Rob: Today, Gameosity is taking a stand on behalf of defenseless villages everywhere as we try to fend off the bandit hoards in Samurai Spirit. This 1-7 player co-op survival game from the mind of Ghost Stories’ Antoine Bauza, and published by Funforge/Passport Game Studios, is about as simple to learn as it is to lose. And if you’re familiar with the designer’s previous work you know just how easy it can be to lose.
Samurai Spirit is a relatively simple game at its core. The main goal is to prevent a helpless village from getting ransacked by a nasty group of bandits, while also making sure nobody in your own group gets killed. And as with other games by Antoine Bauza, that’s much easier said than done.
I mean that in an “Oh god it’s relentless” sort of way, not a mechanical one. I also mean that as high praise.
It’s basically a game about crowd management. It’s also based on The Seven Samurai – yes, the film. Samurai Spirit tries to capture the essence of the film’s action, with the titular warriors standing as a single line of defense, the only thing between a horde of raiders and a town full of innocents in need of protecting. In the film, they are an unlikely band of heroes, fighting against overwhelming odds, always perilously close to defeat. The game does absolutely capture that essence, although I’m pretty sure none of the samurai in the film transformed into awesome were-beasts when injured (more on that later).
Anyway, getting back on track, you and every other samurai in the group will be taking turns drawing from a deck representing the mass of baddies trying to infiltrate the village and then figuring out how to deal with what you get. The only other option is lending some support to another player, which will strengthen another player, at the cost of allowing one of the buggers to slip past and possibly do some damage at the end of the round.
Dealing with the bandits you draw is a pretty straightforward matter. All bandits have a number associated with them (one through six) and by placing them on the right-hand side of your samurai, alongside your kiai meter (the number track), you’ll be able to hold them off. However, each number will add to your meter, and if you go over your maximum you’ll get overwhelmed, getting knocked out of the round and losing one of the village’s precious barricades. Or if you’re doing particularly poorly and have no more barricades, you’ll lose a house. On top of that, some bandits have nasty effects such as causing a wound or destroying a barricade that will trigger at the start of each of your turns.
However, if the card has a symbol in the top-right corner (hat, house, or doll) you can place it along the left-hand side of your character board in order to “defend” a specific thing (yourself, a house, or a family, respectively). The catch is that you can only place a single card of a given symbol in this position (i.e. one for each). This simple idea is actually a big part of Samurai Spirit’s strategy, as filling up all your defense slots too early may leave you in the lurch when you’re 2 away from maxing out your kiai and end up drawing a 4 with a house symbol that you really wish you’d have left open instead of dropping that 1 in there.
Each samurai has their own unique special abilities to give them a slight edge over their enemies, although the enemies have overwhelming numbers so it’s not much of an edge, really. Still, being able to pass odd-numbered cards to other players or draw two bandit cards in a turn can definitely be useful. Heck, it’s downright indispensable, really. And their kiai abilities are even more magical.
Kiais trigger if you’re able to match (but not exceed) the number on your kiai meter. Doing so will allow you to eliminate the bandit at the top of your line, then activate a sort of uber version of their special ability. Some will reveal cards in the deck and leave them face-up, others will heal allies and rebuild barricades. It’s not easy to pull off a kiai with any regularity, but you’ll definitely appreciate it when it happens. As will everyone else at the table.
And really, that’s the other significant – perhaps the most significant – element to Samurai Spirit’s strategy: working together. I don’t mean the secondary co-op stuff where you all just sort of do your thing and hope for the best (I’m looking at you, Elder Sign, but we still love you); I’m talking about the kind of co-op where you need to weigh your options every single turn and really collaborate with each other.
This is really where the game comes alive. When you’re in the thick of it, wounded, out of barricades, and a bandit of three or higher will knock you out, you’ll be thankful for your teammate using their special ability to pass you a two – thus activating your kiai, which then kills off a couple of bandits from the top of the deck and oh look! One of them was a boss! Dodged that bullet!
Although maybe you should take that wound instead? You see, if your wounded samurai takes a second wound, their card flips over to reveal their animal form. Yes, I just said “animal form.” A samurai in animal form will be able to juggle more bandits (or higher numbers), and gets an even more powerful version of their kiai. The trade-off is that the more powerful form is also more fragile. Whereas two wounds will make a human samurai transform, two wounds will kill one in beast mode, ending the game in an immediate loss. So, much like everything else in this game, it’s a delicate balancing act – you don’t want to change too soon, but if you wait too long the later rounds which add lieutenants and bosses will be much harder.
It’s worth reiterating that Samurai Spirit is extremely difficult, even despite its straightforward mechanics. It’s entirely possible for you to make it through a round with very little difficulty, but the whole thing can turn on a dime and before you know it one of your brethren is dead and half the village has turned to ash. Something so brutal won’t be everyone’s preference, but I love it. I love it because of the challenge, but also because it makes really working together that much more important. Even when it’s not your turn you’ll be keeping an eye out for each other.
But while we’re on the subject of aspects of the game which may not be to everyone’s taste, why aren’t there any female samurai, or bandits for that matter? The designer actually addresses this in the manual, saying that there weren’t any women samurai in the movie and so on, but there weren’t any samurai bears, either. So, I mean, would it really have been such a stretch to add a couple of female characters? The omission feels somewhat glaring in the face of the creative license taken elsewhere, though it has no practical impact on the gameplay itself.
These criticisms aside, Samurai Spirit has become a personal favorite rather quickly. It’s simple to learn, set up, and play, but it’s also tough-as-nails and surprisingly strategic. Granted, I do have a thing for organization and the core gameplay is basically putting numbers in order, but its also the kind of Co-op that I intentionally capitalized because of how important working together is. If this sounds like your kind of thing (and even if it isn’t, this game’s worth trying), then you can get ahold of Samurai Spirit right here.
What About Solo?
Samurai Spirit is a game that I’ve been anxious to get my hands on for some time, thanks in no small part to being able to play it solo. And just like some of my favorite games that support 1+ players, it translates to solitaire incredibly well.
Basically you just play by yourself. No finicky tweaks required. Well, there’s a slight change if you want to play using only two samurai – you place the support tokens of unused characters in front of the board as one-time per game specials – but for three or more samurai it’s business and setup as usual. Only you won’t be talking tactics with anybody else at the table.
It’s solo-able in the same way games like Elder Sign and Death Angel are solo-able: you play while controlling everybody. And it works incredibly well. You do miss out on some of the camaraderie and you’re far less likely to receive any high-fives, but functionally there’s really no difference and it’s still quite a bit of fun.