Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five or So Questions with Jürgen Mayer on Shinobi Clans

I interviewed Jürgen Mayer about Shinobi Clans and he provided me with some images from the game, including some exclusive pieces that you'll see later in the article!
The Shinobi Clans box.
Tell me a little about Shinobi Clans. What's exciting about it?

You're the master of a ninja clan! You recruit the most skilled ninjas, arm them with the deadliest weapons and send them on secret missions! Will you try to assassinate the shogun? Will you allow the daimyo to hire your clan to protect him? But most importantly, will you manage to keep your plans hidden from the other ninja masters and see through theirs?

This is the ninja game I've always wanted. A couple of years ago, when I started designing the game, the ninja-themed board gaming landscape looked rather bleak, and that's what made me develop my own game. I wanted a strong theme with integrated game mechanics, not just an abstract game with a ninja theme tacked on. I wanted lots of secret moves and uncovering hidden agendas and thrilling assassinations, because that's what ninjas are all about. And epic ninja battles, of course.
The Poison Maker card. Exclusive!
In addition, the game looks fucking gorgeous! With over fifty illustrations by NEN, in a beautiful watercolor style, and a full bleed on the cards to make the artwork really stand out. I'm very excited about her work and collaboration. The game is a real eyecatcher. It also plays well. *ahem*


What kind of mechanics do you use to emulate the ninjas actions?

There's a lot of hidden information in the game. In addition to the secret missions mentioned before, which each player selects at the beginning of a round and doesn't reveal until the final battles, there is secret unit deployment. That's a fancy way to say you play your ninja cards face down. ^^ These cards form stacks on the various targets, and the physical position of a card in a stack determines its tactical position in battle.

The only information you get from your rival clans is to which targets the ninjas are assigned. But you can use spies to reveal ninjas or scouts to force other players to play cards face up, and that can help you to figure out their plans.
Silent Killer card.

Besides these spying abilities happening during deployment and the combat stuff that comes into play in the battle phase at the end of the round, there are more specialized ninja occupations, like for example poison makers. These specialists manipulate the card stacks themselves. The poison maker kills the card on top of it before that ninja is able to enter combat. Remember that ninjas are played face down, so you won't be able to tell a poisoner apart from a standard ninja - if you don't use your spies effectively.


How do epic ninja battles work in your game?

Once everyone has played all of their cards or passed, the stacks of ninjas on the various targets are resolved, by turning them over and placing them into battle slots to the left and right of the target (guardians go left, assassins right); the first card on each side gets the innermost slot, and subsequent cards get the next slots going outwards.

If the ninjas are lucky, they'll find a weapon waiting for them in their battle slot. Unlike ninjas, weapon cards can be used for both assassination and guarding, and are played into the respective battle slots on the side the player chooses.

Fukiya card.


When all ninjas are in place, all their special abilities and those of their weapons are resolved, which often affect the ninjas in the same battle slot on the other side. So the Jutte might disarm the opposing ninja or the Silent Killer might outright kill her opponent on the other side.

Finally, simply count up all power symbols on both sides and compare them. If the assassins have more power than the guardians, the target is killed, otherwise it survives. Players then get rewards for their successful contracts.


What kind of art guidance did you give to NEN to help find the designs you wanted?

I gave her my basic ideas of the quasi-historic Japanese setting I had in mind. Also, the color schemes for the various card types, which she worked directly into the background of all illustrations. And then a short description of each card, including suggestions for appropriate weapons that a ninja of that type should be carrying.

Here's an example, for the Old Ninja Master card: "Basically an old Japanese guy that doesn't look like it but could kill you in a heartbeat. His expression is probably nonchalant, because he fears nobody. He should not wear a ninja outfit, just simple feudal era clothes of common folk. If he carries a weapon, it is most likely hidden (maybe a kusari-fundo hidden in a fist) or a not very dangerous looking thing like a bokuto (katana shaped wooden training sword) or even a cane."

Old Ninja Master card. Exclusive!
NEN would then send me a sketch and then often make some changes after getting my feedback. If you ask her, I'm sure she will tell you that I pestered her a lot with requests to make changes to the weapons and how the ninjas should wield them ("a real fighter would never angle the wrist like that and here's why").

You know, that's a bit of a pet peeve of mine, artwork or photos of supposed expert fighters that don't know how to properly hold their weapons. I've been doing traditional Japanese martial arts for some time, and have had at least basic training with almost all weapons depicted in the game (I think with the exception of the fukiya), and I was very picky in that regard (sometimes even taking reference photos of myself with the weapon to get my point across). I'm sorry, NEN!

That said, NEN brought a lot of her own concepts into the illustrations, and came up with a lot of great ideas. For example, for one of the cards, a more powerful version of the poison maker, she had the idea to draw two sisters, and I eventually changed the card name to Poison Twins to reflect that. It became one of my favorite cards.


What's up next for you after Shinobi Clans?

I currently have ideas for four different board and card games, all in very early stages (some pages of notes here, a sketch of a board there), and non of them even in a playable prototype stage. I don't know if I will ever develop them to a publishable state. I guess that also depends on how well Shinobi Clans is received and if any gamers want more stuff from me. Until then, I'm happy to assassinate some hapless Ronin whenever someone challenges me at my debut game.

Grandmaster card.