Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Alderac Entertainment Group [AEG], 2-4 players, ages 13 and up, about 60 minutes; $49.99)


ninjaboxThe Legend of the Five Rings is a roleplaying adventure game published by Alderac Entertainment Group that has been around for over a decade now. (We featured the game back in the Summer 1996 issue of Gamers Alliance Report.) That game has spawned a host of others set in that roleplaying universe. In the latest from AEG, this world is used as the backdrop for adventure in a boardgame: Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan.

Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is a Frederick Moyersoen design. Moyersoen is fond of games of deduction; he also designed last year’s Nuns on the Run. But while Nuns on the Run was a lighthearted look at novices scampering around the confines of a cloister, Ninja has a much more sinister undertone as one side seeks to enter a guarded domain, do whatever it takes to complete two secret missions and escape alive while the opposition attempts to stop them… dead.

The large square box contains a host of high quality components, There are plastic miniatures representing guards with swords, guards with spears, drunk guards and lanterns (used to track the Alert Level and the game turns). There are also figures representing the intruders (a ninja and a traitor) involved in the missions. Three decks of cards (separate decks for the guards, the ninja and the traitor) are used as well as maps to record your discoveries and suspicions (and screens to keep your jottings private). There are six different mission cards (A through F) and a large mounted board which gives an aerial cutaway view of a fortress and its environs divided into “zones”.

All is quiet as the game begins on the 0 Alert Level. Both intruders (the ninja and the traitor) get a randomly shuffled Mission card. This is the reason why they are skulking about, to complete those missions. To help in that task, the intruder player (with 2 players, the same player controls both the ninja and the traitor) chooses 8 of the 12 ninja cards and 7 of the 10 traitor cards for his “action decks”. (These decks are NOT combined.) The opposing player commands the guards and secretly chooses 24 of the 36 guard cards as his “action deck”.

Choosing the cards that make up your deck and the subsequent using of those cards wisely is key. The ninja and intruder have similar but separate decks. The ninja, for example, may play a Shuriken card which will eliminate a lone guard or Shadow Walk past a sentry without raising an alarm. The traitor can take advantage of Potent Saki which renders a guard drunk and unable to raise an alarm. There are cards found in both intruder decks such as Rope which, when used, allow an intruder to scale a wall. The deck used by the guards is geared to uncovering intruders with an abundance of Sentry Listen, Sentry Search, Patrol Listen and Patrol Search cards. Both sides, however, have Kenjutsu cards, powerful cards which will target and remove an opposing piece.

The guard player is responsible to protect the fortress. To do so, he places 8 guards on his choice of any of the 12 red circles within the fortress and then makes 3 patrols of 2 guards each. Patrols may be placed in any zone on the patrol tracks. Finally, on his private map, the guard player records where 8 guards are “sleeping” and, within the two castle areas on the map, marks the six mission goals (A through F), one letter in six different zones. Now it’s the intruders’ turn.

ninjaboardBoth the ninja and traitor are, at this point, unseen. The intruder player decides where on the perimeter the ninja will begin his operations (marking the position on his private map). Similarly, the traitor begins within the outer moat of the area but NOT within the castles themselves or in areas occupied by guards or between the castles. Finally, the intruder decides where his “secret passage” will be. This (with the entrance and exit marked by an X on his private map) will allow for swift movement from one area to another (something that may come in very handy when the guards are in hot pursuit!) Now the game begins.

Each turn consists of four phases: Alert, Guard Card, Guard Patrol and Intruder.

During the Alert Phase, the turn marker is advanced, any guard cards played in the last turn are reshuffled into the draw deck and more cards drawn, (The number of drawn cards depends on the current Alert level, from 3 if High Alert to 0 if the Alert Level is at None. The current Alert level is then decreased by 1.) These drawn cards may now be used, playing one card on each sentry or patrol on the board. (Once a card is played here, no further cards may be played on that guard this turn.) Cards not played are taken into the guard player’s hand.

It is during this phase when the guard player may play “Listen” cards (Sentry Listens or Patrol Listens) to try to detect the intruders. Depending on how far the intruder moved the previous turn (more noise is made the quicker he moves), he may be detected. If so, the Alert Level rises by one. (The traitor has an antidote to this however. He may play an It Was a Cat card so that the guards hear nothing! He may also play this card when he is nowhere near the guards to throw them off the scent.)

During the Guard Card phase, the guard player may play up to 2 cards from his hand to try to locate the intruders such as Sentry Search, Patrol Search and/or Awaken cards. (If no cards are played by the guard player during the Alert and Guard card phases, the Alert level is raised one and the guard player gets a FREE “listen for intruder” move by one sentry or guard).

After all cards are played, the Guard Patrol Phase occurs. All patrols on the red patrol track of the board may be moved. Patrols always move two zones forward and may not reverse direction. Finally, it is the intruders turn to operate.

Intruders may play any or all of their cards at any point during their turn. But intruders do not draw cards and, once played, that card may not be reused. Intruders may move up to 3 zones on a turn. The more they move, the more likely it is that the guards will hear them. They can enter a zone occupied by guards and, if the guards are not killed, the intruders must reveal their presence by placing the appropriate plastic piece in that zone on the board. But eluding guards is only the means to an end. The intruders must complete their secret missions.

ninja2To complete a secret mission, the intruders must search zones to find the zone that matches the letter of their mission. Zones that have been moved into or out of that turn may be searched but no more than two zones may be searched on a turn. To do a search, the intruder simply declares a search, which intruder (ninja or traitor) is searching and points to a specific zone on the board. The guard player then reveals what is in that specific zone (a mission target, a trap, a hidden sentry or nothing). If a trap is found, the Alert Level rises by one. If a hidden sentry is there, the intruder can take action and neutralize him (that’s when those Kenjutsu or Shuriken cards come in very handy) but if unable to neutralize that sentry, another sentry figure is placed on the board there and the Alert Level rises to High! Should a mission target be discovered, the letter of the mission must be disclosed and if that letter matches the intruder’s mission goal, the intruder has completed that mission! His next step is to escape and, if he does so, the intruder player must state which intruder (ninja or traitor) has exited the board.

With all of the stealthy stalking, detecting intruders is a paramount consideration. Any time one or more guards enter a zone where an intruder lurks, the intruder player must announce his presence immediately and place the corresponding intruder figure in that zone. The Alert Level moves to High and fortress forces in that zone may attack the intruder immediately.

ninja3If the intruder is doing the attacking, one Kenjatsu card is used to remove one guard. (The Alert Level rises a level or two depending on the card.) If unable or unwilling to attack a guard, the Alert Level immediately goes to High. If the guards are on the offensive, the guard player may play as many Kenjutsu cards as he has guards in the zone. A guard attack results in an intruder wound. Three wounds for the ninja and he is killed. The traitor is more vulnerable. It takes only two wounds to eliminate him. But not all is lost. If you lose an intruder before turn 10, you get a “do over” and can bring a “replacement” intruder into the game. (In game terms, the eliminated intruder was merely a “decoy”.) But there is a cost. The guard player is rewarded by being allowed to select five new cards to add to his hand as well as 3 more sleeping guards.

The game ends when either no intruders remain on the board (having either escaped or been killed) or the 20th turn has been completed. The intruders win if they have completed both missions and have successfully escaped the fortress. The guards win if this does not happen. Should only one intruder fulfill his mission, the game is a draw.

Ninja is a game of hidden movement and deception. Probably the best known entry in this “hide and seek” genre of gaming is Scotland Yard (initially released by Ravensburger in 1983 and later issued by Milton Bradley for the American market in 1985) where players worked to capture the elusive “Mr. X”. But despite its decades old roots, several things contribute to make this game fresh.

The challenge of completing secret missions adds another dimension to the challenge of just tracking down a ghost-like figure. It’s not enough to find the intruders; you have to keep the missions out of their reach. Conversely, it’s not enough to avoid the guards; the intruders MUST locate the mission zones while avoiding the guards and traps that await. Another twist is that each player can choose which cards from his specified deck he wishes to use, a “deck building” of sorts. This can give each game a certain freshness as card combinations need not be precisely the same. Using these cards to maximum advantage (which includes holding off using them until a potentially pivotal point is reached) adds a card management aspect to play. Of course, those molded plastic figures add to the ambiance and underscore the graphic quality of the game which, as a whole, is really quite high. (The only questionable graphic decision is the use of such small type on the cards when there is plenty of room for larger type without sacrificing space for the artwork. Unless you plan on including a magnifying glass in the game box, then what’s the point?)

For fans of the roleplaying world of ninjas and assassins and those who enjoy games of deduction and misdirection can find common ground in Ninja which manages to combine both types of gameplay into one high quality package.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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