Overview: The Lion Clan’s castle is well-guarded, with two moats and sentries. Patrols walk a regular path around the compound, watching for anything amiss. Of course, the ninja from the Scorpion Clan isn’t easily seen or heard — and what’s more, he has a traitor accomplice on the inside. The ninja and the traitor must carry out their mission and escape the compound before daybreak; meanwhile, the guards must do their duty to protect the castle.
Ages: 12 and up
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Rating: It’s got a Ninja, secret passages, and potent sake. What more do you need? Well, okay, some better player aids would have been nice.
Who Will Like It? Fans of hidden movement games like the classic Scotland Yard or Letters From Whitechapel will enjoy this one, particularly if they like ninjas. It’s set in the L5R universe, but it’s a standalone board game so you don’t actually need to have experience with that in order to enjoy this game.
Ninja (like the rest of L5R) has a setting that is much like feudal Japan, and the artwork and action cards all reflect this. The board is beautiful, with a lot of detail in the depiction of the castle. Because the ninja and traitor track movement on a paper map rather than the board, it does feel like you’re sneaking around, hidden from the guards. Various things will raise the guard’s alert level, which gives them more actions … but then if they don’t find you they become complacent and the alert level drops again.
Overall, the theme and gameplay match up pretty well. The only mechanic that seems weird thematically is that the alert level will drop off even after guards have been killed by the ninja or traitor, but it would be a much harder game for the intruders that way.
The game includes:
- 36 Lion cards
- 12 Ninja cards
- 10 Traitor cards
- 20 guard figures (10 with swords, 10 with spears)
- 3 drunk guard figures
- 1 ninja figure
- 1 traitor figure
- 2 lanterns (for tracking game turn and alert level)
- 4 privacy screens
- 4 pads of miniature maps
- 6 mission goals (cardboard punch-out cards)
- 1 game board
You can see a close-up image of the figurines above, which are nice-looking, although a few of mine had bent spears or slightly warped bases. (They could still stand up, but rocked a little.)
The board is nice-looking and quite large. My only complaint about it is that it can be hard to see the dividing lines between spaces on the board, many of which are irregularly shaped. There are thin blue and yellow lines dividing up the board into areas, as well as some small icons marking watch posts and barracks, but the dividing walls are simply stone walls done in the same style as the background artwork. This makes it look prettier, I guess, but isn’t quite as practical, particularly when you’re trying not to look at an area too closely so the other player won’t see where you’re hiding.
The privacy screens were a little disappointing: they’re just simple tri-fold cardstock which works well enough, but I feel like they missed an opportunity here. It would have been extremely useful to have player aids printed on the inside of the screens. They could even have been role-specific, since there is one screen for each player. Also, the map is just a little wider than the center panel of the screen even when you turn it vertically, which means that it’s easy to knock over if you shift the pad around while you’re writing.
The artwork on the cards is well-done and up to AEG’s usual standards. I do wish they would have just labeled the ninja and traitor cards on the backs, though. The guard cards are easier to remember: they’re yellow on the back, with a Lion Clan icon. But you’re supposed to remember that the ninja’s cards are black with a red Scorpion symbol and the traitor’s are red with a black Scorpion symbol. You can tell them apart by looking at the types of cards, but there are some overlaps and it’s kind of a pain that they don’t just say “Ninja” and “Traitor.”
Ninja has two teams: the guards and the intruders (the ninja and the traitor). For a three player game, there are two intruder players and one guard player. For a four-player game, the two guard players each control half of the guards (there are two types of guard figurines) and they each have half as many cards, but the gameplay is pretty similar.
During the setup, the guard player first places 8 guards on watch post areas of the board. There are 12 of these spots, so you can’t guard all of them. They also place 3 patrols (two guards each) somewhere on the patrol track, which runs around and between the two sections of the castle. Patrols on the tracks will automatically advance two spaces during each round. Finally, the guard player marks various locations on the private map sheet: 6 mission goals marked A-F, 2 traps, and 2 hidden sentries. These are all placed within the two castle buildings with some restrictions. Finally, there are 8 sleeping guards (marked with an “S”) placed in zones with a barracks icon — these can be “awakened” later to have more guard figures appear on the map, but the intruders don’t know their locations.
The intruder also marks a few things on their own map: first, the starting location of the ninja (on the outer edge of the board) and the traitor (somewhere between the outer moat and the castle). They also mark down the two entrances to their secret passage, which can be anywhere outside of a moat zone. Later on they’ll be able to use the secret passage to move quickly across the board, or in and out of the castle.
The intruders draw two secret mission cards, one for each intruder. It’s important to keep these two separate, as each intruder needs to complete his own mission. The rest of the missions are returned to the box so the guards player doesn’t know which ones were unused. Also, each player gets to select some cards: the guards get to choose 24 of their 36 cards to form their starting hand, and the remaining 12 make up a deck that they can draw from later. The ninja selects 8 cards and the traitor selects 7 cards — the rest of their cards are removed from the game.
As the game progresses, the guard players will move their patrols and guards around, trying to listen or search for the intruders. The intruder secretly plots out their movement, and searches for the locations of their secret objectives. There is an “alert level” for the guards which increases any time the guards have reason to be suspicious — the higher the alert level, the more cards the guards will get to draw and play. But at the beginning of each turn the alert level drops again as the guards become complacent.