Gorobei stood at the village’s northern road to greet the final warrior to answer its people’s desperate pleas for help. It was far fewer than he had hoped for. Just seven Samurai stood between Oni-Musha and total destruction of the region. Still, it was nice to see comrades again.
“Kyuzo-san”, he said grinning, “you are just in time. It is good to see you again old friend. It has been too long.” Gorobei’s smile held a moment longer before waning, a parade of memories flickering across his face. The direness of the hour forced him to push his adventuring past aside, his expressions now reflecting his much more somber tone.
“Come. The rest of us are preparing as we speak. The enemy will strike soon.” Grasping for some levity, he added, “if your blades are still as sharp as your tongue was, we may see this through yet.”
The terrible Oni-Musha clan has been pillaging and plundering across the land. They kill all who resist, and many think this bloodthirsty group is unstoppable. It is here, in a small and unremarkable village that a group of elite samurai warriors have teamed up to do exactly that – or die trying. As these elite fighters, players work together to defend one other and the town from insurmountable odds. Only one side can prevail.
In the card-based Co-Op Samurai Spirit, each player takes up swords in defense of a vulnerable village. Time is of the essence, so it’s fortunate that the game requires little table space or setup, as it’s comprised mostly of a central village board, player boards, and a deck of Raider cards.
To begin, the village is constructed by adding three Families, six Farmsteads, and Barricades equal to the number of players plus two. Next, the Raider deck is formed. Every Raider card has a strength of 1-6, and most also possess a penalty effect. The initial deck is created by randomly shuffling together seven 1-4 strength Raiders for each player.
Every player starts with a double-sided Samurai board, each with a unique ability and a Kiai, or special power. Every Samurai also has a battle track that monitors the total sum of the enemies that player is currently facing. The starting Samurai is determined randomly.
Samurai Spirit consists of three rounds, divided into a series of turns. On a given turn, the active player first resolves any penalty of the topmost Raider they are Confronting, including being wounded. At two wounds, they flip to their more powerful animal side. If a player receives two wounds while in animal form, however, they die and the game is lost.
Then, they choose to Fight, Support, or Pass. To Fight, the player reveals a Raider and must either Confront them or Defend against them. If the player Confronts the Raider, it is placed to the right of the Samurai on top of any other Raiders present.
If the player reaches their top battle track number, they set off their Kiai, unleashing a special power and removing their oldest Raider. However, going past that value is bad, as the village loses a barricade and they must Pass on their subsequent turn.
If the player instead Defends against the Raider, it’s placed to the left of the Samurai. A player can Defend up to one Raider containing one of the three depicted symbols (Hat, Farmstead, or Family).
Alternatively, a player may Support. At the cost of moving the top Raider unseen from the deck to an Intruder deck, they may lend their unique talent to another player until their next turn.
Lastly, a player may Pass, removing them from the fight for the remainder of the round.
Turns continue until the Raider deck is empty or everyone passes. If everyone passes, all remaining Raider cards become Intruders. Then, players suffer the village-withering consequences of missing Defense symbols, get some relief from the remaining Families, and resolve the Intruder deck for further possible village damage.
So long as at least one Farmstead and one Family survives, players move to the next round. The second round works the same as the first, adding in one strength 5 Raider per player. For the third round, one strength 6 Raider (a Boss) per player is added.
If, the players can keep themselves and the village alive through three rounds, they can rejoice with a hard-earned victory and will go down as famous heroes. If literally anything else happens, the players lose, and no one will be alive to remember them.
Fortune Favors The Bold
Samurai Spirit may be simple in its execution, but it makes no secret that the task before you will still be arduous. Like a true battle, the game can quickly go from being well in hand to losing completely in a few bad turns. As such, losing isn’t uncommon and every win feels well-earned.
And yet this challenge is what makes the game so endearing, its unpredictability propelling both the game’s balanced tension and its difficulty. At first Samurai Spirit seems simplistic, but the game inevitably cascades into increasingly difficult decisions. Every Raider is an entertaining gamble: as your battle tracks tick up while your options tick down, any given card could be your last.
What’s more, as if adding insult to injury, this is merely the game’s Normal mode. Samurai Spirit makes itself more accessible by give you the option to scale difficulty up or down depending on how suicidal your group wants to be. If you think losing horribly is bad under normal circumstances, the harder modes are even more dire and maddening.
For some, constantly being under threat and waiting for the other shoe to drop will be frustrating, while others will revel in it. Surprisingly, Architects are in the latter camp with this game. Samurai Spirit is about survival, not expansion, and the best you can hope for is a (very unlikely) status quo town at the end of the game.
However, the aspect of building up Defense cards and manipulating battle tracks to continually set off Kiai powers easily fits into this group’s inherent love of optimizing their board and resources. You can count on them not to duck out on this battle.
Strikers, on the other hand, are more ambivalent. They will certainly enjoy trying to execute the group’s plans as a means to conquer the game, and it’s commendable that a co-op game with a lot of the outcome dependent on luck of the draw swingyness (two traits not normally in their favorability wheelhouse) will entice them nevertheless. Whether they retain that same motivation across many playthroughs, though, is harder to say. If they find it too easy, it will become boring, and too difficult will prove stifling.
I Need A Hiro
When the movie Seven Samurai came out in 1954, no one expected director Akira Kurosawa’s first foray into samurai films would become a long-lasting and influential part of cinematic history. The story of Kambei and his six hired swords has been adapted and retold for decades. Samurai Spirit is another such homage, albeit loosely, and with a little help from the spirit realm.
The most surprising thing about Samurai Spirit is just how resonant its theme is merely through the act of playing. It does an impressive job simulating the increasing frenzy and fatigue in a battle heavily stacked against you without needing elaborate mechanics or a high degree of complexity. Although the visuals can be a little spartan, the immersive experience is palpable. Samurai Spirit asks you to do a job that you likely won’t walk away from, and for many Immersionists this will be one fight worth having.
That said, while Samurai Spirit should be praised for evoking the valor and honor of the samurai, don’t expect a deep well of flavor. All of the Raiders are part of a nameless throng, for instance, and there are few distinguishing characteristics to the village you are charged in saving – though part of that is by design. Yet the lack of substantive flavor is best exemplified with the game’s spiritual aspect.
Namely, the game never fully explains why a player unleashes their animal spirit at 50% health, nor does it establish whether this is a physical transformation or a metaphorical surge of inner strength. The artwork for your animal sides are well drawn and pleasing to look at, and while you can receive a minor rush when flipping your character over, it can also leave a slight disconnect once the dust has settled.
Only 293 Men Short
For all of the things Samurai Spirit does particularly well, it suffers in two areas. The first is its iconography. In principle, the game’s language independent nature and low volume of symbols should be an asset to its accessibility; Samurai Spirit contains just two unique symbols per character and another seven for all of the non-Boss Raider cards. The issue is that many of the character symbols – namely the Kiai abilities – look very similar to one another. With newer players or lengthy stretches between playthroughs, it’s not uncommon to need occasional reminding what these symbols mean. Although this is a minor problem, it makes this otherwise simple game slightly more complicated.
The larger issue is the co-op despot problem. Co-op games are fantastic in allowing players to work collaboratively to defeat the game itself. They make fun group efforts and give inexperienced players the ability to participate equally. The down side, though, is that with everyone on equal footing, certain personalities can take over as de-facto leaders and start dictating everyone’s turns.
Because of its do-or-die nature, Samurai Spirit is unfortunately very susceptible to this.
As random as the game can be, there’s almost always an optimal move. Samurai Spirit may be simple and straightforward with a limited number of turn options, but it also has very little margin for error.
Moreover, many of the Samurai’s talents are quite powerful, and using them efficiently is the crux of the game’s subtle but inherent strategy. Samurai Spirit is at its most effective when everyone is working and discussing tactics as a team as you fight side by side in fending off an infamous bandit army that’s upwards of nine times larger than you.
Thus, even with the inability to think more than a turn or so ahead, most Tacticians will especially enjoy the puzzle-like way your team must try to survive the onslaught. However, they must be cautious as this same drive to solve the predicament also makes them the most susceptible to taking unilateral control of the battle. By contrast, with an emphasis on mitigating risk rather than embracing it, don’t expect Daredevils to lend their sword to this fight willingly.
These obstacles side, this should still be one battle Socializers are up for. Samurai Spirit is easy to grasp, can support up to 7 players, and has a truly co-op nature. Plus, whether you win or lose (and lose you will), playthroughs are as quick as they are brutal. That said, if they feel the iconography is too much of a barrier, or they feel like someone else is playing their role for them, they will quickly lose interest in the fight.
Samurai Spirit is a combat-centered card game where players spend most of the time on their heels, hoping they’ll last long enough to reach solid ground again. With easy to learn rules, a short play time, and scalable difficulty, it solidifies itself as a worthwhile co-op that’s both accessible and relentlessly unforgiving in how dangerous and unpredictable it becomes. Samurai Spirit is fully capable of snatching defeat through the jaws of victory, but through an emphasis on teamwork and player powers, this game avoids stepping over the line into pure randomness. The game wears its premise on its haori sleeve, and although it can be a little dry, it does a very skillful job encapsulating that feeling of a larger-than-life team facing down significant and often fatal odds. There’s nothing dishonorable in that.
Samurai Spirit is a product of Passport Game Studios.
Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Rules Clarity: 4
Replay Value: 4.5
Physical Quality: 4.5
Overall Score: 4.5
Photo Credits: Magnificent Seven poster by MGM Studios.