Cardboard Children: Ninja – How Games Can Fail

Hello youse.

With this being a recommendation column, you very rarely hear me being negative about a board game. I try to keep this a positive little place – one corner of the internet that is always happy. But I don’t want you to think that every board game I play is a joy. I think it’s important that you understand how easy it is for a board game to fail.

I’m a guy who tries to see the best in stuff. I try to overlook little niggling flaws if the overall experience is a fun one. But sometimes, in board games, one little thing can be enough to fuck over the whole deal. It’s DIFFICULT to make a good board game. Believe that.


Let me talk at you about this board game a little while.

Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is a hidden movement game published by AEG and set in their Legend of the Five Rings universe. That, of course, means that this game is a beautiful thing. Beautifully illustrated cards, a beautiful big map, lots of plastic minis. It’s a lavish production. It’s a game you want to like. It’s about NINJAS! Who doesn’t want to like a thing about Ninjas?

Here’s how it works. One player controls a Ninja and a Traitor. The Ninja starts the game off the map, and the Traitor starts the game inside the map. The other player controls the guards, sentries and patrols within the map. Each side has a hand of cards. The Ninja and Traitor have a hand of cards each, actually, and once they’re all used they are GONE. The guards have a big giant hand of cards that are moved into the discard pile when played, with the potential to be drawn again when the alert level rises.

Each side has a little map notebook thing. You draw on it with a pencil. The Guards player scribbles on his secret map to show where his sleeping guards are, where his coded mission areas are (A-F) and where any traps are. The Ninja player uses his secret map to track his movement, because his pieces only appear on the board when a guard sees him.

The Ninja player has to get his two intruders into the castles on the map, search for mission areas, and then complete his missions. Each intruder has a special mission coded to one of these areas (for example C: POISON THE WELL). He has to find area C and then can declare the mission complete. He then just has to get out without being killed.

Much of the game is about LISTENING. And this is where I felt the game collapse under my fingers. The Ninja can move up to three zones with every movement phase. However, if you move the full three, it counts as Running. And if you run you are more easily heard. A Guard who has a Listen card played on him can hear a Running intruder up to three zones away. This is pretty much how the Guard player’s game works. You need to listen, listen, listen and try to work out where the intruders are. But get this…

Are you ready for this?

If a guard listens, and hears an intruder, they are told that they heard something. But they are not told what direction the noise came from.

Let me say this again. When a guard hears a noise, that guard is aware they heard a noise, but has no idea whether it came from behind or in front or off to the left or anywhere else.

Let’s immerse ourselves into the theme of this game now.

The samurai stepped out of the hut. He looked up into the night sky.
“I will come for you, my love”, he whispered.
He laid his hand on the scarf she had made for him. Her scent was still there.
“When my work is done, I will-”
He stopped. A noise. An intruder! But where?
He whipped around, drawing his blade. The door of the hut? No. No-one there. Was it in front of him all the time? He turned again. Saw nothing.
“Think, Hashimoto!” he spat. “Use the natural directional hearing that results from frequency dependent amplitude modulation as sound is reflected from the pinna of your ear!”
He heard another clatter. He turned again.
He turned.
He turned.
He turned.
He tried to focus his mind on his ears. Yes, he had heard a noise. But from where? From without, or within? What property did the noise have? Did it sound like the cobbles ahead of him, or the wood behind? Did it sound like a splash in the water of the moat to his left?
“WHAT IS NOISE?! WHAT IS HEARING?!” Hashimoto screamed.
From above, Matsumono saw Hashimoto spinning wildly in the darkness.
“Hm.” Matsumono frowned. “Theme disconnect.”

Sometimes one mechanic can throw you out of a game. The minute we produced the first successful Listen action, both players were all “This is bullshit” about the fact that the only information is HEARD or UNHEARD. It simply made no sense to me that you would enable characters in a game to hear things, but not enable them to work out the vague direction the noise came from. The reality of the game collapses on something like that.

There are other problems too. To complete a mission, a Ninja has to search areas, and it’s genuinely a game of trial and error. “I search this area.” “It’s Area B.” “Okay.” You mark down the B and keep searching for your mission area C. And you feel nothing like a Ninja. The theme collapses there too. It doesn’t matter how many cool Shuriken cards you have, if you can only complete a mission by staggering around buildings frantically searching for objectives, you ain’t no fucking Ninja. You’re some dude playing Battleship in period costume.

But regardless of anything else, the game was GONE the moment those guards heard a noise. One moment. One mechanic. And both players were OUT.

In this column, every week, I tell you about a great game with great mechanics. But you better believe that these things don’t come easy. Every great board game is a triumph, because it doesn’t take much to kick someone out of an experience. One thing can do it. One silly thing.

Next week, back to the positivity. See you then!


  1. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Phew! A cardboard children column that doesnt add to my already much too big list of boardgames to get. I needed a break.
    Thats the problem with recommendation columns and a good writer. You make it so every week I have something new to want.

  2. Runty McTall says:

    “Hm.” Matsumono frowned. “Theme disconnect.”

    – Awesome :) I genuinely laughed out loud at my desk reading that. So now my boss wants to know why I wasn’t working.


    • X_kot says:

      Surely your boss could only tell that someone had laughed but not where the laughter came from?

      • Runty McTall says:

        Hah, I’ll admit I laughed out loud at that :) so now a train load of people think I’m weird.


  3. stahlwerk says:

    So is a noise source supposed to be located via overlapping hearing radius from multiple guards?

    • mechabuddha says:

      I wonder.

      “Crap, I just heard something! Hey, Bob! Did you hear something?”
      “What about you, Phil?”
      “Yeah, dude. And Sammy over there says he heard something, too.”

      • colossalstrikepackage says:

        This I would play!

      • stahlwerk says:

        A cold war submarine hidden movement game with the NATO player having access to SOSUS and the Warsaw Pact having to navigate the GIUK gap undetected, with the help of sound concealing seismic events and marine fauna…

      • Shadowcat says:

        Can someone confirm whether this is the way the game works? Rab’s description just screamed “triangulation” to me as well (which to my mind would be pretty cool).

  4. Diatribe says:

    So I’ve actually played this game. (Only once, but I enjoyed it and would play again.)

    When a guard hears something, it raises the alert level then the guard gets a free move to go investigate the noise. Under the current rules of the game, if the guards know the direction of the noise, the game would be incredibly tilted towards the guards.

    I understand the criticism that the current rules make immersion difficult. There are other complaints in that regard. For example, although the guards know when the ninja or traitor used a rope, even if they walk right by the rope they never get to know where it is.

    However, my personal opinion is that game balance and fun trump immersion. E.g., in Eclipse, it’s silly that when you modify the blueprint of your ships, you change all your ships at once (even if they’re locked down waiting for a fight to start) but that rule makes the game so much more interesting, and opens up a lot of plays and counter plays. In examples like this, and Ninja, you’d have to rewrite a huge chunk of the game to make it more immersive, and then balance/fun would suffer as a result.

    Bottom line, I enjoyed the game and I think the criticism is totally off the mark. Fun and game balance trump immersion in a good board game any day.

    • twig_reads says:

      For you. Those things trump immersion for you. Now how your personal opinion transfroms into objective fact, I can’t understand. “I don’t play like you, therefor you are wrong!”

      • Lorc says:

        They specified that they understand where the criticism comes from and that their opinion is only their opinion. There’s no need to start an argument.

    • Charupa says:

      I have also played the game and I dont have a huge problem with teh sound thing, however the thing that ruined it for me is it just was not as much fun as it should have been. The premise was Ninjas in the L5R universe, which should be super cool, yet the game was dry and slow and really not much fun.

  5. DuckAndCower says:

    Played this one once at a friend’s house. We really enjoyed it. The lack of directional hearing was a little odd, but the game’s tension and theme more than made up for it. Sometimes the mechanics can’t fit the theme completely, but that’s okay. Not all games have to be completely realistic simulations.

  6. Richie Shoemaker says:

    I played Panic Station a couple of weeks back and it was one immersion breaker after another. I so wanted to like it but couldn’t.

  7. Michael Fogg says:

    Can’t this problem be mitigated easily with a ‘house rule’ which states, say, that the square from which the noise comes from is announced to the defending player? I mean, unlike a video game, a board game can be changed to suit the likes of the players with no problem.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      That would make the game MUCH too easy for the guards.

    • Baines says:

      The game is presumably balanced to the guard player not knowing the direction. I’ve mostly heard positive things about this game elsewhere, so the existing rules do seem to work. If you change how hearing works, then you’d likely have to change even more mechanics to rebalance the game.

  8. Joshua Northey says:

    It sounds like you don’t understand how these two player logic games play out. Of all the silly things to get up in arms about.

    If you don’t want to play games that make you think and require that you know logic admit that. Sooooo many games have abstractions MUCH worse than this that you just gleefully gloss over. Then this game has this one little abstraction and you bail? If it is a bad game and you didn’t like it it is a bad game, but it seems odd when your main criticism seems to be:

    A) A mechanic you don’t seem to understand the purpose of or how to make use of.
    B) A nit picky complaint about a minor abstraction in an industry filled with crazy abstractions.

    That isn’t even getting into the point that location of point sound sources can be a lot harder than you realize in complex environments. Sometimes it is easy, but sometimes it is very deceptive.

    • BisonHero says:

      It sounds like you don’t understand how these two player logic games play out.
      If you don’t want to play games that make you think and require that you know logic admit that.
      A) A mechanic you don’t seem to understand the purpose of or how to make use of.

      Ahh, the old “you must be bad at games” defense. A classic.
      Robert and his compatriots all just had the reaction that the abstraction in question was just too dumb. He didn’t say it was a bad mechanic that didn’t work within the rules of the game, but he did say that it thematically worked for exactly NO ONE at the table. Board games are a social experience, and when the whole group thinks a mechanic is silly, unless the gameplay is the second coming of Christ, interest in the game drops off.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        Fair enough, but I find that exactly these mechanics where they rely on people’s knowledge of or ability to use logic are the ones that are most lost on people. They then decry the game a failure despite them not understanding how to play it. its like the two player Jack the Ripper game. Or mastermind.

        People who don’t get Mastermind hate it and think its terrible because it is just a guessing game and all luck and you don’t get nearly enough guesses. People who know logic know you can frequently get the answer very quickly with a few well thought out guesses and inferences.

        And it wasn’t a “defense”. I suspect the real problem is simply that the game isn’t that good. But instead of just saying that he felt compelled to list some reasons, and reached for ones that are not good.

        • Archonsod says:

          It’s a perfectly good reason. Being a ninja infiltrating a stronghold is cool; logic not so much. It’s the same problem people tend to have with Eurotrash games – they suggest an exciting, cool theme and end up being about putting wokers on tiles rather than conquering medieval Europe or the like.

        • Aedrill says:

          In “City of Horrors” review comment section Rab said that my criticism was random and weird. My problem with the game was that mechanics were completely separated from the theme. You’re leading a group of humans trying to survive and your main goal is to… gather Victory Points. Seriously, Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

          And here, it’s fine to moan about theme disconnection, because reasons.

          And to be clear, I’m not going to buy the game because it looks crap. Looking for objectives makes the game dull, traitor is badly thought out, there’s plenty of problems. But theme disconnection? Please be consistent.

          • Groove says:

            Rab is a really funny writer and I really enjoy his column, but ‘objective’ wouldn’t be the first word I’d use to describe him.

  9. colossalstrikepackage says:

    I miss the positivity! Shame that this game isn’t as fun as its premise demands, but I can’t wait to hear about the next game that is awesome.

  10. Bhazor says:

    It sounds like this is what house rules are designed for. I mean thats one of the forgotten strengths of table top games is taking out a biro and crossing out dumb rules or adding new ones.
    Instead of just saying you hear a sound the ninja has to say what kind of sound, or give a direction. You could even have dice rolls to decide to tell the truth with a 1:6 chance of telling the wrong direction for example.

  11. ZoeAnderson24 says:

    til I looked at the receipt 4 $9770, I accept that my friends brother woz actualey taking home money in their spare time on their apple labtop.. there neighbour started doing this 4 only 13 months and just paid for the loans on there mini mansion and purchased a brand new Mercedes-Benz S-class. we looked here,

  12. Spacewalk says:

    If a guard who’s been, you know, trained to do all of that guard type stuff can’t even tell the direction a sound is coming from it’s time to hire some new guards. To hell with all of this equal opportunity employment shit.

    • Groove says:

      “Hey Matsumono, what’s guard stuff?”
      “Well, I can guard your castle, or have sex with you, and everything inbetween.”

  13. fiedel-c says:

    Since the flaw of “Ninja” seemed so clear and a possible solution was spotted instantaneously, i.e. directional hearing, I wonder how this game would rate with modified rules.
    I’d like to hear an update of this review, containing suggestions how to fix a broken game like this.

  14. belgand says:

    I actually welcome the negativity. I feel I learn far more from negative reviews than I ever do from glowing ones. It’s easier to look at something and say “this was good for these reasons, but these four are why it isn’t enjoyable”. I can disagree with that and say I will probably like it because those are not my concerns. Just saying how much fun it is and glossing over the negatives provides a less accurate picture because it relies more heavily on a “trust me, this is fun” perspective. Since nothing is perfect, everything should be criticized, it’s just the degree to which those criticisms affect your enjoyment.

    Regardless, this isn’t a terribly good negative review. All I really get from it is that it’s a hidden movement stealth game with a ninja theme (sounds good), but the listening and searching mechanics broke your immersion so you ditched it. Really? No discussion about the good bits or how it plays otherwise, just “I can’t hear directionally” and “ninja are not omniscient” and back in the box it goes? Without even any discussion of how they might be related to game design? I’m sorry, but no. While certainly entitled to have your own opinion, this doesn’t really tell me much about why I shouldn’t play this game. If anything it has me more intrigued.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Indeed. These were a lot of the same thoughts I had. Maybe he doesn’t do negative reviews because he isn’t good at them?

  15. Chaz says:

    Why does the ninja on that card have to precariously hang upside down over the well to tip in the poison? Can’t he just stand by the side of the well and do the same thing?

    • udat says:

      Well it would hardly be ninjing if you were just lobbing your poison in from next to the well now would it. Any fool could do that!

  16. wice says:

    As far as I know, “Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan” is really not the best game ever, it certainly has some problems (it’s not the worst either, mind you), but I think this column is more like an illustration of how some arbitrary details can become huge “flaws” in the eyes of some people and completely ruin an otherwise decent game for them. Like the assumption that guards absolutely should be able to tell the direction of noise (why should they? We are talking about ninjas here, and I’m sure that when a ninja has to make some noise, he will at least make an effort to cover it up by, I don’t know, throwing a handful of sand in the other direction, or something), or that ninjas absolutely should know where exactly the target is (how the hell should they know, I don’t even). Anyway, although these are by no means game breaking flaws, if you go into a game expecting something and you get something else, it may ruin it to you. I just wish Rab had the good sense to realize that it’s not worth panning the game for it.

    • bill says:

      I think this column is more like an illustration of how some arbitrary details can become huge “flaws” in the eyes of some people and completely ruin an otherwise decent game for them.

      That’s what it is.

  17. Duke of Chutney says:

    I’ve played Nuns on the Run by the same designer. I didn’t really rate it. Thematically it works better than this (uses the same noise mechanic) since your in a nunnery of stone floors, but its still not a great game.

    For hidden movement games Letters from Whitechapel and Fury of Dracula are really the two best.