Full disclosure: A review copy of Ninjitsu was provided by Jellybean Games.
I think this is less of a “Gen Con game” and more of a “recent release”, but honestly I’m still half-asleep from the last three weeks so it’s anyone’s guess. This week I’m turning to another Jellybean Games item, the same studio that brought us Show & Tile and The Lady and the Tiger Series.
In Ninjitsu, you play as heads of noble houses who want to do what anyone else would also want to do: amass lots of treasure. That said, the only thing more valuable than treasure is secrets, so it wouldn’t be bad to have a few of those, as well…
This is probably going to be a pretty short review, because uh, setup isn’t too long. Here’s how it works. You shuffle the deck of cards:
You deal four to each player.
Gameplay’s going to be a bit longer, but not much. The game of Ninjitsu is subterfuge and backstabbing and a looooot of take-that, which you all know is my favorite mechanic, but here we go anyways.
Basically, each card in Ninjitsu is worth a certain number of points, and you have the ability to keep some as Secrets and others as Treasures. If you can get 21 points between your Secrets and your Treasures at the start of your turn, you win (17+ in a 5-player game). But how do you do that?
Well, on your turn, you must do one of these three actions:
- Draw two cards from the deck. No hand limit, so just kinda have as many cards as you want. Just be careful that, well, you know, nothing happens to all those cards you worked so hard to accrue. Sure would be a shame if something happened to those…
- Play a card. You may play a card from your hand for a variety of effects:
- As an Action. Play the card to the discard pile and activate its ability. In order to use a card for this purpose, the card must have a lightning bolt on it, otherwise you can’t do the action. You also much do as much of the action as possible; you can’t choose to not do something if you are capable of doing it. Playing a card this way does not earn you points, so be careful before you play.
- As a Treasure. You may play a card with a point value (so cards with 2 – 10 on them; face cards [Ace / Jack / Queen / King / Joker] have no point value) face-up as a Treasure. That boosts your score, but it’s visible. If you do this, you cannot use the card’s action unless it has a Treasure icon on it (treasure chest).
- As a Secret. The most exciting play, you may play any card face-down as a Secret. While it’s face-down, it cannot be targeted as a Treasure, but it does count towards your points to win the game. Some cards have Key icons on them; that means they have an ability when played as a Secret. If your Secret is ever turned up, it’s a Treasure now. If it has no point value, just discard it; no need to save it.
- Steal a Secret. You may, at your own peril, attempt to steal a secret from an opponent and turn it face-up. If you do, it’s now a Treasure, for you! However, well… some Secrets have a Bomb icon on them, meaning that you’d do Admiral Ackbar (RIP) proud, as it’s a Trap! When a player reveals a Trap Card, resolve the Trap’s effect immediately. If it doesn’t have a Trap icon, well, then it’s just your treasure, now.
The first player to 21 (17+ at 5 players) at the start of their turn wins! If you declare that you’ve won and you’re incorrect, you must turn all of your secrets face-up and skip your turn. Whoops. Try to specifically not do that.
Player Count Differences
The major difference is control. This is the exact kind of game where ganging up on the player in the lead is important, and the balance becomes more and more precarious at higher player counts. To be fair, it’s not exactly supposed to be an Intense Strategy Game, either, so I wouldn’t be too harsh on it. But the core problem is that as you increase in player count, you need to keep track of more people, and if anyone plays suboptimally then either you need to cover for them so that the person they’re trying to block doesn’t win, or you need to hope that they’re playing suboptimally to your benefit. The latter case doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d like for it to.
Either way, I’d probably tend towards the lower end of the player count for this one, personally.
- Shuffle your Secrets every so often. You never know if a player’s trying to track which ones you’re looking at, so might as well shuffle them to mess with them. If they lose track of which Secret they want, that might work out to your benefit.
- Lay lots of traps. You want a bunch of traps with a few good Secrets mixed in, and place them erratically. Your ideal goal is to bait players into all of your traps without giving them any of your good cards. Some of the traps are … pretty mean, too, so that helps.
- I usually go after the player on my right. That means it’ll take them the longest to respond, and they may go after the player who most recently attacked them (which may not be you!), which would work out. The problem is that most people need to be on board for spreading that kind of take-that out or one player will be able to slide into victory under the radar.
- If you’ve got lots of traps, go for the Bo Staff. It’s worth +2 points for every Secret you have, and if your opponents think that you have a bunch of traps, they might be less likely to mess with you. This means you might get away with a huge bonus, if you’re lucky.
- Start getting suspicious of players with 3 cards face-down. If any of those are a 10, then they’ve got a pretty good chance of being able to win on their next turn. You may want to intervene to prevent that so you don’t … lose, immediately. A lot of players miss this.
- Steal secrets! You really will need to take some risks and hope they pay off, and stealing secrets is about the riskiest thing that you can do. Is it points? Is it a trap? Literally no way to tell.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is quite wonderful. It’s got a really nice watercolor effect to it and the colors are pleasant and even though it’s a very aggressive game, I think that balances it out a bit. I would really be interested in a deck of playing cards with a similar art style, if I’m being honest.
- Highly portable. It fits in a tuckbox. It’s not even a full deck of playing cards, which is nice. That does mean the box is … way too big for the game, but, yeah it fits in a Quiver really easily.
- Basically no setup. If you’re playing this with kids or people with short attention spans, this is a huge boon. You shuffle the deck and then you’re ready to roll, without having to break out special trays to hold resources or something more aggressive.
- Plays fast. It’s really hard to even drag the game out since you have to do something.
- Yeah, the box is almost comically oversized. I assume that’s so it can be a one-stop shopping experience for other Treasure Hunters games, but who knows. I just use the mini-expansion tuckbox to hold everything, at this point.
- The necessity of the take-that, mechanically, is a bit annoying for me. There’s not really much you can do from a deduction standpoint; it would be nice if there were, but you really just have to go with your gut unless you’ve seen a ton of cards. This means that the entire game is just take-that, which is … a lot for me. Not my favorite mechanic, but the game’s brevity makes that a bit more palatable. It can be a bit frustrating when every player gangs up on you over the course of their turns, though, of course, which is why I don’t love take-that in games, as a mechanic. I’d love to see a version of this that’s more in line with the Lost Legacy series, where there’s some take-that but it’s more done in service of the deduction, rather than as a replacement for any deduction. Or, like the other version of several Lost Legacy sets, the take-that causes the game to end so quickly that you barely notice it happened.
- Games that require the players to maintain balance always irritate me a bit. That’s just how things work in Busytown, sometimes, but if all players aren’t proactively trying to make sure that nobody’s breaking away, someone will take advantage of that window and usually win. It’s not a long game, remember? This means that it can get away from you just as quickly.
Overall: 6 / 10
Overall, Ninjitsu is fine. Like, it’s a pleasant light game that I could see myself playing with younger folks or as a warm-up game for a game night, but if I were in that position I already have four distinct chronicles of Lost Legacy. I’d love to push the “kids” angle because the art is so kid-friendly, but I think there’s still a decent amount of text on the cards such that that might not be the best angle to try for this game. Either way, it’s not a bad game; it’s just a combination of a few features that I don’t typically care for, but with an excellent art presentation (that I’m coming to expect from Jellybean, which is never bad). That said, if you’re looking for a short game with very little setup that’s full of snipes, barbs, and a healthy dose of take-that, you might find Ninjitsu to be right up your alley!