7 Ronin isn’t the first game we’ve played that was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s timeless martial arts drama, Seven Samurai. The last time we reviewed one such game, it was the excellent Samurai Spirit – a cooperative game which was as wildly difficult as it was inexplicably bereft of female characters (and don’t give me that historical accuracy nonsense – the samurai in the movie couldn’t turn into human/animal hybrids either, but they sure can in that game).
Today, though, we turn Grey Fox Games‘ take on the whole ‘samurai defend the village from bandits’ plot, this time with a decidedly uncooperative bend. 7 Ronin is a game for 2, where one player takes on the role of the ronin, working desperately to defend the village from ever-increasing waves of marauding ninja, while the other player controls said ninja, just marauding like mad all over the damn place.
Each round is played out over 3 phases, and the game lasts at most 8 rounds:
- Planning, where players secretly deploy their units around the village
- Combat, where players resolve ronin abilities, deal wounds, and trigger area abilities
- End, where the ronin player reclaims his surviving warriors, and the time marker advances
The Ronin player controls all seven ronin at once. Each one has a special ability, most of which trigger when that ronin isn’t in a sector with ninja:
- Hayai, the rider, can swiftly relocate to a sector with bandits
- Yumi, the archer, will snipe a ninja in the Ninja Reserve
- Taiko, the healer, can remove an injury from another ronin
- Yobu, the…jerk?, can eject up to 2 ninja into adjacent areas
- Musashi, the swordsman, will kill a ninja without taking injury
- Tasuke, the team player, can travel with another ronin and help distribute injuries
- Kabe, the big guy, has no power aside from more hit points than anyone else
During combat, ninja placed on the same area as any ronin get killed, but each one is added to that ronin as an injury. Should a ronin ever run out of spaces for injuries, they have fallen and are permanently removed from the game.
The ninja attacking the village are as generic as can be, but if the ninja control any area of the village at the end of the Combat phase, they can trigger the ability of that area:
- Watchtower: wound each ronin in an adjacent space
- Granary: Add 2 ninja to the Ninja Reserve
- Well: Wound 1 ronin anywhere on the board
- Animal Pen: Trap 1 ronin on the board (they can’t be moved for next turn)
- Shrine: Choose a ronin – they can’t use their ability next turn
- Burial Ground: Return up to 2 ninjas from the village to the reserve
- Passage: Move 2 ninjas from the reserve to the village
- Fields: No power, but occupying both counts as 3 territories toward a ninja victory
- Inn: Copy the power of another occupied area
- Village Green: Send extra ninjas, beyond what is allowed by the Threat limit, into the village
The goal of the Ronin player is to hold off the ninja for 8 turns – should they manage to do so (or manage to kill all the ninja), the village is saved at they win. The Ninja player seeks to control 5 areas of the village (or 4, if two of those areas are Fields), or to simply assassinate all the ronin.
Andrew: Core to the concept of 7 Ronin is asymmetrical play; players will both be trying to get themselves into position to control/defend key areas of the village, like the Passage or Watchtower, but must also anticipate what their opponent is likely to do, so as to either avoid or intercept as needed.
Jess: Yeah, I love how the balance of the game shifts over the course of the 8 rounds, too. At first, a few ninja show up, maybe do some damage, but seem totally manageable. But once it starts ramping up, especially if they get control of a few spots early on, your ronin will find themselves overrun and bleeding.
Andrew: I know! the asymmetry means that both players have lots of little things to consider, but ultimately it’s a game about figuring out your opponent’s strategy and then countering it. And despite the large number of area and ronin abilities, its not a complicated game.
Jess: And yet, turns, especially late game, can be so thinky! It’s all about the head-game; I know you want control of the granary, so I should defend it. But I know you know that, so maybe I should send a ronin to the second-best spot instead. But if you know that I know that you know…
7 Ronin is a really fun game for 2. Even for players like us, who generally shy away from direct competition, the hidden unit assignment and area control core made 7 Ronin feel different than your average ‘take that’ style of gameplay.
Jess: I don’t think it feels ‘take that’y at all, actually. Everything is about anticipation, rather than reacting to your opponent to ruin their day.
Andrew: Totally. It’s more a game of strategy than contention, and I love that. I also love the production and presentation. All the boards and bits are really nice, and the player screens give you everything you need at a glance.
Jess: Tiny ninja stars for the win!
We think 7 Ronin is a solid addition to anyone who games as a pair. The limited player count works in its favor, giving each player just enough things to think about that there is some real strategy without bogging it down with excess baggage (like 2 additional players). For a gamer couple, it’s a perfect light/medium weight game, and its always fun to play it twice back-to-back, swapping roles each time.
If asymmetrical ninja combat sounds like your idea of a good time, we highly recommend you check out 7 Ronin!