Monday, October 22, 2012



by Z-Man Games

Published in 2011

Ninjato is a board game that captivated me - above everything else - with its theme; Ninjas! There are so few decent ninja board games around, and I (like a big percentage of you out there, I would imagine) just happen to be quite interested in ninja-related stuff.
Ninjato, set in 12th century Japan, transforms its players into ninjas, scheming behind the scenes in a power struggle between three powerful clans: Go-Shirakawa, Minamoto and Taira.

In Ninjato, the ninjas are portrayed as individuals with exceptional skill, but not unnaturally so - fortunately (I think ninjas are intriguing enough without supernatural powers). These ninjas are after Honor (which serves as Victory Points for the players), but interestingly this Honor is not gained via fighting or other typical ninja-like feats, but rather by bribing envoys from the three clans, and spreading rumors about themselves and their heroic deeds.
Of course bribing can't be done without some valuable items, and this is where your array of legendary ninja-skills come in handy...

One thing to be made perfectly clear is that Ninjato is not a solo game. Basically this game has a very little player-to-player interaction, and judging by only this Ninjato could just as well be played solo... but the game situation changes every time somebody does something, and this is why Ninjato is a poor choice for just one player; you would have an almost total control over the events in the game.

I am using a solo variant of my own design, which adds a "ghost player" in the game, attempting to give the feel of another player doing something behind the scenes. However, there is no winning or losing with my variant - I'm just trying to score as much Honor as possible.

Ninjato is a rather simple game, one of the simplest I have introduced in this blog. But from the simplicity comes some very finely refined game mechanics. The game actually uses no dice (a big plus!), but you may see a small green D4 on the table in the picture above. That one is used with my solo variant to randomize certain things.

So here is the game board.

As the game is quite abstract, the board is mainly for keeping things organized - and for building up the theme, of course.
There are few different locations for the ninjas to visit. For training, the Dojo and the Sensei's house can be found from the bottom part of the map. On the left we can see the Pavilion - this is the place where a crafty ninja may spread rumors to boost their Honor (and ego, I'm sure). On the right there is the Palace, where the envoys from the three clans like to hang out.

The middle part of the map is where the action takes place in the five clan-controlled houses. These houses have treasures in them, and these treasures are important for the ninjas... the only problem is, how to get your hands on them?

But now, let's start the game and see how I fare as a ninja!


The game was on. I knew I needed to train hard, as the Clans had a wide array of guards at their service. My ninja skills were already legendary, but the ultimate mastery was still to be achieved.

After spending some time at the Dojo, I visited my old Sensei. Being a ninja is more than just perfecting my bodily skills, so I took some time to learn the art of Pyrotechnics.
These are the kind of tricks that my enemies will not be expecting, definitely giving me the upper hand in combat situations.

My adversary bribed a man from Go-Shirakawa. I responded quickly, storming the only house controlled by Go-Shirakawa and letting Taira take control of it. The last guard inside was nothing less than a Samurai - my new skills were put into a good use.

Hungry for new skills, I saw my Sensei again. He taught me the importance of Tactics. It doesn't matter whether I choose to use stealth or strength to achieve my goals, good Tactics will always help me.

I decided to get involved with Taira even more.
I found Masako - a member of Taira - and impressed her with treasures I had found from the house I attacked earlier.

Meanwhile, my adversary tried to attack the new house of the clan Taira, but they were fought off. Then, quickly changing their tactics, they bribed an envoy from Taira like I did. However, this young woman didn't have quite the same amount of influence over her clan as my friend Masako did.

My plan was to keep Taira under my influence, and to make sure that they prospered. And so I attacked another house for Taira's benefit, this one belonging to the clan Minamoto. Once again I decided to forget about stealthy approach, and go in with strength.

Somebody managed to raise the alarm, and in the end I had to simultaneously fight two guards... But they were no match for my skills, and I cleared the house.
I even found some gold. Gold was very sought after at the Palace - all the envoys would gladly accept it as a gift.

My Honor was rising fast. So far I had played my cards right... Taira was by far the most influential clan at the moment, and they favored me.

More training with my Sensei; this time I focused on my Sword Fighting abilities. I became confident in my abilities to take down any opponent who would dare to raise their weapon against me.

With my new treasures I was also able to find another Taira to support me.
This old man - Tadagane - was a very powerful figure, and he would probably be enough to keep Taira as my ally for now.

My adversary was gaining influence within clan Minamoto.

A big part of ninja's influence comes from the whispers and rumors that make them seem like beings of supernatural power.
Knowing this, I discreetly visited the Pavilion. A valuable jade statuette placed in the right hands was enough to initiate a rumor that made me "The Master of the Secret Art".
Fear can be used as a weapon.

Another attack was made against the house of Taira which I conquered for them. Has my adversary sided with clan Minamoto for good?

Inspired by the rumor that was spread earlier, I desired to really become a Master of the Secret Arts. And so I visited the Sensei once again, and this time he taught me something quite different: The art of disguising myself as somebody else. This craft would allow me to trick and manipulate the clans into taking my side, if ever a need for such means should arise.
My skills were very well diversified, though the "Snake Style" was still unknown to me...

Another one of Taira's envoys has been bribed by my adversary. Their strategy baffles me... why fight them, and befriend them at the same time?

Anyway, I decided to keep supporting Taira myself. Only one of the houses was not under Taira's control, and I wanted to convert that one as well. Approaching the house, I saw a skilled Samurai who had been posted as a sentry guard. He was obviously there to discourage anyone from attack the house.
And true enough, he made me think of another way in. I would have been able to defeat the Samurai, but it wouldn't have been an easy fight... and there was a better way. I sneaked in, all the way to the inner sanctum, and took the house from inside.
I found some valuable vases for myself, and Taira rushed in to seize control of the house.

However, at the same time, Go-Shirakawa appeared again. The strongest of all the houses under Taira's control - the one I had given them in the beginning - was taken over by Go-Shirakawa, and I was certain that my adversary had helped them.
I felt that while I definitely was the Master of the Secret Arts, my adversary was a master in deception, skillfully keeping all the three clans within their reach.

I retreated to my Dojo to train and meditate. I was going to strike again, and for the second time liberate the house from under Go-Shirakawa's control.

My adversary managed to bribe their third envoy from Taira. The contest for Taira's favor was going to be very tough in the end...
But now I had to concentrate on my next house raid.

I went into the house, fighting like never before. An alarm was sound, and a Tsuba appeared! These legendary warriors are even more dangerous than the Samurai. Even my formidable Sword Fighting skills weren't enough to get the best of him, so I played dirty and used my Pyrotechnics to finish him off.

After completing the house raid, I headed to the Palace again. No more Taira people could be found, so I tried to get friends from the other clans.

Yoshisada, a young boy from clan Go-Shirakawa was highly impressed by my collection of rare fans. Every envoy is good news, but this boy's influence in his ancient clan is low, and I would need at least one other envoy from Go-Shirakawa to gain their trust.

I almost finally met my adversary! It seems we were inside the Palace at the same time...
But they outwitted me. While I bribed a Minamoto girl called Shikibu, my adversary managed to find yet another Taira. They now had four envoys from the mighty Taira, while I only had two...

But the time was up, and there was nothing I could do to win Taira over anymore.

Frustrated, I went to the Pavilion to spread another rumor... A ninja who is the "Greatest Warrior" as well as the "Master of the Secret Art" is something to be...

However, the game had ended. Taira forgot about me and the other clans had never paid much attention to me, and so in the final count I was left without Honor.

After adding up my Honor from the rumors and from some other sources, my total score became 86.
A low score!


Well, before the game I wrote that there is no winning or losing with this rule variant - it seems I was wrong! At least that's how I feel about this run... a fun game, but I can't believe how low I scored. This was the lowest score I've ever got with these variant rules. As a point of reference, my previous lowest score was 88, but in about 70% of my games I've scored over a hundred points of Honor.

And so it can almost be said that the "ghost player" tricked me! I held Taira up until the very end, using most of my energy into keeping as many houses under Taira control as possible... then when the last round comes, I suddenly learn that I no longer have Taira. Maybe I should have paid more attention to what the "ghost" was up to!

Ninjato is a relatively simple game, with easily memorizable rules and a game time usually shorter than an hour. I tagged this game as a "strategy" game, but it must be said that luck also plays a big part with the most important aspect in Ninjato - the house raids.
The mechanic for resolving these house raids is very simple and straightforward, but for one reason or another, I find it strangely thrilling to reveal the next guard in a house, and then to determine if I can defeat it... and if I can, then what are my options to do so.

The overall feeling of game seems right to me. The game board is absolutely beautiful, and the skills are portrayed very nicely in their tiles. Quality of the components is high, for example the large wooden Shuriken that are used to mark the actions a player takes are very showy... if not even too big, as they make the nice details in the game board seem insignificant.

RATING:  8 /10


As stated before, Ninjato is not very well suited for solo gaming.
For 2+ players the situation is a whole lot different: While Ninjato may not offer anything groundbreaking, it still is a very well designed, easy-to-learn strategy game with a cool ninja-theme!

In case you're interested, here is a link for the additional solo rules that were used in this game:

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