Samurai Sword is an interesting new version of the classic Wild West Game Bang, not only re-themed for ancient Japan but also with several game “tweaks” that give the game quite a different feel.
If you don’t know Bang, then you really should try it out – it’s been popular for years and has even achieved cult status in many places – including China where it proved very popular in cafes and in a legally dubious move, was duplicated in the creation of a Chinese version “SanGuoSha” (“Killers/Legends of the Three Kingdoms”) – which I understand is so popular amongst Chinese speakers, that even in Melbourne they have tournaments and there have been attempts to set up games cafes specifically to play it. It’s like a Chinese rival to the cult trading card game Magic the Gathering.
Bang is a “hidden role” game, similar to games like Resistance and Werewolf where each player has a secret identity they are given at the start of the game and that determines what they’re trying to do, who they are trying to help and who they’re trying to defeat. A core part of the game is working out who around the table is lying … or perhaps trying to trick people yourself!
The Good, the Bad … and the very Ugly …
The original “Bang” had a small town Sheriff and his Deputies facing down a bunch of dirty Outlaws. Unusually for a hidden role game, everyone knows which player is the Sheriff, but no one else knows anything about the rest of the players – the Sheriff doesn’t know his deputies, and the Outlaws don’t even know each other. And … somewhere mixed in is the creepy Renegade, who just wants to kill EVERYONE.
Unlike games like Resistance, the game isn’t purely psychological, and this is where much of the theme comes in – the hidden roles are just the backdrop to a whole card game which has the players riding around on horses, stealing from each other, getting thrown into jail – and escaping, taking pot-shots from behind barrels, challenging each other to duels, defending themselves during an onslaught of Indians and of course retiring to the saloon. You can even play the game with character cards that give each player a special skill, and a Wild West name such as Calamity Janet, Bart Cassidy and El Gringo. You might be an expert gunslinger or just hard to catch!
Meanwhile, in Japan …
As expected, for “Bang” players there are many familiar elements in “Samurai Sword”. The Sheriff is now the noble Shogun, with his loyal Samurai, trying to defeat the sneaky Ninjas, with a devious masterless Ronin tricking them all. Once again, you each have a thematic character name and skill, like Ginchiyo who’s hard to hit or Kojiro, the master swordsman. The characters run around and have all sorts of hijinks and feuds while trying to work out who is on which team.
Also like Bang, each character has a certain number of lifepoints – here represented by a pile of 4-5 heart tokens … but here’s where the differences start: in Bang when you loose all your life, you’re dead and out of the game – you can stick around and watch the others play, or maybe go off and do something else. Player elimination can be a little awkward. However in Samurai Sword, you don’t die when you lose all your lifepoints (aka “Resilience Points”) – you merely curl up in a foetal position on the floor, and all the other warriors are too noble to attack someone so harmless … and when it comes back to your turn again, you come back to full life! But due to the shame of being beaten, you loose some of your honour – you give one of your cherry-blossom flower tokens to the player who beat you.
So, no-one is ever eliminated from this game. It makes it very different from Bang. In Bang, it’s a battle of attrition – people are being killed off out of the game – if you’re one of the good guys, you want to keep the Sheriff alive, the bad guys want to kill him. As the game progresses, more and more people get knocked out, you just hope it’s mostly the other side.
In Samurai Sword, it’s all about these little piles of honour points everyone is winning and losing. It’s no longer about whether your team killed the Sheriff/Shogun or kept him alive until the end – it’s about counting up your honour tokens and having more than the other team at the end of the game.
That’s one of my disappointments with this game – it just feels mathematical in the end. Bang has the visceral sense of “the winners are the last left standing”. Sure player elimination can be a downer, but your character has DIED!! Knowing that could happen to you makes you try much harder to stay alive, and that really adds to the psychological aspect of the game, much like the begging for mercy that happens in Werewolf when a player is facing elimination by an angry mob.
In Samurai Sword, the game ends when any one player loses all their honour points – the 3-5 they started with, and any they won from others. It doesn’t have to be the Shogun, he’s not especially important – just any player, it might be almost unexpected. It might even be mechanical – every time the deck of cards runs out, you reshuffle discards to reuse (as you do in many games), but also everyone loses an honour token. If you’d been on one token and were just about to put some devastating plan into operation that would net you more, bad luck, the game is over without anyone else attacking you.
Another very thematic aspect of Bang is the “equipment cards”. Arranged in front of each gunslinger is an array of equipment that they’re currently using. They might have a couple of horses, a barrel, maybe a gun selected from a range of pistols and rifles. You might really dread Willy the Kid high on his Mustang horse with his Winchester rifle coming for you while you’re hiding behind a barrel nursing your Schofield revolver. It paints quite a picture.
In Samurai Sword, there are only 3 of these cards you could place in front of you – most people won’t have any – and they’re less thematic than Bang. Sure, one is Armor, but the other two are just concepts – Focus and Fast Draw, adding bonuses to your attacks – they’re not very visual.
When the weapons do appear, they’re indeed an impressive range of Shuriken stars, Kusarigama chain-sickles, Bokken swords, and so on … however you don’t get to focus on their omiNM5RY]Q-W5Yjjlm&s&yrK1DSjkfor more than a moment – they’re one shot cards that suddenly appear from a player’s hand when required and are immediately discarded. (To the Bang players: these cards combine both the guns AND the bullet cards.) The weapons now can deal multiple points of damage, so it’s quite possible that your healthy character might be completely “killed” by an opponent with the not uncommon ability to use two weapons a turn – but that’s okay death barely matters in this game.
The action cards have a small number of light Japanese concepts – Tea Ceremony, Geisha girl, Jujutsu (group fight) with a couple of more complex actions “Bushido” and “Daimyo” which might have been more fun if there was any indication on how they fit into the “story” of the game. As it is, they’re just Japanese sounding words with “mechanical” rules that happen when they’re played. Even the rulebook doesn’t give the background. (It’s not enough to simply look up the meaning of the words, how do they fit into the story?)
In Conclusion …
Samurai Sword feels like a very different game to Bang. I’ve heard it promoted as Bang “fixed”, because there’s no player elimination, and the game forces the play to come to an end, but the game feels much more “mechanical” especially with the focus on honour points instead of “kill your enemies” and the flimsier theme. I’ll play Samurai Sword on occasion, for something different, but I’d much rather go with the rollicking theme of Bang.