Reiner Knizia’s Samurai app.

It’s up about $20 from yesterday, but The Wire: The Complete Series is still over half off at $96.49 on

I mentioned the other day that I’ve become extremely addicted to another iOS app, Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, by the prolific designer behind my favorite two-player game, Lost Cities. Samurai is based on a board game ranked in BoardGameGeek’s top 100, but I’ve never played it (I’ll be buying it after the holidays) so my impressions of the app won’t include any comparisons to the original.

The board Samurai includes an island or set of islands representing Japan and broken up into hexes, some of which have one or more icons representing peasants, soldiers (helmets), or buddhas. The object of the game is to capture as many of those icons as possible, but the victory condition is more based on capturing a plurality of each icon type than on the overall total of icons captured – you can, in fact, capture more icons than your opponent in a two-player game and still lose if he captured more in two of the three categories.

You capture an icon by surrounding it with tokens that influence it in your direction, placing one regular (“slow”) token per turn. Your slow tokens include peasant, soldier, and buddha tokens of varying strengths (1 to 4 points) and samurai tokens that influence all icons. You also receive “fast” tokens, of which you can place several each turn in addition to your one slow token; the ronin token is worth one influence point and goes on land, ship tokens are worth one or two points and go on sea hexes adjacent to land, and special tokens allow you to replay a slow token you’ve previously played or to switch two icons on the board to snatch one out from under your opponent’s thumb. When a hex bearing an icon is surrounded on the land side, it is captured by the player whose adjacent tokens exert the most influence. The game ends when all tokens of any single type are captured, or when four tokens are surrounded but uncaptured because of a tie in influence.

Samurai plays very differently as a two-player game versus a three- or four-player game. In the two-player game, it’s much easier to set up your next move or try to force your opponent to make a specific move, as well as to deduce some of your opponent’s strategy. With three or four players, your degree of control is so much less that your moves are more turn by turn rather than part of a larger game-long strategy, since it’s harder to predict what two or three opponents will do before your next move, leading to shorter setups for captures and more thought required in how your one move will push your opponents to do (or not do) something specific. It’s a simple mechanic that plays out in complex ways, yet with short turns still moves very quickly.

The iOS implementation has outstanding graphics and a very clear tutorial to get you started. I’ve found the AI to be very strong, especially in two-player games; in three-player games I’ve run into the occasional less-than-best move (unless I just didn’t understand what the AI was doing) but would never say I’ve had an easy win. Knizia is a mathematician by training, so his games are highly mathematical in nature, and I think that lends itself to stronger AIs because the programmer can model the game more easily. In Samurai, not only does that lead to more optimal moves by the AI, it also means the AI won’t miss a complex opportunity to end the game early by capturing the final icon in one category.

How addictive is Samurai? I had to leave my iPod Touch uncharged at one point to stop myself from playing the game when I should have been packing for our trip. I can’t seem to put it down unless I’ve won at least one game, because often I know I lost because of just one wrong move. I’ll have to pick up the board game, but I have a feeling this will be a top ten board game for me, maybe top five, given how phenomenal the app is. And I’m not the only ESPNer to think so – Jorge Arangure tweeted that he’s a fan too.

I may post again this weekend, but if I don’t get back before Saturday, Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it, and please be careful if (like me) you’re out on the roads.


  1. I’ve loved this game for a few months, just can’t put it down. Only played solitaire mode. Anybody want to play, my player name is mfalcon.

  2. Thanks for the great info on games, books and baseball this year. Lost Cities is under the tree for my wife – hopefully she’ll enjoy it as much as you. I’m off to the app store to buy this right now.

  3. Keith, was nice meeting you at AZ Fall League. Merry Christmas and keep up the good work.

  4. Tepper - Nathan H.

    Hey Keith, recently found my way onto your blog / community by reading your board game posts over at mental_floss. I’m a big board gamers myself. Anyways, noticed that you were also a Tepper Alum as well. I’m CMU Tepper class of 2007. Was curious if I could pick your brain via email or such about your language learning process, outside of what you posted here:

    Thanks in advance for any time you can provide. I realize you’re in high Demand.


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