Designed by Scott Kimball
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
about 45-75 mins
3-6 and 2-4 players
Gamewright are a rapidly growing American company who have managed to put together a respectable catalogue of appealing family games over the last few years and who are now developing more interesting systems to add to the range. Honor of the Samurai and Quests of the Round Table are both multi-player card games, strictly non-collectible, which came highly recommended from a number of gamers. So, being an intrepid sort, I tracked down a couple of copies and have recently played them both, with positive results. While I very seldom do a joint review of two games, these titles are from the same company, have similar components and qualities and are pitched at the same market, so on this occasion I can usefully save some typing time. Fortunately they each have distinct systems and, unusually for the family market, are not only well designed and balanced, but are also quite playable by gamers as a lightish, end of session closer.
While both games are card driven, each uses a very different system. HotS is a combat based game, in the traditions of Risk and Shogun, while QotRT is a cleverly constructed multi-player quest scenario, in keeping with its Arthurian theme. In the latter we have chivalry, brave knights, tournaments, tests of resolve, spiritual love and monsters aplenty while the former concentrates on honour, warfare, castles and ninjas. All good stuff, and both score well on the atmosphere and historical ambience scales. As an aside, at the time of writing I have just finished playing and reviewing GMT's Samurai, a wargame of the old school - long, fiddly, hexey and loads of counters. Of the two games, HotS gave me just as much flavour of the period, played in a quarter of the time and is the one I would happily play again, despite its different approach to decision making. Roll that back ten years and you'd get a very different, indeed opposite, reaction from me. But times move on.
Quests has a quite involved system that neatly tackles multi player questing. There is some down time, as you'd expect, but this is kept to a minimum by careful planning of the systems. Each turn you flip a card from the story deck. This could announce a tournament, in which case everyone decides whether to attend, it could be an event, or it could be a quest. For a quest to happen, one player must sponsor it - that is, provide the cards that the questers will face. In turn, those that decide to go on the quest can now do so, facing a series of unknown hazards in turn. And what, you are wondering is the point of all this? Well, there is one main driver which is the card mix in your hand. If you have a lot of combat cards - swords, lances, axes, warhorses - you can confidently go on a quest or contest a tournament as the cards are played to resolve combat, and not retained. If you have a lot of foe cards, and some combat cards, you are more likely to be able to sponsor a quest and then replenish your hand at the end. All these routes lead to the aim of the game which is to earn shields, rather like D&D experience points. You start as a squire and five shields will see you promoted to knight. Seven more and you get champion honours and ten more after that wins the game.
In play, you have to carefully weigh up the odds on achieving your aims - tournaments can be bloody, and you can find yourself defeated with few cards left. Quests can vary from quite easy (a couple of errant knights and a wild boar) to the long, difficult quests such as Dragon slaying and Grail finding. The tougher the quest, the more shields on offer. A typical quest might look something like this. The quest is the Enchanted Forest, which comes in three stages and Sir Michael has decided to do it alone. Sir Gareth, the sponsor, sets up three piles of cards face down, and one by one they are revealed after Sir Michale has decided what cards to commit to them. Stage one is a test of valour - this requires a discard by Sir Michael, but because Queen Guinevere joins as an ally, this is easily passed. In a multi-player game, a test represents a funnel through which only one knight may pass - resolved by a clever bidding phase. Stage two sees an attack by a Saxon Knight, on a horse, armed with a sword (three cards). His value is 35. Sir Michael has played his lance card and a dagger, and easily beats the opponent. Stage three, which must be tougher than the previous two, is the evil knight, who is also on a charger with a lance. Because the quest card mentions the evil knight, he is 'keyed' to the quest and fights at a higher value. Sir Michael mounts his own horse (+10), thinks of the love of his good lady (+10) and draws Excalibur (+30). Curtains for the evil knight and three shields in the bank for ol' Mikey. And that is it really, a save and play the cards type game, that, for once, works simply, but rather well. The event cards are cleverer than the norm, sending home allies and so on, and the game rattles along. We liked it. It is not earth-shattering in complexity, indeed you can play on autopilot if you wish, but it is quick, atmospheric and fun.
My slight personal preference though is for Honor of the Samurai. This is almost a 'serious' enough game to take it out of the family market, and it has a number of good ideas that will appeal to gamers, not least because it is a 'pick on your opponent' game. Each player takes the role of a daimyo who is hoping to be shogun - the top dog - which title can be held and lost many times during the game. The win is determined by honour 'income', which varies each turn with setbacks and gains, but it should build steadily to 400 which is the winning margin. Honour is determined by the cards you have played at any given time - each has a rating of between 0 and 30. Each card is also rated for ki, which determines how many actions you may take in a turn, and strength, which is the combat factor of your loyal forces. So, we have cards that depict armies, wives, castles, possessions (swords, relics, even a noh theatre card) and retainers. These are built up into a 'house' - the daimyo and mrs daimyo on the top rank, with any army units and castle they have managed to acquire, and on the second rank the samurai with the same line up. In war, they combine, but with events it is sometimes possible to pick on or the other. The rest of the game is basically event cards and combat. Event cards allow such exploits as ninja assassinations, theft, cause dishonour and save face. Combat occurs whenever one daimyo decides to attack another - and believe me this is as common as it was in the real life power struggles.
The turn, again for a family game, is unusually clever. At the start you earn honour income, greatly increased if you have declared yourself shogun or taken the title from someone else. Then you have a number of actions. This can be the laying of cards in front of you to build your holding, taking new cards or playing them on others. Then you have an events phase where attacks and alliances take place. Combat is simple enough - take your army strength and divide by three, and this is how many d6s you roll. The highest total wins and it is death and burned, or captured, castles for the loser, and a move up the power ladder for the winner. Play proceeds in such bloodthirsty manner until someone has amassed the required treasury. It is rapid fire, lethal, fun and flavoursome and, I say again, a cut above the norm for the mass market.
What I liked about HotS is that it is well balanced and paced. There are intelligent restrictions placed on the size of armies, numbers of actions and even honour. Only by being shogun can you hike up your earnings substantially, at which point you quickly become a target for anyone with an effective army only too keen to relieve you of the pressures of leadership. There is also a nice rule concerning samurai who have lost their masters - they become ronin and may ally with any other player, ideally against the daimyo that left them in that state, but taking a cut of the other players honour in the process. Again, all very well structured and thought out.
I suspect the only real playing problem for these games is that they are perhaps slightly long for their target market and, by extension, as a filler or closer for gamers. With two or three players, both games are easily played to a close in around an hour, perhaps much less, which isn't too bad, but we found the games started to straggle a little with more players. Not excessively, but enough to make you think, "Mmm, a bit too long doing the same things". HotS is rather more prone to dragging, since it has the Risk Ebb and Flow 'feature', but since this is the better playing game of the two, no-one minded too much.
The only other minor reservation in this post-Magic world is that the games seem to lack card variety. Now this is probably a hollow accusation, since the games work perfectly well as they are, remain intentionally straightforward in play and are designed to satisfy a specific market, but it is interesting to note how ones tastes and expectations have changed. Perhaps they'll do an expansion set? I suppose there are 6 to 10 types of card in each game, whereas the minimum for a CCG would be around twice that, with huge sub-variations which could be numbered in hundreds in extreme cases. I couldn't stop myself thinking, "It would be good to have some more mythical monsters/samurai weapons/troop types" and so on. But this is a compliment to the game systems and in this case, I think, less is most definitely more.
Production wise, both games are nice little packages. Retailing at around $23 in the US, they should hopefully make it here for £15 or so, which is a fair price for what you get. The small boxes are colourful and tempting, the card stock of a very high standard and the HotS dice are original - they use mon markings instead of dots. The artwork, meanwhile, is patchy and rather peculiar, with the naive QotRT being by far the weaker of the two. So while it is not by any stretch the best you will see, it has a certain colourful appeal and the overall effect is pleasing. I think the poorer examples are redeemed somewhat by the thoughtful layout of the cards and to an extent by the play mechanisms which mean that you are not forever studying single cards (as in CCGs) but instead take in the whole picture. Finally, the rule books are a little iffy. They follow the increasingly common pattern of having everything in there, but not necessarily in a helpful or logical order. Nevertheless, they are far from bad, we survived and everything came out okay in the end.
Both Honor of the Samurai and Quests of the Round Table are good, solid games. They don't shine in any one area, being well rounded systems, but then they don't have any problems either. They also offer no great mechanistic innovations, as you might expect, but they are well designed with some original ideas, sufficiently tested and the play balance, and interest derived, are surprising. I think for the market in question, they have done an excellent job of providing unusual games, with interesting themes, that hopefully the gaming public, and not a few gamers, will enjoy. I don't think for a minute you will be playing these very often, or expect to see them shooting onto your Top Ten lists, but they are perfectly acceptable ways of spending a spare hour without too much brain strain, and would make ideal introductory systems for younger players or friends. The price and production are reasonable, they are not too lightweight, they display some original thought and, importantly, they work. Compare and contrast these games with the hugely disappointing Gangland! from the hobby market, or almost any other family card game you can think of, and Gamewrights instantly score points. Recommended.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell