Samurai Swords (formerly known as "Shogun") is another fine entry in Milton Bradley's now defunct Gamemaster Series that simulates the era of the warring states in late medieval Japan. Players control daimyo lords attempting to become the sole ruler of all of Japan. In addition to waging titanic battles, players also build castles, hire mercenary ronin, and live in constant fear of the deadly ninja that can cripple an army in a single stroke. The game is especially fun with more than two players, when shifting alliances, secret deals, betrayals, and backstabbing only add to the challenge and the fun.

Samurai Swords inevitably suffers a little when compared to the superlative Axis and Allies, which is a shame because this is a great game in its own right. In some ways it may even have the edge over Axis and Allies - it's less complicated to learn, it takes less time, and it has more replay value because unlike in A&A the starting locations of players' forces are randomly determined every time. The pieces for this game are really cool too.

Overall Samurai Swords is an outstanding strategy game worth checking out, even if you already have Axis and Allies. It has a very different flavor than Axis and Allies and is a good change of pace. The fact that you can finish a game in a sane amount of time is an added bonus.


This node is not about metal implements of death, but about a board game. Specifically, it is about a board game in the Milton Bradley Gamemaster series, that was published in 1986 under the name Shogun. It is a game for 2 to 5 players, although it should really be played by 4 or 5. The game was later renamed to Samurai Swords because there is another game that is also called Shogun. It was designed by Michael Gray.

Brief summary

Samurai Swords is somewhere between an ordinary board game and a war game. It is roughly comparable to Axis and Allies, another Gamemaster game, and can be seen as a sort of Risk on steroids. Basically, you are a militairy leader in feudal Japan, trying to become Shogun, military ruler of the whole of Japan. To this end, you have to use diplomacy, naval invasions, combined arms armies, generals, money, assassins, espionage, mercenaries and fortifications.

Apart from the large number of options, this game is also fairly unique because it can take a very long time. Expect at least 4 hours, although I have had one memorable game that lasted 12. The number of pieces that come with the game is very large - you get over 300 plastic soldiers that look very good, and did so especially in 1986, when the visual appeal of board games in general was a lot less impressive.

How to play the game

Samurai Swords has a couple of features that are fairly unique. A few will be summarized here.

Secret allocation of cash

In Shogun, you get money that you can spend on various things. The amount of money is equal to the number of provinces you own divided by three. You can spend it on buying troops, but also to hire mercenaries, a ninja, to influence the order of play, and to buy castles. Your allocation is hidden, so other players can't change their strategy. All players do this purchasing phase simultaneously.

Different units

You don't have one single type of army, like in Risk, but rather, can pick from spearmen, swordsmen, gunners, and archers. A player also has three generals, that normally cannot be replaced. As an example, spearmen are three cheaper than for instance archers, but archers shoot before the spearmen. Also, spearmen have a one in three chance to hit, and archers a one in two. This is rolled on 12-sided dice, by the way.

Restrictions on army size

Normal armies are restricted to 5 units. The armies your generals command are restricted to 15 units, including the general. Only one unit can be trained per province per turn. These three restrictions make more powerful but more expensive units far more valuable than they would otherwise be. Furthermore, it is also a (bit) more realistic: there are practical limits to army size, especially in those days, and to the speed by which men can be trained.

Generals have experience

A normal army can only attack a neighboring province. An army led by a general, or daimyo, can first move, then attack. If the daimyo gets experience, he can do this more often - up to 4 times a turn. Being able to use the same troops 4 times is obviously a good thing

Castles and fortresses

One of the things one can do to reinforce a province is to buy a castle, or upgrade a castle to a fortress. This is expensive, but it works immediately, adding to the defense.

Naval invasions

It is possible to take a boat and attack over a sea lane. This normally means you can attack over a large distance. The penalty is that the enemy gets a free shot at your army, balancing this power.


It is possible to hire mercenaries for just one turn. These can be used to increase the size of your armies. This is very expensive - just as expensive as hiring permanent troops - but they can be hired in any number (up to the number of regular troops) and in any province. Furthermore, their location is hidden.


Players can bid money for the ninja. This ninja can be used to assassinate a general, paralyzing the army he commands. Note that this also makes the mercenaries in the army pretty useless. It will also remove the experience of the general, as a rookie will replace him.A second use for the ninja is to spy at how one enemy allocates his cash. This is done before the player with the ninja allocates his cash. By seeing what he buys, an appropriate counter can be though of. The control over the ninja is determined by bidding, with the highest bidder winning. Of course, because the players allocate their cash in a way that is hidden from the other players, deciding how much to bid is difficult.

Flexible turn sequence

Every turn, the order of players is shuffled. They all allocate their money together, and then, it is decided who goes first. This is normally determined by chance, but can be influenced by spending money, allowing one to pick when one wants to play. Basically, the player spending the most gets first pick. This player can pick any place he wants, so first, but also last. The turn order is indicated by plastic samurai swords, with the number of diamonds on the blade indicating the order - 1 for first, 5 for fifth and last.


The game is won by the player who first conquers 35 provinces, that his half of the provinces plus 1. This is in general fairly easy to achieve. As such, it is really important to keep a very close eye on ones' opponents; if one gets ahead to say 22 or 23 provinces, clever sword bidding and a kind of suicide run can net him the game. This adds yet another dimension of complexity to the game


Samurai Swords is a rather complex game that straddles the line between a normal board game and a war game. It has many more options for a player than a regular board game. This, and the beautiful soldiers that come with the game, really give the look and feel of being an actual general rather than just playing a game.


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