Game Buzz: Ninjato

I think there’s a real dearth of ninja games out there.  Oh, there are plenty of samurai games.  And pirates are popular.  Zombies are everywhere.  But where are all the ninjas?  Oh, that’s right.  They’re NINJAS.  If you could see them, you’d be dead.

Ninjato - image by BGG user adamw

But never fear!  Here comes Ninjato to fill that void that has only been filled by games like Ninja vs. Ninja, Ninja Burger, and Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls.  Not terribly serious games, so we’ll see how this one does.  Ninjato was designed by Dan Schnake and Adam West (no, not THAT Adam West) with art by Drew Baker and Peter Gifford.  It’s a board game for 2-4 players aged 12 and up that takes about an hour to play.  It’s a product of Crosscut Games that is being released by Z-Man Games later this year.  The game is set in 12th century Japan, and centers around a struggle for power between three clans.  In the background, ninjas are trying to exploit the situation for their own gain.

The game comes with a board that shows the locations in the game: the Dojo, the Sensei, the Palace, the Pavilion, and the five clan controlled houses.  There are 15 tokens, 5 for each of the three clans – Taira (red), Minamoto (blue), and Go-Shirakawa (green).  19 Sensei Skill tiles will give benefits to the ninjas.  90 treasure tokens can be gained by defeating guards (represented by 40 regular guard and 20 elite guard cards).  52 Dojo cards are used to invade houses.  21 Envoy cards and 30 Rumor cards help you gain honor.  There’s a bag and a round marker.  There are also 12 wooden markers that will help indicate turn order and track honor, and 12 shuriken to help you indicate actions.  That’s right.  This game comes with throwing stars.  I doubt they’re real, but still.

A game of Ninjato lasts seven rounds.  In each round, players take turns (order is determined randomly during setup) placing one shuriken in one of the locations around the board.  Shuriken are placed on preprinted spots.  As soon as you place your shuriken, you follow the rules for that location.

In the Dojo, you take a number of Dojo cards depending on how many you already have in your hand (four if you have none; three if you have one; two if you have two or more).  You begin the game with four Dojo cards, which are numbered 1-5.  Cards you take can either be from the draw pile or the array of three face up cards drawn during setup.  Any cards taken from the face up selection are replaced from the draw pile after you’ve taken all cards.  Shuriken placed here get stacked on top of one another, and this stack determines turn order for the next round (the topmost shuriken will go first).

In the clan houses, you’ll be collecting treasure by invading.  There are three treasures on each house (worth 2-5 honor each), and they’re protected by guards.  The first guard is a known commodity – its card is sitting on the house you’re invading.  The others will be a surprise if you choose to risk what you’ve collected.  You’ll be using your Dojo cards during this phase, and must decide whether you’re going in by strength or by stealth.  Going in by strength means that you want to beat the guard value with one card.  Going in by stealth means that you’re going to play a card with a value less than the guard value.  Ties don’t win.  If you beat the guard, you take the lowest valued treasure on the house.  Each treasure token has two sides – the plain side is earned by beating normal guards, while the red side is earned by beating elite guards.  The treasure is placed on your shuriken, and then you decide whether you want to attack again.  If so, call BANZAI!  An opponent will flip the next guard card, and you must beat it by stealth or strength.  You can’t change from what you did in the first battle (no beating the first guard by stealth and the second by strength).  Threes can be played with a card to give you +1 or -1…this helps you beat a 5 guard by strength or a 1 guard by stealth.  It’s possible that you’ll get an alarm card, in which case the last guard you face will be from the elite deck, but the treasure will be more valuable.

What happens if you fail?  Well, you don’t get to keep all of your treasure.  You can keep one, but the others are discarded.  You leave the original sentry on the house and add one treasure from the bag to the house.  You could also choose to leave before calling BANZAI.  If you do, you keep all treasure you collected and draw a new treasure to place in the house.  If you manage to successfully collect all treasure in the house, you discard the sentry and replace the clan honor token on the house with one from one of the other two clans.

When visiting the Sensei, you can learn new skills.  Discard a Dojo card of a matching value to take one skill tile.  Most skills will give you bonuses when invading clan houses, though the Disguise skill will give you additional points in the final scoring.  You can use skills once per round.

In the Palace, you can discard treasures to bribe an envoy to join you.  These get you points.  In the Pavilion, you discard treasure to take a Rumor card, which can also get you points.

Once all shurikens have been placed, adjust the turn order for the next round.  Turn all skills face up.  Discard face up skills from the Sensei and draw new ones.  Reset any houses that were cleared of treasure.  Refill the Palace and Pavilion.  Advance the round marker.  After the third, fifth, and seventh rounds, you’ll have a special scoring for the players with the most and second most envoy influence for each clan.  The first place player can take honor points based on their total influence, or they can take a free Rumor card from the Pavilion.  The second place player gets whatever the first player didn’t take.  After the scoring for the seventh round, Rumor cards are scored and one point is scored for each unused treasure you have.  Elite guards you defeated also get you points.  The player with the most honor wins.

I’m pretty excited about this game after looking through the rules, primarily because it’s about ninjas.  But apart from that, it seems like a more serious experience than the other ninja game I have played (Ninja vs. Ninja).  There’s some strategy in figuring out which Dojo cards to collect, which houses to invade, and how to spend your treasure.  It doesn’t seem all that complicated, and I think that it will be a pretty good experience.  Mechanically, it’s really a worker placement game (well, a ninja placement game) with no possibility to increase what you can do from turn to turn.  As the game progresses, I wonder if it might not feel kind of redundant – after all, you’ll only be able to take 21 actions spread out over only five choices.  I think the competition might heat up for some of those treasures, however, particularly with Rumor and Envoy cards up grabs.  The rules include a couple of pages of history, and I think it’s pretty cool how they built a game around it.  And while I’m sure there will be a lot of “hiYA”ing going on when we play it, it seems like this will be a pretty decent strategic game.  It’s not the deepest thing in the world, but I think it will be fairly accessible for lots of people.

Thanks for reading!


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