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June 09, 2003

Favorite Games VI

The series continues, this time with an award-winning pair, one of conquering Japan and the other of cornering the bean market. No, really.

Samurai is a Knizia game that looks like it's more thematically firm than it actually is. Play is on a hexagon-divided map of Japan, with extra islands added to the south and north, respectively, if a 3rd or 4th player are added. The map is speckled with cities, into which are placed (at random) three types of tokens, indicating influence with the nobility (tall conical hats), the clergy (small Buddha statues) or the common folk (rice paddies); larger cities contain two or, for the imperial capital of Edo, three different tokens. The object of the game is to "capture" these markers by having the most influence of the appropriate type when the last of the land areas around the city is filled. Each turn, you place a counter on one hex. These counters can be political, religious or common influence (with a rating of 2, 3 or 4) or they could be samurai, who apply toward all three "suits" (but rated 1, 2 and 3 only). There are also special counters, including ships, ronin, and some special effect tiles (no attempt is made to tie them into the theme) that let you move around things already placed, under certain situations. Most of the special counters also are marked as "fast", so allow you to play an additional counter after them. Each player has their own set of the same counters, though they are shuffled and played out from a hand of only 5 (an optional rule allows players to intelligently select rather than shuffle their initial hand of 5 counters, which makes for a significantly more strategic game). Scoring emphasizes balance rather than simple overwhelming force. A player who wins the majority of 2 castes wins, but this usually only happens in a two-player game. Otherwise, players who won no majorities are eliminated (you need strong support in at least one area to even have a chance) and the players with one majority compare their total wins of their non-majority token types. Thus, the best strategy is to win a slight margin in one caste, then a good healthy number in the other two as well. Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same thing...

Game bits are of considerable quality here. The board is a nice puzzle-cut modular design to let it grow as more players are added. The reward tokens are simple but attractive black plastic and the player counters are thick cardboard hexes that fit nicely into the spaces of the board (just a little bit of space to spare). Players are also given small stand-up screens to let them hide their hand of tiles and scoring tokens from each other. A well designed package to support an elegant, highly strategic game. But it really has very little to do with Japanese history, despite the Japan-shaped map, piece design, and artwork.

There is also a nice computer version for PC and Mac (non-Carbon, but it runs fine in a Classic window) from Klear Games (time and feature limited demo is available for download). While its AI is pretty sound (albeit far from immune to defeat), there's also an option to play real people over the net, and that can result in considerably more challenge.

Bohnanza is a game that sounds like it shouldn't work. Players take the role of bean farmers trying to grow various types of beans, then harvest their crops for cash. Doesn't sound interesting? Well, don't let the theme turn you off, because this is a very nice game of strategy, trading and set-building, easy to learn but with sufficient depth and strategic variety to stand several replays. The style of play is unique, and is what makes the game work. Every player has a hand of cards which must be kept in order (you may not under any circumstances arrange your hand... with one vital exception to come below). Each turn, you must play at least one card (representing a type of bean) to one of your fields (you initially have two, and may purchase a third during play). Each field can have only one type of bean in it, so if the card you must play doesn't match, you may have to sell off a field. And, as fields get more valuable the more beans you get into them, selling early is rarely what you want to do (and is exactly what other players want to force you to do). Next, you draw two face-up cards and try arrange trades. Trading is the way players can get bad cards out of their hand, because any trades end up face-up in front of the player and are planted (put into fields) immediately at the end of trading (which may require selling fields), so the card you trade away gets out of its spot blocking up your hand. Then you add more cards to the back of you hand to fill it. This makes for some delightful strategy, as players try to trade off beans they don't have decent sets of (or that are just ill-timed in their hand, coming up sooner than they want to sell a field), but never want to give away too much. Good graphic design is shown by printing coins on the back of every card... When you sell a field, you flip the cards over, keep the appropriate number for the type of bean and size of the field when sold, then discard the rest (the only problem there is a need to shuffle thoroughly, as the discards are inherently clumped into groups of the same bean). Silly theme? Yes. But this is a very high quality game, particularly for its low price (under $16 for the US edition, which includes cards for more players that were an expansion set for the original German game) and large number of players (up to 7, which makes for wild trading rounds and cutthroat competition for the really valuable beans).

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Posted by ghoul at June 9, 2003 06:43 AM

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I love Samurai; lots of crunchy bits and some excellent replayability.

There's a German game called White Lotus that's a real lot of fun, too -- my monthly group sort of helped fix it last year. It's about controlling China, and there are translations of the rules out and about.

Posted by: Scott at June 9, 2003 07:19 AM

Hmmm... Hadn't heard about that one. I'll add it to the list of those I'm looking out for!

Posted by: Ghoul at June 9, 2003 08:41 AM

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