Ninjato is a game for 2 to 4 players designed by Adam West and Dan Schnake, distributed by White Goblin Games. In this game players take on the role of ninjas working behind the scenes to influence the power of the different clans by use of intrigue, raids and skill mastery. The one who is best at achieving this will be the Invisible Sword of the ruling clan, the NINJATO.
During setup each players takes all wooden components of their chosen colors. This includes 3 sweet looking shuriken. You select a random player order and put the color tokens in that sequence on the board. The other marker of each color is placed at the start of the honor (point) track. You separate the guard and elite guard cards and place one guard face up on each house as the sentry for that house. Take the 2 and the 4 honor marker from the Taira (red) clan and place them on two different houses, then do the same for the Minamoto (blue) clan. Finally place the 6 honor GoShirakawa (green) token on the remaining house. Place all the treasure tokens in the bag then draw and place 3 treasures brown side up in each house. Shuffle the skill tiles without the disguise skill and place them in a stack near the Sensei area. You place skill tiles in the Sensei area equal to the number of players. Shuffle all the Envoy cards and place 4 of them face up in the Palace. Do the same for the rumor cards and place these in the Pavilion. Shuffle the dojo cards and give each player 4 cards, afterwards turn up 3 cards and place them in the dojo.
The players take their turn based on the order track. During their turn the player places one of their shuriken on one of the available places on the board and executes the corresponding action. You have 5 different locations where you can place your Shuriken: The Dojo, The Sensei, one of the five clan houses, the Pavilion and the Palace.
When you place your shuriken at the dojo you can draw some dojo cards depending on the number of cards in your hand. If you have one or fewer dojo cards you can draw back up until you have four cards otherwise you simply draw 2 cards. The cards you draw can be from the revealed cards and/or from the deck. When you exceed your hand limit of seven cards in hand you discard down to seven. The Dojo is replenished after all cards have been chosen by the player. When placing your shuriken at the dojo you place them on top of any shuriken already placed there because these will determine the player order for the next round. There is one special dojo card and that is the 3-card. This one can be used as a normal 3 or as a +1 or -1 on another card played in conjunction with it.
When you go to the Sensei you can learn new skills. These usually cost a specific dojo card depicted on the top left of the tile but when you already own a skill of the same style (snake, tiger, crane) then you can learn it for free. These skills will help you to change the dojo cards, claim treasures from houses, use bribed envoys… The last three rounds only one skill will be available, the disguise skill.
In the Palace you can bribe one of the envoys by paying the treasures required. Each treasure that you use grants you an amount of honor as depicted on the treasure. These envoys are used for scoring the clan honor tokens.
The Pavilion lets you acquire rumors in the exact same manner as the Palace, by paying the required treasures. These rumor cards are only used in end scoring and will offer you honor for various things like having rumors, skills and so on… The bonuses of these rumors get bigger if you collect multiples of them. These rumors are hidden from other players until the end.
The biggest action of this game is definitely raiding the houses to collect the treasure. You can only raid houses that have treasure in them. First off when you raid a house you have to decide if you are going to use your strength or your stealth. When you use your strength you have to play a dojo card that is higher than the guard you are facing, when using stealth the card needs to be lower. First you always need to beat the sentry (revealed card) of the house. Once beaten you choose the lowest remaining treasure token and place it on your shuriken. Now you have the option to Banzai (continue) or retreat. When you choose to retreat you take all the treasures on your shuriken, if you choose to Banzai the next guard is revealed from the stack and you have to try to defeat it by using the same style as before (although there is a skill that lets you change your style). When you fail to defeat the guard you can take one treasure from your shuriken and the rest is discarded. If you overcome the next guard you can Banzai again or retreat. This goes on until no treasure remains, you retreat or are defeated. Some guards will raise the alarm. When this happens you take a treasure from the bag and add it to the house. Afterwards you change the highest value treasure to its red side. When there are only red treasures remaining in the house the guards are elite guards. These are tougher and sometimes come in pairs but give you honor when you can defeat them. If you manage to clear out the house you have to change the Clan token there by one from the other two available clans. You also remove the sentry there. When you were unable to empty out the house you add a treasure token from the bag to the house and the sentry stays in the house.
At the end of each round the new player order is determined. The shuriken highest on top of the dojo stack will be the new first player. The rest of the dojo stack will determine the player order. Players who did not visit the dojo do not change position relative to each other. The players turn their used skills face up again. The Sensei gets cleared and refilled. From round five forward this means that only one disguise skill will be placed in the sensei. Refill the empty places in the Palace and the Pavilion. The cleared houses are refilled again by placing a Sentry there and placing 3 treasures at the house.
After the 3rd, 5th and 7th round a scoring phase occurs. For each clan, the players with the most and second most envoy cards get a reward. Ties are won by the age of the oldest envoy. The player with the most envoy cards chooses its reward first and this can be to receive the honor points from the clan tokens in play at the houses or choose a rumor card. The second player automatically receives the other reward.
After the seventh round there is a final scoring. Here you get the honor points for your gained rumors. Each unused treasure is also worth 1 honor point and your defeated Elite guards also give honor points equal to the number depicted. The player with the most Honor points is the new NINJATO. If the rare occasion of a tie occurs the players with most envoy cards is the winner. When this would result in another tie the player with the oldest envoy card wins.
The game looks stunning as you can see. The board nicely depicts a little ancient Japanese town and the artwork also has the same flavor. The workers being shuriken is also a great touch. I love the different choices that you have in this game but never too much to grasp. For raiding the houses you need the dojo cards. Are you going for the high cards or for the low cards or do you want a lot of 3’s so that you can change your other dojo cards. There is also a little press your luck when raiding a house because you are never sure what you will encounter and it certainly gets iffy when one of the guards sounds the alarm. This definitely is a game where you need to know what you are doing and what you want to accomplish. An experienced player will beat a novice player hands down with a huge scoring difference and this scoring difference is my only minor issue with a game. You have two main scoring options, the rumors and the clan tokens by use of the envoy cards. You can also score points with the treasures but since you need them for envoy cards and rumors you will always get points for them. The main thing you need to do is get the right clan tokens at the houses at the right time. It is not at all difficult to play but to win that’s something entirely different. The feeling that you get when raiding a house and never be sure what to expect is so fun. All in all a really fun and easy to play worker-placement game with some press your luck mixed in. This makes for a great combination and we will enjoy it for many years to come.
Play with honor - especially in this game