Samurai Spirit is based on the film Seven Samurai, and sees 1-7 samurai cooperatively defending a Japanese village against raiders by engaging in the ancient art of battle blackjack!
In real-world feudal Japan there were no women samurai and when a you took two wounds you transformed into an humanoid animal warrior. It’s the same in Samurai Spirit, which even has a note about it in the back of the manual explaining but not apologising for its staunch adherence to historical accuracy.
In this game you’ll Fight by drawing raider cards numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4, Confronting them by adding them to your Combat Line (the right side of your samurai board) trying to reach your kiai number. Think of it like 21 in blackjack. You want to hit it exactly, and not go over, or you’re out of the round and raiders burn down a village barricade.
Below, Kikuchiyo has a 3, 2, 1, 2, 2, which equals exactly 10, his kiai number. So, he gets to remove the first card (the 3) from his Combat Line, to stay in the round and give him another chance to reach his kiai number again. His special kiai ability also activates.
When you Fight, you can Defend instead of Confronting, which lets you place the raider to the left of your board instead, not suffering any ill effects of the card – but you only have three slots on the left, one for a card with each of these icons: hat, farm, family (doll).
Ideally, you’ll want to fill up the left side, to uphold the samurai code of honour and – more importantly – to avoid penalties at the end of the round. Without a hat, you’ll get a wound; lacking a farm or family icon means a farmstead burns down (flipping over to reveal yet another penalty) or a village family is killed (removing a round end bonus).
To help you deal with all these raiders, in addition to their kiai abilities, each samurai has unique talent, which can be used each round. Talents let you do things like put the next raider onto the bottom of the deck, pass certain value raider cards to a neighbour. Instead of choosing to Fight, each round, sometimes you may want to Support, which grants an ally access to your talent once their turn rolls around.
Raiders often have icons in their lower left, which are known as ‘battle penalties’ – basically the damage the raiders inflict to you and the village. Each turn, you apply the penalty in the lower left of the most recent card in your Combat Line. It might burn a barricade, prevent you supporting other samurai or let intruders sneak into the village (which also happens whenever you Support). Raiders, of course, can also wound you.
Wounds are really interesting in this game. You can handle 1 wound, but take a second one and your animal spirit is unleashed! You flip your board, which makes your kiai ability more powerful and increases your kiai number. Take another wound, and it’s fine. Take one more after that, and you die, the group loses morale and you all lose.
Sometimes, taking a wound is a good idea, to unleash your animal spirit and give you more wiggle room if you’re getting close to your kiai number and know there are lots of high cards coming out soon.
After each round, any intruders that got past your samurai are flipped over. If they have flames in their lower right-hand corner they burn barricades (or farms, if the barricades are all gone). You win the game if you have at least one farm and family by the end.
But! Round 1 isn’t the end.
You play again, without healing wounds or caging your animal spirit. Instead, you add lieutenants (value-5 cards), shuffle the deck and go again. After that, you play a final round with the addition of value-6 boss cards, each of which has unique art and powerful battle penalties.
Samurai Spirit has a lot of gaming goodness packed into a box about half the size of most other modern board games. I only have two main criticisms with Samurai Spirit. One, I’ve mentioned: the lack of women, the ‘sorry if you feel that way’ non-excuse pseudo-apology in the manual.
The other criticism is a fairly significant rules oversight I’ll warn you about right now.
If you’re playing the 2-player variant, it’s very important you ensure you have enough family icons on the cards that form your raider deck. If there’s only one icon, the game is literally unwinnable (at least one of the three families will die each round). If there’s two, it’s very likely unwinnable.
I’d recommend checking your cards and ensuring you have more than 2 icons. 4 or more, perhaps? The game’s designer and updated rules PDF agree, but if the physical manual in the game box may not mention this critical, but easily-overlooked rule.
Samurai Spirit is a great game! For a relatively cheap price, the game packs a lot into a little box – basic mechanics are simple enough to grasp quickly, but the co-op powers make for interesting interaction and combos, the player count is great, and the three-round structure ratchets up the tension as the game progresses. It’s even short enough that, win or lose, if you’re anything like me you’ll be keen to dive right back into the fray!