Time: ~11 minutes
Times Played: 10+
One of the more interesting aspects of the modern board gaming hobby is feeling the nostalgia of classic games when playing a more recent release. War, the dueling card game, was a staple of my childhood as it was something that was easy to learn, easy to play, and to the delight of those in charge of watching me, it occupied quite a lot of time. I’m not saying War is necessarily fun but I have fond memories of my younger self playing the game. Tiny Ninjas feels like a modern interpretation of that central idea (dueling) and condenses it to an enjoyable length with some fun art and great components.
For full transparency, I was provided this copy of Tiny Ninjas to review by the designer, Ryan Leininger. The provided copy has not impacted my views below.
Upon opening Tiny Ninjas, your first thoughts will go towards how beautiful the components are. The art is thematic (every profession is a ninja) and in my opinion, very well done. The art helped fuel our desire to play again as we wanted to see what the other ninjas looked like. It reminded me very much of Bunny Kingdom with how tightly the theme was woven into the characters. The two custom dice are expertly made and the design decision to have them be judged on color and symbol was a great implementation, especially when considering the game is trying to keep its footprint small. This will take some getting used to but is really the only counter-intuitive aspect of the entire game.
Tiny Ninjas lives up to the name as Ryan Leininger designed a game that is so tiny that it can be played entirely in the box. The box serves as the organizer, the playing surface, the dice tray, the health track, and more. This small design choice has made Tiny Ninjas see several additional plays because it could be played on a couch or at a restaurant much more conveniently than other games can. Games like Railroad Ink or No Thanks! or Hive, other portable games with a small footprint, still require some clean-up if something happens in a hurry. Tiny Ninjas just has the cards go back in the box and the game is out of sight and out of mind. With the size being comparable to a VHS tape (am I dating myself if I say that? Should I compare it to a smaller Kindle?), Tiny Ninjas is a great travel game.
But enough about the components and the size. They’re more of an added bonus as opposed to a necessity. Is the game actually fun?
Yes, as long as you know what you’re in for.
Let’s explain right out of the gate. The game features a lot of randomness from the card draws and the dice rolls. If you’re fine with the heavy swings that can come with that randomness, this game will be right up your alley. If you get frustrated or hung-up on the “fairness”, this might be more aggravating for you than not.
Case in point. Our very first game ended on my first round. We played with the Advanced Ninja Cards (but not the Sensei powers) just to ensure we understood the symbols and I was able to knock-off ten health by pushing my luck. The card draw and the dice rolls favored me (and not her) and the game was over as soon as it begun. In subsequent plays, we’ve never had another game come close to that early swing but it is worth noting. It didn’t bother us as the game is so quick it’s easy and almost expected that another game will be played right after.
Like most card games, you are drawing randomly from a deck and what you pull may not be beneficial. We had a game where my partner drew five red cards. Not bad…except they had no way to defend against my blue attacks. They actually ended up winning the round but this scenario could discourage players that prefer to have more management over their game play.
This doesn’t even cover the dice rolls. Dice have a mind of their own and while you hope to roll for six damage you may end up rolling for one. Statistics and probability only mean so much as the die you rolled bounces around the box tray.
All that being said, I don’t mind the randomness. This is an incredibly light and quick dueling game and if I get boned by my card draw or dice rolling, it sucks but we can play again. The game itself is designed to help mitigate some of the randomness by letting the players push their luck in regards to how many cards they play while attacking. You can play every card if you want to try and end your opponent now but doing so will leave you defenseless. This mechanic was my favorite aspect of the game as it lets players attack the way they want to; they aren’t forced to stop just when their opponents is on the doorstep of defeat because the played their arbitrary card limit. This small mechanic makes each card play feel like an actual fight as I can choose when to attack or when to end my turn and hope I have enough to defend. With the small hand size, players shouldn’t be too conflicted on which cards to play (or in which order) either.
This is another game, similar to Hive for me, where you won’t just play once. The game is too short and too easy to play to unpack it for six minutes. A best of three (or five) is how Tiny Ninjas should be enjoyed.
Regarding Tiny Ninjas, I think there’s only two ways to play. Either with Advanced Ninja Cards (and omitting Sensei powers) or with everything. The base game is fine but the advanced cards don’t over-complicate rules and are good offensively and defensively. The only reason we won’t use the Sensei’s is strictly due to the laziness of setting them up on the top of the box. The rules are incredibly straightforward and the limited use keeps the variable powers in check.
I haven’t touched much on the actual game play of what you do each turn and there’s a reason for that: the rulebook is so well done. Two pages in particular stand out: Gameplay Explained and Gameplay Flowchart.
Explaining rules can be difficult as players try to piece together the information they have and what they’re supposed to do with that knowledge in the context of the game. While Tiny Ninjas is not a complicated game by any stretch, it will still cause some confusion for players as everyone takes instruction differently. The flowchart is such a helpful image for teaching. It might be the single best page in any rulebook I’ve read to date.
The rulebook is also condensed into two double-sided reference cards that help make gameplay smooth for the first few games. Tiny Ninjas knocked the learning, teaching, and retention aspects of board gaming out of the park.
Besides the standard way to play, Tiny Ninjas introduces three variant modes for players to try. The Blitz mode is most like War as players start with a set number of cards and take turns in player order attacking (and choosing to defend or not). The game ends when a player is eliminated or all cards run out. This plays faster than a standard game and is a nice way to combat the push your luck mechanic if that’s causing some overthinking. Once you’re comfortable playing Tiny Ninjas, I really enjoy using Blitz mode. It can be a defacto tie breaker if need be. Survivor has players starting with less health and an almost permanent fixture of the Grim card in their hand. I felt like the tactical advantage of the Grim card was removed since both players were aware of the other having it. It created a cold war type scenario that made the game run a little longer than it should. Champion is taking what I mentioned earlier of playing best of three (or five) and adding a twist as the losing player adds health every time they’re eliminated. It reminds me of a card version of a stock battle from Smash Bros. I really like this mode as it creates a further dynamic to the risk/reward of when to eliminate an opponent.
Tiny Ninjas also includes a Solo Mode with an Easy, Norm, and Hard mode. The main difference between the Solo Mode and the dueling mode is that the A.I.’s defense card will be played before your attack card. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter as most attacks and defenses are made by dice rolls so knowing ahead of time will minimally impact your decision making. I’ve mentioned this with previous light games that feature a Solo mode but it wasn’t really for me. I want something meatier to sink my time into but I appreciate the inclusion. The only negative I ran into was the limitations on card draws by the A.I. as it removed that push your luck mechanic that you cannot properly prepare for when playing another human player.
One other thing that Tiny Ninjas includes that I’m a huge fan of is the achievements list. Scythe included something similar for winning conditions and video games have ton of small challenges that keep players playing as they try to 100 a game. This list makes me want to keep playing as it gives me another meta level to play on as I’m not only facing my opponent, but I’m facing the goals I set against myself.
All in all, I really enjoyed Tiny Ninjas. It’s a fun, lightweight, easy to travel with game that looks great and plays fast. This game would be ideal for plane or train travel but also works just fine on a regular table. I recommend Tiny Ninjas.