Review – Samurai


Designer: Reiner Knizia (1998)
Publisher: Hans im Gluck, Rio Grande Games
# of Players: 2-4
Play Time: 45 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #63/7.41
Weight: Medium
Category: Gamer’s Game

I’ve had a pretty long history with Samurai, and unlike most games that I play, the majority of my experience with it has been electronic in one format or another.   I first played it on SpielByWeb , a great play-by-web site, but it was later removed in preparation for adaptation to the iPhone, which is where I play it most of time now.  Samurai belongs to the unofficial Reiner Knizia tile-laying trilogy (also including Tigris & Euphrates and Through the Desert), and it certainly lives up to the reputation of both other games.
Game Basics  (click here for complete game rules) 

Samurai is a game about laying tiles to exert influence over cities throughout Japan.  Cities are populated at the start of the game with a certain number of figures representing the religious leaders (Buddhas), military forces (high helmets), and workers (rice fields), and collecting a majority in two of these factions is required to gain control of Japan and win the game.  Since a simple majority in two of the figures can be difficult to get, there are also some somewhat convoluted rules to break ties (which eventually start to make sense after a little while).
Each player has an identical set of tiles which they use to compete for these figures.  Basically, players take turns playing one tile into a space touching one or more cities.  When a city is surrounded (i.e. all the land spaces around it are filled), you distribute the figures inside it based on which player has the most influence over it. 

Speaking of the tiles, some only influence one type of figure (but are generally more powerful), while others have power over all figures and/or perform some special action.  Most of the special tiles don’t count as your one tile per turn and do things like let you play into the sea spaces next to a city (boats), switch two figures, or replay a tile you’re already used.  

After each turn, the player draws back up to a hand of 5 tiles, which is the only source of randomness in the game.  Starting hands can either be chosen or randomly drawn, depending on the skill level and desire of the players.  The game ends when all of one type of figure has been distributed, or (far less often) when 4 figures have been tied. 

My hand and the board for a 2-player game

What I think…

There are a lot of reasons why I like certain games, and one of my favorites is when a game requires what I will from now on call “dynamic strategy”.  Essentially, what I mean by this is that need to develop a big picture plan in order to play the game well, but still need to be flexible and responsive to what the game and the other players throw at you. 

In Samurai, this applies to the fact that you really need to have a good idea of which cities and figure majorities you’re going to try to win, but you never know exactly which resources (tiles) you will have at any particular time.  However, with rare exception, you will see all your tiles before the end of the game, so you can generally still count on them showing up sometime or other.  But you also don’t want to go too far out on a limb counting on a tile, because it still may not show up until after it’s already too late.

Some might find this dose of randomness or luck to be a little strong at times, but almost without fail, I find it to be perfectly balanced.  Even when I get screwed over by the tile draw, I usually realize later that I could have made some different choices in the game that would have mitigated it quite a bit.  Because a big part of the game is actually realizing when you need to cut your losses and put your effort elsewhere, since investing too many resources into a battle you lose (or sometimes even win for little benefit) can often ruin your game.

Another critical element of the game is that you have to try not to set up your opponent.  Since a city isn’t scored until all the land spaces around it are filled, being able to place that last tile can be very powerful and often swings control of its figures.  So there’s almost this cat-and-mouse game of playing tiles to establish your position and bide your time in the early game, until either your opponent makes a mistake that you can take advantage of, or you are willing to make a move that you think is uncounterable.  Then there tends to be a little flurry of activity as spaces are filled in and figures are claimed, until another phase of setup begins in less-congested areas.    

Looking for mistakes and openings in your opponents’ play makes Samurai very opportunistic, and it also opens up the door for making “the big move”.  It’s alway very cool and satisfying when you manage to set up and then execute some awesome combo of tiles that turns the game in some way.  And pretty reliably, I find that this phenomenon comes up at least once or twice in a game.  Again, I think that this could feel sort of random to new players, but once you know all the tiles, it’s more a matter of understanding what kinds of things are possible (for you and your opponents) and then either preparing for or defending against them happening to you.

Finally, I’ll finish up my glowing review with a few words about how well Samurai scales over its player range.  Knizia worked very hard to make sure that the map is always tight, developing this really cool puzzle-piece board that gets larger for more players.  And in general, I think that it works beautifully.  Samurai is an amazing 2-player game, and the only thing that may degrade it a little with 3 and 4 is the introduction of more player chaos, where the board may change pretty significantly between your turns.  Still, though, if you understand this, it’s just something else to account for in how you play.         

The Verdict! 

While some may find Samurai‘s theme a bit too thin and its tile draw overly random, I find it to be a quick and excellent, mid-weight strategy game for 2-4 players.

Rules: Very simple and easy to explain, except perhaps for the tiebreaker rules.
Downtime: Turns are short, so downtime is brief.  When placement gets tight, especially with multiple opponents, analysis paralysis could rear its ugly head.
Length: Incredibly short (30-40 minutes) for its depth.
Player Interaction: Very confrontational, with opporunity to disrupt opponents’ plans and steal stuff they’re working on. 
Weight:  Medium.
GamerChris’ Rating: 8 



  1. tomg

    Ok, one more I need to play. The List is growing exponentially.

  2. Chris Norwood

    Wow, yeah you do.  Let me know when you’ll make it to game night again, and I’ll try to bring it along.

    By the way, this post is my 400th published article!

  3. tomg

    Congrats on 400!!
    Looks like the end of the month for me for game night.

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