Monday, December 21, 2015

Rise of the Kage (and Docks of Ryu) Review

Today we're going to look at Rise of the Kage and it's first expansion, Docks of Ryu. I received this game and expansion together a year after backing the kickstarter. Overall the kickstarter was a success, delivering only a month after the expected delivery date. Considering I received them together I wanted to review both the core game and expansion with the same review. The expansion does not change the game, it simply adds two new boards, 3 new ninja's, 1 new boss, and 3 new guards. All that said, let's get onto the review!

What is Rise of the Kage, Who makes it?

Rise of the Kage (RotK) is a stealth themed miniature board game for 2 - 4 players. One player controls a Boss and guards while the other 1 - 3 players control 3 Ninja's infiltrating the area to accomplish a hidden mission.
  • Game: Rise of the Kage (and Docks of Ryu expansion)
  • Company: GCT Studios
  • Website:
  • Players: 2 - 4
  • Play time: 45 minutes 
The combination of the base game plus expansion delivers a load of models to the owner, with the kickstarter delivering double models for each guard and ninja (alert/unalert & detected/stealth).  Players will choose 1 boss and 3 ninja's for the opposing sides, with each of the 3 game bosses bringing a specific set of guards to the game. These guards are assigned to each boss from a set of 9 different guards, split evenly between 3 levels of expertise.

How's it play?

RotK is a stealth game that also uses a fair bit of combat between the Ninja's and the Guard players. Each turn will begin with the Ninja's charting their movement on the board by placing footstep markers starting with each Ninja. The Ninja's do not need to complete their movement, but they can only move along the path as specified, including needing to double up on steps in a square if they wish to retrace their steps. Once this is complete the Ninja's will activate in initiative order and attempt to complete a number of actions along their defined path. These actions include searching objective markers, opening doors, sneaking past guards, and even fighting those same guards. Each Ninja has a variable number of force and stealth dice, defined by their specific characteristics. Force dice must be used for force actions (i.e. kicking down a door, attacking a guard) and Stealth dice must be used for stealthy actions (i.e. picking a lock, searching an objective, sneaking around). Ninja's can always add extra dice to their tests, but if a Stealth dice is not included then the test makes noise. Additoinally, any time a Ninja fails a test they make noise.

Noise is important for the guard and the Ninja's want to strive to be as quiet as possible. Each instance of noise will generate a noise token which the guard player will subsequently be able to use as additional actions for the guards. Furthermore, the first time each Ninja generates noise will advance the guards alarm meter and the time until morning track will advance if any Ninja makes noise. If, at points during the game, the alarm or morning tracks ever reach the end the Ninja's lose the game.

Every mission requires the Ninja's to sneak through the board searching to gather objective tokens on the board. Once a number of these tokens are collected, specified by the Ninja's random mission, the Ninja's will roll a dice and hopefully trigger the escape condition for the mission. The dice will be rolled upon collection of subsequent objectives until the escape condition is met. At that point the Ninja's will determine the specific exit (one of the 3 Ninja deployment points) and need to move to that exit point. A secret selection of the objectives will be traps, triggering when the Ninja's successfully searches the objective token. The traps cause noise and can damage the Ninja's. Regardless of being a trap or an objective, the Ninja searching an objective (successful or not) will draw a card from the Ninja equipment deck.

Once the Ninja's have completed their turn the guard player will draw a hand of cards from the guard deck and proceed. During the guard turn action tokens (number determined by the threat level) will be allocated to guards to perform actions. Guards can move around the board, attempt to detect hidden Ninja's, call for help, and attack detected Ninja's. There are a large array of choices provided by the guard deck as well, ranging from extra movement or attacks for the guards to limiting the movement of the ninja's to recruiting extra guards to the board. Before ending the guard turn there is also the opportunity to recruit new guards to the barracks locations.

Play proceeds back and forth until the Ninja's have succeeded or failed their mission.

What's innovative or different? What's fun?

RotK uses a couple of fairly innovative mechanics in the game. The first and most innovative of these is the Ninja's path used at the start of the Ninja turn. Placing these footsteps on the board and then proceeding along them is a pretty interesting part of the game. It requires the Ninja player to really plan out what they are doing and determines so many portions of the game. Overall it's one of the mechanics in the game I really enjoy.

Other mechanics this game uses are action points and action cards for the Guards, and hidden missions for the Ninja's. The combination of the hidden mission plus the random & hidden exit spot really combine to raise the challenge level for both the Ninja and the Guard players.

Overall the game has a high level of challenge and works as a puzzle to figure out.

Overall quality of the game

I'll start by discussing the quality of the models and components in the game. The game boards for both the core game and the expansion are very nice. They are a woven linen type material, suitable thick without being unwieldy, and fold up in quarters. They fit nicely in the box even after I had to cut the plastic for better box control. The cards for the variety of decks initially seemed good but over ~10 games I'm finding they are just a bit too thin. The cards are starting to wear a bit through shuffling, and a small number of beginning to peel at the corners.

The models included in the game are very nice. GCT has discussed their choice to use a softer "rubbery" plastic for the models so that they stand up to rough use in a board game. Specifically they wanted to assure the models could be "swept" off the table into a box without the danger of pieces breaking. Considering that they were able to achieve an impressive level of detail on the models. The models need a bit of a hot-water dip to straighten out staves and such, but overall the detail is very good, nearly reaching the level of a war-gaming model.

Box control is a bit lacking in this game. GCT made an attempt to provide molded plastic inside the box to hold all the components, but unfortunately was unsuccessful. Once the models are taken from their bags they will not fit into the space provided. I ended up needing to cut the molded plastic then store the different models in separate bags, using the enlarged space.

I'll discuss the rules and rule book last. Overall this is the worst rule book of any game I've played to date. Furthermore, the rules are incredibly convoluted and confusing, requiring an inordinate amount of work to figure out and learn. This game is much easier if one person puts in the work to learn to play then teaches everyone else. At certain points the language is so obscure that its effectively no help at all. As an example of this, I'll share:
"If during a ninja's search action, the search token is revealed to be a trap then the guard player performs a force test against the ninja, modified by the reaction value. If successful, the ninja sustains a wound. The token is still added to the ninja player's mission pool. When a trap is revealed it always generates a noise token."
This is particularly obscure when you look at a Ninja's reaction value and realize this is typically a positive number. So what's being modified here? I and my locals are guessing this means the Ninja's armor is increased by the reaction value since a "better reaction" should protect the Ninja from traps. That's certainly not clear from the wording. 

Recommendation and thoughts

I like this game, but I am really like challenging games. I feel like the game is more difficult for the Ninja's than necessary, being very slanted toward the guards winning. Furthermore, I feel the guard action deck is excessively large and could have been reduced by half and still viable.

Although I enjoy it, I will have a very hard time getting it onto the table in my gaming group. Overall my group feels that the bias against the Ninja's and unclear rules are too much of a barrier to cross to play the game. This becomes especially evident where there are other games on our shelves with cleaner rules. Unfortunately, I suspect even an errata or FAQ from GCT will come to late to save this for my gaming group.

As much as I wanted to give this a positive review, I cannot. Rise of the Kage appears destined for a solid layer of dust at the bottom of my gaming library.
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