San Ni Ichi: Review

Hi-ya!

For whatever reason, Fairway realized has a real dearth of martial arts games in his collection. That’s why his interest was really piqued when he saw San Ni Ichi. Today, he finds out whether he’s got what it takes to be a ninja master in today’s review. 

San Ni Ichi is a three- to six-player trick-taking, card game from Iron Mark Games. In the game, players are martial art masters battling in a great elemental fight. The game lasts around twenty minutes, probably less.

Initial Impressions

  1. The art. OMG, the art. It’s just lovely. The water-color, Japanese-inspired art style is darn near perfect. It’s adds to both the immersion and the desire to replay.
  2. For a trick-taker, this has some fun combat mechanisms. The compounding damage pile is particularly interesting and one we hadn’t really seen before this game.
  3. There was a decent initial learning curve, but once players got the hang of it, this game played very quickly.

How to play

In San Ni Ichi, players are martial arts masters competing in a fight and trying to finish the game with the least amount of damage. The game essentially consists of a single deck of numbered cards in four different kinds.  Most of the cards are of one of three different elements: fire, water and wood. These elements form a rock-paper-scissors relationship: fire beats wood, wood beats water, and water beats fire.  The fourth kind of card are weapons. The weapons each have a special power when played.

To play, a deck is constructed with the appropriate number of element cards and weapon cards for the number of players. The constructed deck is then shuffled and each player dealt a starting hand of seven cards.

The game is played over a series of rounds consisting of three phases: selection, action and damage. During the selection phase, players take one card from their hand and place it face down simultaneously. Once everyone has selected a card, they’re revealed and the game proceeds to the action phase.

During the action phase, players will “play” their cards in ascending strength order. Cards with the lowest value are played before higher value cards. If there’s a tie, the cards include a tie breaker letter.  There are essentially three ways to play regular cards: play onto another player’s combat pile, play onto your own combat pile, or discard the card. Players play weapon cards as described on the card.

The combat pile is a collection of played cards that is used to determine the winner of a round. Once all the cards are played, the player with the highest value on top of their combat pile will take, as damage, of all cards beneath it. You can play cards onto any combat pile (including your own) so long as you follow a few simple rules:

  1. If a player doesn’t yet have a combat pile, any card can be played to it to start the pile.
  2. If a player already has a combat pile, you can only play a card of a “winning element.” For instance if there’s a fire on top of the combat pile, you can play any value of water card, but not a fire or wood card.
  3. If a player chooses to play on his or her own combat pile, they may “counter” sending the entire combat deck to a player without a combat deck.

Once everyone has played, play proceeds to the damage phase. During this phase, the top card of everyone’s combat pile is compared. The player with the highest value takes the combat pile and places it all, face down, in a “damage pile.” All of the other combat piles remain for the next round.

After the damage phase, the game proceeds to the next round. Once all of the cards are played, players sum up the damage in their damage pile. The player with the least damage wins.

On the green

I’m sorry if I gush a little, but it’s fun to find a real gem of a game like this. It has so many great things going for it.

Art. It was universally liked. It fit the theme, was well done and executed, and integrated well into the whole design. The art alone might be enough for some to take the plunge, but it does other things well too.

Combat without elimination. When we first looked at the game, we prepared ourselves for yet-another-player-elimination combat game. We were happily mistaken. This game is excellent example of a well-crafted, well-designed combat system in which all players are in it to the bitter end. The combination of the damage and combat pile worked seeming miracles to make each game a fun experience for everyone. Plus, with the reversal mechanism, there was plenty of catch-up possible at all points in the game.

Great combination of Trick Taking, Simultaneous Action Selection and Rock, Paper, Scissors.  San Ni Ichi calls itself a “Trick Taking” game, but to the extent it is, it’s well-concealed behind some excellent design decisions. The game manages to bring something new and innovative to the genre that also brings some really interesting game choices.

First, we loved the way the rounds were resolved and how damage accumulated over the course of more and more rounds. It gave players incentive to think through their decisions at both the selection and action-phase in a very compelling way: do you move a card to your own deck defensively to lower your current round value, to try to force a reversal, to go in for the kill when you see no defensive attack, discard and not take any action, do you play a low card, do you play a weapon to cause easy-but-low damage, etc. It was great.

Second, it deftly used the rock-paper-scissors mechanism. Again, the game manages to do some great magic with this oft-used, under-innovated mechanism. We loved it. It brought an additional level of strategy to the game.

Play time and learning time.  This game played quickly. I think most of our games came in under 20 minutes. Few players agonized over the decisions and cards were played and revealed quickly. And because everyone reveals their cards at the same time, everyone was doing something. There was hardly any down time. Likewise, learning the game was easy. Explaining it was just a matter of a few minutes and a handful of examples.

Reversals.  Let me gush about the reversal mechanism now. This mechanism alone is super clever. In the game, you can play a card to your combat pile. You can do this purely defensively to just lower your top value card. However, there’s another reason: to move your damage pile to another player without one. But, of course, this itself creates the potential for someone to reverse to you. Or a Jujitsu-like reversal of the reversal! You’d better think really hard about doing that.

Diverse characters.  Also worth noting: the game includes roughly equal numbers of men and women in the art. My daughter very much liked the fact that there were girl ninjas.

Where it comes up short

Special cards (weapons). If there was one place this game may have overdone it: the special powers. A few of the cards tend toward chaotic results for which there is no real defense. For example, one card permits a player to swap two other players’ combat piles.

But even here, this issue isn’t fatal. Since starting decks are constructed, if there are special cards you don’t like, you just don’t have to play with them. That’s a terrific feature!

In the hole

San Ni Ichi is a great little game. It is very much a diamond in the rough and, for a light, filler game, it’s in a bit of class of it’s own. The game is both clever and strategic. Players felt in control of their own destiny, regardless of the hand they’re dealt. The game is darn near perfect example of a light, filler game that does something more. This game will definitely be on the will-play-again-a-lot list.

San Ni Ichi is in the hole for a Birdie.

Tell us what you think!