Posted by: gschloesser | August 24, 2011

Ninjato – Thoughts and Discussion

I played the new release Ninjato two weeks ago and was very disappointed in the game.  I posted my rating (a “3”) on the Boardgame Geek website, and received a very civil reply from Adam West.  No, he is not the actor who played Batman in the 1960’s television series, but rather the co-designer of the game.  We had a very nice exchange, and I thought I would share the gist of the conversation here.  For privacy reasons, I did not include Adam’s texts. 

I will note that Adam’s respones were very kind and civil.  If only all internet-based discussions were this pleasant! 
Comments I posted on the Geek:
While it has the illusion of strategy, the game has an abudance of luck which can dominate the proceedings. There is luck in so many facets of the game that one’s careful planning can easily be scuttled. I also have problems with some of the design decisions. For example, why aren’t cards in the envoy and rumor rows replenished DURING a turn? That would help mitigate some of the luck and the frustration of having desired cards scooped before you even have a turn.

Nice idea, but far too much luck and questionable mechanisms for me. 

Following was my response to Adam’s reply to my initial comments:

Hey, Adam!  Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. 
My biggest problems with the game were that, in spite of many decisions to make, luck played too large a role in the proceedings.  While there were things a player could do to mitigate some of the luck, the ultimate outcome of most efforts were determined by getting lucky.  I don’t mind a mild dose of luck in a “strategy” game, but I generally do not like it to be present throughout and to have a significant impact on one’s fate.  My frustration with a game increases dramatically when my careful plans and the strategies I pursue are constantly upset by the turn-of-a-card or some other event that is pretty much beyond my control.
Revealing new envoy and rumor cards DURING a turn would have helped.  As is, with a four player game, it was possible (and happened regularly) that the cards needed were either scooped by my opponents before I had the opportunity to get them, or the ones revealed at the END of the turn were not able to be acquired based on the treasures I had collected DURING the current turn.  Thus, an entire turn of planning could be (and was more-than-once) dashed.  Revealing new cards as ones are taken would certainly increase the likelihood of having cards become available that were acquirable and desirable. 

The fighting of the guards, either via strength or stealth, can also be quite frustrating and extremely luck-prone, particularly in the early rounds before players have acquired valuable skills.  Get lucky and have weak guards revealed, and you scoop numerous treasures.  Get unlucky, and you limp home with just one.  This “jump start” for lucky players gives them a tremendous early advantage. 
I do think the game has some interesting aspects, and would have really enjoyed it had luck not played such a major role.
I guess I have a few pet-peeves when it comes to strategy games, and unfortunately Ninjato aggravated one of them.  I generally want a strategy game filled with decisions to have the outcome based primarily upon one’s clever and well-planned actions.  I don’t like it when luck has a major impact and may even decide the winner.  I don’t mind a small dose here or there, but it seemed to be everywhere in Ninjato.
Mind you, I don’t mind games that have a heavy dose of luck if they are meant to be lighter or family fare.  Ninjato gives the appearance and desire to be a strategy game.  As such, I much prefer a smaller element of luck than what is present.
Again, thanks SO much for taking the time to respond, especially in a friendly and civil manner.  As you mentioned, we all have different tastes and opinions, and mine seems clearly in the minority concerning Ninjato.  That is a good thing, as I wish you nothing but the best with this game and your future endeavors.  Please keep me informed of your future projects!

Comments from Charlie Davis:

Thanks for posting the conversation. Having played in the game that you rated, I understand where you are coming from. I managed to win several battles at the houses with average cards early in the game. I went in expecting to win 2 treasures and managed to win 3 and then convert the houses. However, I don’t think that you played with turn order in mind, which the designer also mentioned, “it was simply to reduce analysis and ensure the game rewarded first movers”.

Rules explanation – When you take the draw card action you get more cards and the turn order for the next round is the reverse of the order players played at this spot. If you do not play there, you are after those that did.

Since the cards only refreshed between turns, being first player or at least ahead of your competition was important. I focused on what treasure people had and what they could buy with it. Then I tried to go before them in turn order so I had the first opportunity. I know that this allowed me to buy things that YOU could also buy several times. One other time, I realized no one was buying what I wanted so I ignored turn order, thinking I would be last the next turn but have the last opportunity to go first the following round.

In conclusion, I do think the luck is significant in the game but players will have opportunities to mitigate that luck if they pay attention to turn order. I rated it a 7. I see Zach Smith from our game also said to watch your opponents carefully and he rated it a 6.

Comments from Trip Godel:

I haven’t played Ninjato, but our gaming group seems to have been
pretty polarized by it.  In addition to Charles’ thoughts above, I’ve
also heard from the people who liked it that they diverted more of
their early cycles to acquiring skills/armaments/whatever so that the
luck of the guards was mitigated.  Theoretically, that could be
something that you have to do, to get to the part where you can
execute a creative strategy.  Is there validity to that?

Reply from Greg Schloesser:

That only potentially solves one aspect of the luck problems I perceive.  Plus, if the games forces everyone to follow that same path (and I don’t believe it does), then that is yet another problem.
No doubt I would try to do things differently if I ever played again, but the significant luck factor is still present.

Comments from Charlie Davis:

Good question. In the 2 games Thursday night, the winners had 1 skill (me-any card is a 6) and 2 skills (Michael-switch from strength to stealth and something else). Michael got the strength to stealth card (very powerful card) early and used it repeatedly to win battles. I, on the other hand, did not get a skill until the mid game. However, once I got it and started focusing on strength, I always tried to attack with strength. Since the first battle is against a known guard #, if I had a # bigger than the guard, a 5 and a 1, I could reasonably expect to win 3 battles and get 3 treasures. The skills do help you win battles but if you get 5 skills, you have given up 5 of your 21 actions. You probably also have to pay 2 cards for the 5 skills. Once you get the skills you need to maximize the number of treasures every time you attack. Now that is where the luck of the guards comes into play. You have to have low cards (or a skill to make them low) and draw mid-high numbered guards or vice versa.

So skills do help but you have to balance the actions vs the treasures won. The treasures are used to buy influence over a house color (red, blue, green) or the bonus cards that help with end game scoring.

BTW, I think control of the houses (influence) is the path to winning.


  1. By obtaining a skill every round and making sure to invest in turn order, I came in a respectable second. The winner (Nathan) had unfettered access to the secret bonus cards. I played with the benefit of a large body of knowledge gathered by the group, so I feel rather firmly that Ninjato has a Godel Number of 2.

    My rating for Ninjato is a 7, with this comment:

    In essence, Ninjato has the luck of Stone Age and the depth of Caylus. It’s more sprawling than either, and there are so many paths to victory that it’s difficult to assess one’s score. The environment is gorgeous and the choices are meaningful, but they decline quickly for players who don’t invest in the turn order. Fewer choices prevents vapor lock, and lady luck keeps everything bubbling along nicely. But the luck vs. control issue boils down to time: it’s a tad long for having less control than other choices. You will have an opinon.

  2. I see some have commented that the game is too long to have so much luck. However, isn’t it true that with luck, the longer the game, the more balanced the luck factor becomes? In a lengthy game, luck should be mitigated, and it is likely one will have as many things go their way as not go their way. Someone with mathematical expertise may need to weigh in on this.

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