Ninja is a game played with a standard 52 card deck, for 3-5 players. The basic version of Ninja is also known as “Shithead”, or “Underbelly.” It is a fast game with a bit of skill and a lot of luck. There are different versions of this game around, what follows is my favorite version.

Basic Ninja:

Deal each player 3 cards face down, with a face up card on each one. So each player has six cards, in three two-card stacks. The face down cards (the “underbelly”) cannot be examined. A player is “out” when they have played their 6 cards and has no hand left. The goal of the game is to not be the last player to get rid of their 6 cards.  That player must pay a forfeit which was agreed upon before the game began, often making a goat noise or singing a silly song. Choose a random player to go first, unless a game has already been played in which case the loser of the previous game goes first.

Deal each player a hand of 3 cards. The remainder of the cards are set aside as a draw pile. Players will be taking turns in a clockwise order playing cards from their hand to a common stack, and filling their hand up to 3 after each play – as long as a draw pile remains. The first player can play any card, or set of cards of the same rank. Each player in turn must play one or more cards of the same rank that are no smaller than the previous play, with Aces being high. If a player cannot or chooses not to play he picks up the play stackinto his hand, after which the next player starts a new stack with any card she wants.

Example: Alice starts by playing a 5. Ben then plays two 5′s. Casey then plays an 8. Alice then plays two Jacks. Ben’s hand at this point is 4, 6, and 7. He cannot play a card that is at least as high as the Jack, so he picks up the stack (5,5,5,8,J,J). Casey then starts a new stack with a 4. And the game continues on…

As long as there is a draw pile players must fill their hand after each play to 3 cards. Once the draw pile is exhausted, if it is a player’s turn and he has no cards in hand he can either play any of his face up cards which is legal to play, or pick up the played cards along with one of his face up cards, thus getting a new hand. Two or three cards can be played from a player’s face up cards if they are legal plays of the same rank.

Example: It is Casey’s turn and she has no cards in hand , and the previous play was a Queen. Her face up cards are 6, Q, Q. She can choose to play the two Q’s or pick up the pile along with her 6. She chooses to play her two Qs, and on the following turn when the play is up to A, she picks the stack up along with her 6, so she only has her face down cards left.

If a player has no cards in hand and no face up cards left on his turn he chooses a face down card and attempts to play it by saying “Haiiii-ahh!” and flipping it face up on the play stack. If it is an illegal play he picks the stack up, and play passes to the left.

Example: It is Ben’s play and the previous play was 9. He has no cards in hand and only 2 face down cards left. He chooses one and flips it up … a 3! He picks up the stack, and now has a hand he must get rid of before he can get rid of his last face down card. If he had flipped a 9 or greater he would be able to either play or pick up his last face down card on the following turn.

If a player has no cards in hand and no face up OR face down cards the player is out.

There are two special cards, and a special rule governing four of a kind.

Two: A player can play one or more 2s regardless of what the previous play was. Twos can be beaten by anything as well.

Ten: If one or more tens are played the stack (including the tens) is removed and the player gets another turn. Ten cannot be played on something which is larger than a ten (that is, J, Q, K or A). Tens are called “bombs”.

4-of-a-kind: If a player makes a play such that there are 4 cards of the same rank on the stack, the stack is removed and that player gets another turn. If a player has 4-of-a-kind in hand, she can play it on her turn regardless of what the previous rank was, removing the stack, and getting another turn.

Example: Alice plays a 6 on the stack which has a 2 on top. Ben then plays two 6s. Casey then plays the last 6, the stack is removed and Casey has another turn. Casy then plays a J. Alice hasa ten and four 7s. She cannot play the ten since it is smaller than the Jack. She can, however, play the four 7s, since four of a kind is always a legal play. She does that, removes the stack (J-7-7-7-7), and gets another play. She now plays her ten. She removes the stack again, because of the special ten rule. and gets another play. Now she has no more cards in hand and no face up cards, so she flips one of her face down cards over to start a new stack. Another ten! The ten is removed and she flips up her last face down card, which turns out to be a 4. She is now out of the game and can enjoy the penalty paid by the eventual loser, Ben or Casey.

Advanced Ninja

There are only two additional rules for Advanced Ninja, I recommend playing with neither if any of your players have never played Ninja.

Advanced Set-Up: When dealing out the starting cards deal the face down cards as usual, but give each player a 6 card hand and allow them to choose their face up cards. The face down cards can still not be examined. Some players like to have the player who chose the single worst card as a face up card go first.

Unbeatable Jacks: This is the only rule which my playgroup invented – the other rules are all standard or extant variations. The Unbeatable Jacks make the game quite a bit more interesting I think. As you may have guessed the rule is that Jacks are special, they cannot be beaten, not by Q, K, A, or 2 – all of which normally beat a J. There are two plays that can play on a J, another J, or a 4-of-a-kind.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Jasper,

    Let me share the differences between this version and the ones that I have played.

    First off I have always played with two more special cards:
    3: threes are see-through. You can play them on any card and it’s like they are not there, the previous card still sets the bar.
    7: When a player plays a seven, the next player will have to play a lower card rather than a higher one.

    Other than that the differences are minor. With some players a ten can go on anything, with some players it can’t. The starting player often was decided by whom has the lowest non-special card (in case of a tie: simply the first that plays it, so if you have a five, just go ahead and start the game).

    My experience with the game is that while it is fun to play with a group of people every once in a while, I much prefer it as a two player game, as in the end game you really need to plan out a strategy to beat your opponent rather than just play whatever appears to be a good move. I guess the ten-goes-on-anything is more essential when only playing with two players, as it keeps the hands a little smaller, but I am not sure about that.

    Oh wait let me adjust that last statement, the ten-on-anything rule was more important in our case (I guess), but that was due to another difference I missed earlier: 4-offs did not go on anything with us, they could only be played if a single one of them could be played just as well.

  2. Cool – You should try out the Jacks as I treat them – they are very interesting.

    I like the 10′s being restricted in play because I like the contrast between the power and vulnerability of the card. I think a ‘super-ten’ is easier to play strategically, when to play it as a ‘weak-ten’ is tough. you are absolutely right that with ‘weak-quads’ you might want ‘strong-tens’.

    Your threes are interesting – I want to try them. I worry in general about making cards too easy to play but the see-through part is pretty cool.
    I have to try the seven – I just can’t tell by thinking about it.

    I am intrigued by two player play – I may never have tried this with two assuming it wasn’t good.

    Thanks for the mechanics and comments!

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