Something about Samurai
I don't read too much about this concept, so I might as well try an put my scholarly vest on define the next few things here. Most games, i believe, fall into either one of two categories, contraction or expansion. This describes the general flow or state of the game as it progresses. Samurai is a perfect example of a contraction game. It starts out with an empty board; you can put a tile damn near anywhere. Slowly, the board starts to become choked, you have limited placement opportunites, and even MORE limited good placement opportunities. Most abstract games work along this line to some level.
On the other hand with expansion games, you start out with very little in the way of choices, and things slowly build as more, and frequently more powerful, choices open up. Puerto Rico seems to be a fine example of this, but many other themed games fall into this category, such as any civ-game, or train-route building game. A big draw to this, I think, is slowly getting all the cogs in your machine together, and watching them work. Typically, the games become more about how efficient a player is at collectiog and using his little parts of the whole.
Expansion games, to some extent, are easier to grasp and teachbecause starting with nothing, you can explain each part as they come up.
Contraction games seem harder to teach. And wrapping your head around good initial play because you need to understand the whole game at the start of the game to fully understand their impact. For some reason, a badly placed starting move here always comes to back to haunt you.
That's not to say that a game can't have elements of both.
Clearly, train games can start you off with a full map of empty goodness to go off and start laying tile to god knows where. But there is a certain amount of micromanaging that you bring to the table that helps you understand that your measly 5 grand isn't going to get you a track from NY to Los Angeles; maybe you should just build to Buffalo instead. And one could argue that Chess has a lot of expansion given the way I've defined the term: even though you are slowly eating away at your pieces, you are basically trying to build the most efficient world in which your little army guys protect each other while attacking the opponent.
Anyway, so you start out at Samurai with a empty board. But annoyingly, you also get to choose your starting hand. While this clearly stops everyone from whining about getting dealt a crummy starting hand, I'm not sure how you go off and figure out what a good opening hand is. And, I'm not even sure it matters that much based on my first few plays of the game. I supppose it would suck getting some of the special "fast" pieces late in the game when it probably doesn't mattter. But the real bugger for me is this:
For a game that seems to be be all about maintaining balance, (and lord knows the tie-breaking deals with this a lot along with the correct game-ending conditions) why does it seem painfully obvious that your first few moves should be solely centered on racing to get control of the 3 token city (Oni)?? That's such a powerful area on the board, especially in two player games, the rest of the board feels clearly out-balanced. So in my first few games, I've ignored it all together letting my opponent spend all his effort on collecting those. And I should lost both games; the one game I won I attribute to the other player not knowing the correct end-game rules.
I think that given a 3 or 4 player game, the "capture of Oni" issue is lessened somewhat by the implicit collusion of having more players. I hope. I've seen more than one game of Tikal on Spipelbyweb.com hand out a free victory by all the other players just leaving a single player alone to do their own little thing. So you can't trust the implicit collusion thing to work.
Of course, having said all this, I still think it's a fujn little game, IF ONLY I WASN'T SO MAD ABOUT ONI BEING SUCH AN OBVIOUS CHOICE. At least I think.