Starship Samurai is one of those games that take your breath away. Giant samurai space mechs engaging in a ballet of carnage? Sign me up yesterday.
And it’s absolutely beautiful.
The miniatures are top-notch in the board game realm, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the entire thing has this aura of precision about it that only an established publisher can nail. It’s a marvel to ogle.
But wait, you say, there is one major exception. And that is true, wise reader. The one large whiff here is in failing to provide colored rings to snap onto the bases of the samurai minis. Identifying ownership when they’re deployed to the map is aggravating and will stall the high velocity this one wants to rev at. The annoyance can be overcome but it’s a seemingly large blemish on an otherwise impeccable package.
This Isaac Vega design stomps into a crowded field. It’s quite the time for powerful hybrid Euro/thematic area control games. Starship Samurai will need to slice apart the competition and claw ferociously to carve out an inch of ground.
One advantage it has is that it’s incredibly fast. At three players it’s a smooth 35 minute showdown. With four it’s a smidge longer. At two you’re better off playing something else.
This rapid pace struggle for planets and honor – the cleverly obfuscated victory point – has a definite sense of style. Each turn you place one of your four order tokens on your player board to perform an action, its strength amplified by the value chosen. So if you select your most potent four value token, you can move up to four units to any planet on the table. Use the one instead and it’s a lowly single unit.
Moving from one location to another is handled in a very open Blood Rage manner. There’s no adjacency or space terrain or anything to slow the proceedings. You can also take X number of currency. The samurai bucks can be spent to temporarily boost fighters in play or pay the cost of action cards, which are another resource you can acquire with an order.
It’s all quickly digested. Players easily grasp the actions and the strategic considerations of how strongly you wish to perform each of the orders.
While everything is very smooth and happy-go-lucky, the turning point occurs with the battle system. You see, the philosophy behind Starship Samurai is most aptly described as Mr. Eric Lang. The most incompetent CSI team could lift a half dozen Blood Rage and Rising Sun fingerprints scattered about. This should be a boon as Lang’s recent output is my absolute jam.
But there’s a problem.
Starship Samurai never fully commits. One of the hallmarks of Lang’s work is in placing a cornucopia (or Viking horn) of combos and synergies waiting to be teased out. Each play feels like an exercise in discovering the most broken combination of abilities and the experience hinges on drama.
This Plaid Hat release wants to get there. It includes a deck of action cards that you use during the order phase and during battles to inject some tension and suspense. There are a few seriously nasty surprises and ‘take-that’ style blows. This is when the space samurai are at their best, but those moments of drama and awe are simply scattered about and not centralized.
Battles, for instance, are extremely soft. Each planet has a limited number of spaces (similar to Blood Rage). At the end of each round a battle occurs (Rising Sun) where strength is compared in area majority style. Your huge samurai units provide their own punch with asymmetrical abilities and a large innate strength, alongside your more mundane fighters and carrier. Battle cards will add a few points and that’s about it. The winner captures the planet and gains honor, and then returns their pieces to their supply. The losers stay in the space and a new planet card is dealt out for the following round. No one dies and it’s all incredibly cushioned (not Blood Rage/Rising Sun).
From a mechanical perspective it works and it minimizes the penalty to losing the conflict, but it’s terribly uninteresting. These epic samurai mechs don’t split apart frigates or smash interceptors with their fists, they take their ball – a planet in this case – and literally go home.
This results in a serious lack of tension. Devoid of tension, investment begins to seep out the airlock. When an area control game of samurai mechs and starfleets begins to push you away, it’s a problem.
Regardless of the lack of carnage, the game does make an effort to flesh out its setting. One of the primary scoring vectors is a side board of minor clan allegiances. Each of the minor houses is represented by a token and will move up and down player tracks representing your conjoined standing. The further up the ladder they are, the more points they award at the end of the round.
This is an enticing system because it emphasizes that we’re battling over an explored system to attain the throne of emperor. It reincorporates those minor setting elements into an ingrained system that’s a very solid tug-of-war dynamic. It also gives you something to fiddle with and pursue beyond collecting planets.
Now, you can readily argue that this premise is undercut significantly by the lack of identity found within the minor clans. Each token is pretty much identical and you don’t care one drifting mote which you push to that five point mark. This is a missed opportunity, but it’s also somewhat understandable given the effort to streamline the proceedings.
The wonderful setting is most strongly addressed with asymmetry not through factions, but through the samurai mecha. Each offer a special ability and two are drafted by each player at the beginning of play. This affords a unique feel upon each session as you have new toys to tinker with or experiment.
Their abilities are relatively satisfying as well with options such as the dude with a huge laser bow sniping ships across the map, or the diplomatic electro-ronin who shifts a lesser clan allegiance token each time he moves. You can even destroy units when moving to a planet or just settle for the badass with a huge native strength value.
By centering your uniquely derived powers on these mechs, the game sets the tone and nails this particular aspect of its presentation. It was a very clever decision and one that helps push this game away from its peers.
Those qualities that provide separation from its brethren are almost enough. The reality of the situation is that this design never quite hits those highest of notes. It never measures up to those Euro/Ameritrash hybrids that have established the genre. Despite this, it’s a solid offering and its brevity and unique setting will help it land on the table. The stronger Euro-leanings may appeal to those vexed by the more Ameritrash elements of Lang’s designs, although the wobbly action cards may prove prejudicial.
Starship Samurai never quite finds its moment of excellence, and those suiting up and taking to the void need to be fine with a star that’s a little less bright.