I have been hooked on Antoine Bauza's Samurai Spirit recently. I first played it at Boardgamecafe.net, lost (it's a cooperative game), and was keen to try again. My second and third games were played back-to-back at Boardgamecafe.net too. Still no win. Since then, I have bought a copy and now I am up to my 12th game. Even when there was no one interested to play with me, I played it solo, controlling four characters and using the normal rules (as opposed to the official solo game rules). I was that desperate. I finally managed to win, but unfortunately I later found out that I had made some rules mistakes. So I still have not had my first real victory yet. The game structure is simple, but it can be easy to miss some rule details.
One important rule which I missed out was this: when a samurai is overcome by bandits (i.e. total strength on the right side exceeds the samurai's limit), one barricade must be destroyed. I didn't do this. In hindsight it was a silly mistake. The flame icon on the player mat should have reminded me of this. One other mistake I had made earlier was when a bandit penalty forces a samurai to draw a bandit card to give to another samurai, that bandit card must be played on the right side of the player board, and not on the left. Here's another one. When using Daisuke's Kiai power to move a bandit card from one samurai's battle column to another samurai's player mat, that bandit card can be placed on the left side if so desired. It can even be "given" back to the giving samurai himself to be placed on his left side. Samurai Spirit has a simple structure, but the magic is all in the samurai talents and Kiai powers.
I have tried the 2-player rules. It feels a little different, and works fine. You include the talent tokens of the five absent samurais. Either player can use them at the start of a turn, but these tokens are single-use-per-game. Use them wisely.
Kyuzo has a very cool ability. If the bandit card you draw has the same number as one already on the right side of your board, you immediately defeat the new bandit and put him in the discard pile. I explained to my children than this old man is very experienced, so when he sees a similar enemy as before, he easily defeats him with little effort.
This samurai has transformed into a warrior beast. Two other samurai has lent him their talents (the small rectangular tokens). He is near his limit, but with Kyuzo's talent (light blue), he can straight-away reject any card numbered 1 to 4, since he already has those.
This was my first "win". I hadn't discovered some of my rules mistakes then. I played four characters using the normal rules, as opposed to using the solo rules. Three of my samurai had transformed into warrior beasts. Only one guy was still in human form (bottom right). At the end of the game, I still had four houses and four barricades. If I had played with the correct rules, I might have won anyway.
Sturdy Gorobei was still in human form, but he was the MVP. He took on three bosses (strength 6) before he was forced to retreat from the fight.
Another "win", but with this one I am sure I would have lost had I played with the correct rules. I had only two houses remaining, and from this photo I can tell they would have been burnt down since all four of my samurais had to pass. I actually did quite well in the first two rounds. In fact I might have done too well for my own good, because only one of my samurai were injured enough to have transformed into animal form. Despite the unfair win, it was very exciting at the time. I had ten intruders at the end of Round 3, and it was a nail-biting experience flipping them over one by one to see whether they had enough fire to burn down the village.
The top row is the ten remaining intruders which I could not defeat. I was lucky - only four of them had fire.
When playing such a difficult-to-win game, the foremost question is probably whether a victory is earned through good play or it is due to good luck. If it all comes down to luck, then the decisions made by the players would become pointless. I think it is important for players to feel they deserve the win. There definitely is luck in Samurai Spirit, but I think there is a lot that players can do to mitigate risk and to improve the chances of winning. Decisions do matter very much. If you have very bad luck, then you will probably lose no matter what you do. I think in this game after setting up all the bandits (the only randomness and uncertainty in the game), there is a certain probability that you will win. Your actions will change that probability (hopefully increasing it, of course). So it's a matter of doing your best to increase your chances, and relying on a little luck (or the lack of very bad luck) to win. There are many clever ways to mitigate luck. Sometimes you can set up a situation where the active player can do something good no matter what card he draws. In such situations you have eliminated the luck factor completely. You can't do this all the time, but sometimes being able to do this at a critical moment can be very helpful.
I like to remind others to pause and think before drawing a card. The turn structure is so simple that I think many players automatically reach for the draw deck at the start of their turns, as opposed to putting some thought into whether it's time to lend support to another player. I think some players dismiss this game as luck-heavy due to the apparent simplicity. I believe the game has some subtlety and offers many opportunities for clever play. You should not just take the narrow view of what to do on your turn. You need to take a macro view and think longer-term strategy. E.g. when do you want your warriors to take injury and transform? Do you focus on preventing barricade destruction or preventing injury (you lose the game if one samurai dies)? Which warrior's Kiai power do you want to make use of (i.e. you want to boost his combat column and get others to help him achieve the Kiai value)? Within a simple decision of whether to place a bandit on your left or right, there are many considerations. If you hope to achieve your Kiai value quickly, then maybe right. If the bandit strength is high, maybe left. If the bandit has a penalty icon but your talent allows you to ignore it, then maybe right (to make the most of your talent). If from a previous round you see that a certain defense icon is rare, then maybe left. This is a simple game? Not at all!
Now I'm curious to try Ghost Stories again. It's an older cooperative game also by Antoine Bauza, and it too has a reputation for being quite hard to beat.