Reviewed by Herb Levy

SENJI (Asmodee, 3-6 players, ages 12 and up, 90 minutes; $69.99)


All games offer something to the interested gamer. Sometimes a game will offer you a chance to flex your diplomatic abilities. Maybe you yearn to flex your muscles in a simulated conflict. Perhaps card play is what you seek. It is rare when a game has ALL of these elements and rarer still when these elements work as well as they do in Senji as players, in the roles of daimyos in medieval Japan, seek to win honor to become Shogun.

Senji, designed by Serge Laget and Bruno Cathala, comes with a mounted game board of Japan divided into 18 provinces, 35 fortresses (six for each player), 72 military unit counters (12 for each player), 18 samurai cards and figures (with stickers to place on them), order tokens, 96 hanafuda cards, 72 diplomacy cards, 9 special six-sided dice, a four minute sand timer and other play aids.senjibox

Each player starts with 12 military counters, a player aid card, six fortress figures (in their chosen color) and the matching set of 12 Diplomacy cards. (Each player begins with 12 Diplomacy cards but the decks are slightly different.) The hanafuda cards and the samurai cards are shuffled separately and each player dealt four hanufuda cards and three samurai. The hanufauda cards are kept by the player but the player must choose ONE of the three samurais and receives the corresponding samurai figure in addition to keeping the card. Hanufuda cards are one way to get those valuable Honor points but there are others.

The game starts with three provinces belonging to each player. In turn, they will put one fortress on each of their provinces (denoting control) and his samurai and/or any of the three military tokens he starts with.

Among other things, all samurai cards have an honor point value and a letter (corresponding to the samurai figure). Nearly all have a “special power” which can be very useful during the game. Generally speaking, the more honor a samurai has, the less powerful is his special power. The higher the Honor value of a player’s samurai, the further along the scoring track he will be and the player with the most honor hosts the Emperor.

Each turn consists of five phases: Hosting the Emperor and the four seasons Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. The player who has amassed the most Honor points receives the privilege of being host. This is more than just a ceremonial honor. The person hosting the Emperor decides in what order plays are resolved! A pivotal power to say the least. But the crux of the game centers on the four seasons, each with their own specific function.

The Winter phase is the Diplomacy part of the game. There are three types of Diplomacy cards – family cards, military support and trading – and this is when players make deals and exchange cards from one to another. Any type of Diplomacy card may be traded for another. Deals may be unequal in the number of cards exchanged; you may even trade cards from other players you happen to have in your possession with other players! Each type of Diplomacy card is capable to doing something different.

Family cards represent honored members of the player’s family. When traded, they are considered “guest” of the holding player. A player receiving such a card may play it in front of him and immediately receive honor points equal to the value of the card. Alternatively, he may keep the card in hand for future use. Military cards can add strength during combat while trading cards require another player to show you a specified number of hanafuda cards and allow you to claim one. Wheeling and dealing can often slow a game to a crawl. Fortunately, this game wisely includes a sand timer. Once the sand runs out (four minutes), this phase is over.

During the Spring phase, players place order tokens face down in each province they control. Three orders are possible: production, recruitment and marching. In the Summer phase, whoever hosts the Emperor determines the order in which orders are revealed and resolved.

Production allows the player to draw two hanafuda cards; recruitment adds 2 military forces to that province (up to a limit of six per province). A marching order in a province allows military forces there to move to adjacent provinces or to sea. If troops move into an area occupied by another player, combat occurs.senjiboard

Combat in Senji is stylized and settled in an interesting way. That’s where both military Diplomacy cards and battle dice come in. First, both sides calculate initial strengths. Every unit in a province is worth 1 strength. Battle dice show the six symbols of the six families in the game and for each samurai you have in this battle, you take one of the battle dice and turn it to the symbol of your family. Each one adds adds 1 more strength to your side. Remaining dice are thrown. Each symbol of your family adds another strength point to your side; each symbol of the defender’s family adds one point to his. Now players place down ONE military support Diplomacy card face down and simultaneously reveal them. Any dice displaying the symbol of the played cards are added to the strength totals of both sides, up to the number displayed on the card. (So, for example, if the military card I played shows a 2, I can add up to 2 more strength points to my attack PROVIDED that two of those symbols appear on the rolled battle dice. If only one die shows that needed symbol, the most strength I can get from that card is one.) Military Diplomacy cards are now returned to their original owners. If totals are tied, combat continues until someone has more strength than the other. And now, we award honor points.

The loser of the battle loses ALL military units and any samurai involved. But the defeated can still exact a measure of revenge. If he happens to have a family Diplomacy card of the attacker in his hand, he may play it and execute that card as a hostage. He will receive the number on that card as honor points while the attacker will lose DOUBLE that number. (That card is now out of the game.) The winner loses as many units as his opponent (but NOT his samurai). The winner, if the attacker, gets honor points equal to TWICE the number of ALL military units lost in battle. He may now claim that province by placing a fortress on it. If the defender was victorious, he gets honor points EQUAL to the total number of military units lost in the battle. Once all battles are resolved and all orders carried out, the Autumn phase begins.

It is in the Autumn phase that players get to use those hanafuda cards to best advantage, particularly since a player may do multiple actions. Hanafuda cards display different colors, number values and icons (animals, suns and ribbons). Gathering the right kinds of sets earn players honor points and the ability to recruit additional samurai. (Gathering is aided by using trade Diplomacy cards to pluck some hanafuda cards from other players.) For example, a set of 4 hanafuda cards with different number values can be turned in for 4 honor points while a set of 12 cards, all with different numbers, will increase a player’s honor total by 24. Six cards of the same color are worth 9 points. A four card set of animals is worth 8 while a four card set of Suns is worth 12. Meld 5 cards with ribbons and you may draw 3 samurai cards and choose 1 of them to add to your forces; meld 7 cards with ribbons and you may draw 6 samurais and add TWO. They may return one Diplomacy card of any type to each opposing family. This results in 10 honor points for the player (and EACH of the other families LOSING 1 honor point).

Play continues until one player has met or exceeded 60 honor points. At that point, the round finishes and the player with the highest total of honor points at round’s end has become Shogun.

There is so much going on in Senji that it takes longer to explain the game than to play it! But the effort is worth it. Consider the Diplomacy cards. These cards have a multitude of uses from becoming part of a set to gain honor points, to helping deter the military ambitions of a potentially aggressive neighbor, to help gather hanafuda cards to recruit more samurai to your cause and more! Using them to peak effectiveness is part of the game’s challenge. Speaking of their varied uses, it is a bit difficult to wrap your head around executing prisoners (family Diplomacy cards held) and receiving HONOR points for it! But this turns out to be something else to consider when trading as you can not be sure precisely who will end up with those cards you are trading and when/if they will be used against you.

One of my concerns in first playing the game was that players on opposite ends of Japan would have a hard time interacting. Not so. In addition to normal land and sea movement, sea raids are possible. Sea raids can literally move forces from one end of the island to another in a single turn. (There is a bit of danger in this maneuver as you have to roll combat dice to see if any forces are lost during transit. But this is a minimal danger for a great positional advantage.) Such fluidity of movement is an impressive game mechanic.

Hosting the Emperor is an extremely important advantage that should not be overlooked. The player with the most honor points determines the order in which province orders are resolved as well as player order in the important Autumn phase. This player wielding this power wisely shifts the odds of winning strongly in his favor so be prepared to take down the current honor points leader, even it it costs you. Although rules are provided for a lesser number of players (including an interesting bidding mechanism for Diplomacy cards of families not in play), the game works best with the full complement of six and I would strongly suggest playing with no fewer than four. Graphically, the game is strong with colorful fortresses and all those nicely molded plastic samurai (the artistic among us will have a good time painting those figures) although I do wonder why the semi-alphabetical samurai stickers skip some letters.

The brilliant blending of diplomacy, card management, bluff and stylized warfare all combine to make Senji an expertly crafted game with good looks and quite a bit of depth. Recommended. – – – – – – Herb Levy


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