Shinobi Wat-Aah!

Shinobi Title
Shinobi Header
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.

Exemplar Clan Cards (with wild Ronin)
Exemplar Clan Cards (with wild Ronin) (click to read card text)

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.

The Yokai Cards
The Yokai Cards (click to read card text)

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.

Grand Master Mode Set-Up
Grand Master Mode Set-Up

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.
The Five

  • 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.