much more concentrated positions; everyone in your match looks chaoticlly spread out, to my eyes. It's interesting how differently a game like this can play out with different circles of players.

Cecrow said...

Also, as soon as you said Han was playing, I predicted him for the win. ;) This seems to be his style of game!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I think the ninja being neglected and also some aspects of the game being under-utilised was because four players were new to the game and one (me) was quite rusty. Also, despite the many daimyo killings, I feel the game has only developed to a mid point. There could be a few more rounds to go before a true victor emerged. The remaining daimyos were still only at experience level 2. That's why the power bases were still not yet strongly established by the time we ended the game. If we had played on, I think it would be everyone-vs-Han for at least one or two rounds (aah... that's the beauty of multiplayer wargames) to try to stop him from winning.

Indeed Han generally likes Ameritrash style games more. Also he's often quicker in picking up winning strategies and focusing on achieving them, while the rest of us are still tinkering around with game mechanisms.

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