Ninja All Stars: Playing with the core set

Good morning Losties! Today we’re going to talk about my thoughts on Ninja All Stars as a game. We did am unboxing over here (Linky!), and since it arrived in time I was able to bring it with me to CaptainCon for some tire kicking beyond what we’d done at home. We’ve played several games – one-on-one and four player (as shown below) using the Shrine Ninja teams (one for each of the six elements in the  game,with minor variations in each), and we’re pretty comfortable with the game mechanics and how it flows at this point.

Discalimer: We haven’t put the Clan teams on the table yet so thoughts on those are currently theorymachine only.

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What’s the story?

The Sun Empire are ambitious, aggressive, arrogant jerks. The Moon Kingdom is ruled over by the Moon Princess. After centuries of the Sun Empire trying to take over the Moon Kingdom, only to be thwarted again and again by both the Moon Kingdom’s shadowy defenders and the Kingdom itself (ooh, magic!) the Moon Princess decided she’d had enough of this. In order to help the Sun Empire deal with its issues (which in turn stopped them trying to invade), the Moon Kingdom would send a clan to help the Sun Empire with its shadowy ninja needs, with a new clan being sent every year. To be selected as the clan to represent the Moon Kingdom is an immense honour, and so every year the clans compete to show that they’re the best, the shiniest, the nicest smelling.

What do you get to play with?

The core set has the Shrine Clans. Each Shrine Clan represents a different element – Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Void, Spirit – and they’re all ostensibly the same with some minor variances. These elements are key to pretty much the entire game.

Ninja All Stars

Each Shrine Clan comes with a Chunin (boss dude), Kaiken (standard ninja dudes with swords), Yajiri (archers), Kunoichi (ninja dudettes) and a single Madoushi (mystic dude). Some of the clans are slightly more aggressive than defensive, and this is represented in their base stats.

Each Ninja has three basic stats – Movement, Attack, Defense. The more aggressive Shrine Clans (Void, Fire, Air) focus on Attack (their Kaiken have 3 Attack, 2 Defense) while the more defensive Shrine Clans (Earth, Spirit, Water) are the reverse (their Kaiken have 2 Attack, 3 Defense).

Each Shrine Clan’s Madoushi has an ability that lets them reroll dice that don’t come up with their affinity, and a single “spell” ability themed to the clan. For example, the Earth Madoushi can cast Stronghold, buffing armour of the target, while the Air Madoushi’s Cloud Walk buffs movement.

These are ideal for learning how to play the game, and for the sake of today’s nattering we’re going to assume that’s what we’re playing with. We’ll deal with the fancier clans and campaign later.

What’s with the game?

You play on either side of a double sided board – one side has a village, the other a walled courtyard. Your ninjas move from marked space to marked space, with each bearing symbols to show if it’s difficult terrain (slowing your movement), a rooftop (better LOS), etc. Setup zones are marked. Once you have your teams, you need to choose your Challenge (think Scenario).

Each Challenge establishes setup rules, allowed ninjas, objectives, and the game length.

  • Allowed Ninjas means how many of your team can be on the board at once. Members of your team beyond this number wait in your dojo as reserves, and can come out in future turns as you take casualties.
  • Objectives vary, but most centre around how you and your team will accrue points, with the player with the most points at the end of the game winning
  • Game length sets the defined number of turns after which the game is over. During each turn, every ninja on the board will activate, so a ninja that manages to stay on the board the entire game will activate between 7 and 9 times, depending on the Challenge.

Okay, so how do we biff?

We touched briefly on the stats earlier – every  model has an Attack and a Defense stat. That number is how many dice you get to roll. When you attack someone, you roll dice equal to your Attack stat, they roll dice equal to their defense stat. Results can cancel each other out, and whomever has the most dice remaining (or the attacker in the case of ties) chooses from their results.

… What?

nas2Okay, this is where I think a lot of people are finding themselves a little confused, and I’ve seen at least one reviewer actively rail against the heavens over the “overcomplication” of this mechanic. Truth is, once you get past the fact that you’re rolling d6’s that don’t have numbers on them and understand how the symbols work, it actually adds a lot of flavour.

The very nature of a ninja themed game means you really need more than just “I hit you” “I fail my armour roll” “You die”. The elements on the dice give you that. You roll, compare, and see what happens from there.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The dice have six different icons, one representing each of the six elemental factions in the game. These elements are naturally opposed – earth vs air, fire vs water, void vs spirit.

When you attack you roll a number of dice equal to your attack stat. Your opponent will roll a number of dice equal to their defense stat. You then compare the results, removing any dice that cancel each other out. At that point, the player with the most dice still in the challenge (the attacker in the case of a draw) chooses which result they want.

Example pics!

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On the epic Ninja battlefield of GdaysDeskCuttingMatumari, the Tengu has attacked the Water Shrine Madoushi.

  • The Tengu has an attack stat of 2, so rolls two dice, yielding Spirit and Fire results.
  • The Madoushi has a defence of 3, so rolls three dice, yielding Fire, Void and Air.

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When we compare dice rolls, the Tengu’s Spirit dice and the Madoushi’s Void dice cancel each other out and are removed.

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nas3Since the Madoushi still has two dice left in the challenge, compared to the Tengu’s one die, the Madoushi chooses one of his two dice to be result of the combat.

His choices are Air and Fire.

  • Choosing Air means that the Tengu has struck a blow that – while not damaging – sends the Madoushi spinning away across the lawn, being careful not to disrupt the cherry blossoms.
  • Choosing Fire means that the melee has been harsh indeed, and both the Madoushi and the Tengu are wounded (as is anybody else caught by the Tengu’s wild flailing).

It takes very little time to get used to the dice results and what they mean, to know which ones you want to see as an attacker or defender.

  • If you’re attacking, you want to see Void or Earth in particular.
  • If you’re defending, Spirit is your friend.
  • Air and Water are variants on battling across rooftops
  • Fire is a mixed blessing since it yields the result the attacker wanted – an injured defender – but it also takes down the attacker.

A significant part of the  game is trying to swing the dice in your favour, giving you more dice than your opponent. Choosing your targets wisely, planning for assists, taking advantage of Shrines abilities (board features that are set up individually each game) to get reroll counters, and then, of course, there’s the  Moon deck.

The Moon Deck?

Yup. It’s the Moon Festival in honour of the Moon Princess, of course the moon is going play a part.

The Moon Deck is a deck of strategies, sabotages, etc. Each player will start with a hand of these, and can obtain more as the game progresses. Each card has two effects listed. The first is generally straightforward – a reroll, a stat boost, etc – but the second is a higher powered version that triggers if the moon is in the correct phase the turn it is played

Each turn of the game the moon will cycle through to the next phase, so if you’re holding a card with a so-so effect right now that gets bananas when the right phase cycles up, it may be worth holding onto.

And the play?

Alternating. I activate a ninja, you activate a ninja, back and forth, until every model on the board has activated once. Then it’s a new turn. Back and forth, injuring models, cycling them through the medbay – er, I mean Healing House… Actually, that’s another level of thinking. At the end of each turn you need to decide how to best spend your efforts – healing up an extra injured ninja, drawing another card from the Moon Deck, or removing all stun tokens from your models on the board. Can you risk being a body down next turn for the sake of more moon power? Are your ninjas currently in the field at risk of being overwhelmed through stuns, or can they hold off until reinforcements arrive?

The game itself played very simply. It’s an 80 page rulebook, with all the rules you need to know to actually play the game sandwiched between pages 7 and 15 (7 and 18 if you want to include the advanced rules). Everything beyond that is fluff, listbuilding entries for the clans, the scenarios and the campaign rules.For a game that seems to have stymied some online reviewers with the concept of dice without pips, the actual gameplay mechanic is really easy to pick up, and even just out of the core box has a surprising amount of depth and replayability.

So now what?

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of the game, betwixt our usual SDE Chibi stuff on Wednesdays we’ll start peppering in some NAS stuff, and as I get the bloody things painted (or convince someone else to paint :P) we’ll start taking a closer look at the clans as well. Getting a small local campaign running is on the agenda, so we’ll see how we go from there.

In the meantime, Ninja All Stars is a box overflowing with adorable chibi ninjas, wrapped around a game that I’ve really enjoyed, and am looking forward to further exploring.