Most board gamers have games within their collection, in which they find uncommon enjoyment. Those games that you will play regardless of the hour or circumstances, which you readily recommend, which you recount in the fondest of terms. For me, Shinobi Wat-Aah is one of those games. While my gaming partners enjoy Shinobi Wat-Aah, there is no doubt that my affection out paces theirs.
I disclose this affinity so that you may view my impressions, with that awareness and temper your buying decisions accordingly. Simply put, I adore this game. I love playing it. I love looking at it. I love talking about it. I may qualify as a Shinobi Wat-Aah evangelical. So gather around children and hear the good word.
Players in Shinobi Wat-Aah take on the role of clan lords, invoking the aid and support of competing clans, ninjas and spirits, to wrest control on the Moon Kingdom from the waning emperor and protect the land and its citizens from the shadow beasts that threaten to overwhelm the fading light. Players start the game with eight cards (7 cards for the first player) and a ninja token, which will be used to track each player’s corruption. The game also consist of a draw deck and a discard deck
The basic mechanic of Shinobi Wat-Aah is extraordinarily simple. Each player draws a card (or cards) from a draw deck, plays those cards out into their tableau in clan sets which consist of 1 to 4 cards and take actions affiliated with the cards played. The more cards played within the set, the more powerful the action that you can take. Alternatively, players may supplement their clans by playing additional cards of the appropriate card types within already established clan sets or by playing a single Yokai card to an established clan set, triggering the action affiliated with the played set or card. Players must also discard one card after each turn. The game ends when the first player has established a fourth clan.
However, this basic rule set is substantially impact by various rules and tactical decisions that the players may take. First, since hand sizes can be depleted quickly and replenished slowly players may opt to “take corruption” in order to refill their hand. Corruption is taken by blindly drawing a card from the draw deck, showing it to the other players and taking a number of cards from the deck equal to the initially drawn cards face value, plus two. So a player that draws a card valued at two will draw four cards from the draw deck for use in this and future turns. However, the card that was initially drawn will go into the player’s corruption deck and that players final score will be deducted by the sum of the cards that are within the players corruption pile at the end of the game.
Additionally, no clan set may consist of more than four cards. While there are wild Ronin cards that may be used to supplement the size of the number of cards laid during a turn and the power of the action taken, these cards are valued at one, so they reduce the final value (or potential value) of the set. Similarly, the more powerful Yukai cards also have low values. Therefore, players must balance the power of the actions taken against the potential negative effect that playing such a card may have upon their final score.
This brings us to the games scoring mechanic, which like game play in fairly simple. Each card has a differing value ranging from one to eight. Typically, cards with more robust powers have lower values and vice versa. For example, cards from the Spider Clan which allow a player to destroy either a card or a clan (depending upon the number of cards played) of an opponent have a value of 1 or 2; however, cards from the Bear Clan, which has no affiliated power, all have a value of 6. Player’s scores are determined by summing the values of all cards within their tableau and subtracting the sum of the cards played within their corruption deck. The player with the highest score is the winner.
While the game, when played this way, is a curious and tactical gem Shinobi Wat-Aah truly shines when played in what is referred to as the “Grand Master” mode. In this hyperbolically named game mode, game play is spread out over three rounds. After each round of play (in other words, each time a player places a fourth clan and scores are tallied) ninja tokens (shaped like tiny shuriken) are given to the players, with more tokens being given to the players that finished higher than the others. Additionally, the player with the lowest score from the prior round will receive either a special power that will persist for the entire next round or a chance to look at one of the Boss Monster decoy cards (discussed below).
Each player may then place one or more tokens, in turn, on different spaces on a common player board. After placing their tokens, the players may get to take certain actions, depending upon their token placement. The actions include taking a card that gives that player a special and secret single use power that they can employ at some time during the next round or looking at one of the three dummy decks that surround the player board.
You see, in Grand Master Mode a single Boss Monster is placed in the center of the player board. After three rounds of play each of the players will confront the Boss. However, the game only includes five Bosses, so by peaking at each of the dummy card (or Boss cards that have not been placed in the center of the player board) the players can deduce, or at least make an informed guess at, the identity of the Boss that they will confront at the end of the game.
This is significant because each Boss fights differently. In order to fight the Boss, players must place ninja tokens upon the face down active Boss card. Some Bosses require the placement of a precise number of ninja tokens in order to earn points, while others require the placement of a minimum number of ninja tokens in order to avoid losing points. By knowing who the Boss Monster is not, a player can make an educated guess as to who the Boss is.
After three rounds and the placement of the final ninja tokens, the Boss is revealed and Boss combat scores are resolved. Thereafter, players receive point bonuses for the number of ninja token placed by each player (10 points per token placed on any space other than the final Boss) and the player with the highest score is declared the winner.
Ok, I love this game, you get it. But this is not a blog (well, I guess technically it is a blog, but it’s not a “today I ate soup, me feet hurt, do they still make TANG, I used to like TANG” blog) it is a review site that seeks to let you know enough about a game to make an informed decision about whether YOU will like it. So let’s end the hagiography (I get it, this use of this word is not precisely correct, but it fits) and get down to the brass tacks (so that you know, that was one of my grandfather’s favorite phrases, and for that reason alone I love it) (ahh crap, this IS that type of blog).
The appeal of Shinobi Wat-Aah is its ability to use simple mechanics in support fairly complex gameplay. This is not to say that this game is heavy, while it has hidden complexity, players will not ponder their decisions for several minutes, but this game favors players that look beyond the obvious moves and plays. During initial plays, players will likely work to string together larger combos in order to maximize their powers, and there is no doubt that there is value in making these plays. However, when and how to employ clan powers can be an important tactical decision that will give more thoughtful players an advantage during the vast majority of plays.
Because game (or round) ending conditions can be triggered fairly quickly, players need to balance out using actions to build hand size against playing down cards with high values. Moreover, sometimes a player can gain a greater benefit from playing a clan’s lesser powers twice, rather than playing its more robust power only once.
Moreover, clan powers synergies can help shape a player’s tactics. While powers don’t combo, certain powers interact with one another better than others.
For example, powers which allow players to dig into the discard pile (the Crow Clan powers), interact well with powers that allow players to destroy an opponent’s clan (the Spider Clan power). Likewise, powers which allow you to force an opponent to take one of their clan’s back into their hand (the Toad Clan power) interacts will with the power that allows you to trade hands with an opponent (the Fox Clan power). These are just a few examples, discovering new ways that powers can be played best in tandem will make each game play a unique and rewarding experience.
There are many, many ways to play and win Shinobi Wat-Aah. Deciding which tactic you will employ depends upon the cards that you draw, the clans that other players play, the cards that other players discard, the pace of game play, and the values that you and you opponents are able to accrue. Each of these variables will differ from game to game, and even after dozens and dozens of plays, I still find myself discovering new paths to victory or confronting new challenges.
This complexity is compounded by advance game play options. While the player that wins the most rounds is at an advantage to win the game, savvy game play can make up the difference for a player that started slowly. Choosing and carefully deploying the special power card(s) obtained between rounds can give a player a substantial advantage during later rounds. Additionally, how a player deploys their ninja tokens matters. Though this facet of the game provides fewer options, it does require players to respond to the actions of their opponents and take certain risk in order to succeed. Admittedly, the scoring in the advanced “Grand Master” mode of play involves more luck than the card play facet of the game. However, this luck can be mitigated if players makes responsive and well thought out choices.
In addition to rewarding and engaging game play, this game is thematically rich and beautifully constructed. The various clans are costumed in a way that invokes their token animals and their powers are thematically related to the roles assigned to their token animals within Japanese lore. The game is very carefully researched and pays fine homage to Japanese folk tales and the denizens that haunt them. The yokai cards are actually personifications of spirts that will be immediately recognizably to any fan of Japanese folk lore. The Kappa water spirit is a whimsical interpretation of this mischievous creature, while the ominous Yurei is clearly influenced by the evil brat from The Ring (remind me to tell you a story about the night I saw that movie sometime, it involved a broken florescent light, a dark haired woman and me screaming like a little girl) it also bears a resemblance to the subject to the late Edo period painting, The Ghost of Oyuki.
As a student of folk lore, I enjoyed these thoughtful touches. However, one does not have to have knowledge of the source material in order to appreciate the care that went into selecting the figures represented within the game. Illustrated by one of the industry’s best young talents, Naiade, the images on the cards are active, colorful and evocative. Just like his drawings of familiars and relics in Seasons, Naida’s representations of the various clan members makes the game play more engaging and world building that he and the designers have undertaking more immersive.
This game also plays well with diverse groups. I have enjoyed plays with my son as well as my play groups. The game plays differs slightly depending upon the number of players; however, game play is enjoyable with all player allotments. Moreover, the game’s compact size and easy set up makes it suitable as both a filler and a game night feature. The game can be easily found and bought for less than $30.00 and at that price it is a great value. I have played the game many, many times and still look forward to getting it to table.
If you are looking for a game that is likely to surpass your expectations, Shinobi Wat-Aah should find its way to your wish list. I am surprised that this game has not attracted more attention and received more critical acclaim. While I am told that it has been a success for iello and Purple Brain, I have heard few reviewers responding to as strongly as I have. I confess to adding it to my collection on something of a whim. I have been informed that expansions are being considered and I sincerely hope it finds enough success to support these aspirations. While the game has laudable variability already, I would enjoy seeing new clans, powers and game play variations.
As reflected in my review, Shinobi Wat-Aah’s greatest asset is its hidden complexity. There is something special about a game that can be taught in less than five minutes but which provokes knowing smiles from players as they slowly discover interesting and unique play styles. Shinobi Wat-Aah facilitates that type of discovery very nicely. While the game is not nearly as complex as several other cards games I could name, it is balanced and structured in a way that will allow players to employ new tactics, some of which will work and some of which will not.
Shinobi Wat-Aah is a wonderful game for families. While the game has some nice take that mechanics that children will love to employ against their parents. However, none of these tactics are powerful enough to decimate a player. This is an important feature in family games as being utterly destroyed by a single play can be very disheartening to young children. Shinobi Wat-Aah strikes a nice balance in this regard, making the game interactive but not overwhelming. My children regularly beat me at Shinobi Wat-Aah (and if I were to be honest, most games). Though, unlike some games were children are on equal footing with their parents, this is not due solely to luck or randomness. There is something about the race element of this game that children seem to grasp intuitively. My children (as well as other children with whom I have played this game) are adept at triggering the game’s end conditions quickly, so that players who are building up their hand for a large scoring opportunity are often caught flat footed. While the game has mechanics that can be used to tactically extend gameplay, young players have an uncanny ability to stymie these efforts. I sincerely find myself struggling to stretch the game out long enough to obtain victory when playing it with young gamers. While I am often successful in this effort, my children are able to out think me often enough that their ability to succeed at this game is sufficient to keep them always coming back for more.
The world building in this game is extraordinary. I am proud to say that this game has served as an access point for me sharing some of my favorite Japanese folk tales with my son. I have bought more than one (ok, more than five) books on Japanese folk lore as a direct result of having played this game. A game that can open up opportunities for learning is a special and rare thing and this game should find its way into most collections for no other reason than this.
All right, let’s talk about the name. I initially hated the name of this game. I resented being required to say the “Wat-Aah” every time is asked someone if they wanted to play it. I recognize that the name of the game is indicative of its whimsical nature, and I have since embraced the title. But still, I think the name was poorly chosen. Maybe I am just horrible up tight and unduly pretentious, but I was turned off by the title and bought the game in spite of it. I suspect that others may resist buying this game for this admittedly idiotic reason. If you too have ignored this game for this reason, push past it and give Shinobi Wat-Aah a try. (For the record I think the name is properly typed as “Shinobi WAT-AAH”, but I can only go so far. Baby steps, friends. Baby steps.)
The multiple play styles add substantially to this game’s accessibility. Usually my thoughts about multiple play styles are fairly cynical. It seems to me that for most games, various ways to play equals no fun ways to play. I feel that in most instances, game designers provide variations because the game, as designed, doesn’t work as it should. This is not the case with Shinobi Wat-Aah (much like Blue Moon, another game that I enthusiastically recommend). The different game styles accommodate different player needs. If you are looking to play a game that is short, you can play in the basic “Grasshopper Mode”. If however you are in the mood for a game play experience that will take longer and require the players to make more tactical decisions, you can play in the full mode. I continue to play the game both ways, depending upon my time constraints and mood. As a result, I find that play Shinobi Wat-Aah much more often than I otherwise might.
I adore pirates. I enjoy games where dice selections dictate the available actions. I am a big fan of Belfort (also designed by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim). I enjoy family games and think Queen Games produces exceptional games of this weight and kind. This game had all the markings of a success, and yet, I am sorry to say, it underwhelmed. Which is not to say that Tortuga is a failure or not fun, but it did not live up to my expectations and falls into the category of games that I admire but do not enjoy. If I were asked to sum my thoughts up into a single word, I am sorry to say that word would be, “meh”.
In Tortuga players take on the role of a 17th Century pirate captain sailing the seas around the pirate controlled island of Tortuga, raiding other pirate vessels and strongholds and searching for hidden bounty. The principle game mechanic is the rolling and reserving of dice in order to dominate various action categories. The player (or players) that dominate these categories get to take the affiliated actions and either improve their strength, capacity or stores of booty or raid other player’s ships or crews. Once one player has moved six treasure chests from their island base to Tortuga the game ends and players compare scores in order to determine who will become the pirate king and the winner of the game.
At the outset of the game, each player receives a pool of five dice, a pirate and a ship meeple as well as an individual player board upon which dice results are placed, fleet and crew size are tracked and treasures are stored. The game also consist of red, blue, yellow, purple and white treasure chests, gold coin and bonus tokens, a central treasure island board and a ship shaped first player maker. Players each get one treasure chest on their island and one in their crew area. Additionally, their fleet and crew strength begins at three.
Understanding the substance of the game should probably begin with an understanding of the dice faces and their affiliated actions. Each set of player dice (colored orange, green, blue and yellow) consist of five die with a ship, a pirate, a treasure chest, a sword, a cannon, and a skull and cross bones on each side. Above these icons (save the skull and cross bones) are numbers values from 1 to 5. Each die is different but, save for their color, each set of dice is the same.
Each icon is affiliated with an action of the individual player boards and a related action.
The ship icon allows the player to advance their ship token up their fleet size track, essentially increasing the size and force of the relevant player’s armada. This is relevant for two reasons. First, a player with a larger fleet may hold more treasure chest. Second, a player with a larger fleet can assign more battle die to their player board, making it easier for them to dominate their opponents in naval battle.
The pirate icon allows the player to recruit a larger crew, which is tracked by moving a meeple up and down a crew track. Just as the fleet track, the crew track controls how many treasure chests can be moved from the island to your ships as well as the number of dice that you can place upon your raiding track and by extension your ability to attack or defend yourself during crew battles.
The treasure chest icon is affiliated with the searching action, whereby players dig for and find treasure on remote atolls and scattered coins within the Caribbean shallows.
The cannon icon allows you to confront another player in fleet battle and the sword action allows you to raid other crew members. In each of these actions the attacking player is allowed to take a treasure chest being stored either on the fleet or crew spaces, depending upon the chosen action and deplete their opponent’s advancement up the fleet or crew track by one. The icons also serve a defensive purpose however, as if a player has committed at least one die to the relevant action space, their opponent will also be required to reduce their fleet or crew track advancement by one.
The final icon is the skull and crossbones wild result, which can be changed to the side of any die or dice with which it is paired.
On their turn, each player rolls their dice pool behind a player screen and selects one result, or multiple results if any of the results are the same (or wild) and the player wishes to. Once all of the players have made their selection they simultaneously reveal their results and place their selected die or dice on their player board, retain the remainder of their dice pool and repeat.
Each of the die result have number values from 1 to 5 above them, these values will be summed after all of the players have placed their results and only the player with the highest and the second highest results in result of a specific action will be permitted to take that action. The wild dies are turned to the side of the die with which they are paired (or which the players selects if the wild result or results are used by themselves). All of the players have a table that tell them the values of the results that are affiliated with the wild results, which have letters from A to E above them, so that players can make informed decisions about if and how they will use their wild results. Additionally, if a player completes their rolls before their competitors they get to draw a bonus token which can be assigned to one of the sections on their player board in order to supplement their results for the remainder of the game.
After all of the player’s dice are assigned and results are determined, the players who won each of the actions will take those actions in a prescribed order, fleet building, recruiting, searching, fleet battle and raiding. Once treasure chest have been moved from one board to another (gained chests always go to the island space on the player board of the player that gained it) and advancement up the fleet and crew size tracks have been resolved then chest are moved from the island, to the crew space, to the fleet space to Tortuga base on each player board. However, if any player cannot hold a treasure chest on their board, because they have not advanced far enough up on either the fleet or crew size track that chest must be placed on the island for other players to gain later in the game.
In the results below the blue player will win the fleet size, recruiting and raiding actions and the yellow player will win the search and fleet battle actions (for purposes of this example we will presume that this is a two player game during with secondary actions are not available to the player with the second highest result). Notably, though the player search dice sums were the same the yellow player would win that result because he had a 1 point bonus token designated to his search space.
The blue player would therefore move its ship from the first space to the second one and his crew size meeple from the second to the third space. The yellow player would then draw a treasure chest from the bag and place it on his island space to the far right of his player board. The yellow player would next take the blue players purple treasure chest and place it on his island and the blue player would move his fleet size meeple back to the first space. However, because the blue player had a die committed to his fleet battle space, the yellow player would be required to move his token back a space as well. The blue player would then take the yellow players yellow or purple treasure chest and put it on his island space and the yellow player would move his crew size icon back to his first space, but as with the fleet battle, because of the placement of a defensive die the yellow player would be required to move his crew size icon back a space as well.
The blue player would then move a chest from his crew space to his fleet space and a chest from his island to his crew space. The yellow player would move a chest from his fleet space to his Tortuga base and one of his treasure chests from his island space to his crew space. Recall that his crew size was adjusted down one space so he would be able to hold only one treasure chest in that space. As a result the second chest that was on his island would have to be placed on the island space.
Play continues like this until one player has placed their sixth treasure chest in their Tortuga base. Play ends immediately and the players tally their scores, one point for all chests in their crew space, two points for all chests in their fleet space and three points for all chest at their Tortuga bases, with purple chests scoring double points. Players also get three points for each set of red, yellow and blue chests on their board, one point for each space they have advanced up their fleet and crew tracks and one point for each coin on their coin tokens. The player with the highest score is named the king of the buccaneers and winner of the game.
Tortuga’s principal failure is the game’s length and complexity, which simply does not support its level of engagement. To start, it should be noted that the game consistently plays longer than its stated 30 minute play time. Each of my plays lasted 45 minutes to an hour. This is due in large part to how hard it is to advance chests through the various stations that they must pass through in route to each player’s home base. The appeal of the game is the choices that players must make when deciding the actions that they must take during each of the game’s rounds. However, this mechanic makes it difficult to build capacity while also obtaining treasure chests. Moreover, the ability of players to exact defensive damage can make the game feel like a two steps forward, one step back experience.
The dice selection mechanic is typically very appealing to me, but after about fifteen rounds during every game that I played, I became frustrated with the effort. After a while, the tactical decisions seem almost rote.
I believe that Tortuga is an innovative game. The attack component appeals to me, in concept, but the execution seems clunky. I appreciate that the number of the dice side limit the number of actions, but I wanted the game to provide the players with more options. Perhaps more way to guard against the loss of their capacity would have made game play more efficient and by extension rewarding.
To the game’s credit, it is easier to “get your engine going” with three and four players, since players who have the highest sum in the fleet building and recruiting action can advance their relative tokens two space, instead of one, but even at that the damage often taken when attacking other players can be very punishing.
Moreover, it can take several turns to build capacity since players will usually ignore the attack options early in the game since they have nominal initial benefit. As a result players will all focus upon fleet building and crew recruiting during early rounds. As a result, lucky roles may give a player an advantage over their competitors that can be hard to overcome. The game does not have a substantial runaway leader problem; however, if a player who has good roles early in the game can obtain a dominant position that they can leverage toward ongoing success.
Some of the game features produce nominal benefits. For example, the player who comes in second in the attack actions can only obtain treasure chests from the central island, not from the player that they attacked. I appreciate why this lesser benefit exists, but very often a player will not be able to take advantage of this opportunity because none of the other players have placed a treasure chest on the island. This makes coming in second on this role and zero sum game, since very often the only thing that this player can do is cause a competitor to move back on their fleet or crew track, while also being forced to take losses of their own.
Additionally, while this game purports to hold two players, I would not recommend ever playing this game with less than three players. The back and forth when only to two players are playing makes the game very frustrating and really not very much fun. In each of the two player games I have played of this game all of the participants longed to see the game end, regardless of who won. During one of our plays my wife actually volunteered to pick our daughter up from her dance class, a task that we usually fight over having to do. (So I guess the two player version can be useful for getting your significant other to perform family chores they usually loath.)
Moreover, the game does not draw a lot of interest from perspective players. Since Tortuga was still not resonating for me after multiple plays I redoubled my efforts to play the game as often as I could. The problem was I could not get any one to play with me. The box art is not very appealing (actually the pirate featured on the box terrified some and repulsed others) and the game mechanics seem very static when described.
There was something about Tortuga that my family resisted. Or to be more accurate that my son resisted. For reasons that were never fully explained to me, he simply would not accede to play this game. This presented a dilemma; as after several plays, I knew that this was a family game and felt that a careful and thorough review mandated at least one family play. But the boy (typically eager to help out) simply could not be persuaded to sit down to play the game. In candor, I could not argue with his reticence (which in a 10 year could more accurately described as stubbornness). At first glance the game seemed a bit stilted, even boring. But I had found this game at least somewhat engaging. I needed to see whether this game was suited for families. It seemed to be targeted for family play, did it succeed. Finally, he played the game with his mother and me. I owe my son an apology.
I woefully regret having to give this game a piddling response. As I noted at the top, I usually enjoy Queen Games family games very much. I enjoy the designs of Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim. However, I found this game to be a miss and one that I cannot recommend for most players. It did not appeal to light gamers, heavy gamers or kids. In spite of having fine components (I do wonder why the player boards were modular rather than being fold out, I suppose this was done in order to ensure that the player boards laid flat, but a slight print error resulted in my player boards being slightly offset, this was not a big problem, but worth noting) if just did not pay off. In other words, it wasn’t much fun.
This game took too. long. to play. I suspect it is possible that I and everyone that I know are AP prone idiots, but somehow I doubt it. If the game had more in game variability it might have been able to support this play time, but I cannot think of a single play of this game where at least one player asked, “how much longer” at least twice.
I thought the scoring mechanic was one of Tortuga’s strengths. Players score points for advancing their chest, but also for building sets and obtaining chests of certain colors. This made deciding who to target an occasionally difficult task and led to some discussion between target and attacker that were interesting. Players who were being targeted for attack would often use the available chests colors in order to make a case why someone else should be the target. This social element of the game was probably my favorite part of game play. In other words, I am a deeply dysfunctional human being that derives a sick pleasure from watching people throwing their friends and loved ones under the proverbial bus.
I enjoyed the push your luck element that sometime (though not often enough) arose when trying to choose how many dice to designate to a certain task. If a player rolls sets of one they can select one, two, three, etc. of those dice in order to reveal and place. Player also gain an advantage for placing all of their dice before their competitors. Deciding to reroll a die with a lower or mid-range value (or even a high value in some cases) involved a risk that I enjoyed. What can I say, I am a risk taker. And by risk taker I mean I only like to take small insignificant chances in a controlled fictional setting. Which is to say I not really a risk taker.
The choices in this game very often got stale. As I noted above, I would have liked to have more options. This game could have benefited from something more. Not really sure what that would be, but I felt that I wanted to have more ways to mitigate against losses. Perhaps the cost for taking these action could have been high, i.e. requiring the use of two dice instead of one, but I wanted to have more decisions to make especially later in the game. Sorry guys, but I have suckled at the teet of video games and choose your own adventure books, I am easily distracted and frequently bored. BTW- Have you guys seen the recent episode of The Walking Dead? You know what, I am going to watch that now.
Box art, box art, box art. Oh my Lord, that redheaded pirate will haunt me for the rest of my days.
The aforementioned review derives from a copy of the reviewed game which was provided by the publisher, free of charge.
BPPP 7th Shinobi Wattah (click on the text to the left to listen)
During this episode of Blue Peg, Pink Peg’s 7th Peg we talk with the designer and project manager of one of our favorite light games, Shinobi-Wat-Aah. During the discussion we speak about the process of creating a game where style, theme, tone and art are unified and integrated.
Click here to purchase Shinobi Wat-Aah,a game that we highly recommend.