Anyone that’s seen an old school ninja movie knows there’s few things cooler than watching stealthy martial artists battling it out, throwing needlessly flashy kicks and insane backflips while fending off a flurry of blows from their opponent.
Superhuman agility and high speed combat make ninjas a great choice for skirmish games so it’s a surprise to find there aren’t more out there. We’ve seen a few ninja themed games over the last couple of years including the 2014 Kickstarter game Rise Of The Kage and 2011’s Ninja Legend Of The Scorpion Clan, but these games have focused more heavily on the stealth aspect of ninjas, favouring hidden movement and evasion over martial arts beat downs.
With this in mind it was pretty exciting to hear that Ninja Division and Soda Pop Miniatures, the team behind Super Dungeon Explore and Relic Knight, had decided to give stealth combat a go with their latest release, Ninja All Stars. Tactical ninja skirmishing wrapped up in Soda Pop’s awesome art style? This sounds like a sure fire hit.
Enter The Ninja. See if you can find them…
Straight out of the box it’s clear that a lot of love has gone into building the world of Ninja All Stars.
Set on the island kingdom of Kagejima, the game sees rival clans battling for fame and glory in the Moonlight Tournament. Only the greatest ninjas can emerge victorious in this competition, earning them the right to become the protectors of their island nation.
The manual features pages and pages of game lore and back story, detailing the character of each Ninja All Stars clan and describing the area of Kagejima that they call home, from the spiritual, mountain dwelling Yamazaru clan to the secretive, nature loving Clan Tanchyo ninjas who live in treetop villages. Specific hero characters also get their own mini bio which adds a lot to the overall flavour of the game.
Theme is reinforced by the game terminology too. Each clan is built from a variety of specialist roles such as ranged attackers, melee fighters and support characters but rather than archers, brawlers or wizards you’ll be fielding a team of Kaikens, Yajiri and Madoushi. Anime fans and anyone that can speak Japanese will get the references straight away, but the names can be a little confusing at first, until you learn your character’s strengths and abilities. Still, once you’ve figured out your Kunoichi from your Chunin you’ll find that this terminology just adds to the overall flavour of the game.
Chibi or not chibi ? That is the question.
As you’d expect with a Soda Pop Minis game the components of Ninja All Stars are top quality.
There are minis here in abundance, 42 in total, comprising of 4 separate ninja teams and 6 npc samurai sentry figures. Each figure is made from great quality plastic with detailed but sturdy builds that require no assembly. Soda Pop have gone for the same chibi style as Super Dungeon Explore, with oversized heads and dynamically posed minis. This cartoonish look works quite well with a ninja themed game evoking the exaggerated aesthetic of ninja movies and tying in seamlessly to the genre’s Japanese routes.
Some of the Ninja All Stars sculpts look pretty similar to each other which can be confusing at first, especially when unpainted, but you soon learn to spot the tell tale signs of each figure. There’s also a small mark on the base of each figure to indicate its facing, which is an important part of the game mechanics, and this can be easily missed as it could almost be mistaken for a mould mark. A spot of paint will go a long way here and an additional mark for rear facing would also have been nice.
Never Judge A Book By Its Cover – Especially One This Pretty!
The Ninja All Stars manual is a lush, full colour affair with plenty of eye catching art and easy to follow diagrams. At 80 pages this is a hefty tome but surprisingly only half of it actually covers the rules. The other 40 pages detail additional miniatures not included in the base game, providing stats and back story for lots of impressive looking new figures. The manual suggests you can use the minis provided in the box to represent any of these additional characters but once you’ve seen a 10ft high wolf Samurai a tiny chibi ninja, no matter how well crafted, just won’t cut it.
Turning the base set manual into a catalogue for other minis feels like a bit of a marketing ploy, especially when you can see how impressive these additional figures stat lines are. It smacks a little of Fantasy Flight’s approach to Imperial Assault, where you got cardboard counters in place of iconic figures like Han and Chewie.
Another leaf Soda Pop has torn from the Fantasy Flight playbook is in the counters department. There are a staggering number of tiny cardboard tokens included in the Ninja All Stars base set, more than 250 in total. Most of these counters are linked to status effects and with each figure able to have multiple effects in play at the same time which can lead to a fairly healthy stack of counters following your minis around the board. In addition to this each figure gets its own activation token to indicate when it’s been used, making for a pretty busy play space.
Ninja All Stars game board is a thing of beauty. The double sided play area offers both vibrantly coloured pagoda rooftops and a moonlit village scene. The layout of terrain on each side is different changing how you can move and fight through both spaces and adding to Ninja All Stars replayability. Soda Pop have done a good job of streamlining the board’s iconography, using a series of small circles filled with tiny icons to represent strategic terrain information and movement spaces which don’t distract from the immersive board art work. Individual play areas, mini storage and score tracking is managed on additional side boards which also feature the same high level of artwork and attention to detail.
Go Ninja, Go Ninja Go!
Despite its weighty rule book, Ninja All Stars is a relatively simple game to pick up. First off players choose the game type they wish to play, ranging from a straight up skirmish to classics like capture the flag and escort missions. The board set up for each of these is minimal, and barely varies between game types, making Ninja All Stars easy and quick to get into.
During the game, each player takes it in turn to activate a single model, moving it and then taking one action before play passes back to the other player. Turns alternate in this manner until all ninjas are activated and the round is over.
Movement is a pretty straightforward affair, with figures able to travel in any direction, paying extra movement points to cross water or climb onto elevated terrain. As you’d expect terrain blocks line of sight and certain scenery elements such as foliage and lanterns can give away a stealthy ninja’s position too. The sticking point about Ninja All Stars movement mechanic is that once you perform an action unspent movement points are lost. This denies a lot of the strategic depth that could be had from well timed action/move combos.
Once a figure has moved its facing becomes important as this decides which areas the figure can attack into and where its weak spot will be when it is attacked. Facing is decided by which adjacent space you point to at the end of your turn and this also establishes your influence zones. In Ninja All Stars every figure has a front and rear influence zone. The front influence zone includes all adjacent spaces in front of and to the sides of your model while the rear influence zone cover the back three spaces. Figures can only attack through their front influence zone while attacking a figure through its rear influence zone gains you an additional dice for your attack. Models moving through either of another model’s influence zones must also pass a check to dodge through these spaces and risk becoming stunned and ending their activation if they fail, emphasizing the need for smart positioning.
Stealth Combat? It’s Elemental My Dear Watson!
Action wise, the most common thing you will do in Ninja All Stars is attack. Certain characters can perform special skills as an action, there are mission specific actions, such as looting crates and you can also attempt to gain beneficial status effects by passing a dice check at shrines on the board. Keeping with the ninja theme you can become stealthy while out of line of sight of the enemy. This makes you harder to hit and gives you and advantage in combat plus you can search for stealthed figures too but for the most part you’ll just be looking to bash the nearest enemy.
Combat in Ninja All Stars is dice driven, using a set of customised, six sided dice. Each face on the Ninja All Stars dice represents a different element from the classic water, earth air and fire to the more nebulous void and spirit. To attack a player rolls a number of dice equal to their attack stat while the defender rolls the number of defence dice available for their character. Bonus dice are awarded for attacking from an enemy’s rear influence zone or for being stealthy before you attacked and both attacker and defender gain an additional dice for each friendly figure in their opponent’s influence zone.
When dice have been rolled they are compared and then opposing pairs are removed from the dice pool. Water cancels fire, earth beats air and spirit takes care of void. The player with the most dice left then picks the outcome of the combat by choosing one of their dice rolls. Each symbol has a different effect from moving or stunning an opponent to stunning everyone in the attacker’s influence zone or even injuring the attacker themselves! This is sadly where Ninja All Stars starts to come unstuck, as the dice results vary so wildly, making combat both a risky and largely frustrating affair.
Once In A Blue Moon?…If You’re Lucky!!!!!
At any point in the game, players can also use moon cards to perform one off special skills or to influence dice rolls. Moon cards come in 6 different types, one representing each of the 6 dice elements, and can be played at any time to give you a helping hand. At the end of each round the moon progresses to a new phase, indicated by the score board’s moon tracker, and if you play your card during the corresponding phase of the moon additional bonus skills are activated, making your cards more effective. This is an attempt to add some influence over chance to the game but one that can feel incredibly mismatched as certain cards allow you to manipulate a single dice you have rolled while others provide big movement boosts and attack bonuses that heavily affect the flow of play.
Each challenge concludes after a set number of rounds with points awarded for completing mission objectives and usually for defeating opponents too. If you’re playing in an organised league or a series of home matches, this is also where you’ll get to tally any experience points and cash gained and start improving your characters for the next game. Players can pay the game’s currency, koban, to hire new team mates while xp is used to improve character stats and buy new skills for your ninjas.
Ninja All Stars – Martial Arts Masterclass or Katana-strophe?
Ninja All Stars is an incredibly pretty package that promises so much but sadly, for this reviewer, fails to deliver.
There’s no way to fault the time and effort that Soda Pop Miniatures have invested in this release but beneath the layers of glossy artwork, appealing minis and exciting theme of Ninja All Stars lies gameplay which just feels flawed.
A good skirmish game stands and falls on its combat mechanics, creating a sense of power for the player combined by an element of luck which amplifies the excitement of every decision. Players should feel encouraged to make bold moves, taking a risk when they’re up against the odds, but always feeling like they have a chance, no matter how slim.
The problem with Ninja All Stars is that it seems to handle chance all wrong, making combat feel hopeless against stronger opponents and then resolving it all with a mechanic that appears to be almost totally down to luck. With the outcome of an attack always decided by the player who rolls the most dice, it seems useless to attack a stronger enemy because the entire action puts you at their mercy. Add to that the ability to stun or even injure your own player by performing an attack and combat becomes less and less appealing, which is a big problem for a game based on going head to head with your opponent.
There are very few built in opportunities to manage luck in Ninja All Stars and even the ones that do pop up, such as the moon cards or helpful shrine effects, are themselves the product of chance while player skills also feel under powered and incredibly luck dependent. Any game looking to offer a tactical challenge needs to have a core set of mechanics that provide a solid or probable chance of cause and effect which are then enhanced by some element of luck. Ninja All Stars combat is like asking you to roll a six every time to defeat your an enemy but then telling you that whatever you’ve rolled doesn’t matter because your opponent will be picking the result for you.
Ninja All Stars is a game that has so much potential. There are some solid ideas here with the combat assistance from adjacent figures, influence zones and terrain mechanics that have a genuine impact on play which are sadly let down by the central dice mechanic. It’s possible that the game will really shine when played with expansions or in a league setting where the base statistics of your starting figures can improve over the course of several games. Soda Pop have definitely pushed the league side of play in both the manual and their advertising for Ninja All Stars but as an out of the box experience for anyone not interested in or able to join a league this game will probably slip by unnoticed.
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I'm pretty much a lifelong gamer, playing since I was a kid and now gaming with other big kids who are also pretending to be adults. I'll give almost any genre a go but love nothing better than sitting down at the beginning of a new tabletop adventure, with a fist full of dice and a really crazy plan that just might work...