05 October 2018
A strategy game that will mecha you smile
If you haven’t already guessed by the name, Starship Samurai is a game that’s not trying to hide much. It has starships and it has samurai: here, massive sword-wielding mecha represented by miniatures that absolutely capture the glee of watching and playing with Gundam and Transformers. Its dependable gameplay, too, offers up few big surprises – but it’s still easy to be won over by the results of its reliable blend if you don’t expect a game about robots in space to be the most mindblowing thing you’ve ever played.
The mecha may be the stars of the show, but it’s the planets they are fighting over that set the stage for Starship Samurai’s action. A deck of location cards presents a fresh spread of worlds to try and rule each round, racking up ‘honour’ (read: victory points) for claiming a card, with the added spice of extra points for collecting a set of different planet types (quite uninspiringly denoted by different amounts of pips, rather than actual categories) by the end of the game.
The pool of player actions is small: move units, draw cards, gain wealth or influence one of the lesser clans. The narrow selection is given a welcome depth by the order tokens placed to execute each command, which determine the relative strength of the action, from one to four. Orders can be repeated, but the importance of timing remains critical – do you warp your fleet to a planet immediately and try to hold off multiple rounds of attacks, or instead bide your time and utilise card powers, risking the limited number of unit spaces in each location filling up in the meantime? The tight territories and bonuses gained for dominating a location at the beginning of your turn encourage aggressive play – destroyed units reappear the following round and losing fleets remain where they are, making even a loss a potentially effective way to claim the location next time around.
Battles are as fast and fierce as the single-stroke slash of a samurai sword. It’s a numbers game: the most power wins. The samurai mechs’ abilities and one battle card potentially played on either side of the clash can suddenly swing things, making the simultaneous reveal of cards an entertainingly decisive moment. With two unique mechs – plus identical universal fighter and carrier ships – attached to each faction, the asymmetry is enough to invite decent variety without weighing the light feeling of the area-control competition down.
Behind the spectacle of mechs scrapping for planetary control and taking down fleets of spaceships is a background battle for political domination, represented by the lesser clans that can be influenced on the game’s central board. Pulling the tokens up your faction’s branch in reward for further victory points – or pushing them down and out of your rivals’ control – makes Starship Samurai more than a game of just throwing big armies at each other in head-to-head fights, encouraging a more diverse scoring approach. The political back-and-forth is hardly deep, but it’s just enough to stretch the edges of the gameplay and keep things engaging and constantly shifting for the hour or so each playthrough takes.
Starship Samurai’s gameplay can edge towards feeling a little inconsequential compared to the more substantial strategy experiences out there – most notably Eric Lang’s crowdpleasing ‘dudes on a map’ games, such as Rising Sun – but its breakneck speed, comfortable rules and undeniably stylish theme make spending a couple of hours in its universe an enjoyable ride all the same. There’s more than enough interesting gameplay here to justify the eye-catching visuals, becoming a game that favours pure fun and spectacle over complexity, but without being completely surface. It turns out that smashing giant robots against each other in space is a pretty good time – who would’ve thought it?
What Starship Samurai lacks in originality and depth, it makes up for with a killer theme and gameplay that’s as solid as it is quick. It’s a crowdpleaser, through and through.
Designer: Isaac Vega
Artist: Gunship Revolution
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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