Monday, 1 October 2012


Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

Shinobi is a secret identity game that supports 3 to 5 players. At the start of the game everyone is secretly assigned a clan, which is revealed only at game end to determine the winner. Players play cards into their own play area as well as those of others. Cards of the same clan (i.e. same suit) in the same play area group together, and can attack smaller groups (of other clans/suits, of course) in other play areas. The result of an attack is removing one card from the targeted group. When the draw deck runs out, players play one more round, and the game ends. Reveal your identity, and if your clan has the most cards remaining in play (i.e. in all play areas), you win.

Box cover. The review copy that Right Games sent to me is the Russian version, so I could not read the text on it. The game is language-independent, so I only needed to download the rules from BGG.

There are five clans in the game, i.e. five card suits. If fewer than five players are playing, some clans will be neutral clans.

On your turn, there are two mandatory actions. The first is to play a card into another player's area (which is called a province). The second is to either (a) play a card into your own province, or (b) move a card from another player's province to another province, which can be yours or that of another player. Once both of these are done, you check whether any group of cards (which is called an army) in your province can attack another army in another province. The attacker must have more cards than the defender, they must be from different clans, and the defender must not have had cards added this turn. If any attack is possible, you must perform one attack, which removes one card from the targeted army. After all these are done, you draw cards until your hand size is back to four.

There are three ninja cards in the game which belong to no clan. They are used only for the first mandatory action, which is to play a card into another player's province. If you play a ninja card into an army, the ninja card and one clan card are discarded.

The artwork is very nice.

The Play

I have only played 3-player games so far. I was surprised that the game is much trickier than the seemingly simple rules and components have led me to think. It took some time to grasp what a good move is and what a bad one is. In the first half game I had little idea what I was doing, despite understanding the rules. Trying to guess the clans of the opponents is not as easy as I had expected. Well, either that, or I am simply lousy at it. Or maybe I have not been trying hard enough. I guess one way to guess is by elimination, i.e. looking at what clans a player has been attacking. If you can keep track of four clans that an opponent has attacked, then maybe the fifth clan is his clan. But if he's clever, he may have intentionally attacked his own clan just to mislead you. That was what I did in the second game, which I won, but I'm not entirely sure how much that move contributed to the win.

I find it tricky to subtly assist your own clan and encourage it to grow. I am reluctant to build up a big army of my own clan in my own province, because it would lead to suspicion. I don't even want to move cards of my clan much, so that they don't attract attention. When single card armies of my clan get killed, I really wince inside while having to pretend I couldn't care less. And of course I scream with glee inside when someone builds up a big army of my clan and uses it to attack other clans.

It is important to try to maintain some balance between the clans. You have to be suspicious when a particular clan grows much bigger than others. If you are playing a 3P or 4P game, you wonder whether it belongs to an opponent. If you think it does, you'd better trim it down. It is important to delay or completely avoid letting your opponents guess your clan, to prevent them ganging up on your clan. Over the duration of a game, clans can and do rise and fall. You want your clan to keep a low profile in the early game, and slowly but steadily build up towards end game.

It is fun to have table talk, using it to distract, mislead, or focus attention on someone else's clan.

I think the feeling of playing the game will be quite different with different player counts. In a 5P game, every clan will belong to someone, so there's no neutral clan for you to use (or abuse). Also there's no doubt whether a clan belongs to a player or not. With these considerations, 5P games sound less interesting, but I can't say for sure because I have not tried it yet. What surprised me was the 3P game played quite well, better than I had expected. I had thought it would be less interesting than 4P or 5P.

A 3-player game in progress. The draw deck and discard pile are on the right. One card at the top left corner is rotated to indicate that this army cannot be attacked this round, because a card has been played on it. We reset such cards at the start of every round. This method is not mentioned in the rules, but we find doing this helpful.

The icons on the top left corners are the clan mons or clan emblems. I recognise the first three - Oda, Takeda and Hojo, but I don't know the fourth.

The Thoughts

I quite enjoyed Shinobi. It was a pleasant surprise. Despite the simple components, the game is quite tricky, because of the secret identity aspect. There are not many rules, but it takes a little getting-used-to to understand how to make good moves. After two games, I don't feel I have a full grasp of the tactics yet. I am interested to try it with different player counts. The game revolves around subtly helping your clan prosper (or survive, depending on how you look at it) while keeping your identity hidden. At the same time you are also trying to determine the identities of your opponents so that you know which clans you should attack. My gut feel is 3P and 4P games will be better, because there is uncertainty about which clans are neutral. You don't want to waste your attacks on neutral clans. You want to attack player clans.

One worry I have is a player being arbitrarily screwed by luck. Well, technically speaking it is not luck, it is the random choices made by other players. In each of the two games that I played, this happened to one player, including me. Sometimes one clan gets targeted arbitrarily and frequently, not because the players attacking it think it belongs to a particular player, but because it is available to be attacked and it is not their clan. When such a clan gets targeted often, it can never build up. Whenever a single card of that clan is introduced, it soon gets attacked, simply because it is weak and thus easy to attack. This phenomenon may be due to our inexperience. If we were better players, we would probably not make so many arbitrary attacks. We do not need to and thus should not attack a clan that is already weak. We should be attacking clans that are emerging threats or are already major threats.

Shinobi is a game that I look forward to play again. It is a clever and minimalistic design, but the strategies are subtle, and there is much thinking behind every move. I find it intriguing. The feeling when playing the game fits well with the setting of medieval Japanese spies, assassins and saboteurs waging a war of subterfuge, trying to help their clans achieve dominance. This may or may not be a pasted-on theme, but if it is, it is an excellent paste job.


Pete McAllister said...

Could the fourth mon be Clan Date?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

It doesn't look like the Date clan mon exactly, but indeed the two birds are just like what the Date mon has at the centre. So possibly a simplified version of the Date mon.

I checked the Japanese mon page at Wikipedia (Japanese section) and couldn't find anything similar.

Shingo said...

Hi, I think that mon is from Uesugi's.

Uesugi Kenshin was famouse around that time for having on going battle against Takeda Shingen.. so it fits rather well.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you Shingo for sharing this. I know about the Uesugi clan, but I always thought their mon was the one that looks like a Kanji character (毘). Now that I think about it, I think that is a personal banner of Uesugi Kenshin.

Bobby Lamirande said...

Hi there, very nice review, and a thorough and thoughtful site. :-) I was curious if you might be interested in doing an advance review of our game, Hipsters:

We have a 2 player version available for print and play on our website, though I would love to provide you with a four player version if you're interested.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Bobby, Thank you for the offer. I checked out the Kickstarter page and watched the video introduction. I'm afraid I have to decline. Hipsters The Card Game is not really my type, so I don't think I will be able to give it a fair review. The video was done very well, explaining the game very clearly and giving good examples. The game has a number of clever ideas too. Good luck with the project!

Scrabble Online Against Computer said...

I love games like this. Looking forward to playing it. It's always exciting at the end when all is revealed!

Anonymous said...

The game's name on the box, transcrypted to latin:

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks! I thought that was the designer's name.

Anonymous said...

The author's name is Danila Goryunov.