Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de

Ninja Arena


Oliver Schneider &
Rainer Schoof


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Gamebox author Ralf Togler writes about the game:

A boardgame, completely manufactured in Germany, Composed only of natural materials? Ok, that is possible, of course. But what kind of game do you expect as a result? Most of these games which I saw in the past were either simple children games (building bricks) or abstract strategy games, but would you expect a thematic Ninja fighting game? When I first passed by the small booth of 2MT GAMES at the SPIEL '16 convention in the rearmost hall of the fair, I couldn't see anything, and the reason was that a huge crowd was blocking my sight. The people either were sitting at one of the three tables, playing the game, or they were queuing for the next match to start. Several matches later I can understand the hype during the SPIEL, so let us have a closer look:

In Ninja Arena 2-4 players take the role of Ninja fighters who enter a battle arena for a deadly fight. One thing that immediately stands out while unpacking the game are the high-grade materials. There is a lot of wood and no plastic can be found. All smaller game pieces, tokens and cards come in a small jute bag and the figurines of the players are made of pewter. The rules tell us more about the origin of the materials and with every detail of the game you can nearly feel how the design team wanted to create a sustainable game. This does not only silences the conscience, but also looks great. But what about the game mechanics? I have already enough good looking games that seldom are played, because nobody really likes them... Would Ninja Arena pass the playtesting?

Now, Ninja Arena first of all is a tough fighting game. But it is no dull hack and slash game (although there are times when I really love this type of games, too). It is more a planning game (like Robo Rally) and it doesn't use martial illustrations. In fact it is partly abstract, so a lot more people actually like playing the game than you would assume from the somewhat martial title.

The battle arena is divided into a 8x8 grid. During set-up it is the time for creating a three dimensional landscape on the wooden game board, and for this we have wooden blocks that are arranged in the arena to create the landscape. Five different scenarios are suggested in the rules, but you can also create your individual battle arena. The wooden blocks represent elevations in the landscape, and by piling the blocks you can create three different levels that handicap our Ninjas while moving and fighting. It is not that they couldn't climb the elevations, but they have to perform special moves to do so. Once the top is reached, the view compensates all of this. Other Ninjas become visible and can be targeted, but of course you are much more exposed, too. So, by building up the landscape, you already determine if there is enough room for ranged weapons or if melee weapons are the better choice.

The Ninjas have both kind of weapons: one ranged and one melee weapon. In the beginner version of the game, the weapons are the same for every player. With the sword a Ninja can attack adjacent spaces (in front and to both sides), with the long bow he shoots an arrow in the direction he is facing. As you can see, the orientation of the Ninjas is quite important in the game. And this is not limited to the fighting, the available movements are also dependent on the current orientation of the Ninja.

How does that work? First of all, each ninja starts from a different edge of the gameboard, and by placing the Ninja a player also determines the direction of view of his Ninja. In most cases Ninjas won't face each other directly, so there is no chance to attack someone else with a ranged attack. One of the most important things for the start is the movement ability as there are different ways to move in the game. The simplest one is to move one step, but you can also for example roll your Ninja two fields, do a diagonal move or leap over a gap, which is quite useful to jump from a block to another one of the same level. Last but not least, you have the level movement that allows you to climb or go down one level. But as said you must also determine the direction of your move and not all moves can be chosen for each direction.

To plan our movements we use dice. At the start every player gets two red and two blue dice for their movement in the beginner variant. In the advanced variant, an additional white die joins in. This additional die introduces more complex moving and fighting abilities like climbing and throwing your melee weapon. All dice are six-sided without numbers. Instead, you have symbols for the different movements and fighting abilities, and the color of a die determines its velocity. So, the red die is the fastest, the blue stands for normal velocity and the white die is a slow one. When it comes to decide at which time a Ninja performs his action in comparison to his opponents, the actions of red dice are carried out before the blue and the white.

For the planning phase, on command, all players simultaneously take their dice and choose three actions for the round. For this we simply choose three of the five dice (or four in the beginner variant) and place them, with the action we would like to perform, face-up on the player boards. The first action die for the round must be placed left, the second in the middle and the last action die on the right. Also, for most actions the orientation of the dice plays an important role. You place them in the "Ninja view" (comparable to Robo Rally). So if you play the melee attack with the orientation of the symbol to the right, you are not attacking the right space next to your figurine from your direction of view, but the right space from your Nina's view. As some of you will know, envisioning this view is not too easy for a lot of people, so it is also possible to choose the "arena view which corresponds with your own direction of view. But as all the planning is done in real-time with the first player taking the order 1 token and so on, some mistakes will happen during the game. I made the experience that this often ends in malicious pleasures (again similar to Robo Rally), when a Ninja - instead of attacking the close opponent - fiercely hacks at a stone block.

After all players have finished their planning, the first action of each player is carried out one by one. So, we begin by checking who has played red dice for the first action (remember: these actions are the fastest) and, if there are several players with the same-coloured dice the action first will be performed by the player who has the lowest order token. So, one by one the actions are performed and the Ninjas move over the board, attacking each other and trying to defend themselves. In case of a successful attack, the attacked Ninja looses life points equal to the damage value of the weapon, and of course the last Ninja alive wins the game.

The advanced version of Ninja Arena adds new and different weapons for every player. As a result, the style of play will change. It surely makes a difference if you have a lance that can only be used to attack one or two fields in front of the Ninja, or a Nunchaku, that is much weaker but cannot be parried by other players. The ranged attacks differ even more. So, for example a Ninja with throwing needles can attack all of the 3x3 spaces around him. Compared to the bow that can only attack visible spaces in front of the Ninja (with a higher damage value) this is something totally different. Finally there is also a professional variant in which each Ninja has an individual special ability like assassination. Although these special abilities are very difficult to perform (much depends on the landscape and the precise positions of your opponents), the results are severe if such an ability is used successfully.

To my mind Ninja Arena is a wonderful, fast-paced fighting game. The rules are very simple and you can add the more complex moves bit by bit. In the professional version you have up to 18 different actions you can choose from (six on each of the different coloured dice). This is quite a lot considering that you plan your moves in real-time. And so not all moves will be performed as you had planned. Either you make mistakes or your opponent blocks your way (which ends in a duel with possible wounds to both players). But both types of mishaps belong to the game and add additional spice.

In summary, I would not call Ninja Arena a complex, strategic game, because a lot of your success depends on the choices of your opponents (and your own mistakes). There is rarely a situation in which you can surely say what your opponent will do, so you also cannot predict the outcome of your planning precisely. Every round you are confronted with a new game situation, and so it is much more a tactical game with psychological elements. If you can predict what your opponents will do in their next turn, you will be able to choose the best action for your Ninja. But of course, the other players will try the same...

The mechanics as well as the theme are a little bit similar to Kumo Hogusha by MORNING PLAYERS from 2015. However, the game feels rather different. In Ninja Arena you have really to fight your opponents, you have to hide and attack from different positions. In Kumo Hogusha you have more game pieces and your goal is to move a block to the edge of the game. Also, Kumo Hogusha is the more strategic game, while Ninja Arena is a highly tactical game with easy access and a short game duration. Players who take their time will feel out of place, because the game demands quick decisions. I liked it best playing with four Ninjas, since most ranged attacks are kind of inefficient in the two player game, because it is often easy to hide. Especially if one player permanently makes a run, it can be quite difficult to end a two player game of Ninja Arena. With four players, I prefer playing a variant that is called death-match, because in this variant the game ends with the defeat of the first player, but there are more suggestions to play and end the game in the rules, so you should find a variant you like most. As Ninja Arena is the debut game both for the authors and the small publisher 2MT GAMES, I can only say "Hats off!"

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Copyright © 2016 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany