06th Dec2019

‘Ninja Squad’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

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Ninja Squad is a real game of two halves, with the first fifteen to twenty minutes played as a cooperative game on one side of the board, and the second, slightly quicker half being a competitive race that takes place on the other side. Thematically, the players each act as one of up to four ninjas tasked with defeating an evil shogun, but in practice it seems that once the job is done, it’s every ninja for themselves!

The board for both halves of the game is long and thin, comprising of several separate boards aligned end to end. The objective in both sequences of play is to get your ninja from one end of the board to the other, all the while either avoiding guards, knocking them unconscious or, in the unfortunate event that they catch you, by dispatching them. Ninjas prefer stealth over all else and smart use of the movement cards is what you’ll be focused on – at times though, the cards will force players to make a choice that puts them in a difficult position.

Because movement is so key in Ninja Squad, planning how and where you’ll move each turn is a key part of your strategy, and the penalty for meeting guards, for example, is to discard cards (thus reducing your options.) Many of the traps in the game, including the caltrops that players can leave on the board during the second phase of the game, act to slow down the players rather than damage them, whilst the increasing threat posed by the alarm track will flood the board with guards, thus further slowing the ninjas.

On their turn, a player will first draw two cards from their own personal movement deck, each of which has two movement options on it. These options include moving in straight lines, moving like a knight in chess, moving diagonally and so on – there’s a large number of variants. From the two cards drawn (and therefore four options total) players will choose one movement for their ninja to take.

Once a set number of moves have been performed, each deck is reshuffled and then passed to the player to the left, giving them a subtly different set of options for the next round. I honestly have not been through each deck to examine the differences, but whether real or imagined, it’s a nice feature to include a mechanism that means no player can claim “I have a rubbish deck that always turns out bad cards.”

As players make their way across the board during the first half of the game, passing through lantern spaces causes guard meeples to be added to the board as they investigate the (ninja) shadows, whilst actually moving onto a guard or through his path will result in a missed turn, as the guard is fought and ultimately taken out. When the palace is reached, assuming the players have not run out of time, then the board will be flipped to its reverse side and the second phase of the game will begin.

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During the Dawn Escape phase, the board is shown as lighter than it is during the first phase, and the lanterns are removed in line. Rather than focusing as much on precise movement and keeping the presence of guards to a minimum, players are now in an outright race – avoiding guards is still essential because it forces a turn to be lost, but it’s also crucial to use cards that slow down the other ninjas. A ton of different weapon and trap options are available within their own deck, and players can use them to attack each other in ways that are visually similar to the way movement works – which keeps things nice and simple.

Ninja Squad is a decent looking game, but it has a few mixed elements that I found hard to gel with. The artwork itself is a mix of outright comic (which also matches the four plastic ninja miniatures, and is well done) to a slightly more realistic painterly style. This second style crops up on the board itself, as well as the card art, and whilst it doesn’t jar with the more comic book leanings, it is certainly different. Add to this the fact that you have plastic miniature ninjas, wooden meeple guards and then plastic lantern cubes and the overall effect is bright and bold, but lacking in continuity.

Regardless, Ninja Squad is appealing overall when setup on the table, and the decent and fairly brief manual makes it easy enough to teach. There’s a fair bit to remember (with the two modes and all the guard rules etc) but this is something that only the owner of the game really needs to remember. The turn by turn actions are simple for the rest of the players, and the only challenge you might sometimes run into is analysis paralysis when choosing moves. Sometimes, there are no good options, and players seem to take a while to pick the least-bad option from a poor selection.

Overall I think Ninja Squad is probably aimed at younger players between the age of about twelve and fifteen, whilst younger and older players could still join and have fun as a family unit. Most decisions are relatively tactical, and there is a fair bit of luck involved in the success or failure of each mission. This lends me to suggest that Ninja Squad isn’t a game that your average hobby gamer will be looking to invest in, even though I’d say anyone approaching the game with a lighthearted attitude could have fun with it.

*** 3/5

Ninja Squad is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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