I met with Todd Rowland during GenCon 2011, at the AEG "Game Night" event, to talk to him a bit about what AEG was up to of late, and after he gave me the skinny about their awesome 2011 lineup he offered me a copy of Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan (Ninja) for review. I was ecstatic as it was on my radar for a while since I'm an unabashed theme-monger, and this game has theme swinging off of the box like a stealthy assassin off of a pagoda's roof. Not only that, but it's a game that's quite unlike any I've ever played before, which had me more than a little intrigued.
What made the concept of this game so appealing to me was that while one player has his guards sitting all over the place on the board, the other's movement is done purely on a printed sheet that has an image printed thereon. In short, the bad guys in the game are invisible, and can only be detected through the guards listening, or just stumbling blindly upon them, however unlikely that may be. Sure, Fury of Dracula and Scotland Yard have hidden movement, but honestly, the mechanics of Ninja are such that it's an entirely different affair. The object is to have the intruders find their individual mission objectives and escape the map without being killed.
Sure, it sounds simple, but it is incredibly difficult for both intruders to get the goods and escape just as it's near-impossible for the guards to catch and kill both intruders.Four plays later, I can tell you that it's an incredibly interesting game. Played with the right person, or people, it can be exceptionally tense and engaging. That being said, you have to accept that one side is pretty much doing most of the active playing and the other is mostly scribbling notes behind a shield, occasionally playing a card and muttering something about inebriating or killing a guard. It almost has a "Battleship" or "Marco Polo" quality about it, where the guard side will ask, "Did I hear something?", with the intruder side indicating whether or not the sentry or patrol in question did or did not.
Looking at the components, from the box to the cards, the art is absolutely outstanding. There's 36 great looking cards for the guards to use, and 22 for the intruders, as well as six large, cardstock mission objective cards. On top of that, there's some outstanding miniatures to play with; 2 lanterns for tracking status, 20 guard figures in two designs, three "drunk guard" figures, and finally, a ninja and traitor figure. Beyond that is a rulebook that is moderately well written and organized, four player shields that are used to obscure your notes, a game board that is very nicely illustrated, and finally, four reasonably thick pads of paper with images of the game board printed thereon. All in all, the components are what I've come to expect from AEG, meaning they are wonderful.
I have a few gripes, though, about the complete package. My first and very minor complaint is that the folds on the board can cause initial confusion in a very limited number of zones on the map, making one section appear to be two. This is easily overcome, though, after your first play when you realize that the folds are, in fact, folds and not lines. The bigger bitch is that the player shields, while nicely illustrated, are sterile and serve very little purpose other than blocking wandering glances. With the large surface area the shields have, I'd have far preferred that player references had been put on them, such as an explanation of how specific cards work or a short reference on how to take notes as the intruders. It is an incredible waste of space, and a missed opportunity in my opinion.
Finally, the biggest complaint I have is that the intruders' card back design is inverted from what would make sense. There's a prominent red or black symbol on them, which one would immediately convey to mean that they are associated with the figure of the same color. Instead, the color of the card back which is far more subtle, is what matches the figure. That was definitely a design failure, but fortunately, after several times grabbing the wrong deck, you won't make the mistake again. Other than those three relatively small whines, I'm completely content with the physical aspects of the game, and AEG did an outstanding job.
Moving onto the gameplay itself, let's start with the setup of the game. Because I prefer the two-player game, I'm going to tell you how to play that version. Honestly, there's not all that much difference between the two player and other sized games, but I like the idea of playing a 'side' rather than an individual intruder or set of ten guards. Anyhow, setup consists of placing the lanterns on the timer and alert tracks, taking one player pad per player, and putting up your player screen.
Once those steps are done, while the intruder player is noting the starting positions of the ninja, traitor, and the entrances to the secret passage between any two zones, the opposing player is placing eight guard models on any of twelve guard starting positions, placing three "patrols" of two guards on any patrol track spaces, then marking where eight sleeping guards are passed out on any of six barracks positions that are marked on the board.
Each player will then draw cards from their decks, with the guard receiving a whopping 24 of the original 36 to play from and the remainder acting as a draw deck. The ninja and traitor, however, only take eight or seven, respectively, and the remainder are put back in the box. Finally, the guard player marks six mission objectives, two hidden guards, and two traps on their maps.
The mission objectives are lettered A through F, and correspond to mission objective cards, of which one is drawn by each of the intruders at the start of the game. The cards need to be assigned to individual characters, and the easiest way to track which character is associated with a character is to put the player's action cards on top of the mission card so that the missions never get confused by the intruder player, especially as the guard player will not know which mission is whose until the game's end.
Once you're all set up, the game can begin, and each turn is played in four phases. The guards always go first, with the guard player first checking the alert status, which allows for card draws and free card play if a guard is alerted, then reducing the alert level by one. The alert level only increases when an event causes it to do so, such as a guard hearing something, being gutted by the ninja or traitor, or stumbling upon an enemy. There's only three levels of alert above the normal zero alert level, and each level allows the guards to pull a card from their draw deck and either play them immediately for free, or he can put them into his hand for later use.
It's an important point to understand that almost all of the guards' cards fall into two groups and then, beneath them, two types of actions granted. The two groups that the cards affect are sentries and patrols, and the two types are listen and search actions. Sentries are defined as individual guards where patrols are two or more guards whose bases are adjacent and in the same direction. Listening actions force the intruder player to respond whether or not one of the intruders has been heard, which has its own subset of conditions, and search actions simply allow the guard player to move a patrol or sentry up to two zones, with the intruders being forced to reveal their location if they have been stumbled upon.
Listen actions are the most effective at finding enemies, and the effectiveness of the action is wholly dependent upon how far the enemies moved. For instance, if an enemy moved 3 spaces on his turn, he can be heard from 3 spaces away. The trick, though, is that the card is played upon an individual patrol or sentry, so you have to either have an idea of where an enemy is, or get damned lucky.
There are counter-actions that the intruders can use as well, such as the "It was a cat" card, which allows the intruders to simply play the card and smugly note that while the guard did hear something, it was only a cat. In the case that the guards successfully hear something, the alert level goes up a notch and the sentry or patrol who heard the noise may move two spaces in order to try to find the source.
After the alert phase has been resolved, the guard player may then play up to two cards on their turn, with the only restriction being that you cannot activate two cards on the same sentry or patrol per turn. Again, the cards you may use are quite limited to simply listening or moving figures during searches, and cards reserved for sentries cannot be used for patrols, and vice-versa. The main advantage that guards have is that they have a large starting hand, but this dwindles quite a bit against a clever intruder player who doesn't allow the guard player to draw up cards through alert increases.
The last thing the guard player does on his turn is to advance patrols two spaces on the printed patrol tracks. These tracks are circular tracks with junctions that connect them, and any group of two or more sentries that are facing the same way are considered patrols for this purpose. Having many patrols is nice because it allows you to get free movements at the end of your turn in order to hunt for the intruders, but the disadvantage is that you must move the patrol, and it always moves in the direction of facing.
You can't simply choose to change direction, you have to play a Patrol Search card in order to turn them around. So, patrols are predictable, which makes them easier to avoid. The real draw of patrols is that if they find an intruder, they can put multiple hits on an intruder, increasing the chances of hacking him to death in a single turn rather than wounding him as he moves back into the shadows.
Speaking of hacking people to death, the guards have but one life to give to their daimyo where the ninja can be hit three times and the traitor twice before dying. If one or both intruders are killed before the 11th round, they may respawn, drawing a new set of cards, albeit fewer of them than they originally started with, but if one is killed after the 11th round, they're dead and the best that the intruders can hope to achieve is a draw.
The last phase is the intruder's turn, where they may move up to three spaces each and search the castles in the center of the map for mission objectives. They don't need to declare which order they are searching, but they do need to tell the guard player which zone is searched and by which intruder. This is a free action, and the guard must tell the intruder player what was in the space, either a trap, a lettered mission objective, or a hidden guard.
If a hidden guard is found, the guard player may place a new guard on that space on the board as well as increase the alert level to its highest level. A trap simply raises the alert level to it's highest level as well. If an objective is found, it is permanently marked on the intruders' map, and if it matches an intruder's mission, they must move over that space and then make their escape. The intruders may also play any cards they wish on their turn, and while they have a very limited number of cards, they have a much more varied set of actions to use on their turn.
They can use rope cards to create paths through walls that are permanently marked on their maps. Additionally, the ninja can throw shurikens and kill a guard in an adjacent space, with no alert level increase. The traitor can play a Potent Sake card, which puts a guard in sleep mode, forcing the guard player to replace his figure with a drunken guard figure until he can play an Awaken card on the guard to bring him back to his regular, ninja-hunting self. Drunken guards might as well be stone statues, because when they're drunk, they can't do a bloody thing.
Both the traitor and ninja, as well as the guards, can use the secret passage, provided they are on one of the spaces that they marked as entrances, although the guards have to have discovered the entrance to use it. Finally, both the intruders may use a card to katana a guard, but in doing so, they not only give away their location to some degree, they also raise the alert level by either one or two. That being said, once the intruders play a card, that card is gone forever, where the guards simply put them back into their discard pile that doubles as a draw deck during the alert phase.
If the 20th round comes and goes without the intruders accomplishing both of their missions and escaping, the game ends with either a partial or total loss. If the guards can stave off the intruders completely, they win. If the intruders can get both missions complete and escape, they win. Any other combination of results ends in a draw, which in my experience seems to be the most common way to end the game, at least thus far.
The short version is that I liked the game quite a bit, and while the four player game is fine, the best way to play this is mano-a-mano. It's also a completely different game when you play as the intruders versus playing as the guards, so there's some replay value in the fact that playing one side is so foreign to playing the other. The downside is that the game has a hard time keeping me interested as the intruders because most of the time you're simply notating movement on your map sheet, with little being said.
It doesn't detract from the fun of the game, but it does take a bit of getting used to. You also have to consider that if you're playing with an inattentive player, or a straight-up cheat, you can totally have your game ruined. I also think that part of the fun of making clever moves in any game is in having the opponent realize it so that you can smirk at him knowingly, but in this case, the opponent doesn't really know what you did until the end of the game when you go back and have a "Scooby Doo reveal recap" if you so desire.
Why Ninja's Kung Fu Is Strong:
- Clever design and interesting choices beginning with the initial card draw make this a thinking man's game
- Superb art and production values make this a beautiful game to play
- This game runs about an hour and a half, making it perfect for a light game night
- The hidden movement of the intruders can lead to devilishly delicious plots
- The game's balance between the sides is as perfect as I could've ever envisioned
Why Jack Burton May Have Been On The Design Team:
- The card back situation and lack of player aid on the shields were serious oversights
- The intruder card decks have little in the way of variance, limiting replay strategies
The great warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in his magnum opus, 'The Art Of War', "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate." This single verse in personifies what Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is about; to be invisible, subtle, and unflinchingly patient. It's a very interesting game, but it just seems to lack some of the excitement I was expecting because it feels like such a one-sided event. That being said, it's definitely the best of this designer's "hidden movement" trilogy, the other two being the poorly received 'Van Helsing' and quite fun 'Nuns on the Run', and it is a pretty fun game.
This game comes out in October 2011, and you can learn more about it at AEG's website here: http://www.l5r.com/ninja/