Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Ninja - Legend of the Scorpion Clan

A patrol goes hunting for ninja.
So last weekend we played Ninja - Legend of the Scorpion Clan. This is a board game published by AEG and ostensibly set in their Legend of the Five Rings oriental fantasy milieu, but in reality this could just as easily be feudal Japan, as none of the L5R fantasy tropes are present (e.g. shugenja). In my household there is currently a strong interest in stealth-oriented games and in medieval Japan - this baby scores on both counts!

Ninja is a game of hidden movement and stealth. There are no dice involved. It can be played with up to four people, although seems to work with two. On one side we have the ninja and a traitor within the daimyo's castle (a disaffected samurai). On the other we have the sentries and patrols responsible for the security of the castle. Each turn, the two bad guys search the castle for their objectives (which are randomly determined at the beginning of the game) while the guards seek to find them and kill them. There are 20 turns before sunrise: if the ninja player(s) fails to complete his mission(s) before then, he loses.

The infiltrators keep track of their movement on a map, in a similar fashion to the way Dracula scoots around Europe in Fury of Dracula, and only place their pieces on the board when they are discovered. The board itself is quite awesome, representing a Japanese castle/palace complex. The speed at which the infiltrators move around the castle dictates how easy it is for the samurai guards to hear them (creep, walk and run).

A typical mission reaches its successful conclusion!
The guards themselves are split up into two types - static sentries and patrols. The patrols consist of two samurai who march around the castle, although sentries can be attached to patrols as well. Patrols follow a specific route through the castle unless alerted via a Patrol Search card (of which more below). There are also sleeping samurai who are hidden in barracks on the map without the knowledge of the infiltrators, hidden samurai who are lurking in the castle, and traps. In short, the ninja and traitor do not know the positions of all the guards and can inadvertently stumble upon them).

Guards can be pulled away from their assignments with Listen and Search cards. This is the best way for them to find the ninja and/or the traitor. Guard players get these cards at the beginning of their turn and also have a phase later in the round when they can play more. The number of cards they draw is based on the alert level - like the console game Tenchu - Stealth Assassins; this can be elevated to high alert quite quickly if a ninja is spotted, and then declines only gradually as the guards calm down.

L to R: sentry, drunk guard, patrol, traitor and ninja
Combat is distilled into the playing of kenjutsu cards which can inflict wounds on your opponent: a ninja can take three wounds, the traitor can take two and guards can only take one. There are various other cards in the game which can be employed as stratagems, including a secret passage into the castle, a rope for climbing walls, shuriken, etc.

Ninja is a very entertaining game, and relatively rules lite. At this stage I have only one real reservation with the rules. If either the traitor or ninja are found and killed before turn 10, they get to respawn and have another go with a randomly assigned mission. They are penalised by an allocation of more action cards and sleeping guards to the opposition. In our game, we found and killed the traitor by turn #4. He then re-spawned and was assigned a random mission at a location the infiltrator player had already scouted, and was therefore able to get there quickly and complete his mission without having to do much further searching. As a consequence, the infiltrator player was able to complete both missions by turn #6. While there is a theoretical 20 turn limit, I'd be surprised if a game ever last that long!

Just part of the gorgeous map board.
I think it is impossible for the guard player to win under these terms, although we will swap sides and give it another go just to see if this really is the case. I would instead suggest that each infiltrator really only has one 'life'. This would make for a shorter game, perhaps, but this is no bad thing. It makes Ninja the sort of game you can bring out on a Friday evening and play to a conclusion inside an hour. It isn't going to take up an entire evening, and sometimes there is a need for this kind of game.

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