Buzzworthiness: Onitama

It’s time for a review of an abstract game in the tradition of Chess and The Duke.

image by BGG user LoreChase

Onitama is a game by designer Shimpei Sato that was originally published in 2014 by conception.  Arcane Wonders picked up the rights and published it as part of the Dice Tower Essentials line in 2016.  It’s a two-player abstract game where the object is to either capture your opponent’s Master pawn, or move any piece into your opponent’s Master pawn starting position.

Onitama comes with 10 pawns, 5 of each color and one of which is the Master for that color. It also comes with a rollup game mat made of mouse pad material, and 16 move cards.  On the game mat is a 5×5 grid, and each player will place their five pawns on the side closest to them, with the Master in the center of the line.  You will then shuffle the 16 move cards and deal two to each player.  A fifth card is dealt to the side of the board, and the rest are set aside as they will not be needed in this game.  The fifth card will also determine who plays first as each card either shows red or blue.

image by BGG user LoreChase

On your turn, you will choose one of the two movement cards in front of you and move one of your pieces to an indicated space.  In the image above, the red player has Cobra and Rabbit available.  The dark space in the center indicates your current position, and the colored spaces indicate possible places you could move to (color only matters for determining first player).  So, with Cobra, you could move a piece one step to the left, or one step forward diagonal step to the right, or one backward diagonal step to the right.  Rabbit would allow you to move one backward diagonal step to the left, one forward diagonal step to the right, or two steps to the right.

The only restrictions for movement are that you may not go off the board, and you may not land on one of your own pieces.  However, if you land on an opponent’s piece, you capture it.  In the image above, either Cobra or Rabbit would allow the frontmost red piece to capture a blue pawn.

Once you have made your move, trade the card you used with the fifth card that has been set to the side.  It is now your opponent’s turn, and they do their move with their cards.  At the end of their move, they will trade the card they used with the card to the side, which is the card you used to make your last move.  So you must be careful not to set them up too well.

The game ends when one player captures their opponent’s Master, or when they reach the Master’s starting space with any piece – this space is marked with a Temple Arch, but you can also remember that it’s the exact center of the opponent’s starting line.

image by BGG user henk.rolleman

COMPONENTS: The look and feel of this game is just gorgeous.  Right from the time you open the box (which is rectangular and has a magnetic clasp), you can tell that a lot of effort went into the components.  The minis are lovely, the cards are well designed, and the board is made out of a very nice mouse pad material (what is that stuff called anyway?).  The art is very evocative, and the game is quite aesthetically pleasing.  It’s probably completely overproduced, but who cares – it looks and feels great to me.

THEME: This is an abstract game, which basically means that theme is almost entirely unimportant.  The game has a loose martial arts framework, but BGG is full of rethemes people have done, including Western, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and space combat.

MECHANICS: Onitama uses a grid movement system, where players are moving across a small grid of 25 squares.  Movement is determined by the cards each player is dealt.  Unlike similar games like Chess and The Duke, each piece does not have its own movement specifically prescribed to it, but rather has the potential to do either move that is on your cards.  Victory is achieved by capturing the opposing Master, but other than that, all pieces are generally equal.  The variety of moves is similar to The Duke, and Onitama has its own system of cycling through the moves – what you can do is not static, as in Chess, but you lose the capability to do a move after you’ve done it (though possibly only temporarily).  One of the most interesting things about this system is that using a move unlocks it for your opponent on the turn after next, so you have to be wary of the potential for those moves to mess you up in the long run.

Like all good abstracts, Onitama is very sparse on the rules and mechanisms in play, but those that are there are very well thought out.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This is a very deep game.  Like Chess and The Duke, you have to think several turns in advance in order to set yourself up for failure.  Beyond the initial card deal, there is no randomness in the game and all information is right there in front of you, so you can think about keeping your dudes out of the line of fire, or setting up traps for your opponent.

ACCESSIBILITY: Onitama is a very accessible game, with very simple rules and pretty quick play.  You only have two movement cards in front of you, and while those cards have several movement option on them, you can easily visualize where a piece would end up thanks to the diagrams.  I’d call it a gateway to some more complex games of this style, especially The Duke.

REPLAYABILITY: With only 16 cards, there are a possible 500,000+ combinations of movements that could be in the game.  That’s a lot of replayability right there.

SCALABILITY: This is only a two-player game, and I can’t imagine it with any more or less. I suppose you could have a team game with one player controlling each action card, but come on.  Just enjoy it as a two-player experience.

TIME: Onitama is very quick, with games lasting about 15 minutes.  It’s also very easy to set up and tear down, so you can reset very quickly between games if you want to play back-to-back.

INTERACTION: The game is very interactive, with players responding to their opponent’s actions throughout.  It also has the twist of needing to think about whether or not your opponent will be able to use the card you’re using for your move in order to mess you up.

FOOTPRINT: The only space you need for the game is room for the board, and therefore this game can be played on a pretty small surface.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I hope you can tell that I really enjoy this game.  It’s one of the better abstracts of this style that I’ve played.  I certainly like it more than Chess, which I feel is too rigid.  I think I still like The Duke more, but that doesn’t mean this is any less of a great game.  It’s one I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a quick and easy (to understand) abstract experience.

That’ll do it for today.  I’ve been a little sporadic lately – I typically try to post on Tuesdays and Fridays, but I’ve been really busy recently putting together a big contest that’s going to launch next Saturday and run throughout April.  Please be sure to check it out.  Thanks for reading!

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