Samurai: The Card Game

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.


NOTE: I haven’t played the original Samurai, so I can’t speak of this game in relation to it. We found this game going cheap at The Works and played it without that context.

I keep feeling like it’s my fault I don’t like Samurai: The Card Game. Like I’m missing some trick or mechanic, or not giving it enough attention to properly engage with the strategy and thus have more meaningful and fun game play. But the thing is, Samurai is hard to pay attention to. The concept/’game story’ is minimally reflected in the play experience and game design, and seems sloppily thrown onto what’s really a pure logic/turn-based game that doesn’t have much of a narrative component. Indeed, Samurai: TCG feels more like Mancala or something than it does a Eurogame.

The game-play is awkward, either one-on-one or with three people. The flow of turns has been a bit jagged every time I’ve played, with some grating wait time. The gameplay feels simultaneously isolated and awkwardly competitive, and there’s not much in terms of options of things to do (as in, you’re always Laying A Card, and it’s not Race for the Galaxy where yes, you always lay a card, but that physical action has a suite of possible categories of move associated with it and a variety of possible consequences). As I said above, I don’t feel I’m grasping the strategy that well. It’s the sort of game that will inevitably be described as ‘elegant’, but for some reason, though I’ve really dug into ‘more complex’ strategy games, I’m not getting the knack here. Fundamentally, I’m bored during a session, and it makes me feel alienated and a bit dim. Which is odd, given that it’s a tactics game and I’m historically keen on the mid-game ‘tactics’ bit of chess (finding openings, fast-checkmates and endgames comparatively less engaging). I think if I really concentrated on Samurai: TCG I could get on top of the play mechanism, but like—why, when it’s a dull game that doesn’t compel that kind of involvement from me easily and naturally? And I’m just not sure how meaningful my exercise of agency in this game ultimately is.

(I’ve been wondering about this lately—to what extent is my feeling of ‘strategy’ in a game essentially false consciousness, when I’m really just Doing Something that doesn’t necessarily have much real overall effect? I’m sure this is something the gaming community, of which I’m not really a part, has talked about, though.)

This excerpt from a positive review sort of gets at what I mean by that:

It’s very different from Samurai and at the same time it’s very similar. It’s really what its title says: it’s Samurai – The Card game. By this I mean it feels more like Battle Line, Schotten-Totten or Keltis – The Card Game (or Lost Cities) now: it’s more a game of tactics now. Yes, luck has a larger role in this one than in Samurai (I’m not sure about its luck factor though yet as first I believed the luck factor of Samurai was also bigger). Yes, it’s true that your possibilities for long-time strategy are more limited here. Just like in a card game.”

The design does little for me—it’s minimalist, and reminds me obscurely of Set, which I also never got into. The game also sprawls erratically over our whole damn table, and certain moves are cut off by the lip. Balancing the box on a chair and a couple additional cards on that isn’t really a solution—you’re not going to be able to keep building out that way. It’s worse than Carcassonne for this. So, either you accept this weird arbitrary limitation to play, you engage in some ponderous mid-game elimination of the now-dead middle cards where possible, or you give over a decent sized chunk of floor for a while (I find this game goes slowly, when we play it?) in the name of more open-ended and even-handed play.

As the positive review says, “I have only played it 2-player and 3-player and it seems obvious that if you play it 4-player an average table can be too small for you. Considering the card sizes a 4-player game might take as much space as Carcassonne with 4 or 5 big expansions and here it’s not reasonable to use the additional rule ‘the table is the playing area and it can’t reach further’.”

I know the scoring system is inherited from the much-lauded original Samurai, and I like the concept, but the execution never feels natural or satisfying for me—it feels irksomely First Past the Post, if that makes sense?

Two other reviews can be found here and here.

VERDICT: Selling on.

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