Ninjato is a highly interlocking worker placement game. In it, you are a ninja trying to hone your skills, influence/subvert the three major clans, and spread rumors of your prowess.
In a worker placement game, each player has a set number of workers that they can assign to different tasks. This number is finite, so you won’t be able to do everything every turn. Frequently in worker placement games, when one player uses a worker on a specific action, no other player may use a worker on that same action that turn. This makes it important to decide what actions to take when, since someone can take it before you.
Some popular worker placement games include Agricola, Caverna, Kingsburg, Lords of Waterdeep, Manhattan Project, and Stone Age.
How to Play
This is a heavily interlocking game that can be a bit tricky to wrap your head around. There are 8 primary aspects of the game Dojo Cards, Sensei Tiles, Clans, Clan Houses, Guards (Elites), Treasure, Rumor Cards, and Envoy Cards. While the game may look visually overwhelming when set up, everything flows into one another and is fairly intuitive once you know what you are doing.
- Dojo Cards are used to get Sensei Tiles
- Dojo Cards and Sensei Tiles are used to attack Clan Houses
- When you attack a Clan House, you must defeat Guards and potentially Elite Guards
- By defeating Guards, you get Treasure
- By defeating an entire Clan House, you change which Clan controls it
- Treasure is used to buy Rumor Cards and Envoy Cards
- Each Rumor card references either your Sensei Tiles, your Elite Guards, your Envoy Cards, or other Rumors
- Envoy Cards reference Clan Houses
On each of the 7 turns of the game, each player has 3 Shurikens (Throwing Stars) to use as their workers/actions. At the end of rounds 3, 5, and 7, there are scoring rounds.
Dojo Cards are discarded from your hand to acquire Sensei Tiles and to attack Clan Houses. Since you discard them when you use them, you need to keep spending Shurikens (actions) to gain more.
Each player starts with four Dojo Cards with values ranging from 1 to 5. 3’s can either be used as a 3, or they can be used in conjunction with another card to add or subtract 1 from that card. For example, if I played a 5 and a 3, I could treat it as if I had played a single 6 or a single 4.
In order to get more Dojo Cards, a player may place one of their 3 Shurikens on the bottom left spot of the board.
When you do this, you draw either 2 cards, or you draw until you have 4 cards in hand.
0 cards in hand, draw 4.
1 card in hand, draw 3.
2 or more cards in hand, draw 2.
You can either draw from the 3 face up cards, from the face down pile, or a combination of both. Once you have drawn all of your cards, refill the face up pile to 3 cards if needed.
When determining turn order at the end of each turn, the owner of the Shuriken at the top of this stack (the last one played) becomes the new first player, followed by the next Shuriken owner etc.
Treasure is gained by attacking Clan Houses. It is used to buy Rumor Cards and Envoy Cards. When you spend Treasure, you gain victory/Honor points.
There are 5 types of Treasure:
Fan (worth 2 points)
Scroll (worth 3 points)
Vase (worth 4 points)
Jade (worth 5 points)
Gold (Gold can be used as any of the 4 other treasures. If used as a Fan, it is worth 2 points. If used as a Scroll, it is worth 3 points, etc. While the value is undetermined until spent, it is considered the highest value treasure.)
Once acquired, Treasure is used to purchase Rumors and Envoys. Clan Houses start with 3 plain side up Treasure. When a Clan House is attacked and an alarm Guard is revealed, Treasure is turned red side up (explained in Attacking Clan Houses section below). All unspent Treasure not on a Clan House is kept in the cloth bag. If you run out of Treasure in the bag, refill the bag with the Treasure that was already spent that game.
Attacking Clan Houses
Attacking Clan Houses is the central part of the game. In order to defeat the Clan House’s Guards, you must use your Dojo Cards and/or Sensei Tiles.
When you defeat a Guard, you temporarily gain a Treasure. At this point, you can either retreat with your Treasure(s), or you can attempt to fight another Guard to gain another Treasure. You may keep attacking until you take all of that Clan House’s Treasure, or you are defeated. If you are defeated, you only keep 1 of the Treasures from the attack.
If you take all of the Clan House’s Treasure, you defeat the Clan House and must change which Clan controls it. So, you can remove a Clan you have no influence over, and supplant it with one already under your thumb.
Declaring an Attack
Each Clan House starts with 3 plain side up Treasures and a Sentry (a face up Guard). When you attack a Clan House, place one of your Shurikens on either the Strength (left) or Stealth (right) side of the House. If you choose Strength, in order to defeat Guards in that Clan House, you must play a Dojo Card from you hand with a value higher than the number printed on the current Guard Card. If you choose Stealth, you must play a Dojo Card with a value lower than the number printed on the current Guard Card. (A tie does not defeat a Guard.)
The Sentry is the first Guard you must defeat when you attack a Clan House. Since it is face up, you know its value so you know if you can defeat it. Once you defeat it, take the lowest value plain side up Treasure from that House and put it on your Shuriken. If the Clan House still has Treasure on it, you may call “Banzai” and challenge the next Guard at that Clan House.
When you call “Banzai,” take the top card of the corresponding face down Guard deck and flip it face up. If there is at least one plain side up Treasure, take the Guard from the normal Guard Deck. If there are only red side up Treasures remaining, take the Guard from the Elite Guard Deck.
To defeat this new Guard, you must play a Dojo Card from your hand. If you chose to attack the Clan House with Strength, the Dojo Card must have a higher value. If you went with Stealth, the Dojo Card must have a lower value.
Elite Guards are generally more difficult to defeat than normal Guards. Elite Guards either have 1 or 2 people on the card.
If there is 1 person, the left value depicts the value you need to exceed if using Strength; the right value depicts the value you need to be under if using Stealth. If you can’t, you lose to the Elite Guard.
If there are 2 people on the card, treat it as if you are facing 2 separate normal Guards. You must defeat the number on the left with a single card and then defeat the number on the right with a new single card. If you can’t beat both, then you lose to the Elite Guard. (Do not play/discard any cards to defeat a 2 person Elite if you can’t defeat both people.)
If you defeat the Elite Guard, immediately take the Elite Guard Card. It is worth the number of points depicted at the top of the card at the end of the game. Even if you do not defeat the entire Clan House, you keep that Elite Guard Card.
Because Elite Guards are more difficult to defeat, in most cases you shouldn’t try unless you have available Sensei Tiles, explained later in this post.
If the newly revealed Guard Card has an Alarm on it, an Elite Guard is added to the Clan House. Immediately draw a new Treasure from the cloth bag and add it to the Clan House. Then, flip the highest value Treasure red side up. Finally, defeat the Alarm Guard like normal, if you can.
Losing to the (Elite) Guard
If you can’t defeat the newly revealed Guard, take any 1 of the Treasures on your Shuriken and return the rest to the Clan House.
Discard all of the new Guards that were revealed, but keep the Sentry on the House.
Add a random Treasure from the cloth bag plain side up to the Clan House.
Defeating the Guard
If you defeat the Guard, take the next lowest value Treasure from the Clan House and place it on your Shuriken. If you defeated a normal Guard, take the lowest plain side up Treasure. If you defeated an Elite Guard, take the lowest red side up Treasure.
If there is still Treasure on the Clan House, you may call “Banzai” and attack again.
If there is no more Treasure on the Clan House, take all of the Treasure on your Shuriken.
When all of the Treasure is removed from a Clan House, discard the Sentry from it and change the Clan House’s allegiance. For example, if it had a Taira (red) Clan Marker on it, replace it with an available Go-Shirakawa (Green) or Minamoto (Blue) Clan Marker. This is important for Envoy Cards explained later in this post.
A defeated Clan House is replenished at the end of each turn.
Sensei Tiles represent the Snake, Tiger, and Crane styles. They are used to aid in attacks on Clan Houses. Later in the game, there are also Sensei Tiles that can enhance your influence over the Clans.
Sensei Tiles available on turns 1 through 4 aid in your attacks against Clan Houses. On each of these turns, a number of tiles is available equal to the number of players. So, in a 3 player game, there will be 3 Sensei Tiles available on turns 1 through 4. It is possible and legal for one person to take all 3 Sensei Tiles available in a turn.
On turns 5 through 7, there will be one Hensojutsu (Disguise) Sensei Tile available each turn. These tiles are used with Envoy Cards in the scoring phases at the end of rounds 5 and 7, explained later in the post.
Each of the 3 styles help attacks in different ways.
- Snake tiles are primarily helpful when using Stealth (for example, -2 to a single Dojo Card)
- Tiger tiles are primarily helpful when using Strength (for example, change the value of a single Dojo Card to a 6)
- Crane tiles can help with both (for example, use the Sensei Tile as if you played a 2 or 4 Dojo Card)
In order to acquire a Sensei tile, you must place a Shuriken by the Sensei. You must then discard a Dojo Card with the value depicted in the top left. If the value is a ‘?’ you may discard any Dojo Card. If you already have a Sensei Tile with that style, you do not need to discard a Dojo Card.
When you want to use a Sensei Tile, usually when you are attacking a Clan House, flip it face down to show that you used it. You may use any number of tiles at a single time.
At the end of each turn, flip all Sensei tiles face up.
Envoy Cards represent your influence over the three Clans. The more Envoys you control of a Clan, the more influence you have over that Clan. Envoy Cards are acquired by spending your Treasure. They score at the end of rounds 3, 5, and 7.
Envoy Cards are one of two ways to spend your Treasure. In order to acquire an Envoy Card, you must place one of your Shurikens on the Envoy space. Then, you must turn in treasure equal to the cost of the Envoy. Finally, you score points equal to the value of the turned in Treasures.
For example, if an Envoy has a Jade and a Fan on it, you must turn in a Jade and a Fan (one or both of those could be a Gold instead), and then you score 7 points. If an Envoy has a picture of all 4 types of treasure with a number to its left, you must turn in that many of the same Treasure. If, for example, it has a 1-4 in front of the 4 Treasures, you can turn in anywhere between 1 and 4 treasures of the same type. If you turned in Fans you would score between 2 and 8 points. If you turned in Jade, you would score between 5 and 20 points. The more you turn in, the more points you get.
Envoy Cards are scored at the end of turns 3, 5, and 7 in the order depicted on the turn tracker. For example, after turn 3, Go-Shirakawa (Green) would score first, then Taira (Red), then finally Minamoto (Blue).
When scoring, whoever has the most Envoy Cards of the currently scoring Clan gets their choice of either the Clan Houses’ points or a free Secret. In the case of a tie, whoever has the oldest Envoy (depicted in the top right corner) wins the tie. Then, whoever has the second most Envoy cards of the currently scoring Clan gets whatever wasn’t chosen.
Clan House points are determined by adding all of the Clan Markers currently on the board. So, if Go-Shirakawa (Green) has 3 clan houses with values of 2, 4, and 5, the Go-Shirakawa Clan House points would be 11. It is possible for there to be no Clan House points for a given Clan.
Hensojutsu (Disguise) Sensei Tiles
At the end of rounds 5 and 7, Envoy tiles score, and a player might have a disguise Sensei Tile they would like to use. A disguise Sensei Tile can be used in conjunction with an Envoy card you acquired that has a mask in the top left corner. You may use 1 disguise Sensei Tile with 1 Envoy card with a mask to count as if you had 2 Envoy cards. You may not use multiple disguise Sensei Tiles with the same Envoy card, and you may not use a disguise Sensei Tile with multiple Envoy cards.
Rumor Cards are how you spread tales of your Prowess. If you defeat an abundance of Elite Guards and spread plentiful Rumors about it, you can gain significant honor. To acquire/spread Rumors, you must spend Treasure on them.
Rumor cards are the second way to spend your treasure. In order to acquire a Rumor Card, you must place one of your Shurikens on the Pavilion. Then, just like with Envoy Cards, you must turn in the depicted Treasure and score that many points.
Rumor Cards, once acquired, are kept face down and will only score again at the end of the game. (You may look at your Rumor Cards at any time.)
There are 5 different types of Rumors:
- “Greatest Warrior” which scores based on defeated Elite Guard Cards
- “Goodwill of the People” which scores based on acquired Rumor Cards
- “Powerful Friends” which scores based on acquired Envoy Cards
- “Master of the Secret Art” which scores based on acquired Sensei Tiles
- “Dishonorable Opponents” which scores based on the number of players with at least 1 of this Rumor
For all but the “Dishonorable Opponents” rumors, you score points based on the number of Cards or Tiles you acquired. Then, based on how many of those Rumors you collected, you apply a multiplier.
For example, say you acquired 3 Elite Guard Cards:
- If you have 1 “Greatest Warrior” Rumor Card, you multiply 3 by 1 for 3 points
- If you have 2 “Greatest Warrior” Rumor Cards, you multiply 3 by 2 for 6 points
- If you have 3 “Greatest Warrior” Rumor Cards, you multiply 3 by 4 for 12 points
- If you have more than 3, start a second set. So if you had 5, you would have a set of 3 (12 points) and a set of 2 (6 points) for 18 points.
For the “Dishonorable Opponents” rumors, each rumor, for every player, scores the same amount of points.
- If only one player has any of this Rumor, that player scores 6 points for each of this rumor they have.
- If two players have any of this Rumor, each player scores 4 points for each of this rumor they have.
- If 3 or more players have this Rumor, each player scores 2 points for each of this rumor they have.
- Shuffle the Dojo Cards and deal 4 to each player, place the remaining Dojo Cards at the bottom left and turn 3 face up
- Shuffle the Rumor cards and place them on the left of the board, turn 4 face up
- Shuffle the Envoy cards and place them on the right of the board, turn 4 face up
- Set aside the 3 Hensojutsu (Disguise) Sensei Tiles. Then shuffle the rest of the Sensei Tiles together, place them at the bottom right, and turn a number face up equal to the number of players
- Each player takes all of the Shurikens of a color
- Randomly deal a Sentry (regular Guard) onto each Clan House, ignore any alarm makers
- Randomly add 3 Treasures to each Clan House
- Place the Taira (red) 2 on a Clan House, do the same with the Taira (red) 4, Minamoto (blue) 2, Minamoto (blue) 4, and Go-Shirakawa (green) 6
- Place 2 of each players’ disks near the score tracker
- Randomly determine the original turn order with the remaining disks and place them on the center turn tracker
The starting player places their first Shuriken on any of the locations below and immediately performs the associated action:
- the Dojo (draw Dojo Cards and determine turn order)
- the Sensei (acquire a Sensei tile)
- any of the Clan Houses with Treasure remaining, place it to the left for Strength, to the right for Stealth (attack it to gain its treasure, change its Clan allegiance, and/or fight Elite Guards)
- the Pavilion (acquire a Secret Card)
- the Palace (acquire an Envoy Card)
When that player finishes, the next player, depicted by the turn order track, places a Shuriken and performs the associated action. Continue this until everyone has placed a Shuriken and performed the associated action. Then, repeat this from the first player until all players have used all 3 of their Shurikens.
End of Turn
At the end of each of the first 6 turns, the board needs to be replenished. New Sensei Tiles need to be put out, the face up Rumor Cards and Envoy Cards need to be replenished, and the defeated Clan Houses need a new Sentry and Treasures.
- Flip all face down Sensei Tiles face up
- Discard all remaining Sensei Tiles and replace them with a number equal to the number of players.
- At the end of turns 4, 5, and 6 instead of replacing with a number of tiles equal to the number of players, randomly place 1 of the 3 Hensojutsu (Disguise) Senesi Tiles out instead
- Deal a new Sentry (regular Guard) to each Clan House without one, add 3 random Treasures to these Clan Houses as well
- Redetermine turn order:
- The player with the Shuriken on top of the pile at the Dojo is the new first player
- The new second player has the next Shuriken, etc.
- Ignore duplicate Shurikens from the same player
- If only 1 player did not place a Shuriken on the Dojo, they are now the last player in turn order
- If 2 or more players did not place a Shuriken on the Dojo, the other players go before them, and then these players maintain their relative position to each other (whoever was further ahead in turn order stays further ahead in turn order)
- Refill the face up Secrets to 4
- Refill the face up Envoys to 4
- At the end of rounds 3, 5, and 7, scoring occurs
End of Rounds 3, 5, and 7 Scoring
At these points, players score points and/or gain Rumors base on their influence over the 3 clans, determined by their acquired Envoys.
- In turn order, players with Hensojutsu (Disguise) Sensei Tiles must decide which Envoys they will use them on for this round. (One Hensojutsu Sensei Tile per Envoy, and the Envoy must have a mask in the upper left of the card.)
- Score the Clan Houses in the order depicted on the turn tracker. (For example, at the end of round 3 the order is Go-Shirakawa[green], Taira[red], and Minamoto[blue])
- Whoever has the most envoys of that Clan (tie goes to the player with the oldest Envoy of that Clan) chooses whether to gain all of the Clan Houses’ points (depicted by the Clan Markers ranging in value from 2-8) or a free face up Secret Card
- Whoever came in second for that Clan gets whatever the first place player for that Clan did not take. If the first place player for that Clan takes the Clan Houses’ points, the second place player for that Clan gets a free face up Secret Card
- On rounds 3 and 5, refill the face up Secrets to 4. On round 7, progress to End Game Scoring
End Game Scoring
- Score each players’ Rumor Cards as explained in the Rumor Cards section above
- Each unused Treasure is worth 1 point for its owner, regardless of type
- Each Elite Guard defeated by a player earns that player 1 or 2 points, as depicted at the top of the Elite Guard Card
The winner is the player with the most points. According to the rules, all players must bow to the winner.
I am reluctant to recommend this game to new gamers because it seems a bit complex; however, this is one of my family’s favorite games. We play a lot of games, but I am the only hardcore “gamer” among us.
The components in Ninjato are fairly high quality, the theme is excellent, there is enough randomness to equalize the playing field, and there are a lot of options without being overwhelming (once you know what you are doing). That final point, not an overwhelming amount of options, is important to emphasize because it can seem like too much for people new to the game. The main reason it isn’t too bad is because the whole game revolves around attacking Clan Houses.
If you have no Treasure, you need to attack Clan Houses to get it. If you have no Dojo Cards to attack, you need to go to the Dojo to get some. If you have Treasure, you can spend some to get Envoys or Rumors. Sensei Tiles are always nice to have early in the game. That is the basic strategy.
Even though that basic strategy is simple, the replay value of this game is excellent. The order the Sensei Tiles, Treasures, Rumors, etc. come out is random, and that makes a big difference. In one game you could get a bunch of Tiger Sensei Tiles and do a lot of Clan House Attacking to defeat Elites. In another, you might get a Snake Tile that lets you snatch Jades from Clan Houses with just a single Dojo card; you then turn those Jades into Rumors. In another game, you might focus on Envoys, etc. etc. etc.
The most frustrating part of the game can definitely be the core of the game though, attacking Clan Houses. If you get unlucky, you might turn over multiple alarm Guards and be unable to clear the House. Or, you could attack with Strength and then “Banzai” straight into a 5 Guard. If this happens repeatedly, it can really shut you out of the game. However, if you get Sensei Tiles and make sure you have strong Dojo Cards in hand before attacking, you can largely mitigate this negative. I personally rarely call Banzai unless I’m basically guaranteed to beat the next Guard regardless.
Overall, I really enjoy this game. The game looks great, I love the theme (I studied Japanese history a bit), the game is highly variable, and there is enough strategy to keep me coming back. It also helps a lot that my family enjoys it too.