Designed by Kerry King and published by Moon Rock, Samurai Brothers is a 'take that' combat card game where 2–6 players build up their own dojos while taking down the dojos of their opponents.
Players use card drafting to select their sensei, samurai, temple guards and heirlooms. Markers on their samurai cards record their health. Players are then dealt a hand of 7 cards from the dojo deck. On your turn, you can use an heirloom to take the action indicated on the card, you can use your sensei's power, you can play two cards from your hand and then you draw cards up to your maximum hand size.
In practice, you'll not be activating an heirloom on most turns: even in a two-player game you only start with three heirloom cards (and only one heirloom in a 4–6 player game) and the heirlooms are for the most part single use because they are 'tapped' when activated. Heirlooms are important because nabbing all the heirlooms is one of the two victory conditions; the other is defeating all the other samurai (reducing their health to zero).
Samurai Brothers is essentially a hand management game. The cards you are dealt and draw from the dojo deck all display ninjas (legendary, elite and, oddly, baby ninjas). As you'd expect, the different designations of ninja reflect their strength. You play ninja cards from your hand to your dojo, so, for example, you might spend your two card plays to place two ninjas in your dojo. When you replenish your hand, however, you aren't just limited to drawing dojo cards; you can also draw cards from the action deck. These are the 'take that' cards that drive combat but you'll need to expend resources in order to play them. Typically, this will mean sacrificing ninjas from your dojo to meet the playing cost. The attack is then directed at an opponent who will try to defend if he has appropriate cards or will have to lose cards from his dojo to soak up the damage. If you don't have the cards to sacrifice as cannon fodder, or if you want to hold onto cards in your dojo for the actions you've planned on your next turn, then you can take the damage off your samurai - reducing its health - but if your samurai is reduced to zero, it'll be game over for you.
You have to make a fine judgement call over when to draw dojo cards and when to fill your hand with action cards, and getting that balance right could well determine the outcome of the game. You can choose to build up your dojo by constantly drawing from the dojo deck and using all your actions to add ever more ninjas. There are some powerful cards tho' in the action deck and these can be used to devastating effect against overly defensive players who think they are building an impenetrable ninja wall. There are cards, for example, that bypass ordinary defences and allow an opponent to steal your heirlooms, guards and even your sensei. And if a tapped heirloom or guard is stolen, then the player who takes it gets to add it untapped to their dojo...
When a player is attacked using an action card they get to counter attack, which can trigger a counter counter attack. This can make for some exciting turns that radically alter the balance of power. Like a rally in tennis, it's altogether more satisfying than combat that is solely predicated on taking turns to snipe at an opponent and it's one of the features that helps this game to stand out from the crowd.
Samurai Brothers has very different dynamics depending on the number of players. It is very playable as a swingy two-player contest but playing with three or four introduces more subtleties because you'll have to decide where to direct your attacks. In our plays of the preview prototype at Board's Eye View, the sweet spot seemed to be four players; it could be overlong with 5 or 6 players, with games sometimes running to an hour or more. Given that this is a game with player elimination, we preferred it when games topped out at around 30 minutes, which they usually do with four or fewer players.
Note tho' that, as in the classic board game Risk, there's a key advantage in being the player who deals the coup de grace to dispatch an opponent's samurai: you get to take a bunch of their cards as bounty. That means a well-timed elimination can often hasten a quick overall victory as the elimination bounty can give you an unbeatable boost...
We've had a lot of fun with Samurai Brothers and we're keen to see how the game does over the course of its upcoming Kickstarter campaign. We'll add a link to the campaign when that goes live on 1 August.