It’s time for another first here at Up With Meeple! At the end of last year, we were fortunate enough to receive Crazy Karts, the first title sent to us by a publisher for review at the time of its retail release, rather than a game pulled from one of our personal collections. For two avid gamers with an up-and-coming review site, what could be better than that? How about getting a game for review and playtest, a brand-new title that hasn’t even been released to the general public yet? That’s exactly what happened when Bushido Breaker, an asymmetrical, hidden movement card game from Zach White of Zach & White games, arrived in our mailbox a few weeks ago.
This is also the first game we’ll be reviewing where we had no idea going in of the title’s gameplay, production value, or appeal to us as players. For most of the games we spotlight on our website (including Crazy Karts), we’ve done our homework beforehand, and usually won’t add a game to our collection without a strong suspicion we’ll like at least some aspect of it. However, Bushido Breakers represented a complete mystery to us – would it be a hidden gem, or a game with potential in need of a bit more polish? For the answer to that question (and a few more), keep reading and see if Bushido Breaker is a game we think deserves a place at our (and your) gaming table.
A battle of wits set in feudal Japan, Bushido Breaker places 2 to 4 players in the roles of ninja attempting to assassinate a Shogun and the samurai charged with defending their master. Taking place on a grid of cards representing various locations in the Shogun’s palace, the ninja player (or team of ninjas in a four-player game) must either kill all of the samurai bodyguards (five in a two-player game, seven for three or four players) stationed throughout the palace under the control of the samurai player(s) or disable alarms present at a specified number of locations and sneak their way into the Shogun’s Chamber, all while remaining undetected. The samurai win through either noticing the ninja twice and capturing them, or if they kill the ninja by engaging them in direct combat.
Each turn, players select an action to take from a starting hand of 12 cards, and a location in the Shogun’s palace where that action will be taken. The ninja’s options include kunai, blades which kill a samurai at their location; shuriken, a ranged attack used to kill a samurai at an adjacent location; sabotage alarm, which flips the location card, indicating the room’s warning system has been disabled; moving the ninja to an orthogonally adjacent location; hide, letting the ninja remain in place for the turn; and their choice of one of four single-use special cards selected prior to the game, representing either upgraded versions of the ninja’s other cards or allowing them to break one of the game’s rules. The ninja’s hand also includes the smoke bomb, which can be used once per game to escape when they would be noticed or killed by the samurai.
Each of the samurai’s options represents a direct counter to one of the ninja’s choices. The katana kills a ninja using a kunai; the yumi bow defeats an adjacent ninja employing a shuriken; check alarm detects a ninja in the same room using sabotage alarm; check exits spots ninjas moving out of a location; search room lets a samurai detect a ninja attempting to hide in their location; and move allows samurai to relocate to an orthogonally adjacent room. Like the ninja, each samurai player also selects one of four special cards to add to their hand at the beginning of the game, providing one-time powers that reinforce their position, reset alarms, or hinder the ninja in a variety of other ways.
Importantly, some cards are restricted in their use for both players. In addition to special powers and the ninja’s smoke bomb, each side begins the game with seven weapon cards (five kunai and two shuriken per ninja, five katana and two yumi per samurai player) which are discarded after being played, whether effective or not. Additionally, ninjas may only move twice in a row, and can only hide twice in a row. All other cards are unrestricted in their use, and taken back into a player’s hand at the end of the turn. One further piece of information is also available to the samurai – depending on player count, one or two locations in the palace contain a nightingale floor, a mechanical anti-intrusion device from the period which makes a distinctive noise when someone walks across it. At the end of a turn in which the ninja enters these locations, they must indicate this to their opponent by saying ‘creak.’ As the palace layout is such that the ninja cannot reach the Shogun’s chamber without passing across at least one nightingale floor, this represents another resource in the samurai’s quest to locate and defeat their opponent.
The principal twist in Bushido Breaker, however, is that the ninja’s location and action will remain, for the most part, secret. Starting the game at their choice of one of the palace’s two entrances, at the beginning of each turn, the ninja writes down their location and the action card they’ve selected on a tracking notepad kept secret from the samurai. Once the ninja enters their location and action choice into this log, the samurai player selects their action card, reveals it, and declares to the ninja the location in the palace where that action will be taken. Actions are then resolved, provided they have an appropriate target (e.g. a samurai using a katana will not be effective if the ninja is not present at that location, nor will a samurai checking exits yield results if there is no ninja there looking to move away), and any one-use cards are discarded (in the case of the ninja, face-down). Play then proceeds to the next turn, with players selecting their action and location anew. The process continues until either the ninja or samurai win by meeting the victory conditions noted above, or the 100th turn is completed, in which case the samurai win.
A Game That Sneaks Up on You
As we broke out Bushido Breaker and began to get into it, my reaction quickly went from ‘This is cute’ to ‘This is clever,’ and finally to ‘This is devilishly good.’ Although it might be described as having a basic Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanic given that the objective of each player is to guess and counter the action being taken by the other, the number of options available to each side coupled with the hidden nature of the ninja’s movement and the fact that each side (especially the samurai) needs to choose the right action and the right location elevates the Bushido Breaker to a direct battle of wits with considerable depth and strategic heft. Even in the extensive Up With Meeple gaming library, there are few other games that features hidden roles, asymmetry, and have as much direct player interaction, yet also contain almost no element of randomness aside from each player’s choice of special card (which, even then, is taken from a small, fixed pool). While I’m tempted to compare the game’s overall feel to Fury of Dracula or, to a lesser extent, the direct interaction of Star Wars: Rebellion (both perennial Up With Meeple favorites), the low randomness also gives Bushido Breaker the flavor of an abstract along the lines of Santorini. There’s a lot going on in terms of strategy and design for a game fitting into such a little box.
The head-to-head aspect of Bushido Breaker also creates a palpable tension and strong atmospheric feel. You definitely appreciate the stakes of your decisions and that just one wrong move, one incorrect prediction of what your opponent is up to, could mean the eventual difference between victory and defeat. The ninja player feels highly vulnerable, especially early in the game – they must start in one of two known places and, given they’ll lose any head-to-head martial confrontation with a samurai, are always only two wrong moves from defeat. For the samurai player, conversely, desperation starts to set in the longer the game progresses, as the ninja either clears out the samurai stationed about the palace and removes alarms, opening up the possibility that even if the samurai knows what the ninja is up to, their remaining forces aren’t in the right location to stop them. This results is a feeling of ebb-and-flow within a single game and, if you play Bushido Breaker multiple times with the same opponent(s), injects an additional layer of strategy as you try to predict what your opponent will do knowing how they’ve played their role (where they started, their opening moves, their special action cards) in past contests.
While strategic depth and balance is what sets Bushido Breaker apart from the pack, it also delivers in the theme and aesthetic departments. The cards feature slick, somewhat streamlined illustrations delivered using only five colors yet which are quite easy to tell apart at a glance, and even the playtest copy we received looked and felt close to, if not fully, like a production copy in terms of the production value and quality of materials used. Thematically, the game’s mechanics also align well with its historical setting – while Bushido Breaker could also work if reskinned to a modern spy vs. counterespionage setting without losing any of its defining features, there are few other settings that would marry nearly as well with the game’s mechanics and roles as the ninjas and samurai of feudal Japan.
Any Unfortunate Surprises?
There are really not a lot of bad things to say about Bushido Breaker. While a few points in the rulebook could be clearer, hopefully feedback from the playtesting process (including the detailed comments Austin provided from our own games) will help eliminate some of these minor ambiguities. In the end, whether you’ll want to add Bushido Breaker to your collection or not will likely come down to a matter of whether you enjoy the sort of mechanics the game delivers on so well. So, with that in mind, what else should you be aware of to best make that decision?
First, Bushido Breaker is a game of indeterminate length. While the box advertises a playtime of 30 to 60 minutes, the game can last from defeat of the ninja in just two turns up to a 100-turn contest. Given that at some point (perhaps several) in the game, the ninja player will almost undoubtedly hide and backtrack to throw pursuers off their scent, it’s a game that’s going to take awhile, and not one that can be sped through if both sides are putting forth a genuine winning effort. It’s therefore not the best option when you need a game to play while waiting for others to arrive at your gaming night, or when you’re trying to squeeze in ‘just one more game’ before people have to leave. Bushido Breaker takes time to shine, which might be five minutes or fifty.
Second, because of Bushido Breaker’s direct player interaction and need for opponents to get in each others’ heads to succeed, the game is intense. While that creates a memorable experience, depending on what type of gamer you are, it might not be the sort of game you want to play multiple times in a row. Likewise, all players need to be invested, trying their best to outsmart their opponents, for Bushido Breakers to shine – it’s not a game where you can casually converse with others in the room while you play, or something you can pick up and play halfheartedly. If you prefer games where you can plug along at your own pace with minimal interplayer interaction, or casual fare requiring less attention to what’s going on in the game, Bushido Breakers may not be the most appropriate pick.
When Zach reached out to me via our not-so-lively Facebook page (we’re big on Twitter!) about playing and reviewing his game Bushido Breaker, I tried to temper his, and my, expectations. After a pretty solid 2016 for the blog, being a stay at home dad got to me and my ability to create content, and when I did have free time, I was more likely to play games than to review them. Anyways, Zach gave me a very vague idea as to what his game was about and had a prototype copy shipped to me from Game Crafters.
About a week later, I received said package from Game Crafters and thought, “I didn’t order any games…did I?!” I popped open the small box and Bushido Breaker was starting me in the face. “Oh yeah…”
It’s kind of funny getting a game you have no expectations of. When you’ve waited 9 months or longer for a Kickstarter, a time period long enough to generate a human life, once you get the game, you usually expect to like it. If you’ve read up on an old classic board game and make an educated purchase, you usually expect to like that game too. But here was a totally unknown quantity, and it was both exciting and concerning at the same time. What if we hate it?
I quickly opened up the game. The outside box had striking graphic design, as did the game cards. I shortly set up a game to learn the rules so that Andy and I could play Bushido Breakers at our next game afternoon.
We managed to get a game in that weekend. I played as the Ninja, Andy the Samurai. As my special card, I selected Move Diagonally, which as the name suggests, let me move diagonally, and Andy selected Revelation, which would allow him to look at my discard pile. We kept what cards we took a secret, and tried not to glean any information from the rulebook as to possible special card abilities, to keep tension at a maximum. And boy, did that work!
Early on, Andy had a good idea of where I was. And then I used my special card, the only one of the 8 special cards that can be used twice, to move diagonally, triggering the Nightingale floor with a “creak”. This flummoxed Andy, he was pretty sure he knew where I was, but now I’m effectively 2 moves away from there? A bit later, Andy played Revelation, but it didn’t provide the information he was looking for, as my card hadn’t been discarded. Then a few more moves later, I moved diagonally again, then assassinated a Samurai, and this broke poor Andy’s brain. His expression was priceless. I had killed several Samurai, but then found that the easier path to victory was going to be dismantling alarms, so I ended up dismantling all of the alarms as we were playing that objective wrong in the 2 player game (it was actually harder than it had to be), and earned the victory.
The following week, we got in two more plays, switching roles for the first play, and back again for the second. Andy was successful in the first game, and then again in the second, winning in just 3 turns. I asked Zach if he’d seen a “perfect game”, and he informed me in play testing he defeated his wife in 2 moves, Kunai vs. Katana twice in the Entrance.
A few days later I got a 4 player game in. The two of us that were Ninja started in opposite Entrances (not planned, the Ninja cannot communicate). The Samurai did an action in both locations, finding both of us. I was able to slip into the shadows, but my cohort was quickly dispatched a handful of moves later. Now it was 1 vs. 2, and the 2 had no idea where I was. I had also taken Blowgun as my special card, and very early, I had used that against a Samurai, which poisons him and kills him the following round, and then assassinated another Samurai in another location with the Shuriken, thus killing two Samurai in a single round myself. My opponents brains broke once again, and they had the same (hilarious) expression on their faces.
I soon “creaked” a floor, giving some information as to my whereabouts, doubled back, hid, moved, hid, etc., etc., leaving the two Samurai grasping at straws. Watching them talk each other out of good ideas and strategies was highly entertaining. Once back on my trail, the thrill of knowing they know where I am and me knowing I’ve got slim margins of error to make moves got the ol’ heart rate up. It felt like every turn I had a lot of chips in a poker pot, on a stone cold bluff, but I knew my opponent didn’t have a hand either, and it was just a matter of who had the intestinal fortitude to take a stab at winning.
Eventually, I lost the 1 vs. 2 due to lack of resources. The Samurai took Reinforcements, meaning my clever early kills were just replaced by more Samurai, and had it gotten to the point where I was going to escape via disarming alarms, they also took Repair Alarms. Without a partner to do any assassinating or dismantling of alarms, I just didn’t have enough resources in my Ninja pockets to win.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my plays of Bushido Breaker. My 2 vs. 2 play of Bushido Breakers is a Top 5 Play of 2017!
And while I’ve had a blast playing the game, there are a few issues that I’ve been pondering.
The rulebook, while nice and concise, is a bit vague in areas. Zach has been great about replying to questions and input, and I imagine the rules we received were still being worked on.
Of the cards, I felt like the Samurai’s Yumi, which counters the Ninja Shuriken, is a literal stab in the dark. It feels like the least likely thing to trigger in the game, and not one I’ve seen work as yet. It’s hard enough to guess what the Ninja is going to do when you know where they are and have a Samurai in place. Taking a wild stab that they may throw one of their 2 Shuriken out of that locale seems like a stretch.
Besides the indeterminate length of a game, it’s a rare game I’ve played with Player Elimination. Now in some games, like King of Tokyo you’re (generally) back in a new game quick enough. In our 4 player game, this was not the case. The killed Ninja, while enjoying the battle of wits as a spectator, was still stuck watching for around 45 minutes. In hindsight, losing him so early in the game, I should’ve ended the game early to start over and go again.
On the flip side, getting found out and ultimately defeated in 3 moves seems like maybe there is something to the beginning of the game that could be tweaked to make sure both sides get out of the starting blocks, but a game isn’t won or lost in a minute or so? A thought I’ve had is the Ninja get a free action from their chosen action without a Samurai response.
Lastly, while I really do like the overall look of the graphic design, I have a little trouble eyeballing whether the Shiro Entrances have their alarms intact of disabled. This is a minor thing, but in a game where staring at the board could give your opponents important information, worth mentioning. Otherwise I greatly enjoyed the minimalist approach to the graphic design, both in art and color palette.
The best word to sum up Bushido Breaker is elegant – applicable to the game’s core mechanics, its visual style, and the historical period in which it is set. Although the direct, head-to-head experience isn’t my favorite type of game personally (it creates an atmosphere so darn intense I can’t play it two or more times in a single sitting), I can see it becoming a favorite with a broad range of gamers who thrive on titles asking you to directly match wits with your opponent. Even if that’s not you, anyone appreciating well-designed mechanics with little to no random elements (I’m looking at you, Euro fans) will find something to like here, and a reason to strongly consider including Bushido Breaker in their library.
Silver medal games are great games, games you make a point to play. They’re a ton of fun, and usually stand out because they do at least one thing really well, like having tight mechanics, unique gameplay, or outstanding production value.
By Zach White
Zach & White