Samurai Gardener is a filler, speed-based card game for 2-5 players, designed by Hisashi Hayashi and published by Osprey Games in 2017. It was released originally as Edo Yashiki in 2013.
How many people out there like Spit? You know, the card game that’s a lot like regular Klondike solitaire, only it involves speedily and repeatedly slapping tables, cards, or someone’s hand on the way to victory? Have you ever wondered what Spit would look like with actual, modern game mechanisms?
Well, wonder no more! Samurai Gardener takes the basic ‘speed’ mechanism of Spit and adds, among other things, a spatial recognition element. As opposed to making an unremarkable pile of sequential numbers, you construct a visually striking, panoramic garden full of paths, ponds, and other land features.
Does Samurai Gardener add enough “gamer” elements to the speed card game formula to make it stand out? Can people do well and have fun with the strategic parts of the game, as well as with the speed aspect?
How to play Samurai Gardener
Samurai Gardener comes with a main deck of 64 cards, each of which depict a 2×3 grid of different land tiles. It also provides five sets of four feature cards which will help guide your choices from turn to turn.
At the beginning of every round, one player will deal cards to the center of the table equal to the number of players. When someone says “go!” (the book asks for someone to say “Ei!” “Ei!” which, believe me, gets old quickly), every player chooses a card, places their hands on it, and pulls it into their tableau. I say “places”, but in practice, you slap the card you want as quickly as you can before someone else takes it. If someone beats you to it, then you simply take any card that remains.
Once you have the card you want, you then place it into your growing personal tableau. You score points based on completing rows of like features – pond to pond, path to path, etc. If you manage to get a path of three, four or five, you score! Anything over five, though, doesn’t get you anything. In addition, you score bonus points if you manage to complete multiple rows on a single card placement.
In a normal game, you will have a set of four feature cards in front of you. When you complete a set of the type depicted on the card, you turn the card over and cannot score that feature again until you score with the other three features. In this way, the game encourages you to diversify your tableau and not simply key in on one or two features.
When someone scores 25 points with their tableau, or if your group fails a lot (like mine did) and manages to get through the deck without anyone scoring that much, add up everyone’s score and declare a winner!
The rules contain a number of variants to accommodate a mix of ages and abilities. You can leave out the feature cards and just score rows, for example, or you can take out the slapping mechanic entirely and just pick cards in turn.
What I did not like about Samurai Gardener
I found that I was a bit confused by the theme. In this game, I race to get cards, often slapping my opponents hands and shaking my fist at them if they get what I wanted first. But ultimately, I am doing so to build a calm, serene garden. The garden actually looks fairly nice on the table as you build it. So it’s a bit of a shame that, instead of enjoying my tableau (think Tokaido), the game encourages a much more aggressive mindset. Many other themes would have suited the speed aspect a bit better.
Also, I don’t know that there’s much of a game here beyond the speed mechanism. My group tried it with the turn-based variant and grew bored very quickly. You do very similar things, but in much more interesting ways, in a game released in 2016 called Honshu. If you don’t like speed-dexterity games, of if you bear psychological wounds from childhood games of Spit or Egyptian Rat Screw gone awry, then I fear that Samurai Gardener has nothing for you.
What I liked about Samurai Gardener
As a whole, purely in terms of mechanisms, I feel that the game works very well. Because everyone gets a card every round, we found that we were all able to, at the very least, make rows of three frequently enough. “Spatial” thinkers in the group had a clear advantage because they saw bonus scoring opportunities before everyone else. However, the rest of us still scored and found opportunities to add bonuses when we could.
In particular, I loved how the feature cards encouraged players to diversify their gardens and change up what they looked for from round to round. Not only did that present personal challenges, it also allowed for a modicum of strategic thinking. You could look around the table, for example, and plainly see who could challenge you for a certain feature. Or, if someone had pulled way ahead, you could more easily predict what card they might go for and try to block them.
Because of this level of strategic thinking, we found that the players with the fastest twitch response did not necessarily win. So, if you enjoy these kinds of games but are afraid of others who will ruin your fun by being faster than you, fear not! You might just pull out a win, anyway.
Final Verdict/ Who is This Game For?
Ultimately, I liked Samurai Gardener, with the heavy caveat that I can’t give it a universal recommendation. If you don’t like speed-dexterity games, there are similar games which do card collection and spatial-tableau building much better.
However, if you are at least intrigued by the idea of integrating speed with real gamer elements, Samurai Gardener might hit a sweet spot for you.