Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

Art Board - Exploring the vibrant economic battlefield of Samurai

Join us on a trip to feudal Japan. In Samurai, it's more relaxing than you'd think.

Laid out on a table, a good board game should make for a tantalizing proposition. Yet all too often we’re served up drab browns and greys; art that’s functional but entirely lacking in style, meaning, or even fun. In Art Board we’re not just looking for great games, we want to provide a stage for the visually bold and the dazzlingly beautiful. We’re after games that merge art and design into one mesmerizing package that practically begs you to take a seat and give it a try.

This week we’re ogling Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, or more specifically, the 2015 Fantasy Flight reprint. Originally released in 1998, the first edition is by no means a bad looker, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the modern update. Yes, it does suffer from the trademark why-is-this-box-so-unreasonably-big Fantasy Flight curse, but when a game is this pretty, we can hardly complain. 

At first glance, the bold and beautiful box belies an unexpectedly plain board of soft pastel colors. Once you lay everything out, however, the real vision of Samurai begins to emerge. Impressively detailed matte-black figures spread temptingly across the land, and as players begin to plan and plot behind their screens, a harmony between visuals and gameplay becomes clear.

Samurai is a simple game to play. Each turn, players place a numbered tile on the board, vying for control of three types of caste tokens spread across the island; religion is represented by a Buddha, military by a castle, and commerce by a bundle of rice. As soon as a token is surrounded, the numbers on matching, adjacent tiles are tallied up, and the token goes to the player with the highest total. Whoever controls the most of one type at the end of a game wins that caste. If anyone lays claim to two out of the three castes, they’ve won the game. 

Aside from a few special tiles, Samurai really is as uncomplicated as that, and this elegant simplicity is reflected in the board itself. There are no giant or fantastical miniatures here nor any distracting artwork emblazoned over the islands. In fact, Samurai’s board is embellished only with gentle wisps of cloud, shifting waves, and rolling mountains, all softly faded to avoid distraction. 

The result is a board on which the tiles and tokens immediately draw the eye. Each newly placed hexagon adds a splash of color, highlighting a region of tension and struggle. As the game progresses, the board becomes awash with different hues as players exert their influence. The caste tokens that watched over the once-calm island diminish, greedily snatched away by hungry hands until only a few pivotal positions remain. It’s a delightful transformation to observe over the course of a game.

We’re big fans of the unconventional shape as well. Split into segments that allow you to adjust the scale of the game to fit the player count, the islands of japan sprawl lazily across the table, their rounded edges avoiding the stuffy rigidity of many historical war games. 

Samurai is a game best appreciated in the cool breeze of a summer evening, sharing a pot of loose leaf tea (or sake) with your rivals as each of you contemplates your next move. Feudal Japan is a common theme for board games, but few make it quite as serenely beautiful as Samurai.