The Milton Bradley Gamemaster series marked the gaming giant's last foray into the world of "serious" adult games. The series included Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and Broadsides and Boarding Parties— all games in big boxes with lots of beautiful plastic pieces and meaty gameplay. Axis & Allies is still available, but the other games in the series are now out of print. One such game, Shogun, has been brought back to life. Apparently there was a problem with the use of that name, presumably from James Clavell's camp, so its reincarnation has been christened Samurai Swords.
The game could be broadly described as Risk in Japan, but that wouldn't do justice to the more complex and interesting systems it encompasses. Yes, players move their forces from region to region in an effort to conquer the map, and the provinces are dealt out amongst the players randomly at the start of the game. But the differences outstrip the similarities, as Samurai Swords makes Risk look like Candyland.
Samurai Swords' enormous box hints at wondrous contents, and they don't disappoint. Hundreds of plastic figurines represent the various units, and each player gets a (slightly too small) styrofoam tray in which to store them. Reference cards double as screens to keep prying eyes from spying on your plans (as you'll see, you've got to pay to do that!). The figurines are more evocative than cardboard counters and give the game a satisfying aesthetic and tactile quality.
The game has two different types of forces, armies and garrisons, which have two main differences. Armies can get quite large and are fairly mobile, while garrisons are limited to five units and have far less freedom of movement. Forces can include up to six different types of forces: spearmen, riflemen, swordsmen, bowmen, ronin, and (in armies) a daimyo. The units differ in combat skill and strike priority.
While any forces stationed in a province constitute a garrison, each player has only three armies. The strategic deployment and movement of these armies is crucial to success. A unique marker represents each army, while the units which march in it are stored on a reference card in front of each player. This card also tracks the experience level of each army's daimyo, the Japanese equivalent of a general. Experience comes from success on the battlefield. With a veteran daimyo leading it, an army can travel farther and initiate more attacks each turn. This means there's an incentive to have armies attack as often as possible, to give daimyos the chance to improve.
As in Risk, reinforcements between turns vary with the number of provinces a player controls. The dependency is an indirect one, however, thanks to the introduction of koku. At the state of each turn players receive one koku for every three provinces they control. These koku are then secretly allocated among five different purposes, using compartments in each player's concealed tray. You can't save them for later— use them or lose them.
The first koku bin is for player position. The highest bid chooses his place in player order, with ties broken by die rolls. Position is noted by attractive plastic swords with 1-5 diamonds on the blade. Swords rest in pedestals in front of each player for easy reference during the turn. Players who don't bid for position draw from the remaining swords at random. Typically, you'll only bid if you want to be first or last during the combat round.
Bin number two is for building. This isn't an auction— all players may build one castle or fortress each turn, at the cost of two koku. Castles provide bonus forces to defend a province. Fortresses upgrade castles, providing stronger defenses. Buildings aren't destroyed if a province is conquered, they simply serve their new masters.
Bin number three is for levying new units. There's no limit to how many koku can be spent on new units, as long as you have units available. Only one unit per turn can be added to each province, however. Many units can be added to each army, but there are limits on how many of each unit type can be in each army. Units are supposed to be added by all players simultaneously, but that isn't really possible. In the early game, it's not often important. But later, knowing where your opponents place their reinforcements can make a difference in where you place your own. We tried to use the honor system and avoid looking at where our opponents placed their units, but of course since everybody's using the same game board it's hard not to see what other people are doing. It's easy to be influenced, even if you don't realize it. If this doesn't bother you, no problem. Otherwise, you may wish to place units in player order even though it will slow things down. I'm surprised the designer overlooked this problem, somehow expecting everyone to be blind to everything on the board but their own color.
The fourth bin is for hiring ronin. These are temporary soldiers which are placed secretly and revealed if they become involved in a fight. Even if they don't fight, they're removed at the end of the turn. There are restrictions on how many ronin can be used in one army or garrison, so you can't attack with a single soldier and surprise the opponent with four ronin alongside him.
The final bin is for hiring the ninja. Only one player— the one who spent the most koku for the privilege— gets the ninja's services. He's got two uses. The first is to attempt the assassination of an opponent's daimyo at any time during the turn, accomplished by a die roll. There's some risk involved, though— if the roll misses badly, the targeted opponent gets a chance to turn the tables.
When a daimyo dies, a new one with no experience takes his place at the start of the next turn— as long as there's at least one unit left in the dead daimyo's army. If all the army's units got killed, that army is permanently destroyed. Any player who loses all three armies is out of the game, and all of his units go under the control of the player who eliminated him.
Each player completes all of his movement and then combat before the next player does the same. The experience level of a daimyo determines how many provinces an army can move through and how many attacks it can make. Garrisons (or portions of one) can only move to an adjacent province the player doesn't already control. This is a very important rule. It means it's impossible to combine garrisons without using armies to pick up and drop off units. Once a unit is left behind in a garrison, it can't be moved to a friendly province. It's stuck there unless it attacks a neighbor or is picked up by an army. For this reason, units must be levied carefully. You can't move useless forces from the rear of your empire up through the lines as you can in Risk, combining them as you go to make a larger force.
Combat itself is a simple matter of rolling dice (although in Samurai Swords all dice are 12-sided). Some units have a better chance to hit than others, and some strike earlier. Both players roll simultaneously and every hit eliminates an opposing unit. The battle continues until one side is destroyed or the attacker retreats. If the attacker wins, at least one unit from the attacking force must move into the conquered province.
Samurai Swords makes clumsy use of the province cards. Whenever a province changes hands the corresponding card must be handed over also. This lets you just count your cards and divide by three to determine your koku income, instead of the more error-prone method of counting all the provinces you control on the map. More, when ronin are purchased for a province, they're placed on that province's face-down card. This allows you to commit to their placement without revealing them to opponents. Nice all the way around— except in practice, it's easy to forget that you've got hidden ronin, easy to forget to hand over the cards and tedious to sort through them to find the right one. Minor annoyances, but annoyances nonetheless. And I can't suggest a better method.
If the idea was to conquer the whole map, Samurai Swords would rarely be played to its conclusion. When one player gets knocked out, another usually becomes much stronger. If another player doesn't knock someone else out and get equally strong, the first player is likely to sweep through the island if he manages his armies well. The eventual victor would become obvious, and playing to the end would serve little point. That's probably why the first player to control 35 provinces wins the game. There are also quickstart rules, and you can opt to end the game when the first player gets eliminated, giving the victory to the player with the most provinces at that time.
The game could have been produced in a much less lavish form, with cardboard chits instead of figurines and pad-and-paper for koku allotments. Instead Milton Bradley's production department gave us great bits which help elevate the experience. Be prepared to set aside an hour or so before your first game to separate the plastics from their molding frames. Many pieces have long, thin bits (swords, rifles) which break if manhandled. I don't play war games, but the Gamemaster series simplifies them. Maybe it's time I tried Axis & Allies...