Samurai Spirit is a cooperative game from Antoine Bauza (Ghost Stories, 7 Wonders, Hanabi, Tokaido), inspired by the movie Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. Naturally, the game supports up to 7 players. You are samurai defending a village from bandits. The bandits will launch 3 waves of attacks, and you win if you survive all three, and still have at least one villager family and one farmhouse remaining. All samurai must live. This is unlike Lord of the Rings where you can sacrifice yourself for the greater good.
The three waves of attacks are represented by a deck of bandit cards, which you have to go through three times. On your turn, what you usually do is draw a bandit card and fight the bandit. You do this by either placing him on the left or the right side of your samurai card. There are three slots on the left, and to place a bandit here, his icon must match that of an available slot. At the end of each wave of attack, if you have any unfilled slot, there is a penalty (don't ask, I can't explain this from a theme / setting perspective either). If you place the bandit on the right side, you add up the total strength of the bandits there and update your samurai card accordingly. You have a limit to how much you can handle. If the bandits' total strength exceeds your limit, you will be forced to bow out on your next turn.
This is my samurai character, and he has now transformed into the animal spirit form. The icon at the top left is my talent. The icon at the bottom is my Kiai super power.
After you exhaust the bandit deck, you do the resolution actions for the current wave of attack. Some bandits may have slipped past your defenses, and some of them may destroy barricades or houses. If all samurai are forced to retreat before the bandit deck is exhausted, all remaining bandits will break through to wreak havoc. After the dust settles, if there is at least one family and one house remaining, you move on to the next wave of attack.
The next wave will not be just a rehash. The bandits will bring reinforcements. Their lieutenants, who are stronger, will join the fray. If you survive the second attack, the bosses will join the third wave. This is where the real action is!
This is the village we have to protect. At this point four barricades have been destroyed, one house burnt and one family (Japanese doll icon) killed.
The samurai have some tricks up their sleeves. Every samurai has a unique talent. E.g. giving an even numbered bandit to one of the samurai sitting next to you, ignoring the penalty imposed by odd numbered bandits. On your turn, instead of fighting a bandit (i.e. drawing a card) you can lend your talent to a comrade to help him on his next turn. However one drawback is one bandit will slip past and may cause destruction if not caught before the end of the attack. Helping a friend is not something to be taken lightly. A samurai may receive talents from multiple other warriors, and thus may have one fantastic turn.
Every samurai also has a Kiai super power, which is triggered when the bandits' total strength (on his right side) exactly matches his limit. When this happens, the super power is triggered, and one oldest bandit card is discarded. This means the samurai may trigger the super power again if he later gets a new bandit with the right strength value.
When fighting bandits, it is hard to avoid getting hurt. Take two wounds, and the sense of danger will trigger a change in you, transforming you into an animal spirit form. In the animal form, you will be stronger, and your super power will become even better. After you have transformed, if you take two more wounds, your will transform again. Only this time it will be into a dead body, and everyone will lose the game.
I did a 6-player game, just one short of the max number of players. We played the normal difficulty. Most of us were new to the game. Only Ivan had played before, just once. We managed to go through the bandit deck all three times, but in the last wave too many bandits had slipped past our defenses. We already didn't have many houses remaining nor barricades to protect them. The bandits who made it to the village burnt it down several times over. It was a disaster. One thing I noticed was that by the third wave, many of us were still in human form. I think to survive the third wave we probably should have tried to transform into animal form by the second wave. The first and second wave felt like just warm-ups for the third wave. The third wave is where the climax is. That's where the real game is.
Throughout the game we kept telling each other that the key was to make use of our talents, to lend talents at the right time, and also to maximise using our super powers. However in practice it seems we didn't heed our own advice enough. Maybe making use of them is not as easy as it seems, or maybe we still hadn't figured out how to use them better or to better position ourselves to be able to use them.
The normal difficulty game feels quite hard! It may be because we haven't learnt the more subtle tricks yet. My gut feel is the difficulty level is balanced to be on the high side. Normal will only feel normal after you are very familiar with the game, and hard will be quite hard even when you are a veteran.
In a way Samurai Spirit feels like a maths puzzle. The first thing I think of is on average every samurai needs to handle 7 grunts, 1 lieutenant and 1 boss (in the 3rd wave). Looking at your samurai, you know that's impossible without making good use of your talent and super power. So you need to find ways to improve your odds. It feels like a maths puzzle because the rules and simple and the things you get to do are all very straightforward. Your options and all the information in the game are presented very clearly. It feels like a simplistic game. However I think there is a subtle depth under the apparent simplicity. If you play mindlessly, it is easy to feel that your role is rather passive. Afterall you are mostly just drawing a card and then placing it on either the left or the right side of your samurai card, and once in a while you use your talent to do something else with it. There seems to be not much decision-making. However I feel that to do well, you need to set yourself up and set your teammates up for the best chances possible to utilise talents and super powers. There are such opportunities to watch out for. There are things you can do to prepare. Sometimes during our game when we pulled off such manoeuvres it felt very satisfying. We felt we had done something clever, and it paid off.
The combination of the samurai in play (who have different talents and super powers), and also the seating arrangement, will give the players different types of opportunities (or lack thereof). Some combinations will work better than others. Understanding this and being able to make the most of the strengths of the combos are key. I have only played one game, so I don't know whether it will only take a few more games to fully explore the subtleties, or many more. Since there are seven different samurai, and seating order does matter, chances are each game you play will be a little different.
I've lost my first game, and Samurai Spirit is a temptress dancing just out of reach, making me crave for another attempt.