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Cardboard Children: Ninja - How Games Can Fail

frequency dependent amplitude modulation

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!

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About the Author

Robert Florence