Theme and What is it?
Set in Feudal Japan, Shinobi Clans is a drafting and bluffing game. The players take the role of heads of separate Shinobi Clans who are all offered contracts on a set number of individuals. It is up to the players to decide whether to attempt to protect or assassinate the target. Then it becomes a game of allocating resources while paying attention to where the other players are allocating theirs. Can a clan leader spend enough resources to secure a victory in the chosen areas or do they cut their losses and walk away in hopes of starting from a stronger position when the next round of contracts becomes available?
There are several different mechanics at play here. Hand management, drafting, and bluffing are the most prevalent.
After finding out what the targets for the round are and how much each one is worth players go through a hand draft. The draft was awkward the first couple of times we went through it, though it became easier the more we did it. In the first round players are dealt four cards that go into your hand, which is set aside. Players then receive six cards they use to draft with. They choose one card and pass the rest to the player on their left. In the second round, players are dealt two cards which are added to their cards left over from the previous round and set those off to the side. Players then get eight cards and draft from those, this time passing right. Once finished the cards drafted are added to the ones set aside and the players discard down to ten cards. In the last round players aren’t dealt anymore hand cards only ten draft cards which they then use to form their final hand. After the draft is finished players add their drafted cards to any cards left over from the previous round. After each draft players discard down to ten cards.
After that players enter the bluffing portion of the game. Players take turns placing cards face down on the various target cards. As the round progresses, players have to watch for who is playing cards where. There are only a few indications of whether a player is working to defend or assassinate a target, when those indications are played is a big part of the game. Play too early and you tip your hand allowing players to throw hurdles in your way. Play too late and they could be ineffective. Additionally, if you don’t make your intentions toward a particular stack clear you could end up over stuffing a location with another player. I’ve seen more than one exchange where myself and another player kept placing cards on a stack to push our goal forward and ignoring all the rest of the stacks; then when it came time to reveal cards find out we we’re attempting the same thing. We won that stack but got nothing from any of the other contracts.
The other piece of the game is hand management; when is it a good idea to stop playing cards? Whatever cards are in a players hand when they pass carry over into the next round, but after the draft they still need to discard down to ten cards. They don’t necessarily get an advantage in the next round through card count but it does allow more flexibility in deciding what contracts they’re going to draft for. There comes a point when a player has to ask whether or not the cards they’re playing are still being useful. With only three contracts a turn this becomes a more important role.
I wasn’t sure about this game. The drafting rules weren’t explained very clearly and they felt more convoluted than necessary. From the rules it felt like it was all going to come down to random chance who would win a contract.
Game Build Quality
The components are nice. There’s a serviceable quality to them. The cards are an okay thickness with a decent enough finish, though I would recommend sleeving. The tokens are thick enough but still feel on the thin side. Everything is good, but just half a step away from really nice.
The rules also take a bit of a hit here. We had to stop playing our first game a reset because we were doing something wrong and figured it out in the middle of the third round. It’s a small problem but you might be able to find a video online that does a better job of explaining it.
For the most part the art is beautiful. It has a very Japanese watercolor theme that I felt was very nice and in keeping with the game itself. The only drawback is the backgrounds of the cards are a wild splash of color that was used to differentiate the type of card, Assassins are red, guardians are blue, and weapons are yellow. The splash of color is a bit busy and somewhat distracting.
There is a bit of a social puzzle to this game. Drafting cards and watching what cards are missing when the stack comes back around while at the same time hinting at what you might be choosing and which contracts you may be going for. There is a verbal and mental back in forth in this game that fills this space nicely.
It was also fun for us to talk chat during the game, almost in a roleplay sense. We the theme so strong when the contracts would come up we would try and figure out what they had done to warrant such a price. While not necessary to the fun of the game it was something that added to the enjoyment for my group.
Age Range & Weight
The Box says 13+ and that seems pretty dead on. As I said the drafting rules weren’t explained very well and that can cause some problems at first. Beyond that the strategy and tactics of the game might be a little advanced but everything can eventually fall into place pretty well.
I like this game. It’s fun and if you want to roll full into the theme and try and figure out why the Ronin is worth seven gold dead it can get pretty fun. That said if you don’t want to the game is still a pretty good bluffing and deduction game. It plays in about an hour and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The back and forth of the drafting and what cards you’ll keep and what contracts you want to go after is a nice puzzle with moving pieces that I appreciate in these games. This to me was more of a social deduction game than anything else and it worked well as that.
The only drawback to this game is the runaway leader. There were times when we didn’t play out the third round because one player had too many points to catch up with. Ultimately, the game is short enough that that wasn’t too much of a problem. We weren’t very invested in how we were doing at that point and could easily reset to a new game and start over. In a longer game that would have been aggravating, but here it didn’t really blip much on the radar.
In the end the game is fast and fun with good theme and nice decisions. I can see where some people might not enjoy the blind placement of cards into stacks that you might not be able to decide what to do next, but for me it was worth the time. I also think the game is better the more players you have. It gives you less information in the draft phase but spreads out the contracts more and has less potential for the runaway leader.
If you see it at a café or game store for demos I would jump into a game and see how it plays out. I liked it and think it’s worth a gander.