Each turn consists of the following four phases.
Alert Phase: All previously played guard cards are reshuffled into the deck, and then the guard player draws cards based on the current alert level (between 0 and 3 cards). The alert level decreases by one. The player can then immediately play any or all of these cards drawn. Any unplayed cards go into the player’s hand. Only one card can be player per patrol or sentry per turn (except for Kenjutsu, which I’ll address later).
Guards Card Phase: The guard can play up to 2 cards from their hand. Again, only one card per patrol or sentry, including those already played during the Alert Phase. Also, if the guard player chooses not to play any cards, they can have one sentry or one patrol listen for noises without playing a card.
Guards Patrol Phase: All patrols that are on the red patrol track are moved two spaces forward along the track. At a fork, the guard player can choose which direction to travel. Patrols always face a particular direction and must continue to move in that direction unless cards are played on them which allow them to do otherwise.
Intruders Phase: The intruders each get to move between 0 and 3 spaces — the faster they move, the louder they are. Movement is marked down on the private map. The intruders have access to cards which can be played at any time during their turn, but they do not get any more cards during the game, so each card can only be used once. After the movement is complete, they can search for missions: each intruder can search two zones per turn, and they can search any of the areas they were in this turn by pointing to a spot on the board and asking the guard player what is there. If the player finds the objective assigned to them, the intruder player shows the mission card and that mission has been completed.
The guard players main actions will be listening and searching, either with patrols or individual sentries. When a guard or patrol searches, they can move up to two spaces — if they pass through or land on a zone where an intruder is currently hiding, the intruder player must reveal themselves and place the pawn on the map. When listening, the guards can hear the intruders depending on the speed of their last move. If they’re standing still, they cannot be heard; otherwise they can be heard from as many spaces away as they moved (e.g., if they moved two spaces, they can then be heard from two spaces away). The guard player chooses a guard or patrol to listen — if that guard or patrol can hear an intruder, the intruder responds “Yes” and that guard or patrol may then immediately move up to two spaces.
When guards discover intruders, the alert level immediately moves to High. Guards can play one Kenjutsu card per guard figure, which attacks the intruder and wounds them. It takes two wounds to kill the traitor and three to kill the ninja. During the Intruders Phase, the traitor and ninja may also enter spaces with guards, in which case they can also play Kenjutsu cards to kill guards — but this does raise the alert level as well. The ninja also has access to Shuriken cards, which can kill guards from adjacent spaces and does not raise the alert level.
There are various other abilities that each player has. I won’t detail all of them here, but I’ll mention a few. Intruders have a few “Rope” cards which allow them to cross walls, and the ropes are there for the rest of the game and can be used by either intruder. Also, they can hop into the secret passage, where they cannot be heard — but they reveal to the guard player that they are in the passage at the time. If a guard lands on a space where a secret passage entrance is, the intruder player must say so, and the guard is able to enter the passage as well.
The guard player can “awaken” sleeping guards to place more sentries on the board in the barracks zones, and also gets to add a guard if the intruder searches an area where a hidden sentry was placed. The intruders have cards that allow them to make a guard drunk (“Potent Sake”), making him more or less useless for the rest of the game, or they can use “It Was a Cat” to avoid being heard.
The game ends when there are no intruders left on the board, either because they completed their missions and escaped or they were killed, or when the 20th turn ends. To win, the intruders have to complete both missions and exit the map. If only one intruder escapes, then it’s a draw. Otherwise, the guards win.
I really love hidden movement games. One of my earliest experiences with this type of game was with Clue: The Great Museum Caper, a game which I had when I was a kid and still get out from time to time. The more recent Letters From Whitechapel is another excellent one with plenty of tension in it. Ninja continues that tradition of sneaking around, accomplishing secret objectives while other players are trying to catch you.
And of course, what better theme for a sneaky game than being a ninja? You get to climb walls, throw shuriken, and shadow walk past unsuspecting guards, on your way to poison the well or plant incriminating evidence. Pretty awesome. Once you learn how to mark down movement, it’s a great game of cat-and-mouse, as you decide whether to move quickly to cover more ground, or stand still so they can’t hear you at all.
As the guards, you bide your time and search around a little, but the action really starts when the intruders start searching inside the castle for their mission objectives. It’s incredibly satisfying to have a hidden sentry pop out or to discover the entrance to the secret passage so you can catch the intruders when they try to use it. You have the advantage of numbers: up to 20 guards can be on the board at a time, but you’re limited in how many of them can move on any given turn.
In most hidden movement games, I think the hidden player has an advantage because it’s a steeper learning curve to be the seekers. Ninja, with its two intruders on separate missions, feels a little more balanced, since you have to give up some information about your location in order to search for objectives. Each time you search an area, the guards know you’re in that vicinity. The rulebook also offers several ways to modify the play balance if one player is more experienced than the other, and there are a few variants as well.
For some reason I didn’t feel quite as tense playing Ninja as I had in Letters From Whitechapel, and I’m not entirely sure why. It might be the fact that you start off completely hidden, with your position unknown, whereas in Letters you always know that Jack has started off at the scene of the murder. Also, it takes a few strikes to kill off an intruder, so you can get caught once before you lose; and if it happens early in the game you actually get another chance (sort of an extra life). Or maybe it’s just easier to feel cocky when you’re, y’know, a ninja.
The only downsides to the game are mostly things that I mentioned above in the “Components” section. I think there were a few places that AEG sacrificed ease of gameplay for aesthetics. Their card designs (as with Thunderstone) tend to be nice to look at but not always easy to read. Fortunately in this game there aren’t a lot of numbers and extra data, making the cards more straightforward, but I would have preferred them to be labeled: Guards, Ninja, Traitor. And the player screens really should have player aids on the backs, so you didn’t have to refer to the manual as much.
One final note: the game is recommended for ages 12 and up, and I think that’s about right. Because the game involves things like killing guards, assassinations, etc., I think the subject matter can be a little explicit for younger kids. (One mission, “Murder the Honored Guest,” has a more graphic illustration of the ninja stabbing a man in the neck with a dagger.) Also, I think many kids under 12 would have a difficult time really getting the strategy here: it’s more Splinter Cell than Halo, stealth over power.
Wired: Hide-and-seek with shuriken! Hidden objectives and sleeping guards give the seekers a little more power on their side, which helps balance the learning curve. Excellent artwork.
Tired: Board can be hard to read; player screens are sub-par.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.