A friend once advised me that one of the essential methods of judging the value of a board wargame is to weigh the box. Although this criteria is slightly dubious, it's one that sticks in the mind, and I admit that I can be found in a games shop with the English Civil War in one hand and the War of the Roses in the other, trying to decide which is heavier. Something of the same idea can be applied to the initial impression which a computer game makes on me - I like to see a nice fat rulebook. Samurai's rules have difficulty in covering the back of the inlay; and although short and simple rules need not necessarily mean a short and simple game - just as a heavy card map can make an uninspiring board game overweight - it does seem to be a bad sign.
Samurai is, behind the minimalist introductory material and underneath the cosmetic oriental colouring, a strategy game of the very simplest kind. The rules are concise because there are genuinely very few of them - I'm sure that the rules of draughts or even chess could probably be fitted into a reverse inlay.
At the start of the game the player is asked to purchase fighting units from a coffer of 200 (Japanese yen, perhaps? The monetary unit isn't specified), and from a selection of four different types of warrior. These types are explained in the rules. There are Samurai, high-quality general-purpose fighters, Ashigaru, who are probably peasant-bread cannon- fodder wielding pole-arms, the famous Ninja, and the expensive but extremely effective Mounted Samurai.
Having selected units via icons on the first screen up to the limit of your financial resources, your units are automatically positioned on the main playing area. There are three 'incidents', which start your forces and the computer's in different positions. It is not made entirely clear in the rules where the battle is supposed to be taking place, but by the look of the reasonably attractive scrolling map, and reading between the lines of the brief bit of scene-setting about Shinto, Imperialism and Buddhism, I assume it is supposed to be an imperial temple under attack from warriors of the Buddhist faith. Not ashamed to admit my ignorance of all Japanese history, I am annoyed to realise that I'm none the wiser for playing Samurai. It's impossible to work out from what is said in the rules whether or not the player is supposed to be on the side of the Emperor. The fact that the Samurai monks, which belong to the computer's forces, are described as 'the top warriors of Imperial Japan', leads me to suspect that the player's side is antiestablishment. But why precisely they are fighting the Emperor is left entirely to the player's imagination.
Irritating as this is, it does not affect the gameplay at all. The player's forces are the light-coloured squares and the computer's forces are the dark-coloured squares (I tested this game in black and white, not being able to afford a colour monitor on my £1.99 a year grant), and the aim is to eliminate all the computer's forces from the mildly decorative landscape - this abstract aim is unatmospheric but entirely satisfactory.
The computer, although it appears to play by the same rules, does not have quite the same forces. It has three different types - Monks, Samurai Monks and Young Samurai Monks -and does not have fancy troops like the Ninja and cavalry at its disposal. It doesn ' t need them, because even at the first difficult level the computer has considerably more units than the player.
Each unit has a fixed number of movement rates per turn, which are displayed and counted off as the moves are taken. Some parts of the terrain, such as rivers and steps, take two movements points to traverse. Also there are obstacles, pillars and walls for instance, which block the path entirely. The Mounted Samurai have by far the most movement points and the second-class Ashigaru usually the least, though there appears to be a slight random element in the number assigned to each individual unit. When a unit comes into contact with the enemy, combat is inevitable; a unit cannot be moved away once it has come into direct contact.
When all units have been moved, combat is resolved in two rounds with the player always getting first hit. Your hit points and the enemies are displayed side-byside, and damage is immediately deducted. It is in the combat stage where the type of fighting unit really makes the difference. A Mounted Samurai can do a massive amount of damage at one stroke, and a pole-waving peasant has difficulty in denting the opponent. It is hinted in the rules that the best way to win a fight is to outnumber the opposition, and this is certainly true. Each unit gets one attack only, and if single units are in combat both are bound-to-base contact with a counter of the computer's side, one unit effectively gets a free hit.
Therefore a major part of the game's strategy is in manoeuvring things so that you have a greater chance than the computer of getting more than one unit into contact with one of the opposite side. This is difficult because the computer always seems to have the advantage of numbers, and it provides a challenge which eventually becomes frustrating time after time I gathered different combinations of units and tried out my developing theories, and every time I was overwhelmed by the computer's numerical advantage.
The presentation is simple and last-moving. The computer automatically highlights each unit in turn, and the player gives orders via icons. For most units the options are limited to movement, but there is an interesting addition in the case of Ninja; before moving, the Ninja can attempt to throw a 'shuriken ' at an enemy unit, forfeiting some of his move points to do so. The player judges the angle. It is entirely possible to hit a friendly unit, or a pillar! Icons are provided to quit the game, and to move onto the next combat phase. There are also two other items which do nothing whatsoever and cannot be accessed. The rules say they are there for 'safety reasons, but do not elaborate. I have absolutely failed to work out the function of the safety icons and am tempted to ask for suggestions on a postcard...
The computer opponent is reasonably adept at positioning itself advantageously for combat, but its movement routine is atrocious. Samurai monks bounce off pillars bewildered, and wade cheerfully through movement point gobbling rivers - colliding with each other without apologising. It's true that this lark of intelligence can sometimes make things easier for the player, but it's not very satisfactory to have to rely on the stupidity of the opponent to win a game.
Samurai is basically a very simple, abstract strategy game - fun to play, easy to get started on, and sufficiently smooth to be playable. However, I really feel that it doesn't have enough content or atmosphere - particularly for a full-price game.
Pleasantly smooth, with those trendy little things called icons.
Concise and uninformative.
Very easy to get into, and nicely paced.
Clear, uncluttered and reasonably attractive.
Cosmetic... but perhaps, given the game, unimportant.
Watch the highly-trained Samurai Monks throw themselves at pillars...
Overpriced for content.
A simple, playable strategy game in Oriental fancy dressing.