Monday, December 19, 2011

Evil Spirits, Smelly Swordsmen, and Drunks: Albe Pavo's "Sake & Samurai"

Hiya, kids! It’s yer old pal, the Brickster, settin’ pen ta paper in his inaugural offerin’ on the SA’s Shogun-ki. Now, while some may take this as a sign of the Age of Mappo’s advent, the rest’a you can enjoy my hard-hittin’ commentary on the important issues of the day-as long as the day in question happened in pre-modern Japan. While we were gonna do a review of some sweater vest-wearin’ college egghead’s thesis on why everyone that likes “Kill Bill” and “The Last Samurai” is a die-hard racist, instead, we’re gonna take a look at the excellent new card/board game “Sake & Samurai” from Albe Pavo. I mean, who’s more familiar with either sake or samurai than the Brickster? And as a special bonus, we’re not only doin’ a review of this kewl game but includin’ an interview with the game’s designer, Matteo Santus! Before we commence to reviewin’, here’s the backstory to the game from its official press release:

“A few samurai warriors are sitting at a table in a small inn, talking and bragging about swords, women and honour. Sake flows freely, but not even the cellars of Bishamon, the God of War, could quench the thirst of Japan’s greatest swordsmen. Servants run for cover, knowing full well where all this is going. Suddenly an eerie silence fills the common room. On the table, only one full cup remains. Who will get the last drink? Will it be the elder of the group, or shall the greatest warrior have it? Time seems to stretch to infinity, until one hand makes a move towards the cup. Such insolence! This insult shall not be tolerated! The elder goes for his sword... We shall never know whether the bold samurai was taking the cup for himself or only to hand it over to his venerable companion. It does not matter: all warriors take offense and draw their katana, joining the fight at the call of SAAKEEE!”

YEEESSSSSSS!!!!! Admit it-you’ve seen this scenario in one form or another in practically every chanbara or jidaigeki film ever made, especially those starrin’ Mifune Toshiro. Most samurai had more arrogance and shorter fuses than your average gang-banger. And now you can bring the action of those thrillin’ films of yesteryear home in the ultimate party game for samurai otaku-“Sake & Samurai”. When I first heard about this game from Tatsu over at the SA, I KNEW I had to have it, and he was able to set me up with one. Even better, I was able to get a copy of the special ‘Superalcoholic Edition’ that was released for the Lucca Comics & Games convention in Italy-after all, the Brickster deserves nothin’ less! The game is good for three-eight players (nine for the special edition), although you can make do with two (each playin’ two samurai). It takes about 35 minutes to finish with four players. The first thing we noticed is that the game components are extremely well done-they’re sturdy and will hold up to repeated play. The artwork is exemplary (yeah, I used a thesaurus)-very detailed, attractive, and each of the nine characters has a completely unique look. The sake drink markers are cool little pieces of clear glass.

The object of the game is to be the drunkest samurai still standin’ at the end of the Sudden Death round. In game terms, drunkenness is judged by the amount of sake drinks taken from the masu by each player. This isn’t as easy as it sounds-each drink taken impairs the abilities of the swordsmen, and grabbin’ too many too early will make players a hooched up stumblebum unable to defend themselves. Sake can be burned up in an emergency to play an extra card or draw a card at an opportune moment, but then you’ve lost it for good. Players who ignore drinkin’ in order to concentrate on swordplay and killin’ their opponents run the risk of lettin’ a low lyin’ lush squeak by with the win-not to mention givin’ the dead players a good shot at ultimate victory. Ya see, when you’re killed in the game, you don’t drop out-you become an onryo (a spirit with a GRUDGE) and a minion of the jealous and thirsty God of Death, Enma. Enma makes the dead players his slaves, havin’ them work as a team (and usin’ the front of the cards rather than the backs) to steal sake from the masu, torment the livin’, or use their awesome magikal powerz to move around sake, cards, and player positions. Yes, you can die and STILL win the game! How cool is that? Only in Japan. As you can see, it’s a delicate balancin’ act each player has to perform-when to drink, when to fight, and even when to die.

Players can choose from such famous swordsmen and warriors as Ito Ittosai, (Yagyu) Jubei Mitsuyoshi, Musashi Miyamoto, Yagyu Munenori, and (in the special edition) Yamanaka Shikanosuke. There are also several characters that weren’t noted as swordsmen-Date Masamune, Hojo Masako, Takezaki Suenaga, and Tomoe Gozen. Sengoku Basara to the contrary, Date wasn’t known as bein’ a particularly good swordsman. Masako was a big time mover and shaker in the late Heian/Kamakura eras, but likely couldn’t tell her tsuka from her kissaki. Takezaki was the bumblin’ samurai whose goofy antics were immortalized in the Mongol Invasion Scrolls. And Tomoe-well, fictional character. But so what? The game designers knew all this, but figured they’d be just as much fun to play as the other guys. Each character has their own special ability and toughness (the amount of wounds they can sustain before dyin’). Players make their own gameboard by placin’ their samurai cards with blocks between each-each block represents one step between opponents, and affects what weapons can be used against a foe. Distances can be closed (which opens up the distance to the opponent on your other side), and you can never pass by a foe, since a’course samurai never give way. At game’s start (before the free-for-all breaks out), each player is sittin’-this allows a one-time Iaido strike while yer still sittin’, but once you stand, you’ll never sit down again-at least while yer livin’.

One of the cooler card mechanics is that you can use the text on the card or one of the four values it gives for movement, attack, defense, or (best of all) drinkin’. This means that there’s really no such thing as a bad hand of cards-every card has somethin’ useful on it. In an emergency, you can also burn up your soul to access the cards that comprise your life force-this costs you wounds and brings you closer to death, but might provide you with the boost you need to avoid a fatal strike or come out on top. For all the options the game gives you, it’s actually pretty easy to learn. It’s a great party game as well since everyone tends to survive one way or the other until endgame.

While goin’ through the rules, we were also amused as hell by the sense of humor the game showed. Whimsical rules abound, like requirin’ the other players to refer to the senior combatant with an honorific added. Since the Brickster was the honored elder, I made ‘em call me “El Conquistador”. Some of the deadliest attacks in the game come from throwin’ riceballs or ramen at your foes, or usin’ some rude bodily function to keep them at bay (like “Strategic Stench”, a technique the historical Musashi was noted for). You can even make your dastardly foes spew up their sake, causin’ em to lose a turn. Minions are provided, and they prove to be perfect cannon fodder for their ‘sensei’, absorbin’ killin’ blows and sacrificin’ themselves on hopeless, idiotic attacks. Albe Pavo has even included an origami masu to place the ‘sake drinks’ in, and they challenge the players to ‘prove themselves’ by foldin’ it up correctly. The game really draws you into the settin’-you’ll have the feel of bein’ in a chanbara film and bustin’ up the local tavern, as well as those other sword-carryin’ clowns who stand between you and the last drink.

While all that technical stuff is great, it remained to be seen just how much fun the game was. So the Brickster put together an all-star team of drinkers from the Studio-me, my wife and co-star Koyori, and two extras that happened to walk by (Mushi Takezo and Chiba Kaede). While you can set the game in several locations (each with its own special benefits and drawbacks), this bein’ our first try we stuck with the sake den. We did amend the rules a bit-samurai boards are supposed to be random but we all picked our own. Takezo took the character he played on season one of “Abarenbo Gaijin”, Miyamoto Musashi. Kaede (who plays one of Ko’s shrine maidens on the show) took Tomoe Gozen. Ko took Hojo Masako, a perfect choice since they’re both gorgeous, intimidatin’, and fearsome women. The Brickster took Date Masamune, since we’re both notorious fer bein’ one-eyed, although in vastly diff’rent ways. We also used our “Ayame, Princess Of The Iris Blossom” plate to hold the sake drinks instead of the origami masu, which the Brickster had ruined earlier by tryin’ it out fer real. And just to add a tad more realism to the proceedin’s, we decided to down a real cup of sake every time we gulped a ‘virtual one’ in the game. There were also penalty cups to be quaffed, just like in every Japanese drinkin’ game, with circumstances to be determined by the Brickster’s infinite wisdom. The gals decided they wanted shochu while the Brickster and Takezo stuck to sake blessed by the deities of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Here’s the initial board setup:

As you can see, the Brickster used “Nomihoudai”, his special sake set crafted by Sen No pRikyu in the 16th century, as a psychological ploy against the other players. Hey, Japanese women can drink most adults under the table, so I needed all the help I could get. Kaede, havin’ the toughest character (Tomoe), was set upon by Takezo and Ko in the early rounds while the Brickster amused hisself by drinkin’ and chuckin’ the occasional riceball at their noggins. Things turned ugly when it dawned on the others that I was bogartin’ the masu, and the Brickster found hisself on the receivin’ end of some deadly thrown chopsticks, a monstrous belch, and brought to his knees by a card that gave him blurred vision. As sloshed as my character was in game terms (not to mention real life), he had nothin’ to play to keep it from happenin’. However, Ko took pity at my plight and knocked Kaede out of the game on the next turn with a three point naginata strike that made her character an instant spirit. This distracted Takezo who turned his attention to Ko, allowin’ the Brickster to take him down for good with a ranged shot of Burning Ramen. Takezo joined Kaede in the spirit world and Koyori drew the final sake drink from the masu-plungin’ us into the Sudden Death round. After the first Sudden Death round, the Brickster and Koyori were tied at three drinks each and the dumbass spirits of Enma had none. Hah! I ain’t fraid’ of no ghost. As per the rules, they had ta commit seppuku because “Pride does not vanish after death”. So that left me and Ko to fight it out for final supremacy.

You’ll notice that the Brickster’s ‘sittin’ counter is still there at endgame. Yeah, that’s right-I got through the entire rumble without havin’ my samurai get outta his chair! This has as much to do with my brilliant strategy as it does Date Masamune (or me) bein’ a lazy bastard. The other players got caught up in swordplay and fightin’ each other, losin’ sight of the final goal-bein’ the drunkest samurai still alive. If I learned anythin’ from Lex Luthor in “Justice League Unlimited” it was to never lose sight of the final goal, and get everyone else to do your dirty work for you. Me, I sat back, knocked down sake every round, instigated the others into attackin’ each other (like “Hey, Kaede, I don’t care what Koyori says-I don’t think yer ass is fat”), and defendin’ myself on the rare occasions I got assaulted. In other words, it was a lot like real life.

Things began to get interestin’ when Kaede, no longer in the struggle but still gamely sluggin’ back shochu, began to perform the traditional Shinto dance “Ama no Uzume”, which looked even better when performed topless. However, a smack to the back of my head by Ko brought me back to the unfoldin’ struggle. Since I was still sittin’, I still had the option of usin’ my deadly Iaido attack and also had a hand fulla kickass cards. I chuckled as I began to slap down the card that would spell Ko’s doom, but she gave that petulant, drunken glare that said “Don’t even THINK about playing that card unless you want the rest of your life to be a barren, living hell”. Rememberin’ that the wise general knows when to lose the battle to win the war, I burned up one of my sake drinks and then played a card that I knew would net me nothin’, makin’ Ko the happy winner and relegatin’ the Brickster to the loser’s circle. But remember what I said about never losin’ sight of the final goal? Ko, bein’ flushed with victory and large amounts of alcohol, unceremoniously booted out our guests and proceeded to take the Brickster as her prize, makin’ me the big winner of the evenin’.

So as you can tell, we had a great time playin’ the game-lotsa laughs and some good competition that went down to the wire. This got the Brickster thinkin’ that it might be fun to see just what the hell was goin’ through the minds of the designers when they put this game together-they’re definitely my kind of people. So we contacted the game’s designer Matteo Santus to find out the story behind this little gem.

BRICK: Tell us a little bit about Albe Pavo-how the company got started, its projects to date, and some projects we can look forward to in the future.

MATTEO: We’re three friends who love boardgames and did game designing for fun for many day I thought: why not publish our projects? They are good! And so here we are, the white peacock was born! We love history, love games and love to fight each other over a board! And also we love to design and to bring new ideas to life!

We have many projects in the works: we are working on a game completely different from our previous ones-its name is WINTER TALES and it's about fables. And we also have other games under development...what do you think of "BEER AND VIKINGS"? It will be stand-alone and compatible with "SAKE & SAMURAI"!

BRICK: Most samurai games revolve around bushido, loyalty, bravery, and all sorts’a BS centerin’ on the myth of the 'noble samurai'. "Sake & Samurai", however, revolves around drunken, violent, and petty ronin swordsmen with attacks like Musashi's "Strategic Stench", vomitin’, and food fights-showin’ the warriors of old Japan as they really were. Why’d you forego the traditional approach and stick to reality?

MATTEO: History is never polished and clean. Bravery, loyalty, bushido, nobility: all so great as to reach the heavens! But Samurai lived on earth and on earth there is mud and dirt and blood and.. Sakeeee!!! Have you ever seen the film "7 Samurai" (Shichinin no Samurai) by Kurosawa? There you can find our kind of Samurais! :D We wanted to portray the code of bushido in the gloom of a tavern, all around the same table with the precious Sake running down! But we did not want to be too serious, so we imagined these dirty versions of the noble samurai! "Take this! Chopsticks in your eyes!!! "

BRICK: Lettin’ defeated players return as spirits to bedevil their former foes (and also gettin’ a shot at a piece of the win) is a brilliant game mechanic. How’d this end up in the game?

MATTEO: If you eliminate from the game one of your friends this could be sad! And in party games this can be a big mistake! Here, if you die, you became a spirit: everybody knows that! And what is worse than an angry spirit with thirst and lust for Sake? But Spirits are dead, so don't do the same things as living people! So we designed their gameplay completely different and we really like the way they play! We've been inspired both in mechanics and graphic design by Japanese histories of ghosts.

BRICK: Was includin’ cards for Hojo Masako and Tomoe Gozen done to get the ladies to try their hands at the game? I’m all fer that!

MATTEO: Surely it is good, but many times ladies want to play as a man: the bigger-dirtier-uglier, the better! And ladies can be really cruel with a sword in their hands…like in Kill Bill!

BRICK: Well, if there was a card for Hagfat in the game, you could be both female and the biggest-dirtiest-ugliest. Speakin’ of which, the artwork for the game looks great and goes well with the theme. Can you tell us a bit more about the artist, Jocularis?

MATTEO: Jocularis is an extremely versatile painter! We plan the game together so he is not only the "visual designer" for Albe Pavo, but has participated in every step of the game design development too. In “Munera” we chose to have a design connected to the "old school" masterpieces of Pompei, for example. Here in Sake, you can see a humorous point of view of the Samurai. This was carefully decided during Game Design steps. The visual aspect of the game should appear perfectly related to the game mechanics and theme. All should work together to give you the experience of a good play: Jocularis is the man trying to resolve this complex design.

BRICK: Guessin’ from the game's backstory and action, it looks like you've seen your share of chanbara and samurai movies. Besides my own classics like “Shogun Sexecutioner” or “Maeda Keiji, Sengoku Stud” what films or TV shows would you suggest watchin’ to set the mood for "Sake & Samurai"?

MATTEO: We loved the movie "The 7 Samurai" of Kurosawa, where the samurai were so human: dirty and rough! Also the manga "Vagabond" about Musashi Miyamoto’s history is really wonderful. About paintings we looked a lot at Hokusai, and all Ukiyo-e Art.

BRICK: What are some “Sake & Samurai” strategy tips you can impart to players?

MATTEO: Strike at the right time at who is drinking more than you: not too early, not too late! And if things get bad, join the dark side: became a spirit!

BRICK: Finally, what’s your opinion on the age old question-"Is it better to have your sake or to drink it?"

MATTEO: Drink it! Then find more and drink again!

BRICK: Thanks, Matteo! Gotta say, I never knew a game designer could have such a sense’a humor. Best’a luck to you and Albe Pavo in the future.

So there ya have it. “Sake & Samurai” is a game that can be appreciated by casual players, chanbara film enthusiasts, and drunks of all persuasions. It’s a pretty easy game to just sit down and play (especially if you grab the ‘quick start’ rules from its page on Boardgame Geek) and unlike some card/boardgames where you can get screwed by a bad hand, your skill at maxin’ out the advantages of your cards is the determinin’ factor. There’s fightin’, drinkin’, bad manners, dancin’, singin’, and hot chicks. Although the dancin’, singin’, and chicks are usually prompted by the drinkin’ rather than built into the game. It’s just like a typical night out at any of Kyoto’s most exclusive nightspots, but you can enjoy it in the privacy of your own home and not have to worry about bouncers, the cops, or high-strung terchy yakuza thugs. “Sake & Samurai” is both fun and challengin’, and the perfect party game. Our group loved it and it’s a good bet you will too-check it out on the Albe Pavo website, or look for it from other online boardgame distributors.

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