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board games, culture, history, japanese

Ninjas as a Theme

Board games have a multitude of themes. Farming, pirates, zombies, civilization building… And don’t forget… NINJAS!

Ninjas have been a relatively popular theme in board gaming. Some of those board games include…

  • Smash Up (Ninja Faction)
  • Ninja Dice
  • Ninjato
  • Ninja vs. ninja
  • Ninja Burger

I do like the ninja theme and have games that include ninjas in them. What occurred to me recently is the mythological lore of the Western ninja and how that has evolved from a culturally significant piece of Japan’s history. The Western ninja is almost like a super hero – insanely fast, unbelievably sneaky, a master a martial arts, pretty much possessing skills that are humanly impossible. Like many culturally appropriated ideas / styles / practices / etc., the ninja has been transformed with some remnants of its original significance. My post today will explore the cultural origins of ninjas and discuss the use of ninjas in board gaming.

The ninja surfaced in feudal Japan during the Sengoku period of unrest (15th-17th century), but possibly could have existed as early as the 12th century. These mercenaries were trained in covert operations, espionage, infiltration, and assassination. Commoners or samurai were also used as spies, but the distinction here is that ninjas were professionally trained. To put it into simpler terms, ninjas were simply a group of professional spies, much like we would find in today’s world. When Japan was unified in the 17th century, the ninja became obsolete.

While much documentation about ninjas does not exist, there are references to ninjas in a few historical texts. However, Japan and the rest of the world created folktales about the ninja which evolved into what we know and love today.

  • Ninjas possess invisibility.
  • Ninjas can walk across water.
  • Ninjas move faster than we can see.
  • We can even coined the phrase “ninja-ed” to imply we did something difficult with precision and speed.

So what does this have to do with board games?

I see two distinct paths for the ninja in board games. The first one embraces the folklore and mythology, such as Smash Up, and plays on the fun and somewhat ridiculous powers of the “ninja.” For example, in Smash Up, the ninja faction has cards which can come in at the last seconds and swoop up (ninja) a win! I guess you didn’t see that coming Wizard Zombies! The second path these games can take is the historical one. Games have been created about the unification of Japan or have a more historical flavor, which can include a more accurate portrayal of ninjas.

To me, this runs the fine line of appropriation versus the use of folklore. For example, the Greek religious system was a real system of belief in the world… but a very very long time ago. While some may still subscribe to these beliefs, for the most part, the Greek religious system has turn into myth, which we gladly use today for the basis of movies and games. The same thing has happened to the ninja. For some reason, I think the ninja is linked to more modern microaggressions and stereotypes about API persons. Nest weeks post will dive into that more. Although the mythology probably will never be fully separated from reality, ninjas provide an interesting look into the feudal history of Japan and the folklore that came out of it.



  1. Pingback: Smash Up Fan Expansion: A Response To AEG | Reading and Gaming for Justice - October 19, 2017

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