In a recent article about Ninjato, a boardgame set in 12th century Japan by Crosscut Games and distributed by Z-man Games, I talked about some of the thoughts behind my graphic design and updated the game’s rules summary and reference sheet. As a follow-up to that article the EOG organised this interview with one of the game’s designers, Adam West. Enjoy!
EOG: What came first when you designed Ninjato, the mechanics or the theme?
Adam West: The theme with a smidge of mechanics. Honestly, what we were wanting was a Ninja feel in the game—one based more on a historical feel rather then black pajama wearing wire-fu. The touch of mechanics was some type of push your luck—but more a slider of luck: from no luck to more or less total luck. So the game would operate around this principle: go in sooner but more risky or wait and be able to go in with complete confidence. And we wanted it lighter than Galactic Emperor.
EOG: Tell us a bit about the design process.
Adam West: We have a video on the major changes Ninjato passed through on the way—it was essentially 4 different games. The initial idea sounded so perfect, but just didn’t play well at all. So we trashed that design and restarted. That happened several more times over a few years. The first design was tested in June 2008. The last I have recorded was August 2010. So we play tested for about two years. The process was not what I would call smooth at all. It was iterative—play testing, seeing problems, changing things (and at times completely starting over), repeat. There was a goal out there that we were pursuing, but we wandered a lot to find it. Many times we were very frustrated (I know Dan [Schnake] wanted to shelve it more than once). I really wonder how others get to their designs—is what we do unusual or typical?
EOG: Is medieval Japan a period you’re particularly interested in? What kind of research did you do? Did you approach the theme from a historical perspective or a literary one?
Adam West: I am completely fascinated with Japanese history and researched it quite a bit during the game. I wanted the feel of that time period to be in the game and for those who are history buffs to know we spent a lot of time making sure we reflected the time period well. I of course researched ninjas as well—and the art of ninjutsu. I collected several books and did lots of reading on-line. At one point, Dan was pushing to have the game take place in the Edo period, but I believe that has been rather done to death in games. I pushed for the Heian period which is what the game reflected in the end. There is so much more that can be done with that period—it still inspires me.
I should also say I’m an avid follower of Kickstarter. To me, that’s the next wave of the hobby gaming business.
EOG: What kind of games do you enjoy? If so, any favorites and why? Were any a particular influence on the development of Ninjato?
Adam West: I’m probably best classified as a Euro-gamer, Cult of the New. But originally, I grew up in the States and enjoyed some of the heavier American games—several Avalon Hill war games started me out and by the early 80s, I was a gamer through and through—collecting some of the oldest from the Game Master series from MB (owned and played them all) and every single Games Workshop game I could find. I even spun into the miniatures area for awhile. I dropped out of the scene in the 90s, but got back in the early 2000s. So there was a decade there where the German game movement rose and I hardly touched Magic the Gathering. Since then, I’ve caught up I’d say and haven’t stopped.
I love the typical top games (Puerto Rico is just an awesome design, very much enjoy Agricola and really like Twilight Struggle), but am always on the look out for the next big thing. Recently, I’ve found Urban Sprawl (which wasn’t well received—but I just love it). I’m a pretty big fan of Feld, but was rather luke-warm on Trajan. I guess I’m pretty ‘typical’ in hobby gaming today. I can’t tell if I like heavy games or light games. I guess both depending on the crowd.
I should also say I’m an avid follower of Kickstarter. To me, that’s the next wave of the hobby gaming business. It’s changing everything from design, to editing, quality, production values, distribution, retail—every aspect of hobby board gaming is under revision right now. I don’t think it’ll ever go back.
EOG: There was a lot of comparison with the game Stone Age when Ninjato came out—what mechanics does it share with Stone Age, and what makes it very different from that game?
Adam West: I wasn’t even thinking of Stone Age when designing Ninjato, but I was thinking about worker placement games in general. At the time we started the design, worker placement was hot and I was paying attention. The only aspect that I think Ninjato shares with Stone Age is the turning in resources (treasure in Ninjato) for a card. That’s not specific to Stone Age either, but I studied the card ratio and impact in that game very closely. Other comparisons to Stone Age are reading into the game too much I think.
The style of Stone Age is place workers, resolve workers (in any order), and ‘cash in’ resources for points. Ninjato is nothing like that at all. There aren’t any workers—the throwing stars just mark where you’re playing. It’s been said you could play Ninjato without the stars and it’s true—you don’t need them. The reason we have them in the game is they are very cool and thematic—and they serve to remind you of what you’re doing. Like when you invade a house—you need to be very clear which way you’re attacking. But it isn’t to block others at all. In Ninjato there’s no phased resolution either—it’s all right away. To me it all adds up to a completely different feel from any game.
EOG: Any new mechanics/innovations that you’re particularly proud of in this game? Why?
Adam West: The idea of houses and how they resolve is of course completey different and I think completely original. At least, I don’t know of any game that does it. That is the heart of Ninjato and because of that, it shares nothing with any other game. The way luck is pushed in Ninjato is also very different than anything else. We did achieve the goal of allowing the player to decide when to attack a house—and how much luck they want to push. You can through cards and skills build a perfect attack that has zero risk. But it takes time during the game—so you lose opportunity as you lower risk. I’ve very happy with that aspect of the game.
One other aspect I’m particuarly happy with is the intermediate conflict. You are hurting other players when you defeat a house and then when you collect envoys. I like the plausible deniability of this intermediate. That was all deliberate and focused on as a design element. I spent quite a bit of time figuring out the amount of points to provide—how fast it would flow in the game and when it would happen.
I believe games should be art. I want the art design to reflect good sense and style.
EOG: Tell us about your approach to the visual design of the game. What were your influences and preferences (other games, history, other objects, art, etc)?
Adam West: I wanted a serious feel to the game to repeat the notion that it wasn’t a silly black-pajama, wire-fu ninja game. Visually, I love minimalist design. For me, less is more. I also want a clean, professional look. I’m still seeking that in all games that I design. Peter [Gifford] and Drew [Baker] were the absolute best for this work. They very much got folks to look at the game. Yes, we spent the years designing it so once the beauty got them to take the game off a shelf, we could keep them playing. But I believe games should be art. I want the art design to reflect good sense and style. This isn’t accomplished enough in games today, but I do believe it is improving.
I did look at several games to understand what was good and bad in board design. Several games influenced the feel we wanted—much of the work by Michael Menzel shows this sensibility. I even contacted him, but he was unavailable in the time we needed.
EOG: What do you think is special about this game and why should people get it?
Adam West: It is special in two ways: it is artistically superior to many games. That was very deliberate and I was not tolerating any lowering of that aspect. The other is it is mechanically smooth and exciting—it has its own feel. It is Euro influenced, but has this very fun push your luck system that evokes the feel of being a ninja. I think it is pretty easy to understand as well and certainly gets off the table in the right amount of time.
EOG: Any plans for the future you can tease readers with? What’s next for Crosscut Games?
Adam West: We have several plans but not enough time! Our next game seems to very likely be a murder mystery game which we have been working on since about 2011. I hope to have it out next year. I also have two other games in design right now—one is another Japanese themed Euro-game (much heavier that Ninjato) and the other is a miniatures based board game that is space themed and fun loving. I’m extremely excited about all three of these games and want to see them all get to a final product. I also have some other designs in earlier form and I think Dan has at least one design that he’s pretty keen on. I also keep thinking I should do an iOS game of some sort, but haven’t the time to do it justice. Just too many ideas!
Thanks very much for talking with the Esoteric Order of Gamers, Adam!