By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 27 May 2020
As an old school otaku, my love of Japanese culture and history has lead me into some rather interesting hobbies: anime, learning Japanese, travelling to Japan, studying martial arts, and my selection in gaming.
Ninja, roleplaying, and a Japanese import? Why would I want to miss this?
Shinobigami’s pitch is a tall order, as the marketing pitch states it combines elements of German board games, deductive games (like Werewolf and Coup), and an easy-to-grasp game that can be played in a single session.
Combine the above with a “blood opera” setting, in which ancient clans of ninja battle in the shadows of the modern world, and we have some interesting ideas coming to the table!
==What You Get==
Shinobigami weighs in at 192 pages. The physical book is a hardcover tankobon (5″x8″), printed with novel- / manga-style paper in black and white.
Nearly half of the book (about 80 pages) is dedicated to a “replay” of the game (essentially a “Let’s Play,” a common element in Japanese tabletop RPGs), about 90 pages of game rules and information, and the rest is appendices and translation notes.
From a physical item standpoint, I absolutely love Shinobigami. I have a disdain for high gloss pages due to light reflection, so having a traditional novel style printing approach is wonderful. Combine this with the small form factor, and this makes a great game-on-the-go.
Speaking of, this is a solid game to bring to a convention. With the rise of deductive-style games, as well as the minimum required to run it (a handful of d6, couple character sheets or a collection of index cards, and the “velocity map”), I can see this being a good addition to a convention GMs repertoire.
Anyone that’s dealt with my collection of games knows that I’m a sucker for interesting mechanics, and Shinobigami has one that I really appreciate: the Velocity Map. It is a combination of bidding system (a number between 1-6) for initiative that not only determines who you can target (anyone at your level and below), it also increases your difficulty/fumble range. It’s a rather novel approach that I find interesting and could see some use for.
I think the biggest downfall of Shinobigami involves the learning curve. To get the most out of this, you’ll need to grasp the concepts of multiple games to get this under your belt. Without that background, Shinobigami is a challenge to approach, doubly so as some of the mechanics are not as clearly explained as I’d have hoped.
Honestly, I can’t tell if it’s the concept of something lost in translation or if the game is that “fiddly,” but it does make for a rather tough read at times. I found myself re-reading rules sections three or four times until it stuck, so any number of factors could be in play there.
While I do like the art designs, I felt that it could have been better. There are times you go pages without any art (but plenty of empty space, empty space beneath a tiny image, or huge footnote sections), and then there’s manga-quality full-page art suddenly dropped in. Basically, I love the art, but the placement could have been better at times, or having more to break things up would have been nice.
To be honest, I’m sincerely torn on the replay portion of the book. While I am aware replays are a common trend in Japan (between my collection of MAGIUS RPGs, the Lodoss RPG, and the issues of Role & Roll I brought back from my time in Japan, I fully understand the trend), I’m not entirely sure how well it sells here in the West.
On one hand, Let’s Play videos and related podcasts are becoming hugely popular, so the idea of having a transcribed session is understandable. This section of the book also serves as an example of how a full session is played instead of the short 1-5 page blurbs we see in most Western RPGs, which is great for new gamers or those uncertain if the game is for them.
On the other hand, this takes up a large portion of the book (almost half of the book), which already is a bit daunting (and for those that aren’t big on let’s plays and their ilk, boring).
There’s also parts of the Replay that are just…weird. I can’t tell if there’s a translation issue or not, but it’s a bit of a rough read. When you combine this with incessant footnotes, as well as some of these footnotes being almost memes in their own right (like dying often happens to the elderly) and having little to do with explaining the game, I question the importance of having it or requiring to read it.
In short, it’s nice to see the trend from the original carry over, but I don’t think it was as well done as it could have been.
Finally, the core mechanic of the game leaves me feeling ambivalent. I love the simplicity, but some of the specialized elements of a mystical ninja game feel a bit lackluster. Sure, you can name your Ohgi “Cherry Blossom Petal Swarm!”, but all it will do is cause an Area Attack (one of the seven Ohgi options), or you can have the “Demon Blade of Kurakawa” which can count as one of two Ninpo (specific attacks/abilities) selected at character creation. Essentially, you have seven options to choose from for this awesome ability, which is nice to remove decision paralysis, but beyond that it’s all just the same in the end, which is disheartening for those who want a high-end anime-level ninja battle game.
After studying the ancient scrolls and attempting to Oghi break my opponents, I will have to scatter these 2.5 buns to the wind.
Shinobigami is an intriguing beast of a game. By relying heavily on social deductive games, it makes for great one-shots, but there is a bit of a learning curve involved that might throw off some players unfamiliar with the idea. It mostly abides by what it pitches, but some rough writing and quirky game elements make this a bit less
If you enjoy ninja, some quirky game mechanics, a massive “actual play” section to get a feel for how the game plays, and want something a bit different for your tables (or one-shot needs), then you should absolutely pick up Shinobigami. Also, picking it up supports Kotodama, and considering they brought us games like Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero (both translated and brought to the West), I find them worth supporting.
If you’re not a fan of RP-heavy elements in your deductive reasoning game, find the mechanics too quirky, or lack the patience of the ninja to get through the rough patches, then you will want to give Shinobigami a pass.
Shinobigami was released in the West by Kotodama Heavy Industries. Resources for the game can be found on their site, while the book can be purchased from Indie Press Revolution. As of this writing, the book and PDF combo is $20, while the PDF standalone is $15.