Board Game Review: Shinobi – Battle of Clans
Samurai and ninja are just plain cool, and have a lower saturation in the boardgaming market than do some other tropes, such as pirates. In Shinobi, the players are leaders of samurai clans that vie for dominance. But the players are also unsure of who leads which clan.
The Basics. There are five samurai clans represented by color and symbol. At the beginning of the game, a clan leader card is distributed to each player. This allegiance is kept hidden until the big reveal at the end of the game, a mechanic that’s reminiscent of The Great Fire of London.
From there, the players draw four cards. Every card represents one of the clans. On a turn, the player engages in three actions. First, he plays a card to reinforce troops in front of another player. Second, he either plays troops in front of himself or he moves a card from one province to another (though he can’t move troops away from his province). Finally, he attacks another province. Any of his armies (stacks of Samurai) can attack any other player’s army as long as the defending army is weaker and of a different clan. The defending army loses one card.
The game also has three Ninja. Ninja are special cards and, when played, they automatically kill one card from any army.
When the last card is drawn, the players each get one last turn and then it’s game over. Players reveal their secret clan allegiances. The player whose clan is most represented (including in other players’ armies) is the winner.
The Feel. For most of the game, Shinobi is an entertaining activity where each player is trying to help themselves, hide their alliance, and figure out which other player belongs to which clan. As there is a lot of movement going around, there is a lot of potential information – or misdirection – which allows for some good speculation and deduction.
It’s quite entertaining to pull one over on other players. By appearing to focus on one clan early, sometimes your opponents will be convinced that you hail from the green clan – and attack you for it. But then, by mid game, you start helping your true red clan self and pull the old switcheroo.
The game has two problems, though, one minor and one major. The minor problem is that the game suffers with a full compliment of players. Like Great Fire, if all of the clans are represented, then you know that you are hurting someone as long as you attack a clan not your own. This takes a lot of the fun deduction out of the game. It’s best to play with less than the maximum. With the existence of at least one neutral clan, it forces the players to attempt to divine the alliances of their opponents so that they can properly direct their attacks. Attacks on a neutral clan are generally worthless.
The bigger problem, though, is the rise of the super clan. Since armies can only attack weaker armies, getting a big army together can quickly make the player invulnerable, especially if it’s an army of his own clan. The game has two ways to address this, but they have problems of their own.
First, the player can use a Ninja to simply kill one of that clan’s army. This is very effective, but there are only three Ninja in the deck. With so few numbers, they just do not get to make much of an impact. Second, a player can order one card away on his turn to make the army smaller. Then, if it’s small enough, he can attack that army and kill off another card. But there are subtle problems here.
Assuming the super army isn’t allied to the player who created it, there may be at least one player contributing to the super army. That undoes the work of the player trying to pare it down. Also, it can sometimes result in a weird “bash the leader” effect. I say weird because the players are bashing a certain clan that may or may not be tied to that player. After a few plays, this effect tends to dissipate, but it is something to be cognizant of for the first few games.
Components: 4 of 5. The game consists entirely of a deck of cards. The cards are large, even oversized, and easy to shuffle. The artwork is evocative and fun, even if every card of a color looks identical. The cards are on thick stock and will stand up to serious shuffling. If there is any detraction, it’s the box. The box is flimsy card board; the same you would see in a card box holding old MtG cards. But that’s a minor quibble.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. The cards have a pretty even distribution and, aside from the luck of drawing one of the three Ninja, all the players should get roughly equal access to the cards. From there, it’s all about the bluff, double bluff, and attacks. In my plays, it was paramount that you misdirect your allegiance. If it was ever discovered, then the other players would rain fire on that clan.
Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. The game certainly works well and provides a good experience. However, there are some options that are a little clunky. The rules describes the three phases of a turn as issuing three separate orders. But the orders sometimes don’t make much thematic sense so they feel obtuse. Also, I wish there were a few more Ninja to even things out. If one player draws even two of the Ninja, it can feel like he received a great boon that game.
Replayability: 2.5 of 5. Shinobi is a fun game that will hit the table from time to time. But the quasi-hidden loyalty aspect actually makes me less likely to play it. I love hidden loyalty games, but there are a ton that do this part very well: BSG, Werewolf, Resistance. So if I’m really craving it, there are several games in line before Shinobi. That said, it’s not a “play once and forget” type game either. In terms of replayability, I’d put it on par with Saboteur.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Spite is theoretically very high in this game. In fact, once each turn, you will be attacking another clan. What keeps this from getting a higher score is that it is difficult to pick on a particular player. If you attack the blue clan, who are you really hurting? Can’t say for sure until the end game. This keeps the potential for hurt feelings to a minimum.
Overall: 3 of 5. Shinobi is a fun and keeps the players guessing. It’s an interesting hidden alliance game where the players have tons of chances to bluff and misdirect their actions. There are numerous decisions to be made that can be both strategic and tactical. I enjoyed Shinobi a good deal, but it’s important to have at least one neutral clan. Otherwise, without the deduction element, the game can really suffer.
(A special thanks to Right Games for providing a review copy of Shinobi)