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Posted on Nov 7, 2012 in Boardgames

Samurai Battles – Boardgame Review

By Rick Martin

Samurai Battles. Boardgame Review. Publisher: Zvezda Designer: Konstantin Krivenko & Richard Borg Price $79.95

Passed Inspection: Comes with 122 incredibly detailed Samurai models, two complete rule systems, great maps and components; wonderful value for the price.

Failed Basic: Models tend to snap during play, so keep glue handy. Cannot play it right out of the box.

The Russian game and model kit company Zvezda has already made a nice splash in the American market with their World War II platoon level games—World War II Barbarossa and its first expansion World War II Battle for the Danube. Now, Zvezda turns its focus to the battles that raged in Japan during the Sengoku Jidai Period, known in English as the "Warring States Period." This era, which lasted for several hundred years, saw the various feudal Daimyo forge political alliances and send their troops into the field. The eventual goal for some of these men was the unification of all of Japan. The weapons used in this time period included the traditional spears, bows and swords of the Samurai but eventually also encompassed the early muskets that were sold by the Portuguese to some of the Samurai leaders.


As with Zveada’s World War II games, Samurai Battles features over a hundred model kits of the units involved—in this case, cavalry, archers, spearmen of two different types, early musketeers, and commanders. These guys are much easier to put together than the World War II models are. The kits are snap-together, but a good modeling glue or Super Glue is a must. Even while glued together, some of the kits will eventually come apart during game play so keep that glue on hand. Each soldier is 1/72nd scale and beautifully detailed. Much better kit builders than I will want to paint these models.

With over 100 models to put together, it is impossible to play this game right out of the box. Give yourself at least three hours to build enough units to play a basic game. Hundreds of red and yellow banners are included and can be mounted on the backs of most of the Samurai to identify which side they are on. Be careful, as these little flags are molded in soft plastic and can easily snap. I lost several that way.

Two games in one
Samurai Battles
is actually two games in one. Zvezda’s Konstantin Krivenko, has adapted his "Art of Tactics" game system to the Samurai subject and Richard Borg has written a "Commands and Colors" rule set for this subject as well. Both rules are included in this massive box set and the gamers are the winners!

Upon opening the box, you will find those tons of Samurai models, map boards and terrain, rules and player aid sheets, 20- and 6-sided dice, dry erase markers, laminated unit cards, and much more.

"Art of Tactics" Samurai Battles rules
The "Art of Tactics" Samurai Battles rules are elegantly simple but very, very fun. Basically, each unit has a data card, which defines what orders that unit can carry out, the unit’s attack values for infantry, mounted and ranged attacks (if any), defense values, movement rate, morale levels, fatigue levels, honor levels, and such.

The orders that can be given to a unit include move, attack, defend, fire and retreat, ambush, etc. Each unit card is laminated, so use those dry erase markers to mark damage, morale levels and orders on your unit cards.

The movement rate of the unit is affected by what type of terrain the unit moves through: plains, light woods, rice fields, rivers, fords, bridges, ravines, rocky ground, villages and hills. The map is actually six double-sided mounted map boards that can be combined in a variety of ways. Thirty double-sided terrain tiles and 13 elevation tiles are also included. With the elevation tiles, you can create slight hills, steep hills, very steep hills, etc. and then add the terrain tiles on top of the elevation tiles to create villages on top of hills, wooded hill sides, etc.

The basic turns are composed of three phases, the planning phase, the execution phase (think "action phase") and the morale phase.

During the planning phase, you and your opponent mark down the units’ orders. The Execution phase is fast and bloody. Units move on the map, melee and ranged combat occurs, etc. Each unit with a ranged combat factor has arrows that are placed on the model kit’s base. When a ranged attack occurs, the arrows are removed from the base until the unit is out of ammo, at which point you need to retreat it to resupply or send another unit out loaded with arrows or bullets and gunpowder. When units take damage, you remove a specified number of model Samurai from the base. As the soldiers go bye-bye, the unit will have to make morale rolls. It may be fine or shaken, or it may flee the battle. When all the Samurai are removed from the model kits base, the unit is effectively destroyed.

Units with commanders or within range of their overall army commanders have more flexibility of action and have a higher morale. But those commanders are not just window dressing, they are top quality Samurai and can kick butt with the best of their army. Just use them wisely.

The keys to the "Art of Tactics" rules are smart maneuvering, maintaining your commanders and using daring attack tactics.

In one recent game, the Red Samurai team was smashing the Yellow Samurai team, but the Yellow team was having much better luck with its archers. The Red team destroyed the Yellow mounted Samurai units in a bold charging attack and the Yellow Spearmen began to fall in droves. But just as things started to look really bad for the Yellow team, they moved their Ashigaru Naginata forces and their Samurai Commanders forward and outflanked the Red forces. The two units attacked and defeated the Red team’s General Staff and brought the battle to a successful conclusion. The remaining Red team’s forces fled the field in panic and suffered a great loss of honor.

A scenario book is included which covers such battles as The Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima in 1561, 1573’s Battle of Mikatagahara, and The Battle of Kizugawaguch in 1578. among others.

"Commands and Colors" Samurai Battles rules
Richard Borg’s "Commands and Colors" rules uses the same miniatures but add maneuver cards and other random event cards known as "Dragon Cards." While no scale was stated for the "Art of Tactics" game, I generally assumed that each unit represented men on a 1 to 1 scale and maybe as high as 1 to 4 men. With "Command and Colors," the scale seems to be upped so that each model represents hundreds of men. For one thing, the ranges of weapons are shorter, representing the increase in scale.

Also, when using the "Commands and Colors" rules, honor and the loss thereof is a more important aspect of the game than in the "Art of Tactics." There are even rules to allow Samurai leaders to commit seppuku to preserve their honor. These rules are played with special six-sided dice (included), which use symbols instead of numbers.

In "Commands and Colors," Command Cards are played from each player’s hand, units are ordered to perform actions, units move, units battle, the turn ends.

Command Cards are used to order your armies to perform various actions including marching right or left, counterattacking, etc. These cards can permit units to move in ways not normally allowed by the rules, which adds a nice degree of uncertainty to the game. Dragon Cards are used to add unexplained, mythical or supernatural events, which can be exploited by the player who uses the card.

To resolve combat, each player rolls a set number of the special six-sided dice. The number of hits is determined by matching the symbol on the die with the symbol on the standard of the unit you are attacking, e.g., when targeting a unit with a triangle on its standard, you need to roll triangles on the dice to hit, score. Leaders, Command Cards and special Dragon Cards can be used to modify the results.

The "Commands and Colors" rules include a scenario book with eight scenarios including the 1615 Battle of Domyoji. Some players aid sheets would have been nice to include with the "Commands and Colors" rules, as this game is a little more complex than "Art of Tactics" games.

The "Commands and Colors" rules provide a game with a completely different feel than the "Art of Tactics" rules. I prefer "Art of Tactics" rules for small unit battles and "Commands and Colors" rules for larger, more complicated conflicts. Both rule sets are wonderful, however, and it is really up to each player to determine which works best for his tastes.

Zvezda promises new models, which will include Ninjas, fortifications, and many more specialized and historical Samurai units. I hope that Takeda Shingen’s female Samurai troop will make an appearance. The prices for these new units run around $3.99.

Samurai Battles is an instant classic and one of the best buys for the Medieval wargamer’s bucks. If you are into the battles of ancient Japan, tuck your katana and wakazashi under your belt, put on your tabi, and then run, don’t walk, to your nearest game store and purchase this game. If you don’t, it will be a deep shame on your honor.

Armchair General Rating: 96 % overall game; 94% Art of Tactics rule set; 92% Commands and Colors Rule Set

Solitaire Rating (1 low, 5 high): 3.5 for Art of Tactics, 2 for Commands and Colors

About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!

1 Comment

  1. hi, i found your solitaire rating for this game and for the WWII Art of Tactics title. can you describe how the Art of Tactics system could be played solitaire?


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