By Bob, Lizzy, Briony
Dicks in ear: 7/10
Pairs well with: Sake, meditation, wisdom. All three at once, no cheating.
Note before playing: Everyone always asks if yelling WAT-AAH is part of the game, and, if so, when you shout it. While the parameters for shouting WAT-AAH do not appear in the rules, it is said the shouty samurai spirit has been inside you all along, and all that is needed is for you to free it when you feel the call. We enjoyed a house rule of shouting WAT-AAH whenever you put cards down. Or pick up cards. Or look at someone funny.
This is a game about ninjas with magic powers. And that’s pretty cool, but much more cool is the fact that this game might even have magical powers of its own. We’re pretty sure it’s impossible not to enjoy playing it. Genuinely, we’ve not found a single person who disliked it, and we know people who dislike everything.
It’s another Essen find, and a very fortuitous one at that. Essen is a wonderful and exciting four days of board games but it is, nonetheless, four very long days of board games. By Saturday Bob was flagging. She hadn’t slept well in her overheated German hotel room and had more or less twisted her gastrointestinal tract into origami with German ham hock stew and pilsner (from this and the Sanssouci post you might have guessed that she has something of a complicated relationship with Germany. You would be correct). Running through pouring rain to catch our tram to the convention centre did not improve the mood and by the time we arrived, damp and itchy-eyed with tiredness, Chris (friendly robot boyfriend) was detecting all the signs of a classic Bob-style rage-quit (pouting, tearfulness, The Grumps). Worse; we had arrived early in order to be first in line to play Hyperborea and hadn’t even managed to secure first play spot. Nor, despite a mad dash, did we make it to Tragedy Looper before its first clientele of the day had casually picked up the instruction booklet and started reading (the boardgame convention equivalent of yelling ‘dibs!’).
Chris later confessed that when we spotted an available table with Shinobi WAT-AAH! laid out on it that he was more or less praying that it would be good, or a full-scale tantrum was going to occur. Bob of course informed him that she is an adult woman and she does not throw tantrums,* to which we all obviously agree, but conceded that the appearance of the Shinobi table was still pretty well-timed.
Mechanically it’s a fairly straightforward deck-building card game in which you’re a royal lord (or lady) trying to unite clans of epic fighting ninjas in order to trigger their epic ninja fighting skills so that you may defeat the final demon boss (WAT-AAH!) and place your royal rear upon the Imperial throne. The epic ninja fighting skills fuel conflict in the game as you fuck with other players’ cards, peek through the Jigoku (the discard pile – literally translates as ‘hell’), or copy other clans’ powers. We give it a rating of 7 dicks-in-ear for the irresistible opportunities to knobble each other with these powers. Although some of the clans’ powers are more friendly (pick up some cards, look at some cards, etc) you’ll almost certainly find yourself plotting some nasty moves and stealing an entire hand of cards from someone you sometimes consider to be a friend.
There are two modes to play in: Grasshopper and Grand Master. In Grasshopper mode you simply play turns until someone has laid four fully-formed clans (WAT-AAH!) on the table. You then tally up the scoring value of each clan on the table and the player with the highest number wins (not necessarily the person who ended the game). Grand Master mode begins the same but after the tally you retain the cards still in your hand (fully-formed clans already on the table get discarded) and receive a number of The Shuriken of Winning depending on your place in the running. You can spend your Shuriken of Winning on cards which will give you bonuses (WAT-AAH!) in the next round, or toward battling the final boss (which could be zombies or creepy old lady-demons or whatever).
You do this for three rounds and then the final showdown happens. The showdown is much more anti-climactic than it sounds, as it’s really just a scoring of a the number of shuriken you’ve already put toward fighting the final boss against the (hidden, mysterious) number that they want in order to give you the best possible number of points. There is no epic battle between ninjas and demons, sadly, but interestingly more Shuriken of Winning doesn’t always translate into more winning points.
It’s hardly the most complex or rich game in the world, but it is unashamedly fun. It’s the feudal Japanese card game equivalent of a pew-pew video game. Dicks fly everywhere and the art is about as fantastic as you’d expect from the guy who also did Seasons and that most scenic of games, Tokaido. It has a cartoonish feel that is both beautifully detailed and very bold and clean. This perfectly reflects the style of the game – simple, fun, yet with captivating little details. For example the wild cards which can be used to simply make up numbers in a clan are called Ronin – a feudal Japanese term for a samurai without a master or lord. Similarly, the powerful single cards which can be played as one-off additions to a clan are called Yokai – spirits or supernatural beings present in Japanese folklore. This is exciting if you’re incredibly nerdy and contributes to the immensely satisfying feeling of a well-balanced, well-designed game that just works. The cards are also taller than you’d expect, which is aesthetically very pleasing. It’s a neat touch.
Price-wise it’s a bargain. For some reason it seems that the more board games cost the more polarising and more rarely-played they become. Everyone will play a round of Coloretto or Hanabi but you actively have to search out friends interested in a game that costs hundreds and takes 6 hours. Twenty quid might not get you meeples of every colour and shape or a giant, detailed board but it will get you a game where even friends whose opinion of pretty much everything is that it’s ‘bullshit’, will sit up halfway through a round and mention how much fun it is.
Lizzy won again. But the real winner is board games.
* She does kind of throw tantrums a little bit. But only when she’s really tired. Or hungry.** Or drunk.
** Before Essen she gave Lizzy a bag of Cadbury’s éclairs, with strict instructions to feed them to her if (when) she got cranky. It was a good strategy.
Image credit and thanks to Dr Photographer