Samurai is the most in-depth, "heaviest" game design by Reiner Knizia to make an appearance on the App Store, and it arrives in all of its interesting glory. Medici and Small World, two other games we've reviewed in this series, are meaty Euro board games we can compare this to, so if you enjoyed those games, the just -released Samurai app (US$4.99) is very much worth a look.
Conlan Rios' other iPhone games –e.g., Monumental, Robot Master, and Knights of Charlemagne – show that this developer is really getting better with each release. Just compare the graphics from Samurai to Charlemagne to see what I mean. While I prefer the less colorful appearance of the Samurai board game, I think the game looks quite good on the iPhone. With Rios' constant improvement, I can't wait to see what's coming next. Read on to see if you're excited, too.
At its core, Samurai is an area control game played on a map of Japan that grows or shrinks depending on the number of players (2-4). Honshū is always in the game, and with three players you add in Kyushū and Shikoku. A fourth player means that Hokkaido is added. The number of players also determines how many tokens – Buddhas, peasants, and helmets – are used. There's no guarantee that every player will have the same number of turns in a game or get to play all of his tokens, so it pays to be proactive and make double (or triple, or more) turns when possible and prudent.
Each player has, at the beginning, the same set of 20 tiles. Each basic tile can influence only one of the three token types, and the number on the tile determines how influential it is. Samurai and ships will influence any token they are near. These are mostly all different (there are a few repeats), and your best move each turn is determined by which five you have in your hand at any given moment. Sitting on basic, powerful tiles that only affect one type of token? Try to place them between two of those tokens somewhere on the board. Have some ships and other "fast" tiles? Make your move to snatch away a token that your opponent thought was safe. Also, there are special tiles that allow you to reuse a piece or swap tokens, which can really change someone's plans.
Tokens are captured once all of the hexes surrounding them are filled with influence tiles. Whoever has the most influence on the surrounded tokens gets them, unless there is a tie, in which case they are set aside. The game ends when one of two things happens: a.) all of the figures of any one type are captured or b.) four tied tokens were removed from the board. Once the end is triggered, final scoring happens, and this is where digital board gaming makes things oh so easy.
See, one of the brilliant things about playing Samurai on the iPhone is the automatic bookkeeping. This is not an impossible board game to score and determine the winner of, but it isn't the easiest endgame in the world, either. When you buy the Rio Grande version, for example, there are a lot of descriptions and examples at the end of the rulebook to make sure that you understand who won and why. In the app, these explanations are also available, but there's also a big fat screen that names the winner. Of course, if you want your name to appear in the bright lights, you'll need to understand the ins and outs of the game.
Here's how it works in the app. First, all of the captured tokens are revealed (if they were hidden). If any player captured the most of two types, he wins. If not, then you look to see if only one person got a majority (of just one token type). If so, he wins. If, on the other hand, multiple people had a majority of one type, then all of the players with a majority look to see how many other tokens they have, and whoever has the most wins. If there is a tie for these tokens that were not part of a player's majority, then the winner is the player with a majority who has the most overall tokens (further ties just mean they share the victory). Also, if no player has a majority, then the winner is the player who captured the most tokens. Like I said, it's not the easiest thing to explain, which is why it's nice to let the app do the calculating.
Just like in the board game, players can select their starting hands or begin with five random tiles. Also, while the board game is correctly played with the captured pieces hidden behind player screens, the app gives you an option to have the number of each token captured by the players displayed or hidden. When you're managing multiple online games at once, displaying them is a lifesaver.
Speaking of which, Samurai works well as a one-player vs. AI app, but there's a lot of multiplayer goodness here, too. Pass and play works well, but Samurai really shines when it comes to online multiplayer (full disclosure: I helped beta test this portion of the app a little, but things were already quite robust and worked out by the time I signed up). Using push notifications, a slick in-game method to switch between ongoing games, and full chat and game logs, signing up to play this game with friends – or strangers – across the world is a breeze. You can pick different lengths of time between turns – from five minutes on the quick end to three days on the real relaxed side – and if your opponent doesn't show, you can have the game's AI simulate their turn. An in-game chat, leaderboard, and player profiles round out the package. Now that the app is live, we expect there to be a lot more noobs to challenge. An ELO ranking system keeps track of who's kicking Samurai butt and taking names.
The future could be bright for local multiplayer. Rios has promised to make Samurai a universal app in the near future, and we hope that there will be a way to keep the iPad open in the center of the table with the entire map visible to all players. Using a tap-to-see method – the way money/points are handled in Small World, for example – would make this possible. If this happens, then the discerning board gamer list of "must-buy" apps will grow yet again.
If you're searching for the game on the App Store and don't want to, just hit this link; make sure to search for Reiner Knizia's Samurai, otherwise you'll have to sift through a lot of unrelated apps about samurai. None of them, as far as we can tell, involve laying tiles to control locations, so why bother?