Published on July 21st, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen1
Seven Magnificent Samurai Swords
One of my favorite movies of all time is a film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called Seven Samurai. In this film, villagers are being harassed by local bandits who steal their food and kill anyone who resists. The villagers go to the nearest town to recruit samurai who might help them, though they are unable to pay them anything beyond food and lodging. They find seven samurai who will help them, and through everyone’s efforts and sacrifices the village is eventually saved.
Seven Swords is a board game originally funded on Kickstarter in 2013 and it is essentially based on the central battle of the movie Seven Samurai. The game takes only two players, one of which plays the bandits while the other plays the samurai. The bandit player uses actions to break barricades, attack samurai and steal grain. The samurai player uses actions to attack bandits, command troops and rebuild barricades. The game ends at the end of 18 turns, after which victory points are totaled and the highest score wins- unless the bandit can manage to kill all of the samurai before the end of turn 18, in which case the bandits win.
Seven Swords does not mess around when it comes to quality. I was surprised at how amazing the construction and art for this game are, without being overdone. The cardboard tokens as well as the player cards are thick and sturdy, and I like that the tokens repeat the character stats on them. The bandit tokens are all flat and circular so that you can stack a barrel on top of it and have it carry the barrel to a town gate, but the rest of the wooden tokens in the game are more fully 3D and look very nice.
Admittedly, I expected a little lower-quality physical product from a Kickstarter company and I can see now that my assumption was entirely unfair. From the quality materials to the amazing character art and map rendering, Seven Swords is an A+ for us (bonus points for having more than one female samurai in reasonable outfits). The box art is especially well done and stands out for an industry known for some odd choices in that department.
Seven Swords is a bit more complex than it may appear by just looking at pictures of the board and components. The most obvious aspect of the game is the area control element, but there is also a bluff/deduction sub-game and a very unforgiving action economy. The complexity of the game might turn some players off, though I would argue that fault would mostly lie with the rule book-whose presentation is unfortunately not as well thought out as that of the packaging.
The game board, which represents the village, is divided up into seven areas. A lone samurai begins in each of these seven areas, though they can move freely once the game starts. Each of the seven zones has a gate leading to a landing stage for a bunch of bandits who are trying to break through. The zones also have a villager’s house, a storehouse and a supply barrel- the first of which helps the samurai player to defend the village and the later two representing victory points. The bandits try to torch storehouses and steal barrels while the samurai try to prevent those points from leaving that zone.
In the version we played, the samurai player got to choose where to place the victory point tokens as part of set up but the bandit player had no knowledge of their value (the values have a limited range). This bluff/hidden knowledge effect was very interesting to play with, and the bandit has their own way of out witting the other player.
When the bandit player starts their turn they choose a card from their hand and then take a number of action as listed on the card- but on the back of the card there are letters that correspond to the sections of the city. Whenever you get down to your last card in-hand (which will happen exactly four times every game), you look at the letter on the card and instantly kill a samurai in that section. The samurai player knows how many actions you are taking a turn with those cards, so if they pay attention they can card count and stay out of that area.
The samurai has a similarly odd action mechanic that involves choosing from a set of five tiles and doing the number of actions listed. Once you have chosen a tile it is flipped over and a different number is available. The samurai cards that you control all have three spaces available for actions: fighting, movement, and leadership. Once you assign a type of action to a samurai, you must place a token corresponding to that action on their card- that samurai can’t perform that action again until the token is removed. To remove the token you must take an action tile that removes tokens instead of giving you a lot of actions.
It is because of mechanics like these that I really like Seven Swords. Even though the main conflict of the narrative is a combat situation, I like that the mechanics are much more than just moving units on a battlefield. Seven Swords does have combat mechanics and they’re fine (if a little stiff), but those combat rules are just part of a larger whole. This is a game that shows how to make a tactics game interesting for the euro-crowd.
Samurai Seven is definitely a game where I searched for a fan-made rule book, FAQ and intro video because of the initial difficulty in parsing the rules as-written. At the very least Seven Samurai could use a player reference sheet or a turn-by-turn guide to help you through your first couple times playing. If you know someone who has this game, see if they could show you how to play for your first time.
I was consistently surprised while playing Seven Swords because I kept finding new layers of complexity to the decisions I was making as I played. The learning curve for this game is a little steep in my opinion, though that is in no way a criticism. It felt difficult at first to know what you should be doing or how to proceed, but that feeling went away over the course of playing the game. Learning how to be action efficient is much more complicated than I can accurately describe in this short review space, and mastering that element is at least as important as learning how pieces on the board move.
If you are looking for a crunchy euro-meets-tactics game for two players, then you will have a good time playing Seven Swords.