Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Michael Nietzler &
Oliver Wolf

GAMEHEADS / Heidelberger

No. of Players:
3 - 5



A recurring theme for board- and cardgames always has been the simulation of conflicts between Nobles in feudal Japan, and here some great games like Reiner Knizia's Samurai or Shogun by MB will be fondly remembered. And now, once again the theme has been resurrected for another boardgame, and this time it is the small German design group GAMEHEADS - which has successfully published their dartgun-game Cop & Killer in 2007 - who has decided to release their new game Bushido in cooperation with HEIDELBERGER.

On first sight Bushido offers most of the elements which are known from one wargame or another, so that at the beginning of the game each player owns a Clan fortress on a map made up of hexagonal landscape tiles (provinces) and troops are placed in turn to distribute all provinces between the players. According to the characteristics of the provinces owned, each player adjusts his scores of available reinforcements (Katana symbols), troop allowances (rice bowls - Koku) and Daymio Honour (according to the value of the province). The Daymio Honour resembles the personal Honour of the player and is of special importance, since the first player to reach 50 Daymio Honour or otherwise the player with most Daymio Honour after 12 rounds will win the game. After the provinces were chosen and each was marked with one troop of the owning player, each player receives additional troops up to the level of the troop allowance of his combined provinces. All these troops are freely distributed to the players' provinces to finish the start setup of the gameboard.


In addition to the troops on the board, each player receives four tactics disks and ten combat markers which may be used in combat. Three of the tactics disks held at the beginning are fixed, whereas a fourth disk is randomly drawn from the pile of remaining disks. Also, each player gets two markers "Bonus Honour", and these may be used as an incentive for other players during the course of the game. Finally, since the players will not just act as Daymio in their own turns, but they may act as a Samurai during other players' turns, they receive a marker for noting their score of Samurai Honour. At the beginning each player starts with a fixed score of 10 Samurai Honour.

So far the elements available in Bushido might suggest some familiarity, but as you will see the rules for Bushido offer a few twists which are quite unexpected. Most striking here is the fact that a player is not able to fight his own battles, but instead he will have to chose an other player who will fight a battle for him. This unusual procedure is initiated at the beginning of a round when the active player receives a set of role cards which he distributes between the players, and in a five player games the available roles to be distributed by the active player are the Samurai, the Bushi, the Sensei and the Hatamoto. The fifth role - the Daymio - is kept by the active player, since it is his turn to act with his Noble.

Before a battle takes place the Daymio may move any of his troops between all adjacent provinces, and then he chooses a province he wants to conquer by moving some of his troops into an adjacent province owned by the player who was assigned the role of Bushi. After the combat move has been made, the Daymio has to leave the conduct of the Battle with the Bushi player to the player who was assigned the role of Samurai, so that it will now be in the hands of the Samurai player whether the Daymio will win a new province or whether the Bushi will keep it.

To find the result of the combat both the Bushi and Samurai players each bet a secret amount of combat markers (values from "1" to "3"), and in addition each of the players choses a tactics disk for the battle. Markers and tactics disks are revealed simultaneously, and the combination of the tactics disks chosen by both players will have an influence on the value of the used combat markers. So, for example, the honourable duel is seen to be more valuable than the open battle and will double the value of the combat markers of its user, whereas the battle is too crowded to use assassins so that the value of the markers of the battle disk user will be doubled. However, as you might have guessed, the sneaky assassins will overcome the honourable duelist, so that this constellation will result in a doubling of the battle markers of the assassins player. In any case, the battle is lost by the player with the lower total of combat markers, and the loser must remove troops equal to the difference between the two results.

This are just a few examples for the basic rules applicable to the use of the three standard tactics disks which each player receives at the beginning of the game. However, there apart from the doubling of the value of the combat markers the use of specific tactics disks also may cause additional losses or other results which come from the collision of certain tactics. Furthermore, there exists a traitor disk which always will result in the instant loss of a battle.

After the battle the used tactics disks and combat markers will be discarded. The winner of the battle will collect Samurai Honour according to the number of defeated troops and markers used, and should the Samurai succeed in defeating all troops of the Bushi the province will the conquered for the Daymio. This means that the Katana, Koku and Daymio markers of the new owner and the former owner need to be adjusted according to the values of the province, and the successful Samurai will receive Samurai Honour according to the Honour value of the province. To give the Samurai a further incentive to win the battle, the Daymio also may have chose to place one or both of his Bonus Honour markers before the beginning of the battle, and if the Samurai should have conquered the province he will gain the Bonus Honour as well. If the Bushi was successful he gains Samurai Honour in a similar manner, and in the case he loses the battle but not all of his troops he will keep the province and for the remaining Daymio troops to retreat into an adjacent province.

As you can see, only the Daymio player can gain Daymio Honour as a result of a battle, whereas all gains by either the Samurai or the Bushi are recorded as Samurai Honour. However, troop movement and combat is only part of a whole player's turn, and there exists mechanics for the use of Samurai Honour and rules for the players with the other roles which make it interesting to have a look at the rest of a turn sequence.

Before the role cards are distributed, the Daymio starts his turn with an reinforcement phase in which he replenishes his stockpile of combat markers according to his current reinforcement level and also receives tactics disks to get back to a maximum of four disks. Also, the Daymio may invite another player to a Tea Ceremony, provided he possesses at least 5 points of Samurai Honour. If the other player agrees, the Daymio player has to transfer 5 points of Samurai Honour to the guest, and then the Daymio may exchange additional points of Samurai Honour for Daymio Honour on a 2:1 base. However, the other player also may refuse the invitation, thus insulting the Daymio and resulting in a loss of two points of Daymio Honour of the host. However, such an insult is not without a price, and the refusing player thus will lose 10 points of Samurai Honour. Finally, in addition to a Tea Ceremony the Daymio also may purchase additional Daymio Honour by trading in several of his markers for military strength (specific combat markers)

It should be noted here that the random stockpile of combat markers does not only contain markers with a strength value which may be used in battle, but a certain amount of these markers also presents small images which may be used for specific effects. These effect markers now may be played by the Sensei player, and after he has chosen which effects he wanted to player all other players are allowed to play effects as well on a two-for-one base. The powers of these effects vary from the initiation of an additional Tea Ceremony over the invitation of a Geisha which ends the current player's turn to the sending of a spy which allows a player to study for one minute all disks and markers behind an other player's screen. However, there also exist the Ronin, unaligned Samurai which may be placed into any player's province. The Hatamoto player may place any Ronin on a one-for-one base, and after all effects have been played he may chose a province on of the current Daymio containing at least one Ronin to initiate a revolt. This revolt is fought between the Hatamoto and Daymio player following the standard battle procedure, but neither the Hatamoto nor the Daymio gains Honour as an outcome. Instead, a revolt may result in the fact that the current owner has lost all troops in the rebellious province, and in that case the province becomes neutral and is lost to the player.

Apart from playing effect markers on a cheaper basis, the Sensei player also functions as a counsellor in case the Samurai player has lost a battle for the Daymio. In this case the Sensei has to make a suggestion how the Daymio should punish the unsuccesful Samurai, and this punishment usually means the loss of 2 to 10 points of Samurai Honour. However, if the Sensei should possess a Seppuku (suicide) marker, he may use it to suggest that the Samurai should commit Seppuku, thus loosing all his Samurai Honour. However, the decision whether to follow the suggestion of the Sensei remains with the Daymio, and if his decline to follow the suggestion the Samurai only loses one point of Honour as a minimal punishment. If, on the other hand, the Daymio follows the Sensei's suggestion, the Seinsei gains one point of Daymio Honour for his well-give advice.

Finally, the Sensei also is a judge for the situation in the land. Before a turn ends he decides whether there is enough unrest in the country to justify additional reinforcements, and if he should vote for reinforcements each player receives up to three additional combat markers, depending on the number of the turn. In this final phase it is also possible that a player choses to play one of the rare Kowtow disks which may be found in the random deck of tactics disks. By playing this disk the player makes a visit to the Emperor, asking him for assistance either in form of additional combat markers or by speeding up or slowing down the game by one turn. Only one Kowtow disk may be played per turn, so that these effects cannot be doubled within a single turn.

When the game comes to its end only each player's Daymio honour will be counted. Samurai Honour is lost, so that the players should see to converting it into Daymio Honour before the end comes. However, due to a cleverly timed Kowtow such efforts or plans may be spoiled, so that it is especially important to mention these implications of a Kowtow when explaining the rules to a new player. Otherwise, a newcomer to Bushido may experience a rather unsatisfactory surprise.

Although this long review and the different powers of each role might be interpreted as a hint at a considerable level of strategy, the efforts of the players are often spoiled by unforeseeable events. Due to the fact that all players participate within the scope of their roles during the active player's turn, unforeseen events may happen so that it becomes difficult to develop and follow a lasting strategy. Too many things might change, and this dependence on luck leaves a somewhat strange feeling for a game which is clearly meant as a strategic challenge. An example here might be that a player becomes active player and counts on acting before the game ends, but a Geisha is played so that his turn is forfeit and he will not stand a chance to act again before the game is over. Here it might be countered that the player could have watched how many Geishas have been used and could have speculated on the odds against him, but for me such an ending is a bit arbitrary since it just depends on the fact whether an other player was lucky to draw one (or two) Geishas.

However, such an abrupt change will not happen in every game, and if players can live with a certain degree of luck Bushido will have a chance to present its merits. Here the delicate combat mechanism and the distribution off roles should be mentioned upfront, and especially the fact that an other player has to fight a battle for the active player is a rather innovative challenge. Players cannot satisfy themselves by positioning their armies, but they also have to think how to motivate the others to cooperate. Interests need to be weighted, and so the distribution of roles at the beginning of a player's turn is no mere act of preference but actually a rather decisive question.

After the more action-orientated Cop & Killer the GAMEHEADS designers once again have come up with an interesting, unusual novelty. Bushido has no flaws on the side of design and game materials, and the rules show clearly that Michael Nietzler and Oliver Wolf have a keen eye for innovation. Many new designers come up with a resurrection and re-composition of older ideas, but to my mind Bushido offers a very high degree of originality.

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Copyright © 2008 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany