Ninja Burger vs. Board Game Humor
There’s this card game from Steve Jackson Games called Ninja Burger. It’s supposed to be hilarious. I really don’t see it.
This is more a problem with humor in board games than just with this game itself — it’s hard to make a funny board game, especially one that will be funny even after you’ve become familiar with its mechanics and pieces. More on that below.
But before we talk about that, let me tell you a story.
Every Friday night, Somerset and I host a board game night at our place. These aren’t usually very big. Like most game groups, we have a crowd of regulars and a few now-‘n-then-ers. Which means some weeks we only have a handful of people, enough to play one game at a time, and others we have enough people to play three or four games at once. The one constant is that because I’m the guy who writes about board games, I’m also the guy who provides the games. This is just how it is; I don’t resent that nobody else brings games, or that I’m the one who usually teaches everyone how to play — and anyway, I have cool friends (and a cool spouse) who pick up the slack by borrowing rulebooks so they can be the teachers now and then, or put up with my below-average rules explanations, or just bumble through games they don’t know how to play when I can’t be everywhere at once. So it works.
Even so, one friend, a regular, asked if he could bring one of his favorite card games. He said he’d like to teach us how to play. And I appreciated that — he had something he liked enough that he wanted to share it, and sharing cool things is one of the aspects of boardgaming I like most. It also meant I could sit down and learn a game from somebody in a relaxing role-reversal of our usual method. It was a classic everybody-wins situation.
Except the game he brought was Ninja Burger. Talk about a game that fails at what it’s trying to accomplish.
Ninja Burger works like this:
You play as a ninja with a smattering of stats and abilities. More than any mere ninja, you’re an employee of Ninja Burger, which guarantees delivery of their burgers in 30 minutes or less; otherwise, the tardy ninja commits seppuku. Not right away, of course, it takes a few failures before your honor drops to the point of being permitted ritual suicide. On the other side of the coin-with-a-square-hole-in-it, if you bring much honor to your franchise, you’ll be promoted to manager. In order to climb the corporate ladder, you draw Fortune cards that can give you special ninja items like lampshades to put on your head as a disguise, ninja tricks to hinder your coworkers as they try to be better employees, and various ninja styles to master for extra honor. You then draw Mission cards that are usually deliveries to dangerous locations like a mad scientist’s lab or botanical gardens filled with killer plants, but can also be menial errands like walking the restaurant’s mascot leopard. You choose whether to go to the staff meeting to trade tasks (or shunt errands off onto less-honored ninja) or to ditch the meeting to get an early start on delivering your order, the success of which is determined by lots and lots of dice-rolling.
If this setup sounds hilarious to you, Ninja Burger might be perfect for birthday self-gifting. For everyone else, preceding a noun with “Ninja” isn’t inherently funny. It’s goofy, sure, and there’s some potential for humor there, but saying, “You work for a burger joint, but guess what — it’s actually run by ninjas!” isn’t exactly striking gold. I can see it appealing to certain folks — a 15-year-old, for example. Or my friend who brought the game, who admits he finds it hilarious because it’s highly referential of the cross-section of geek-culture he engages with. Or one of those folks who finds everything funny. Or maybe if you’re under the influence. A lot of influence.
Other than in those specialized cases, however, any game is going to need a lot more than just a dumptruck-load of ninja references to be funny.
Problem is, Ninja Burger doesn’t actually have anything going for it other than a lot of ninja jokes. The game itself only contains one actual decision (whether to go to the staff meeting or not), with a few tacked-on choices about whether to throw annoying cards at your fellow ninja, and calling them “choices” is weak because it’s always obvious who’s in the lead and therefore who should receive the brunt of your opposition. The nap-time wait between turns is supposedly filled with everyone “roleplaying” their ninja, though in reality you’re just embellishing the descriptions printed on your mission and fortune card, so there’s no room for real creativity. And these cards are so random that there’s no way to formulate a winning strategy, which coupled with the whims of the dice means you’re essentially powerless throughout the entire game — victory or defeat comes because of the luck of the draw and roll, not because your enemy maneuvered into an unbeatable position or because you squandered your ability to stop her.
The one thing Ninja Burger has going for it is the humor that arises from discovering amusing little details. And don’t get me wrong, these can be quite funny. Drawing the “Anime Convention” mission and realizing it’s super easy because everyone at the convention is dressed like a ninja is golden. Unfortunately, you can only go through the act of discovering these cards once, maybe twice, and then you’ve internalized everything humorous the game has to offer. Once that happens, what scant nuggets of humor existed in the first place have already been unearthed before the game hits the table.
Humor is hard anyway, let alone in board games, a medium that entirely lacks many of the building blocks of comedy: tempo, scenes that play out in reassuring or subverted ways, known characters whose discomfort or misfortune you can revel in, situations that give natural rise to irony or permit absurd deviation, simple truths or sudden realizations, or any of the other tools that give rise to humor in television, film, literature, and in person. Humor is, after all, an art, not just something one invokes through mechanical means.
However, there is an element of humor that board games excel at. Let’s take a look at three games, that, although all completely different, are much more successful than Ninja Burger at giving rise to natural comedy.
I figured I should include another product from Steve Jackson Games, if only to make it clear my beef is with Ninja Burger’s fumbling attempts at humor rather than with the company itself. And in terms of comedic value, Munchkin frankly blows it out of the water. With that said, I really don’t like Munchkin. Its weakest element is that about a full half of its humor is still derived from the same source as Ninja Burger’s: clever cards that riff on well-established geek culture; in the case of the original game, it’s fantasy dungeon crawls that get lampooned. To the credit of Steve Jackson Games, at least their unending deluge of content of both the normal-expansion and expandalone varieties ensures that there’s always something new being teased, from westerns to Lovecraftian horror, space opera, zombies, superheroes, heartthrob vampires, and, um, clowns. On the other hand, there’s a recurring joke over on BoardGameGeek that Steve Jackson Games has revealed their 2025 catalog, and it’s more Munchkin. And at any rate, all these expansions merely delay the problem of familiarity rather than solving it, though I suppose there are plenty of television programs airing right now that live and breathe on the premise that you can drip-feed people vague humor from now until the heat death of the universe.
The upside, and the reason I’m including it in this list of games that do humor well, is that this misstep only accounts for half of the game, which contains — surprise — actual gameplay. And that’s where the funny stuff shows up.
Unlike Ninja Burger, which does everything it can to limit player interaction to trading missions during staff meetings and occasionally playing a randomly-earned fortune card on someone, Munchkin encourages players to stab each other in the back at a rate of about once every ninety seconds. Not only can you ally with players on nearly every player’s turn, but you can also work against them just as often. That, combined with the joy of knocking somebody back two levels just because you felt like it, means that a group playing Munchkin can be identified by sound — swearing, boisterous laughter, and the occasional flipped table are all useful indicators. Munchkin might overstay its welcome now and then (or very nearly every time), but it’s a hell of a lot of fun for the first forty minutes or so.
This strains the definition of a game, and there’s still more going on here than in Ninja Burger.
As I mentioned in my review of Infinity Dungeon last week, Infinity Dungeon is all about letting your imagination and creativity run wild, and then spitting your drink across the table when your demure buddies start explaining in the most precise terms possible exactly what’s going on up in those noggins of theirs. I guarantee it’s fouler than you expected. Ninja Burger, on the other hand, requests that players “roleplay” by describing the goings-on to the rest of the table, but there’s no point in doing so — dice determine whether you succeed or fail, and the card informs you of exactly what happens in both instances. Which means the creative thinking required is about on par with filling out a medical history at the doctor’s office — for proper results, there’s only so much leeway to what you can put down. Unless you really run with it and just make crap up for minutes at a time, but you can do that with any game.
I think a good rule of thumb is that if you’re going to encourage people to let their imaginations run free, that doesn’t mean only collaring them to a slightly longer leash.
This real-time game of survival on a doomed spaceship is all about failing to do exactly that, and in the most horrific, tragic, bowel-evacuating manner possible. And it’s one of the funniest games I’ve ever played.
What’s more, while all that funny stuff arises from things going wrong, very little of it comes from the game’s random assault of space-crabs and cloaking ships and crew-hungry xenomorphs — those create the challenge, occasionally some laughable desperation, and sure, it’s completely possible for them to form a mission that’s literally impossible to beat. But the best comedic moments come a few minutes after everyone leans back with two minutes left on the clock, self-satisfied smirks on their faces, arms folded. “We’ve got this,” says your captain, with a grin that adds, “Easy.”
Then you get to the resolution phase, start flipping over cards, and right near the start, someone looks up with a wild glint in their eye.
“Shit,” they’ll say.
And that’s your cue to crack up. You’re belly-laughing, because it’s your mom who’s just said a swear when she realized she’s stuck in the elevator and now nobody’s going to stop the screensaver from locking you out of the ship’s computer.
What’s the pertinent difference?
Well, I’d argue it’s an undeniable human element. Ninja Burger is all about reading pun-based jokes that happen to be printed on little cards. Those jokes could be some of the funniest ever written (they aren’t), and even then they’d get stale after one or two plays.
However, one of the great strengths of board games is that you’re the writer. It’s you creating the narrative, drafting the screenplay, telling the jokes and reacting to the jokes of your friends. You’re the game mechanics.
In every game I mentioned above, you’re encouraged to do exactly those things: betray your friends at the worst possible moment and listen to them scream, prop up the school bus to reach the high exit oh but it’s a short bus!, laugh when you realized your engineer just spent three rounds trying to attack a space-amoeba without robot backup. And they’ll be unforgettable moments, etched forever in your memory.
Ninja Burger doesn’t really want to do that. It wants to tell you its jokes, and ask you to sort of mime along.
Humor is hard. But board games can do it. Oh yes. They can.
Posted on April 20, 2013, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Infinity Dungeon, Level 99 Games, Munchkin, Ninja Burger, Space Alert, Steve Jackson Games, Vlaada Chvátil. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.