Not being a CCG player, I never really knew about the Legend of the Five Rings system until recently. For the likewise uninitiated, L5R (as it’s commonly abbreviated) is a system set in the fictional country of Rojugan, which is basically feudal Japan. The system is based around clans, and storylines are based on the results of tournaments. Recently, as AEG has gotten more into the world of board games, they’ve been expanding the universe. War of Honor was the first board game based in Rokugan, and now we’re getting…
Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan (designed by Frederic Moyerson) is a game for 2-4 players aged 12 and up that takes around 45 minutes to play. The game is essentially a conflict between two of the clans from the L5R universe – the Lion Clan and (obviously) the Scorpion Clan. Basically, the Scorpions are trying to sneak into a castle, the Lions are trying to keep them out. It’s a deduction game, where a ninja and a traitor (a former Lion) will be moving secretly to try to accomplish two secret objectives and escape before being caught by the guards. In a two-player game, one player is the guards, while the other plays the intruders. With three, you split the ninja and the traitor among two players, with one person controlling the guards. With four, you split the guards.
The game comes with 27 plastic figures – 20 guards (armed with swords or spears, so specified so teammates in a four-player game know who they control), 3 drunk guards (armed with sake), a ninja, a traitor, and two lanterns. There are 58 cards, divided into three decks – 36 Lion cards for the guards, 12 red Scorpion cards for the ninja, and 10 black Scorpion cards for the traitor. There’s a board that shows the map of the fortress being infiltrated, and four pads of paper showing miniature maps to mark secret movement. You also get four privacy screens. There are six possible missions in the game. The Scorpion team will get two of these, one for the ninja and one for the traitor. In a three- or four-player game, you get to look at your partner’s mission. The ninja selects eight cards for their initial hand, the traitor selects seven, and the guards select 24 (if there are two guard players, each gets 12). All remaining cards become a draw deck for the player. The rules provided a suggested set-up for your deck if it’s your first game.
Eight guards are placed in watch post areas (marked with an icon). There are 12 watch posts, so some will be left empty. Three patrols of two guards each will be placed on the patrol track in different zones, with each patrol clearly facing in a direction. A lantern is placed on “none” for the alert level, and another lantern marks which turn you’re on. The guards get private maps on which to mark 8 sleeping guards (markes with an S, in locations marked with a barracks icon), 6 areas that contain the mission goals A-F (three per castle), 2 traps (marked with a T, placed in castles), and 2 hidden sentries (marked with an H, in castles). The intruders mark an initial position on their maps (using a zero) – the ninja begins on the edge, while the traitor begins within the large moat (though not in a space containing guards, inside a castle, inside a moat, or directly between the two castles). The intruders also mark two ends of a secret passage that will help with movement.
A game turn consists of four phases – an alert phase, a cards phase for the guards, a patrol phase for the guards, and an intruder phase. The alert phase consists of advancing the turn marker, shuffling all guard cards played last round into the guard’s deck, and drawing new cards equal to the alert level (3 for high, 2 for medium, 1 for low, and 0 for none – you decide how to split the cards up). After drawing, the alert level drops by one. The guard player can then play any cards they drew (one per sentry or patrol) with the caveat that no more cards can be played on that particular sentry or patrol for the rest of the turn. The remaining cards go into your hand. Cards played by the guards can help them listen for intruders within a few zones, or search by moving. Listening involves listening in a number of zones away from the guard based on how far the intruder moved in the previous turn, with the intruder letting the guards no whether or not they were heard. Searching involves moving up to two zones from a current position. If the guard enters the same zone as an intruder, the intruder is revealed and combat ensues.
The next phase is the guards cards phase. You can play up to two cards here. If you play no cards at this time and didn’t play any cards in the previous phase, you can have a sentry or patrol listen without playing a card. Following cards is the guards patrol phase, where you must move any patrols on the patrol track two zones in the defined direction. Patrols that have already moved because of a card play don’t move again.
Following the guard actions is the intruder phase. The intruders can play as many cards as they like, but don’t draw new ones as the guards did. The intruders can move up to three zones (though the further they move, the easier they are to hear). The intruders can also search up to two zones for their mission goals. However, this reveals something about where they are as they have to announce where they’re looking in order to see if they found the right letter. Discovered traps raise the alert level by one, while hidden sentries reveal a new guard figure for the board (which can be killed by playing an appropriate card). Intruders can also leave the map, but can’t return afterwards.
The game ends after the 20th turn, or after the intruders are no longer on the board due to escape or death. If both intruders completed their goals, they win. If only one did, it’s a draw. Anything else results in a victory for the guards.
It seems like there have been some really good deduction games coming out recently, particularly Letters from Whitechapel and Confusion. However, I’m not sure that this one belongs in the same conversation. While it definitely has the cat-and-mouse quality that you look for in a good hidden movement game, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot else going on. Whitechapel has a very deep theme that really controls all aspects of the gameplay, and Confusion is more abstract with full knowledge of what your opponent can and can’t do. The theme here seems kind of thin, though I admittedly don’t know much about the L5R universe. And, of course, I have to add the familiar qualifier that I won’t really know what I’m talking about until I play it, but for now, I don’t think this is something I’d go for. It just doesn’t feel new – it feels like Nuns on the Run with ninjas. Or Fury of Dracula with ninjas. Or Clue: The Great Museum Caper with ninjas. Granted, the ninjas part is pretty awesome, but since there’s another ninja game coming out soon (Ninjato), I think I’d probably throw my support behind that one. Thanks for reading!