Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ninja Countdown: A one-play review of San Ni Ichi

In the quintessential neo-tradition of first-time game designer/publishers, Ironmark Games has successfully crowd-funded and released debut designer Mike Sette's rather fascinating little trick-taking game with a Ninja martial arts theme.  San, Ni, Ichi, whose title translates from Japanese as "Three, Two, One," features simultaneous card play with a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic.

Ironmark's game overview describes the design intent for San, Ni, Ichi 'to be played as a "filler" game while waiting for other games to finish or when time is limited.'  And the game is quick indeed, with only seven tricks to a complete game.  The cleverness in its design stems from the way that the three suits, or "elements," balance one another out in combination with the rank, or "strength," of each card determining both the order of resolution and the loser of the trick.

Each player starts with a hand of seven cards.  The game comes with a tableau aid to help organize the player's cards on the table into three locations - a Selected Card, a face-up Combat Pile, and a face-down Damage Pile.  (With experience, these tableau aids will become unnecessary, as the elegant rules are easy to understand and recall.)  Each turn consists of three phases:
  1. Selection, when each player chooses a card from his hand and places it face down.
  2. Battle, when all selected cards are revealed simultaneously, and then resolved in numerical order, lowest to highest (with ties being resolved by a secondary alphabetical index on each card)
  3. Damage, when the player (or players in the case of a tie) with the highest-strength card on the top of his combat pile transfers all the cards in his combat pile over to his damage pile
Wood, water, and fire elements
Photo by League of Nonsensical Gamers
Element cards have a numerical strength and one of the three elements that make up the suits - fire, wood, or water.  In classic rock-paper-scissors fashion, elements exert a circular supremacy relationship: fire "beats" wood; wood "beats" water; and water "beats" fire.  In the Battle phase, players resolve their selected cards one by one in numerical order by taking one of four actions:
  • Attack by placing the card on another player's combat pile (with the restriction that its element must "beat" the element of the card on which it is placed)
  • Defend by placing the card on his own combat pile (again observing the elemental supremacy relationship)
  • Counter by placing the card on his own pile (observing elemental relationship) and then transferring his combat pile to another player who doesn't have any cards in his combat pile
  • Path of the Open Hand by discarding his card to the box.
By themselves, the Element cards would make a legitimate tactical game.  The Special cards, though, add considerable variation.  Special cards also have a strength value, but instead of the actions of Element cards, each exerts a special effect described on the card itself, such as blocking attacks, switching combat piles between players, or inflicting damage directly to a player's damage pile.

Since every player starts with seven cards and plays or discards exactly one card every round, the game ends when every player has played his last card in the seventh round.  The player with the least total damage in his damage pile wins the game.

Mike Sette has rendered this game with understated, evocative art of Japanese inspiration.  A graphic designer, Sette's first art development project for a board game left him thinking that he could design a better game himself.  The subtle Asian style of San Ni Ichi evokes reminiscences of Tsuro but with an even more muted color palette.

I'll admit that I'm not generally a big fan of trick-taking games.  After my initial reading of the rules, I had low expectations for any tactical decision-making or engagement from San Ni Ichi.  There didn't seem to be much of substance there.

With the very first hand of our six-player game, however, I began to appreciate that this little gem is no ordinary trick-taking game.  (Yes, the game handles as many as six players - nice for a larger group.)  The fact that a low-strength fire card can be played on top of a high-strength wood card makes obvious the value of the "Defend" action.  The relationships of elements means players have to pay attention to possible chains of events in the Battle phase sequence.  A clever little logic puzzle emerges in almost every round as players dodge and counter to avoid getting stuck with the high-strength Element card on their combat pile when the Damage phase comes.  No ordinary trick-taking game, indeed.

A sample of Special cards
Photo by League of Nonsensical Gamers
I will say that some players felt that the Special cards were too chaotic - that the logical nuances of the Element card play were undermined by the heavy-handed disruption of some of the Specials, particularly the Gyukoto (reversal), which allows switching combat piles between two players.  I don't necessarily share my fellow players' opinion on that point; the Special cards introduce a layer of complexity to the logic and tactics of the game, but not in a randomly disruptive way.  Still, some players may feel that they perturb an otherwise clean, elegant game.

To that end, the rules provide a recommendation to simplify the game for first-time players - and herein lies my only significant criticism.  The rules specify how many of each type of card to use depending on the number of players to make a hand of seven for each player.  The setup later goes on to say, "for first-time players, we recommend only using two or three Special Cards..."  This provision constitutes a hole in the rules: using fewer Specials than normal leaves too few cards for everyone to get a hand of seven, and the rules don't provide instructions to resolve the discrepancy.  (In hindsight, the intent may have been to use only two or three kinds of Special cards in a learning game, but that's not the how the rule is worded.)  Frankly, it's not an issue: The first-time player recommendation not to use the "smoke bomb" is valid, but otherwise the game is sufficiently straightforward that using a full complement of Specials will work fine even for new players, as it did for us. 

My bottom line recommendation:  San Ni Ichi is a portable, affordable trick-taking filler option with some cleverly challenging tactics.  Pick it up if you like quick trick-taking games that make you think a little more than the usual fare; avoid it if you are looking for something lengthier or more substantial.

Full disclosure:  I received a review copy of this game.  No prior representation was made as to the nature of the review and no other consideration was given for it.

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