Gaming Unplugged: Limits define strategy in Ninjato

November 4, 2011

The political struggles of 12th-century Japan set the backdrop for Ninjato, a Z-Man Games publication designed by Adam West (no, not that one) and Dan Schnake. Ninjato combines elements of push-your-luck, set collection, and a limited number of actions (and rounds) to provide an engaging strategic experience for two to four players.

Each player receives three shuriken tokens and is dealt five Dojo cards, which are numbered from one to five. In order, each player may execute one action by placing one of their shurikens on the appropriate spot on the board. Training with the sensei to obtain a skill initially requires the discard of a specific-valued dojo card, depending on the skill desired; skills come from one of three styles (stealthy Snake, strong Tiger, and balanced Crane), and subsequent skills learned of the same style cost nothing but the action. A player possessing treasures may exchange them for either an envoy or rumor card, gaining an amount of honor equal to the combined values of the treasures surrendered; each card has its own specific requirements.

Visiting the dojo allows a player to draw cards from either the face-up array or the top of the deck; players can draw enough cards to fill their hands to four or two cards, whichever is greater. At the end of the round, the next round’s turn order is determined by the stack of shurikens at the dojo, with the most recent player to draw cards going first and so on down the stack. Rumor cards are kept secret, but envoys, skills and treasures are public knowledge.

Most of the gameplay revolves around infiltrating one of the five houses, bypassing guards and obtaining the treasures contained therein. A player may attempt to infiltrate the house using either strength or stealth, placing his shuriken on the respective side of the house. Strength requires playing dojo cards of greater value than the guard’s number, while stealth requires lower values. You may use skills as desired, but each skill can only be used once per round. If you successfully bypass the guard, you claim the lowest-valued treasure in the house (placed on your shuriken for now) and have the option to continue (“banzai”). If you decide to abandon the run, you claim all of the treasure you have obtained to that point. If you continue, a new random guard is drawn from the deck for you to overcome. But beware! Some guards have an alarm symbol on them, which can (and will) ruin your plans by summoning an elite guard, whose skills are much tougher — and often more specialized — than those in the regular deck.

Failure at any point of the run results in the player losing all but one of his obtained treasures (their choice); the sentry guard remains in the house, and an additional random treasure is added to whatever is left. In addition to gaining a pile of treasures, completely clearing out a house allows the player to replace that house’s clan with one of the other two, choosing a new honor level of their choice (of those remaining). Any elite guards defeated are kept by the player face down for final scoring.

Knowing when to risk pushing your luck in an infiltration is a key strategy. A failed run can be disastrous, as you will probably have spent several dojo cards for only one treasure. Be especially wary of elite guards, as they will require multiple cards, timely skills, and/or a lucky draw to overcome.

A round ends once all players have executed three actions. Envoy and rumor cards are replaced, empty houses are re-stocked with treasures and a new sentry, and the turn order is rearranged. After rounds three, five, and seven there is a special scoring phase. In the order indicated on the board (which, in a cute but obscure touch, reflects the three clans’ actual relative influence at different times during that era), the player controlling the most envoys of that clan can choose to either gain points equal to the clan’s current honor value (as indicated by the tokens on the five houses) or to gain one rumor card. Once all three clans’ first-place players are dealt with, the second-place players each get whatever reward the first-place player didn’t take; this might mean that a second-place player scores zero, but that’s what happens when you back a weak clan.

After the third scoring phase, there is a final scoring. Any unspent treasures are worth a mere one point each, and any defeated elite guards are worth their printed value (typically one point for all but the doubles, which are worth two). Then the players’ collected rumors are revealed. Most rumors count something else: envoy cards, defeated elites, accumulated rumors, or acquired skills; the number of rumors you have counting a specific object creates a multiplier.

Ninjato requires careful planning if you are to succeed. Three actions a round over only seven rounds is incredibly limiting, especially when you have to consume an entire action just to refill your hand. Careful management, or sabotaging, of the clans’ honor is also vital, and can cause odd situations where a player with majority in envoys of a strong clan finds himself unwilling to infiltrate certain houses and thus unable to obtain more treasure. Even having envoy majority can cause problems, as you then not only have to choose which reward to collect, but also (by default) which reward second place will collect; is their reward going to help them more than yours helps you, and is it worth it to take a lesser reward instead? Choices like these and the press-your-luck infiltration mechanic are what gives Ninjato its appeal. Yes, there is some randomness as to which rumors, envoys, and even guards show up at any given time, but being adaptable to the game of the flow will yield rewards.

Ninjato retails for about $50, and games last around an hour. Drew Baker’s artwork really gives the game life, and all the components, including a nice cloth bag for the treasure tokens, are solid, making the overall package worth the price. The creators also included a brief history of that era of Japan’s history (the Heian period) as part of the instructions.