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Starship Samurai Review

starship samurai cards

Sometimes, a game’s box gives an evocative clue about the game experience that you can expect. Starship Samurai evokes an epic interstellar war, where giant mechs battle alongside cohorts of lesser ships. That is not the game you get. It’s not a bad game as such, just one that doesn't meet expectation, or quite work as an experience.

How Does It Play

The games plays over a number of rounds (5 or 6 depending on player count). At the end of the game, the player with the highest honor wins. Honor is gained in a few ways.

1) winning battles and gaining locations

2) having control over (certain) planets

3) levels of support among the lesser clans of the star system.

4) certain card effects.

5) having a combination of different location types at the end.

Each player has identical basic ships, and each chooses two samurai mechs to join their forces. The mechs each have different rule-bending powers and are genuinely interesting and varied in how they play.

Each round has 3 phases: player turns, battles and resolution.

Each player takes 4 turns per round. Each round they will

1) Claim benefits from control of planets (highest combat strength at that planet)

2) Perform an order. You have tiles marked 1-4, each of which will be used once per round to:

a) move units

b) gain money

c) draw cards

d) influence the loyalty of the lesser clans,

with the number indicating the strength of the order. Essentially, here you are manoeuvering your forces in such a way to optimise your chances in the battle which will follow this phase.

The battle phase sees a battle resolved in each planet. Each battle is fairly simple. Each player will have a base combat strength determined by the mix of ships and mechs present, and each may play a card face down to influence the result. This moment, before the cards flip, is a nice spark of excitement, as clever card play can tip narrow defeat into victory, but there are rarely ‘wow’ moments.

Finally, each round ends with resolution, where rewards for clan support are gained, and a fresh set of planets unveiled.

There are a few other rules, but that’s the basic flow.

What's To Like

Starship Samurai is intriguing- the turns phase is tactical and chess-like as you move your own forces around. Sometimes you get in some pre-emptive destruction of your opponents, and harvesting money and influence. Turn order matters as you may have an early advantage as first player, but the last play by the last player can often shift the balance decisively. The decision about whether to set your stall out early and harvest advantage, or swoop in late to ensure battle victory, is interesting. Battle is fun- card flipping, making your opponent de-power, buffing or sacrificing ships to gain an advantage. The card art is vibrant in a kind of Netrunner way, and the samurai are represented by cool miniatures. It should be fun, dynamic and thematic. Why isn’t it?

Why Doesn't It (Quite) Work Out

Firstly, there are usability issues. There is no way to track the different strengths of the players as they build up forces around planets. So, every time you look at a planet there’s a bit of maths to do to work out the situation you are trying to influence. And, unforgivably, there is nothing on the mech figures to signify their combat strength, or any means of marking which player they belong to! You will notice that the mechs in the photos have been (inexpertly) painted, and stripes added to the bases to indicate combat strength. To be honest, we needed to do this to make the game playable.

Secondly, there’s a lack of dynamism in the card play. There are no cool combos, no powers granted to the players, no dice to roll hoping for a 6.. The only thing the cards do is nudge the results of battles, or give some limited advantage in the orders phase. So in contrast to Blood Rage, a game with which this shares some DNA, the choice of cards feels inconsequential. And with no synergy or build-up between cards, here is no narrative to drive the game along.

This is the third problem with the game- its lack of story. I don’t necessarily mean that it is themeless. I like the theme, in theory. The idea that a space empire has a non-European cultural basis is refreshing. But having owned this game for a couple of years I have at no point felt any urge to find out about the universe that has been created here. I think this is because the game itself has no grasp of what conflict and combat over a number of rounds needs to feel like in order to be compelling. You win a battle- great! Have a rather handsome card, and some points. Now remove your figures from the planet and fight another battle with no narrative connection to this one. Because of this lack of continuity, the last round feels almost identical to the first. There is no crescendo, no accumulation of advantage and power to make the last phases of the game feel epic, or earned. To stay with an Eric Lang theme– it’s no Rising Sun.

Who Would Like It

I’ve given this game a bit of a kicking. Had my son written this review it would have been altogether more glowing. He like to plan his orders efficiently, play cards to maximise advantage, and squeeze me opponent out of planets I want. So a player good at maths, able to track who owns what, and interested in tight tactics might love this. But for me, the best thing about it is still the box art.

That concludes our thoughts on Starship Samurai. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy Starship Samurai today click here!