The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Starship Samurai
Starship Samurai is an upcoming two-to-four player area control game from Plaid Hat Games designed by Isaac Vega, the designer of Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn and co-designer of Dead of Winter. It was heavily promoted at Origins, but was not available for purchase. I was fortunate to get a chance to demo it with designer Isaac Vega on my first night at the convention.
Starship Samurai is being published by Plaid Hat, so it almost goes without saying that the production is absolutely gorgeous. The artwork, done by digital art studio Gunship Revolution, is top notch, and the miniatures are exceptional -- I look forward to seeing how creative types in the hobby will paint them. In addition to the eight samurai-mech miniatures, the starship miniatures, the action, unit, and location cards, there are four location tiles, an alliance board, player boards, and some tokens to represent influence, wealth, and action selection. The copy of the game I played also had acrylic clan tokens, which will be a pre-order bonus from Plaid Hat. The game is available for pre-order for $59.95 on Plaid Hat's site.
The game is a competitive struggle between players to have their units -- Samurai-mechs and fighter/carrier ships -- control four distinct locations, with each location having seven available spaces. If a player controls a location at the beginning of their turn, they get the bonus listed on the location card, which can give them influence, wealth, action cards, and/or honor (victory points).
Players each get four actions per round, but there is an interesting twist in that the four order markers each player uses to select actions are numbered ‘1’ to ‘4’. Whichever marker the player chooses, they get to do that selected action that many times. So, for example, when the ‘4’ token is played on the draw action cards action, four cards are drawn by that player. This effectively gives players ten actions per round, and makes the higher order markers very, very valuable. It also creates interesting decisions in when exactly to play them -- should a player use the ‘4’ to rush out ships early to try to gain control of one or more locations, or hold the ‘4’ to manipulate the alliance board right before the end of the round, giving them better bonuses?
At the end of the placement phase of each round, there is a final battle for control of each location, where the strength of the samurai-mechs, the ships, their bonuses, and cards played on them are all added, and the winner gets that bonus and takes the card. They must, however, then vacate the location, while those that lost the combat remain, and a new location card is drawn.
This gameplay continues over a set number of rounds. In the four-player game I played, it was four rounds, meaning each player had one round as the first player. At the end of each round, the alliance board is scored, with players getting honor for having more influence over each of the eight clans. At the end of the game, the highest honor is the winner.
Playing at the full four-player count, including the teach, the game took about 90 minutes, and it never bogged down or felt like it was too long for the decisions we were making. The turns moved fast, and the fighting over control of the regions was action-packed and exciting. The diceless combat was a nice touch, with the action cards giving just enough obscurity that nobody was ever sure if they would win a region, even if they had a commanding lead at the end of the placement phase.
While nothing in the design felt revolutionary, the mechanisms and theme were blended and streamlined into a very attractive package that is going to make fans of thematic area control tug-of-wars very happy. Players that do not like highly interactive games with lots of direct conflict, on the other hand, can safely avoid this game. Myself, being in the former camp, greatly enjoyed this game, and thought it packed a lot of punch per gaming minute.
One minor nitpick I did have was that I had trouble differentiating the unpainted samurai-mech miniatures -- as we played with four players, there were often eight of them out on the board at a time. This is easily solvable, however, either by painting them or by using colored status disks like these from Warsenal.