Dale Yu: Review of Samurai Spirit (Funforge / Passport)

Samurai Spirit

  • Designer: Antoine Bauza
  • Publisher: FunForge / Passport Game Studios
  • Ages: 9+
  • Players: 1-7
  • Time: 30 min
  • Times played: ~10, varying player counts, all on Normal difficulty


So, if you’re a regular reader of our modest little blog, you’ll know that I’m really not a big fan of cooperative games.  Or, at least, as coop games grew in popularity, I started out not liking them.  Over the years, my view of them has softened somewhat, and while I find that I am still rare to suggest a coop game, I no longer run away from the table when they are suggested.

One of the main reasons behind this change in opinion can be directly traced to Antoine Bauza.  One of his previous designs, Ghost Stories, was the coop that finally got me convinced that it might be possible to enjoy this sort of game.  Repetitive playtesting of my brother’s recent Kinderspiel-winning game, Geister Geister Schatzsuchmeister also helped.

Mr. Bauza brings another cooperative game to the market – and I was surprised to find that I was actually quite interested in it after reading the brief description of the game.  The players take on the role of Samurai who are protecting a Japanese village.  But, you’re not just a “normal” samurai, because when injured, you transmogrify into a stronger, fiercer animal form.  But we’ll get to that later.

The board in the game is super-tiny, but it doesn’t do much other than hold a few cardboard chits and serve as a marker for the various discard piles in the game.  The town houses 3 families that you are protecting, and 6 huts in which they live.  The outside of the village is surrounded by N+2 barricades, with N = number of players in the game.


Each player also has a small player mat which identifies his character, marks his Kiai (battle) value, and serves as a backstop for some discards.  Each character comes with a different special ability – marked in the upper left corner as well as a special Kiai ability – that can be invoked under special circumstances.  The special ability may serve as protection against Raider attacks, pass cards to other players or other cool things.  You can use your special ability once a turn.

examples of three of the player characters

examples of three of the player characters

The bulk of the game is played through a deck of cards which each depict a raider trying to attack the village.  At the start of the game, the deck is comprised of cards with values from 1-4.  In the second round, a set of “5” cards is added to the deck, and in the third and final round (assuming you survive that long), a set of “6” cards is added.  Each raider card has a numerical battle value, and each also has 3 other possible pieces of information.   In the upper right corner, there is possibly a defense icon.  In the bottom right, there are possibly flames – which are dealt with at the end of the round.  Finally, in the bottom left, there is possibly a battle penalty.

As I alluded to earlier, the game takes place over 3 rounds. The players win if they are able to keep at least one family and one hut alive to the end of the game AND all the samurai have to survive as well.  The game can end prematurely if all huts or all families are removed from play.  Each round is a complete pass through the deck – though the deck gets larger as the progressive rounds as more cards are added in at each step.

Play goes around the board with each player turn following the same pattern.

First – any battle penalties are applied – IF you have cards on the right side of your player mat, you look at the top card in that stack.  If there is a battle penalty in the bottom left of the card, you must apply the penalty.  It could be to take a damage marker, it might burn down a barricade, it might not allow you to defend this turn, etc.

Second – you choose you action: Fight, Support, or Pass.

If you fight, you draw a raider card from the deck and then choose what to do with it.  If there is a defense icon in the upper right, you could choose to defend against the raider.  To do so, you take the card and place it to the LEFT side of your player mat.  You are limited to defending against one card of each of the three icons per round.

some of the raider cards

some of the raider cards

Alternatively, you can choose to confront the card.  If you do, you place the card to the RIGHT side of your player mat.  You advance your battle marker equal to the strength number of that card (thus, your battle marker will always reflect the summed strength of all cards to the right of your mat).  If this number is less than your Kiai value, nothing else happens.  If this number is more than your Kiai number, you are overwhelmed, and a barricade around the village is burnt down.  But, if this number is exactly your Kiai number, you immediately become super-strong and get to take your super-cool Kiai action (which is usually a super strong form of the unique special action granted to your character).  This happens immediately, and afterwards, you discard the topmost Raider from your attack pile and reset your battle marker accordingly.

Instead of fighting, you could have also chosen to Support.  Remember those unique special abilities I was talking about?  Not only are they printed on your player mat, they are also represented by a marker with the same icon. If you choose to Support, you give your special ability marker to another player – the receiving player may then use your special ability in his turn (as well as possibly using his own).  When you do this, you also take the top card from the Raider deck and place it face down in the Raider stack next to the village.  You don’t really do anything else.  The player who received your support marker will return it to you at the end of his turn so that you can possibly use it on your next turn.

Finally, you could pass.  This means that you’re out for the rest of the round.  If you are overwhelmed (your battle value exceeds your Kiai value), you are obligated to pass.

As I mentioned earlier, you start the game as a human samurai, but you can be transformed into your more awesome animal spirit.  This occurs when you take some wounds.  As you go through the game, there are a few ways that you can take wounds – more on this later… When you take your first wound, you simply take a wound marker. On your second hit, however, you become enraged from the wound and you flip your card over to the animal side.  You now have a higher Kiai limit and your special action becomes even super cooler.  Your third hit means another wound marker, and your fourth hit means that you’re dead and out of the game.  A side effect of this is that this also means that your group loses the game because that’s what the rules say.  I guess this means that these particular samurai do not fight harder to preserve your memory, but instead, they roll over on their swords in dismay at your death and the poor village burns to the ground…

So, play continues around the board until the deck has been run through.  At the end of the round, there is a little bit of (perilous) upkeep to be done.  First, you look at the cards that you have defended against – remember that there are three different icons.  Each player who has not defended against a hat symbol takes a wound.  If this is your second wound, you would flip your samurai card over – if this were your fourth wound, you lose the game.  Next, you look at the hut icon. For each player that didn’t defend against a hut, one is removed from the village.  Finally, for each player that did NOT defend against a family icon, one of the three family are removed from the board.  This is chosen randomly because each of the family tokens has a bonus on the back (healing a wound, building a fence back, etc) which the group gets if that particular token survives.

Finally, you get to deal with the intruder stack.  These cards have accumulated over the course of the round due to either attacking actions or when players choose to Support on their turn.  These cards are flipped over one at a time – and for each card that has flames in the bottom right corner, a barricade is burnt up.  If there is no barricade left, then a farmhouse is burnt.

As long as at least one family token and one farmhouse token remain on the board – you move onto the next round.  Add in the next level of cards and continue playing.  At the end of the third round, if you still survive – then you win the game!

My thoughts on the game

Samurai Spirit is a very engrossing game – there are constantly decisions to be made as a team – and the game is set up such that even a single mis-timed mistake can dog you for a whole round or jeopardize the game.  There are four levels of difficulty in the rules, and we are still playing only the normal difficulty (2nd out of 4), and I have only won once in 7 games at that level – so it has proven to be plenty challenging.

On any given turn, there is a fair amount to be considered – and this usually engenders a lot of strategizing amongst the players.  There are plenty of times when it may be good for the group to Support on a given turn and pass your special ability to another player.  Oftentimes this is to help someone prevent taking a wound from his attack stack.  Of course, each time you choose to Support, you have to add a card to the Intruder stack – so you can’t just do it willy nilly.

You also need to always be cognizant of the defending option on your turn.  In the first round (at normal difficulty), you only get 7 turns – the penalties for not defending a particular icon are steep, and you’re somewhat at the mercy of lady luck because you have to have the right icon flipped up, you can’t defend against it.  It’s especially important to watch for the family icons because there are only 3 family tokens in the game, and they also provide you bonuses if they survive.

The Kiai powers are very strong, and they certainly entice you to take on Raiders to get exactly to your limit.  Additionally, as you are able to discard one Raider card each time you use your Kiai power, you could conceivably use this on successive turns.  Managing this is quite important.  It also highlights the value of a player power that allows you to pass cards to your neighbors.  If you are able to pass a card to your neighbor that brings them exactly to their number, they can take their special power on your turn (and then possibly do it again on their own turn!)

There is also some interesting decisions to be made about intentionally taking wounds.  Though you only have 4 hit points per player, converting over to the animal form of your character has some definite advantages.  First, you get a higher attack capacity.  Second, your Kiai power is much better on the animal side.  We’ve tried a few games where we intentionally get one or two players to convert over to try to give us more power against the attackers.  This, obviously, comes with some risk because if you are unable to prevent future wounds, you could lose the game sooner with the demise of one of those samurai.

For our group, the level of difficulty is just right.  We still can’t consistently defeat the game at Normal level.  As you progress to the more difficult levels, you have fewer barricades to protect your village.  Additionally, you have to take a penalty each time a farmhouse is burnt down.  At the hardest level, you also lose the family token bonus at the end of each round to make it even harder to succeed.  I have a feeling that my group (which admittedly isn’t that great at co-ops) will be continually challenged in this game and we’ll probably never make it to the hardest level.  But, that’s just fine, and I think that it is very nice how the changing setup will be able to accommodate groups of all ability levels.

Mr. Bauza signing a box for my brother

Mr. Bauza signing a box for my brother

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it.  John P
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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