Review – Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan

Ninja is a strategic, hidden movement board game from Alderac Entertainment Group (Scotland Yard seems to be the most frequent comparator game).  Ninja can be played with 2-4 players in two teams, with one team (the intruders) controlling the ninja and the traitor as they try to infiltrate a castle, accomplish missions, and get out in one piece.  The other team is the samurai guards who are trying to find and kill the intruders.  Ninja is set in AEG’s award-winning Legend of the Five Rings universe (the ninja is Scorpion Clan, the guards are Lion Clan), but the setting is entirely fluff, and knowledge of it isn’t necessary for enjoyment of the game.

What’s In The Box?

The Components

Ninja comes with a full size board (folded up into quarters in the box), multiple pads of private maps to use during the course of the game, four screens to hide your map behind, about 25 figures (representing guards, drunk guards, the traitor, and the ninja), six mission cards on heavy stock, and three decks of cards (one each for the ninja, traitor, and guards).  The figurines are very nice looking, with good detail (for example, the traitor figurine has a cat on it, to go with the “It Was A Cat” card from his deck).  Then there’s the rulebook, of course.  The rulebook looks very nice, although the rules themselves could have stood to be a bit clearer in some instances.  For example, the use of the Rope card was imprecise, and figuring out exactly how it worked required reading several different places and then implying from there.  Production values are high throughout.

Guards and Traitors and Ninja, Oh My!

The Basics

Private Maps

The Ninja board represents a larger castle with two smaller, fortified areas inside it (best seen on the included image of the private maps).  As you can see, the game board is a full overhead picture of the area, and is then divided up into spaces for counting movement (although we wish the lines between the spaces could have stood out a bit more). At the start of the game, both sides get to set up their starting “hands.”  The ninja gets 8 of the 12 cards in his deck, the traitor gets 7 of 10, and the guards get 24 of 36. For the ninja and the traitor, that’s what they get for the entire game.  The remainder of the guards’ cards go into a deck, but the guards won’t get to access more cards until they start noticing the intruders.  The alert level is set at zero.

Ninja Board

The Guard player gets to place a number of sentries (lone guards) on sentry posts that are marked on the board in red (there are more posts than starting sentries, so you have to choose which area to leave untended), and a number of patrols (groups of two Guards) on the patrol track.  The patrol track is basically a figure eight around the two fortified areas, and patrols that are on the patrol track will automatically move every turn.  In addition to this public information, the Guard player uses his private map to mark which barracks (marked on the board in yellow) contains sleeping Guards, and which spaces inside the fortified areas contain mission targets, traps, or hidden sentries.  In a four player game, the guards are just split up between the two guard players.

The Missions

All of the intruders’ setup is on their private map – where the ninja and traitor start out (the ninja is all the way outside the castle, and the traitor is inside the castle but outside of the mission-containing fortified areas), and where the two ends of the secret passage are.  The ninja and traitor also each get a randomly selected mission (each mission has a flavor description, but there is no game effect to what sort of mission it is; you’re just looking for the space where the guards put that mission).  In a three player game, one player controls the ninja while another controls the traitor.

During the intruders’ phase, the ninja and traitor can each move up to three spaces – but the faster they move, the easier they are for the guards to hear.  By default, all of the intruders’ movement is hidden.  If the intruders move into a space with a guard, he must be killed or the alert level will go to three.  The guards get to see the intruders when they move through a space with a guard, but they go back off the board as soon as they move out of that space.  The intruders can also each search up to two of the spaces they were in that turn.  This gives the guards some idea of where the intruders are.  If an intruder finds his own mission while searching, then that mission is complete (if one intruder finds the other intruder’s mission, this has no game effect, although it will save the second intruder some time).  A searching intruder may also find a trap (raise the alert level by one), a hidden guard (place a sentry on the board, who raises the alert level to three unless he is immediately killed), or nothing.  The intruders may also play any number of cards during their turn.  Actions permitted by the intruder’s cards include using the secret passage, Shadow Walking to avoid being detected as you walk through a space with a guard in it, using a Rope to climb over walls, or getting guards drunk.  Cards are also necessary to kill guards (this generally raises the alert level) – Kenjutsu (swords) will kill a guard in your space, while Shuriken can hit adjacent spaces as well, but can only be used when moving slowly.  Some cards are only available to one intruder or the other.  For example, only the traitor can get guards drunk, and only the ninja gets shuriken.  The ninja overall has more “cool factor,” but the traitor gets what appeared to be the most entertaining cards – Potent Sake and “It Was A Cat.”  Of course, the intruders’ options are limited by what cards they chose to start the game with.  Most of the intruder cards can be played just to bluff (for example, playing a Shadow Walk when you aren’t actually going through a guard’s square).

The Decks

The guards can do very little without cards, so they must be careful about which ones they use.  Without cards, the guards get to listen once, and then move any patrols that are on the patrol track.  When listening, the guards pick one sentry or patrol, and the intruders must say if there is an intruder who is close enough – the “listen” range for each intruder is equal to how many space that intruder moved in the prior turn.  If an intruder is heard, then the alert level goes up by one.  A high alert level is how the guards access more cards – at the start of the turn, the guards draw as many cards as the alert level, and then the alert level drops by one (max alert level is three).  Cards let the guards listen with sentries or patrols, move with sentries or patrols, awaken sleeping guards, or use kenjutsu to wound the traitor or ninja (unlike the guards, it takes more than one wound to kill each intruder).  The guards can play up to all of the cards they just drew, plus can play up to two cards from their hand (fresh cards that aren’t played right away go to the hand to be used later).  Each sentry/patrol can only use one card per turn (except for Kenjutsu), and they can only move two, so the ninja/traitor can stay ahead of them in a footrace (all guard movement is done on the board).  If there are four players, then the guard player have to split up the card draws/plays and each player can only use cards on his own guards, which deprives the guards of a little bit of flexibility.

The intruders win if both the ninja and the traitor completed their missions, and then get back off the board.  The guards win if they kill both the ninja and the traitor (it doesn’t matter whether the kill comes before or after the mission was completed), or at the end of turn 20.  The game is a draw if one intruder completes his mission and escapes, but the other is killed.  In order to avoid abruptly ended games where one of the intruders is unlucky (or errs badly) and gets killed early on, each of the intruders gets a “do over” if he dies during the first ten turns.  He respawns, gets a new random mission, and gets to refresh his cards (but gets fewer of them), while the guards get five more cards and more sleeping guards.

Final Verdict

Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan provides a solid strategic experience.  The box says the game takes 45 minutes, but we found that to be wildly optimistic – you’re more likely to take 1.5 hours, unless you play really fast (also, given all the options and the hidden movement nature of the game, we recommend avoiding playing with someone subject to severe analysis paralysis).  It is a hidden movement game, so you’ll want to play with people you trust (although, really, who wants to play anything with people you can’t trust?) – you can go back and verify everything after the game using each side’s private maps, but if you actually have to do that then you probably aren’t having much fun.

In our playing, the game seemed well-balanced between the guards and the intruders, with the “respawn” rule preventing any unseemly slogs where the intruders are done before the game has really begun.  Winning requires both luck and deductive skill – if one team is seriously outmatched, the game will likely go badly for them, but if the two sides are close, then the luck factor is enough to keep things up in the air.  The differing techniques available to the intruders based on their card selections enhance replayability.  The game feels the most natural with 2-3 players – the two intruders are pretty distinct, and it feels natural to split them up, but the division of the guards to accommodate the fourth player is a bit awkward (but not a big deal if there are four people looking to play).

The game has a nice ebb and flow, opening up with a few turns where the guards can’t do much and the intruders are making their first moves, then exploding into a relative flurry of action when an intruder if detected.  The alert level jumps, the guards’ cards start flowing, and the intruders are likely to have to start killing guards, which keeps the alert level high for a while.  This can end with the intruder getting killed, or with the intruder slipping away, and letting the guards calm down (and stop drawing cards), before he makes his next move.  The limits on playing attack cards mean that the guards usually don’t get to just kill an intruder as soon as he’s found, helping to extend the high-tension moments as the guards frantically try to get the intruder before he’s too far gone.  Did you listen with the right guard?  Will the patrol search find you, or go off I the wrong direction?  Did the ninja actually climb over the wall, or was the Rope card just played as a bluff and he’s still inside?  The guard player will have a number of “oh, if I only had one more card” or “why can’t I search with this patrol again” moments – until he has exactly what he needs to take out that cursed ninja, anyway.

If you like your gaming experience to be very placid, you might not enjoy yourself too much.  But if that sort of tension sounds fun to you, then you’ll find Ninja a balanced and slick way to get your gaming juices flowing.

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