Board Game Review: Katana from Tracy Alan, A Two Player Samurai Dueling Card Game

Katana: Samurai Action Card Game which was self-published by Tracy Alan after a successful Kickstarter is a non-collectable card game for two players.

In this game, players each take on the role of a samurai engaged in an epic duel with the other player. It uses a card-driven combat system and features some very appealingly designed cards.

Disclosure: Tracy Alan provided me with a review copy of Katana, no other compensation was provided.

Check out what you get with Katana: Samurai Action Card Game

The box for the board game KatanaKatana was designed by and self-published by Tracy Alan. It was originally funded through Kickstarter in 2019. This game plays two players only and a single duel takes under 30 minutes. 

I recorded an unboxing video of Katana and that’s a great way to check out what you get with this card game. Please note that in addition to the game box I also received a small baggie of additional tokens and a gameplay example booklet. I am told that everyone who purchases this game via Tracy’s website will also get these additional items. 

Katana: Samurai Action Card Game comes in the kind of box that you expect a mass-market card game to come in. It looks like the box for something like Uno. It is very tightly packed with a set of instructions and two piles of cards. 

At first glance, the instructions appear to be solid. They are full colour, thirteen pages long and feature clear text, a solid layout and lots of gameplay examples. I will get into some serious problems with them a bit later. 

The cards themselves are expertly designed in all ways. The card quality is excellent, on par with some of the best cards Bicycle has to offer. They have a linen finish and feel like they have a plastic coating. There are a few different sets of cards, a Kami deck, a Shrine deck, Armour and Heart cards, and the main Action deck which includes four different card types. 

What you get with the card game KatanaAlong with the contents of the box, I also received a small bag of additional tokens. These tokens are used to track things like pollution and attack bonuses. These can be used instead of having to keep additional cards in your play area to remember what bonuses and penalties you have. These tokens are well designed and come pre-cut.

Finally, I also received a Katana Gameplay Example book. This book includes a large number of gameplay examples. 

The problem with these extra components, the example book and the tokens, is that there’s no way to fit them into the original game box. 

Looking at all of this I have to say that I love the look of this game. The aesthetic is very appealing. There’s something about the card design that just makes me want to play this game. 

I did find one downfall though, some of the text is very small and rather hard to read with my old eyes and I’m certain would be impossible to read across the table. 

Recreating a Samurai Duel in Katana

A starting hand of Kami in a game of KatanaTo play a game of Katana: Samurai Action Card Game players each get a hand of three random Kami cards, then select one of these to put into play. These Kami represent Japanese spirits that are guiding the samurai. 

Each Kami features a Kamikaze value, a heath and armour set up and two abilities, one passive and one active. Each also has a name and a little bit of flavour text. 

Players then set up their health based on the pattern shown on their Kami using the heart cards. The pattern here matters, as your opponent can only attack the pile of cards in the front row. Players then get to place armour on top of these hearts. Interestingly players can place this armour however they want. They can spread it out and place one on each heart or stack the amour up in one or more spots. 

At the start of a turn, the active player draws up to five cards and then selects one action. These actions include activating your Kami with a Purify card, initiating Kamikaze, polluting your opponents Kami with a Pollute card, drawing a Shrine card, discarding cards to draw new cards, or attacking. 

Each Kami has a unique active power, which is used by playing a Purify card. They also have a passive power that is in effect all the time. Both of these powers break the rules in some way and can be lost due to Pollution. The first time a Kami is polluted it loses its active ability, the second time it is polluted the passive ability is lost. If a Kami ever gets polluted three times it is removed and discarded.  

Watching out for pollution is a big part of playing Katana.

A player without a Kami can discard a Purify card and lose one armour to draw a new Kami.

Every time a Pollute or Purify card is played players must also draw a Shrine card. These are a mix of banes and boons with the deck weighing slightly towards favourable outcomes. 

Attacking involves playing combat cards, each of which features an attack value, a defence value and a stance (more about that in a moment). The attacker plays a card and then the opponent gets the opportunity to play one card in defence. If the defending card’s defence value is greater than the attack then the attack is prevented, if the defence value is less the target takes damage equal to the difference. Damage is applied first to armour and then to heath. 

The attacker can continue to play cards, each of which the defender can defend against by playing cards, until either the attacker decides to stop or a point of heath damage is dealt. I thought this was interesting as each round of strikes ends once blood is drawn. It’s a nice thematic touch. Added to that the player who drew blood has their Kami polluted because in feudal Japan blood was considered to be a polluting element. 

Instead of playing a combat card to attack the active player can instead go Kamikaze. Every Kami has a Kamikaze value and this is the strength of the single attack the player can make with that Kami. After the attack ends, successful or not, that player must discard their Kami. 

The four different cards in the Combat deck in Katana the Samurai Card GameOnce the player has taken an action they then get a chance to play one of their cards face down to act as their stance for the next round. 

Stance cards go off when your opponent attacks you. If the opponent doesn’t attack, the card is wasted. There are four different stances, one for each of the four combat card types. Reflect turns the opponent’s attack back on them or cancels a Kamikaze and Shatter destroys one piece of the attacker’s armour. While Future Attack gives the defender one attack token which can be turned in for +1 attack value and Defend gives +1 defence against the current attack or allows the defender to place one piece of armour on one of their health piles. 

Play continues back and forth until one of the players loses their last heath heart causing the other player to win.

What is interesting to note here is that players only draw cards at the start of their turn so a big part of this game is balancing how many cards you choose to attack with vs. how many you hold back for defence. 

A sample set of Kami from the board game KatanaThe other factor that needs to be taken into account is which Kami are in play. Each Kami breaks the rules in two ways, one passively and one only when combined with the play of a Purify card. Passive Kami abilities include things like changing the hand limit from five, extra damage on initial attacks, stance modifiers, the ability to copy the other player’s abilities and more. Active abilities include preventing the enemy from drawing cards, gaining additional heath or armour, swapping cards with your opponent, an extra damaging attack, etc. 

Finally, players really need to watch the flow of pollution while playing. Having your Kami polluted greatly reduces its usefulness and can eventually lead you to lose your Kami outright, but pollution is impossible to avoid as each successful attack will pollute your Kami. To keep this interesting the Purify cards needed to remove pollution are also the strongest defensive combat cards. 

My Overall Thoughts on the Two-Player Card Game Katana

A sample hand of cards in KatanaThe best thing by far about Katana is the overall look and aesthetic of the game. I absolutely love the way this game looks. Everything from the minimal amount of artwork used to the colours chosen just looks fantastic. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels this way as every time I share a gameplay picture online I get someone commenting about how great this game looks. 

The other aspect of Katana that I am very impressed with is how well it ties in the theme to the game. You actually get the feel of a samurai battle being guided by Kami, Japanese spirits. The way actions are taken, with players setting up for a big attack and then that attack being a series of strikes and counterstrikes ending in either a failed attack or the drawing of blood, brings to mind the films of Akira Kurosawa. 

Added to this are the corruption rules of pollution and how a big part of the gameplay is managing that corruption while still being able to push forward and attack. I also really appreciate the basic card management mechanic of having to decide to use your hand of cards for attack or defence. 

There is a serious problem with Katana though and that’s with the rules themselves. In addition to having the rulebook that came with the game, I was also sent a game example guide. If I were to attempt to play Katana only using these two books there’s no way I could finish a game. Each time we played some situation would come up, early in the game, that isn’t covered by either of these books. 

As it stands the two books both contradict themselves and have things that can be found in one but not another. There are rules you will find in the example booklet that aren’t covered at all in the main rules and vice versa. This makes the game unplayable as written if you only follow what’s in the rules and example book.

A section of the Katana rulebook.That’s not to say that you can’t play the game. Any pair of gamers with any amount of experience is going to be able to sit down and come up with rulings for the various situations that come up that aren’t covered by the rules. You can look at what is there and attempt to extrapolate what the rules are trying to say and muddle through it. 

Over the various nights we played this game I sent a number of questions off to the designer and I’m very happy to say they were awesome about answering them. Tracy actually did a fantastic job of walking us through how the game was intended to be played. In most cases, we were able to interpret the rules in the right way and played the game as it was meant to be played but in other cases, we were way off. 

I am pleased to say that since asking Tracy a number of questions he has put up an official Katana FAQ on Board Game Geek. This answers many of the questions that came up during our plays. 

Ignoring the issues with the included rulebook I found Katana to be a decent game. I love the theme and the aesthetic and design of the game. Some aspects of the game work very well, especially the hand management aspects. Other aspects feel like they could use a bit more work, such as the way armour works, and the fact that it seems far too easy to become overwhelmed with pollution.

I can’t help but compare Katana to other two-player only duelling card games in my collection. Compared to most of the other games I own in this genre Katana is very light and that’s due to the lack of variety in the cards. When you compare this to games like Star Realms or Sorcerer, the card options are severely limited. This is obviously by design and I totally get it. By limiting the cards you get a much tighter tactical game, a game that plays more like say chess. While I like chess, I think I prefer my card games to feel more like Warhammer with plenty of options and variability. Though I can totally see many gamers preferring this versus having to learn and master the interactions of a large number of cards. 

A hand of five identical cards, something that happens a little too often in Katana.Overall, once we had figured out the correct way to play, my wife and I had some fun playing Katana. There is a decent game here that looks fantastic. Though in the end, I’m sorry to say that Katana felt like it could use a bit more polish. I think multiple rounds of blind playtesting would have surely helped out the rulebook as well as fine honing the gameplay. As for anyone curious about picking up Katana, I suggest checking out multiple reviews and, if possible, trying it before you buy it.

Most importantly, if you do take the time to try Katana, reading through the FAQ is an absolute must. 

There are a huge number of two-player duelling card games out there. What I would love to know is what is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.

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