San, Ni, Ichi is a fast paced game with a Rock, Paper, Scissors type mechanic that combines different suits (Wood, Fire, Water) with numbers. The player at the end of a round with the highest card on top of their Combat Pile receives damage. When all of the cards are played, damage is scored. The player with the least amount of damage wins the game.
Gameplay is straightforward, and rounds are quick so there is little downtime. The number of cards used in the game correspond to the number of players. The rulebook lists a few variants to try, which will help keep the game feeling fresh. In addition to regular suited number cards, San, Ni, Ichi also includes unique and powerful weapons and other special cards, such as Block, Sai, Tonfa, and Shuriken. These cards have special rules that further separate them from normal cards.
The basic cards all have a type: Wood, Fire, or Water. Each type can only be played on one other type, Water cards may be played on top of Fire cards for example. Player reference cards are included, which is a nice touch, but the cards themselves indicate which suit it is able to beat so I didn’t feel the reference card was really needed. However, my wife was confused by the graphic design. The suit that a card may be played on is behind the card’s actual suit. The actual suit is also quite a bit larger than the suit that is displayed in the background. My wife continually wanted the background symbol to be the element of the card in question and the foreground symbol to be the Winning Element needed to play on the card. Her reasoning was that she wanted to look for symbols where she could play her cards. Example: The Fire suit has a large Fire icon in the foreground and a smaller Wood icon in the background, under the Fire symbol. While this means that the Fire card can play on Wood cards, my wife wanted it to mean the opposite, that a Fire card was needed to play on that card. Essentially, she was looking for the Water icon (as that is the suit that can be played on Fire). This bit of confusion lasted the entire game. The reference card wasn’t helpful to deter this line of thinking.
To win the game, you will have to play the right card at the right time. But, the luck of the draw will ultimately determine what cards you have. You can only play what you have so luck plays a decent factor in your ability to win. One issue I have with the game is that, especially in a three player match, one player can be almost forgotten about. This player, because not a lot of cards were played against them, can easily win the game without even trying. Two players can really get carried away trying to let the other “take that” while the third player just watches the two of them rack up wounds.
Turn order is determined by the number value on the initial card that you play at the start of a round, which can add a bit of strategy. Often though, it comes down to the last player and who can persuade them not to play a card on their Combat Pile.
If you are looking for a quick and light filler game, San, Ni, Ichi can fit the bill. Consisting of only cards and not taking up a lot of space, it is easy to transport San, Ni, Ichi. And if you have children, especially those that like ninjas, then San, Ni, Ichi is worth checking out. Head over to their Kickstarter page for more details.
I must note that during my first play through of San, Ni, Ichi, I had to email the designer for rules clarification. Three gamer guys couldn’t figure out what was supposed to happen. Mike assures me that the confusing rule book will be ironed out before final printing.