Ted Cheatham: Review of Ninja (AEG)

Ninja Legend of the Scorpion Clan
Publisher:  AEG
Designer: Frederic Moyersoen
Players:  2-4
By:  Ted  Cheatham  (2 plays)

This rather long name for a game title could easily have been simplified to something like: Ninja Chase, Ninjas on the Run, Ninja in Whitechapel, Scotland Ninja, or Fury of the Ninja. Game play follows a typical “hidden movement/find the bad guys” theme found in the previously mentioned, hinted-to names of this ninja game. Your enjoyment of that style of game will definitely impact your opinion of this game. That said, after two plays, I would say this is a really clever implementation of the genre.  The game pits guards of an imperial palace against two intruders: a traitor and a ninja.  With two players, one plays the guards and one player plays the intruders.  With three players, one plays the guards, one plays the traitor, and one plays the ninja.  With the addition of a fourth player, the guards are split into two factions based on their colors and are controlled by two separate players. For first time players, fifteen minutes should be set aside for rules and clarifications.  Once you have played, everything is very intuitive and you can get into the game very quickly.

The ninja and the traitor are each going to draw a secret mission labeled A-F with tasks like “poison the well” or “assassinate the Diaymo”. Their job is to sneak into one of the two palaces, find their mission location, and escape the board before the guards can kill them.  This is where this game differentiates itself from other games in this genre.

All players get to select specific cards they can use for the game:
The traitor gets to select 7 of 10 specific card types:
It Was A Cat (deception)
Potent Sake (knock out guards)
Kenjutsu (kill a guard but raise the alert level)
Rope (for climbing walls)
Secret Passage
The ninja gets to select 8 of 12 specific card types:
Rope (for climbing walls)
Shuriken (kill a guard and not raise the alert level)
Shadow Walk (sneak by a guard)
Kenjutsu (kill a guard but raise the alert level)
Secret Passage
The guards get to select 24 of 36 card types:
Kenjutsu (damage an intruder)
Secret Passage
Patrol Listen (if they hear something, they may move two spaces to search)
Patrol Search (move two spaces)
Sentry Listen (if they hear something, they may move two spaces to search)
Sentry Search (move two spaces)
Awaken (start a secret sleeping guard from a barracks)

All players have one-time-use cards; however, guards raise the threat level and can gain extra cards if they find the ninja or the traitor. Play wisely, grasshopper!

Once cards are selected, the board is set up on the hidden movement sheets owned by all players.  The guards secretly plot the positions of the six mission locations in the palaces, place two hidden guards in the palaces, place two traps in the palaces. The guards then secretly put some sleeping guards into some of the barracks locations. Next, the guard player places eight sentries on any of the twelve available starting sentry locations and places three patrols on the walking track on the board. The intruders only see what is currently on the board. Finally, the ninja and traitor pick starting locations and get to plot a secret passage between two spaces on the board for use with their secret passage card (if the intruders decided to keep it).

Here is the turn sequence:

  • Alert Phase:  If the guards have been alerted, this is where they can draw extra cards to play.
  • Guards Card Phase:  The guards may play up to two cards or just listen with one patrol or sentry.  If the guards find an intruder, playing a Kenjutsu card for damage is not considered one of the available two cards per turn.
  • Guards Patrol Phase:  Each patrol moves two spaces.
  • Intruder Phase:  Both the ninja and the traitor take their turns by moving, searching and playing cards.

The intruders have 20 turns to complete their mission and exit the board.  If both the ninja and the traitor do this, they will claim victory.  If only one intruder is successful, it is a draw.  The guards will claim the victory if neither intruder is successful.

The game really focuses on the intruders who appear initially to have a great advantage.  They can start in an unknown location and have four movement options; stay (move zero), sneak (move one), walk (move two), or run (move three).  There are a few exceptions:  intruders can only move one space if using a rope or a shuriken, can only move one space if entering a secret passage, and must stop moving when they enter a moat space.  An intruder can literally stand right next to a guard and not be heard.  When the guards listen, they hear the number of spaces that the intruder moved. For example, if an intruder moved two spaces, the selected guard will hear two spaces.

The intruders’ biggest challenge is that they have no idea which of the two palaces contains the location of their mission nor where their missions are located within the correct palace.  Because of this, they may use up to two search actions per turn in any space they occupied or moved onto in their current turn to find out what is on that palace space. The guard player tells the intruders what is in the spaces they searched.  It could be a mission letter, a trap, a hidden sentry, or nothing.  In any event, the guard player has gained information on the intruder’s location and can begin to narrow the search for said intruder.

If a guard can find an intruder, they may play one Kenjutsu (damage card) on the intruder.  The traitor can take two damage before being killed while the ninja can take three damage.  If an intruder is killed before turn 10, it was just a clever decoy and that intruder may start again. If an intruder is killed after turn 10, he is out of the game.

I have only played the game twice: in one game, the intruders lost; in the other game, there was a draw.

The success of the intruders varies with how lucky they are in finding their mission locations.  If they both find them early, they stand a very good chance of winning.  The longer they have to look, the more they must use their very limited number of cards to save themselves and their odds of success become very low.

The guards have a similar problem with their hand limit.  They start with eight sentries and three patrols.  They may wake up some other sentries, but they only get to activate two units unless the alert level is moved up.  If the guards get into a prolonged search, they could use up all of their cards. This gives them limited ability to search or listen, thus, giving the intruders an easy escape.

Overall, I found this game rather clever and different enough from the other hidden movement games to keep my interest up.  The card selection gives a hint of strategy and the limited card resources adds tension to the game.  The secret locations and intruders’ blind searching really brings out “the hide and hunt” flavor of the game.  Before you are finished playing, there will be dead guards, drunk guards, and damaged intruders fighting for victory.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Yu: Moyerson does love the hidden movement mechanism, and this game feels like a more refined version of Nuns on the Run.  When I first started gaming, I loved this sort of game – a love triggered by my discovery of Scotland Yard (oh so many years ago).  However, for me, none of the secret movement games has ever reached the pinnacle set by Scotland Yard.

Ninja seems well constructed with plenty of interesting decisions to be made in the game.  The cards add a extra level of complexity to the game which I found a bit off-putting, though a number of players that played with me liked the cards as it helped make this game stand out from others in the genre.

I was frustrated that my three games essentially came down to whether or not the intruders were lucky enough to stumble into the treasure early on.  It has seemed pretty easy to get an intruder to one of the castles, but then once the castle has been breached, it’s fairly difficult to move around based on the concentration of guards within those spaces.  So, the intruders get someone to the castle and then they scurry around trying to find the treasure.  I wish the game had a bit more to it than blind searching, but then again, that sort of thing fits right in with the theme.  It might just be me… others that have played the game with me have definitely enjoyed it more than I have.

Kris Hall: There’s nothing very new here, but it is a fun romp with a fair amount of theme.  For gamers who’ve played all the mentioned hidden movement games, Ninja may seem old hat.  But I can imagine playing this with non-gamers who may be charmed by the Ninja theme.  The game is simple enough and plays quickly enough to be a cross-over game.  Liked it.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

Love it…
Like it… Ted Cheatham, Kris Hall
Neutral… Dale Yu
Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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1 Response to Ted Cheatham: Review of Ninja (AEG)

  1. Pete says:

    This game is EXACTLY what I think of when I hear the phrase “Meh”. I reviewed it as well a while back, just after GenCon. It’s missing the timer of Scotland Yard and the tension of Fury of Dracula, both of which would’ve really made this a little more interesting.

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