Samurai Spirit takes its inspiration from the 1954 movie Seven Samurai, where seven rōnin protect a village from an onslaught of bandits. Much like that cult classic, Samurai Spirit tasks you and up to six companions with the job of defending your village against a deck of devilish raiders. Protecting the peasants, farmsteads, and barricades of the village is a tough, calculating job that your group will be lucky to scrape through unscathed; do you think you’re up to the challenge?
Hone Your Skills
Samurai Spirit may come in a small box, but it packs a hefty punch. The first thing that strikes you is the gorgeous artwork by Victor Perez Corbella, followed by the oversized player slabs that are lush, vibrant, and varied. Despite only featuring a diminutive playing board and a few other tokens and meeples, it’s refreshing to see a board game that isn’t obsessed with grandiose size and proportion.
The gameplay takes the form of a Blackjack-style ‘push your luck’ cooperation, where each revealed raider will have a numerical value. Your rōnin each have a limited defensive capability of 8-10, after which point they will be overwhelmed and have to sit out the rest of the round. They can also sideline up to three raiders that are attacking specific objectives within the village, which opens up interesting decisions between which foes you can afford to fight, and which should be sidelined to defend the village.
Where Samurai Spirit really comes alive, however, are the various abilities your samurai have at their disposal. Each rōnin has a unique ability that helps them fight certain types of raider, in combination with their own Kiai power. These Kiais are extremely powerful combos that you can activate if the total value of raiders you’re defending matches your defensive power. Doing so will let you instantly defeat one of these enemies, lowering your total and kicking off a nasty power to fight back against their evil.
Activating these Kiai powers is extremely rewarding, especially as they activate when you’re so close to being overwhelmed. This push and pull makes Samurai Spirit sing, especially when it’s enabled by stringing together abilities from your fellow swordsmen. This reaches a crescendo once everything gets too much and your Samurai takes two wounds. By flipping your player boards over to their other side, you unleash their animal spirit, augmenting your samurai’s Kiai and increasing their maximum defence!
Setup is quick and simple with Samurai Spirit; you hand out a samurai board to each player, arrange the board and tokens as per the manual’s illustration, and adjust the quantity of raiders in the deck according to your player count. From here, you’ll play out three rounds of the game, whittling away at the deck of raiders until there are no more left or your rōnin have all been forced to tap out. With each new round, tougher raiders will be added to the deck, increasing the difficulty as you progress.
Fans of co-operative epics may recognise the name Antoine Bauza (designer of 7 Wonders and Ghost Stories), and there’s certainly a healthy dose of Ghost Stories’ DNA in Samurai Spirit. Between the player powers that can be given to support allies, to the enemies with entrance effects, it’s easy to draw comparisons between the two. Of course, Samurai Spirit’s limited scale and complexity keep it well below the lofty heights that Ghost Stories achieved, and this is where the cracks start to show.
Show No Weakness
As the mechanics of Samurai Spirit are somewhat limited in terms of what the raiders can damage and how many samurai powers you have to work with, the difficulty feels hard to balance. Either you play on the Easy or Normal difficulties and the game becomes a gentle walk in the park with the right player powers, or you step it up to Hard or Heroic and suddenly that park becomes a jungle, filled to the brim with snakes, pitfalls, and poisonous shrubbery.
The punishments for failure feel unfair on these higher difficulties, often cascading into multiple penalties that you had no means of avoiding. The solution to these issues is obviously to play on the lower difficulties, you might think. Unfortunately, this is just as likely to leave you with a hollow feeling that you didn’t really earn your victory if your samurai squad barely takes a scratch and the village remains mostly untouched.
It’s worth mentioning that the manual does say that there’s a good chance you won’t win your first few games on the default difficulty, though. I might be underestimating the standard difficulty a little bit, then, and your mileage may vary, but I think anyone with a keen grasp of mental mathematics and probability will get a similar feeling.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that much like many other cooperative board games, Samurai Spirit can fall prey to the “Alpha Gamer” or “Quarterback” problem. Having one loud player with more experience - or a strong case of the Dunning-Kruger Effect - taking charge of the game can stifle the fun of other players. While this can be a problem no matter what game you’re playing, many modern co-op titles have implemented mitigating factors to offset this, but Samurai Spirit sadly does not.
Overall, though, Samurai Spirit’s speed and finesse make it a game well worth trying. It may not have the depth or excitement to warrant a permanent place in many people’s collections, but that’s not enough to hold this warrior back. It’s simple enough to teach to newcomers, and I’d mostly recommend it to gamers that are just discovering the hobby is more than just Scrabble and Monopoly.
Being small, short, and beautifully illustrated makes Samurai Spirit perfect for people that are building a collection and looking for games to enrapture their friends without overwhelming them. The best part is that at an incredibly modest RRP of £17.99, you aren’t even risking very much if you’re on the fence about whether this game is right for you. Of course, whether you’d rather save that money towards a bigger purchase will depend on your personal collection and goals, but Samurai Spirit at least deserves a consideration.