Hit & Run – A review of Shinobi and SCAPE

Shinobi (Assassins)

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In the far away land of Fantasy Ninjadom, there are dojos and ninja clans. These clans plot against one another – as is custom – to determine the best and most powerful clan of them all. You take control of a clan each, choose three of your four possible attacks to play and play them face down in front of your three neighbouring opponents to the left. But since you are honourable, you also announce what kind of attacks you’ve ordered. When all attacks are dealt, each player in turn order flips over two of the three cards in front of them.

If the two cards show the same attack, the dojo has been hit! If they show different attacks, then nothing happens. Thankfully since your fellow players are honest and trustworthy people, you can just go by what they’ve told you and will never lose, since you will always pick two different attacks. But in the extemely unlikely and purely hypothetical case in which the honourable head of a ninja clan might have lied to you, you have a way of escalating the proceedings. Flip over two different attacks, and you can accuse the involved players of conspiring against you. Clearly, this is hugely dishonourable and nobody would ever dare do such a thing. Not in a peaceful and harmonious game such as this one. You then turn over the third card, if it shows the same type of attack as the other two cards, you have unmasked those dojos’ sinister motives, and thus deal damage to them. Last player standing wins.

In a far more amusing twist, though, there is also a way to double down on your successful defense against an attack, i.e. flipping over two cards with different attack types on them, and that involves accusing the involved clans of incompetence. If you then flip over the third card, and show an attack that doesnt match the other two, you have shown your opponents to be too incompetent to anticipate each other’s plans. The image of standing up and denouncing your opponents’ incompetence is without a doubt the highlight of the first couple of plays in this game.

pic2719754Now this sounds like an amusing little diversion. A small bluffing game with some clever silliness thrown in. But there are sadly two stumbling blocks here, which given the tiny size of the game, amount to debilitating blows. First, the game does not let you choose who to attack. Merely which of the four cards – which everybody has – you use. This in turn hobbles the metalevel of this game needlessly. While it does streamline and speed up play, it leaves the bluffing element of Shinobi gutted. You are locked into continuously sending your ninjas up against the same three players, until they or you are eliminated.

Admittedly, this problem is easily solved with a house rule. Yet, even with such a house rule, the game also feels solvable and mathematical, in that it is fairly easy to figure out the odds for any card in front of you, after the first has been flipped over.

So instead of Shinobi being this amusing, card-based bluffing game about getting into the head of other players, you end up doing simple math. It’s a bluffing game where you pay less attention to the player trying to bluff you, than you are counting cards and playing the odds. A looser play structure, and more variance in the attacks you can play, would have done wonders for this game. As it stands, its concept is exciting, but the execution too constraining to make it land.

SCAPEpic2529617You know what’s fun? World War II.

And you know what’s even more fun? A POW camp during WWII.

Why not make a game about that? There are after all a lot of really fun films about that. Like The Great Escape, which also happens to be where this little card game takes its visual inspiration from.

pic2601138Depending on player count, you play with hidden allegiances in a team-vs-team or team-vs-team-vs-Nazi game. As either members of the Royal Air Force, or the United States Air Force, you are working together to dig a tunnel out of your prison camp and into freedom. You play cards face down into the middle of the table into five seperate piles sorted by the letter printed on the back of your card. Those letters end up forming the word “SCAPE”. (NB Scape is derived from the English word “Escape” meaning to flee. Learn more fun facts about the English language here.)

Alternatively you can play the cards face-up and not into any piles to trigger their printed special ability, which go from looking at another player’s allegiance, to moving hands around, or discarding the top card of a pile, etc.

pic2601128Why would you want to discard that top card? Because even though you want to escape the clutches of Nazi imprisonment you also don’t want “that limey prick”/”that yankee wanker” to get the glory for successfully escaping. Each card features insignia of either the USAF, RAF or the SS. At the end of the game the team that has more of its signs on the cards revealed, will have won.
But if you reach the end of the game and the tunnel, i.e. the word SCAPE is not completed, you fail. Even worse, if you end up revealing an Nazi insignia (a skull, not a swastika, in case you were wondering), “ze German” has won. Your bickering has led to the Nazis discovering and subsequently destroying your only plan to escape.

Like Shinobi, the game’s concept is solid. Its rules outline suggests a playable and entertaining game. And it is. Playable, at least. But the entertainment level quickly plummets once you realise that the game only ends, if all cards have been played. Which means a large number of card effects will be triggered during the game, making play more erratic and random as it goes on. Clever play, deduction or even subterfuge becomes increasingly worthless, as it all comes down to which players get to play the last couple of cards in the game.

If card games had not gone through a second renaissance with the arrival of the microgame, this would have been fine. But today, small card games need to bring more to the table than some randomness and unusual theming. SCAPE sadly doesn’t.

-Georgios

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