Board Game Review

The Way of the Sword (Katana Card Game)

Every nation has a legacy of history that they tell in their own way. How others tell it is based on their experience of it – usually being on the receiving end! Whether it’s ruling an empire, organising a revolt, or raiding most of Europe, it’s a legacy. Japan is a country with a most curious history, as a lot of it can be centred around combat with a single weapon – the Katana. Bushido (or way of the warrior) also came into it heavily, but that was more of a moral code. Katana Card Game by Tracy Alan is a game representing the combat experienced by samurai of feudal Japan. In this head to head game, players take on the roles of samurai in a fight to the death. Will you rise to be shogun? Or face the shame of losing your Kami?

Gameplay

Katana is a purely competitive card game for two players. Each takes on the role of a samurai in a duel to the death. When a player reduces their foe’s health to zero, they win.

The game is run entirely through cards, and these come in four varieties. Action cards which dictate attack, defence and stance values. These cards can also allow players to pollute and purify, modifiers that boost or negatively impact a player. Kami cards which dictate what spirit supports the samurai, and enable them to use a passive and an active ability, or to use a kamikaze strike. When polluted, a Kami loses one ability, whereas when purified they can use their active ability. Health and armour cards which dictate the player’s current status, and Shrine cards that change gameplay on the fly.

To set up, each player takes a Kami card, four health and four armour cards, and five action cards. Players then take turns to be on the offensive and can play cards to attack their opponent, their opponent will defend these strikes. When a blow is made, or when the attack ceases, the active player may play a stance face down and then the next player goes on the offensive. Stance cards activate when attacked, so choosing how to deal with one is important. Starting with pollute or purify actions don’t count as attacks, but still progress play. This wouldn’t always harm the opposition directly, but would still end combat after the opposers response.

Once a player’s health is reduced to zero, the game is over. Who ever is left standing is the winner!

How It Handles

Many head to head games have their moment, and are passed on as needed. In honesty, how many games nights have two player games as the front runners? Our nights consist of four people generally! So two players games usually have a place for when they’re needed. Katana is a game we make time for, both on and off of games night! Whether it’s a sneaky game before we all start, or a quick head to head when between games when we’re grabbing snacks, Katana Card Game has been a frequent visitor to our table!

Anime Is NOT Real

If popularised Japanese culture and media has taught me anything, it’s that a samurai wield a sword three times his height can slice a whole boulder in half with a single slice, using only the power of friendship. Initially, this seemed completely feasible – TV doesn’t lie – but I still did my reading on the topic. You know, to be thorough. Shockingly, this is wholly incorrect. Popularised anime culture is a lie. But what I did learn is the Japanese history is incredibly interesting!

As it turns out, the samurai were associated to clans which were rivals. They were also effectively the police, body guards, protectors, and generally all round good guys. The nobility of these fellows was astounding! Katana runs its sequence over rounds where players take turns, representing that nobility beautifully. It’s genuinely awesome and represents the historic theme superbly. Thematically, we’d say the game hits the nail on the head. The artwork is also excellently reminiscent of ancient Japanese depictions. Coupled in with some flavour text to real make it spicy, we think this is an aesthetically and thematically wonderful game.

Exchanging Blows

Katana is run in turns, with players taking turns being the offence and defence. When the offence, you use the attack side, and vice-versa on the defence. Laying cards one at a time, players take turns to try to have the higher value. When the defender cannot beat the value challenging them, they take damage equal to the difference. They may play a card to reduce this value, or may even pollute their opposer’s Kami.

Damage done to you is distributed into your rows of health, focussing on the top available row only. You can strike as much armour as you wish, but the moment you hit a health card, your onslaught ends. Samurai were incredibly noble, and saw blood as a pollutant. Once blood is drawn, the attacker’s Kami is polluted. Your final action as the offence can be to prepare a stance. This will trigger on an enemy attack, and will prepare you for the onslaught against you, too! It adds a little more to each bout, as you can’t just go in full aggression. You’ve got to weigh up your options and establish the value in risk. Should they reveal a reflective stance, it’s you who’ll suffer!

Katana’s combat gives a risk-reward feel, and a feel for patience being valuable at the same time. It allows you to plan a turn ahead, and consider how valuable it is to use every card over skipping an offensive strike for the long game. The combat can feel very standard if you don’t utilise every tool at your disposal: Kami and pollute/purify cards are essential in claiming a win. The head to head play doesn’t feel like it gets stale over time, as the options available encourage bravery and risk taking, or planning and strategy are clear to a player. Overall, we think the combat as a whole is wonderfully fun!

Channeling Your Warrior’s Spirit

Katana has lots of quirks to it which make it unique, and balanced. Every Kami is unique, which inevitably invites imbalance. Hard hitting active abilities alone can make them a force to be reckoned with! Couple that with hard hitting Kamikaze strikes and they could easily take out an opponent in a few strikes. Luckily, a Kami has a few hindrances. Being polluted removes an active ability, then a passive, then it destroys the Kami. Purifying rectifies this but it can be more hassle than it’s worth. Situationally, of course!

The other quirk is that your health is staggered according to the Kami card. The more layers the shape has, the less at risk you are from big strikes. In simple terms, a hit of four can hit four targets in one row, so long as it’s the next available row. This also correlates to a Kami’s overall quality. If they have stupendously overpowered abilities, chances are the health and armour cards will be in a very vulnerable set up. It balances an offensively impressive Kami out with a weakness. You can argue that it means you’re stuck with a play-style, and in honesty, it does. If you’ve got a mega defensive Kami, you’ll not be taking the opposition out with your Kami’s abilities. You’ll be chipping away and keeping yourself safe. Luckily, you can get a new Kami when yours is banished, but it’ll cost you an armour and a purify!

We tried Katana without Kami, and it just worked… But it lost all its flavour. It became more about who had what cards instead of a player’s tactical tenacity. Still fun, but not the Katana Card Game experience we’d learned to enjoy. The Kami is undeniably the most valuable asset available to the player. Which one you get will determine your play style, but it not your likelihood of winning. A delicate balance of both decisions and plans will decide that. When the responsibility is on the player alone, that’s when you’ve got a smashing head to head combat system!

Ending With Honour

Katana Card Game is a small scope, heavy hitting game for two. It doesn’t sit on the table longer than it has to, and it’ll have your attention from start to finish! Getting a Kami that doesn’t suit you can be frustrating, but it didn’t soil the experience for us. The overall polish and design of the game has a wonderful aesthetic and we really gelled with the theme. It’s not our favourite two player game, but because of its lightweight, low maintenance set up and play, and the fact it’s wholly card driven, means it’s our most played currently. It’s also the one we take with us for on the go! We’d definitely recommend checking this out if you’ve got space on your shelf (or in your bag) for an awesome little card game, chock full of tension!