Designers: Shimpei Saio   |   Players: 2   |   Playtime: 10-15 min

So here I am, the 4X and thematic gamer of our group, about to talk to you about a little abstract gem called Onitama. As much as I enjoy the bigger, more mechanically complex games, I am discovering more and more my love for abstracts. Some of my earliest gaming memories are learning and playing Chess with my dad and I have enjoyed playing Chess occasionally through the years, but never at a competitive or lifestyle level. More recently, The Duke has been the game I go to if I want that Chess feel. If you want the quick one-liner here it is: Onitama has replaced The Duke and (casual) Chess for me. If you want more details about the game, please keep reading.

THEMe

As with most abstracts, the theme in Onitama is mainly window dressing although they have put the game together in such a way that you feel the theme they are trying to invoke. In Onitama you play as martial arts masters who have brought their disciples to the Shrine of Onitama to prove their skill in battle against each other. The theming of this abstract is done better than most, and that is mostly achieved through its presentation.

PRESENTATION

Even though this is an abstract game the publisher has done a phenomenal job bringing out the theme from the moment you open the box until victory.

Simply setting up the game sets the tone for the gameplay.

The uniquely shaped box opens like a scroll to reveal the game’s pieces, cards, and its board organized neatly and tightly. The board then unrolls like another scroll and well-designed and crafted pieces set up simply on it in a row. Simply setting up the game sets the tone for the gameplay. The art is well implemented on the board and in the cards.

The presentation of this game is simple and effective – exactly what you want from a theme like this. I have nothing but praise for the way the game is presented, especially in how it supports the theme.

GAMEPLAY

This brings us to the last big piece of the puzzle – how does it play? Well, as with the theme and presentation, it plays simply and elegantly.

When setting up the game players will deal out five cards. Each of these cards will indicate the way a piece can move. This is reminiscent of The Duke except that movement is not tied directly to a piece. Instead, you can move any of your pieces as a card depicts whether that is your master or a disciple. Then, after you have moved using a card, you place that card in the center of the table which your opponent will receive after their next turn. You always have two cards in front of you on your turn so you will be passing a card between you after each of your turns.

All five cards are always face up which means you have (mostly) perfect information. You know how your opponent can move. The only question is which card will your opponent choose to use. They may choose not to use a card simply to keep you from getting it. So while there is strategic planning, the information horizon is surprisingly close which makes the game very tactical.

This brings me to the winning condition – another brilliant thing about the game. In most games like this, the goal is to capture your opponents main piece – in this case, the master. That is one way you can win in Onitama, but there is second. If you can maneuver your master to your opponents throne (the place their master starts the game) you also win. I love that you have two options which allow you to pivot mid-game if things aren’t going well with one. Another great thing about this is that one win condition feeds on another. Meaning, if your opponent is going after your throne he is also making his master an easier target for you.

The last thing I will mention is playtime. Onitama is a short game and this is a good thing. It does not overstay its welcome. It plays quickly as there is little reason for a player to sit and think too long. As much as I enjoyed (trying) to play Chess, Onitama fits better what I am looking for in playtime and investment.

RATING:

Try this game if you like:

  • Checkers
  • Chess
  • The Duke
  • Tak
  • GIPF Series

FINAL THOUGHTS

Throughout this review, I have likened Onitama to Chess, and rightly so. Here’s the thing – I don’t think any game can really replace Chess. Very few abstract games can match its depth of strategy for the person willing to dive deeply into it. Chess is a lifestyle game. Onitama is not. So for most, Onitama cannot replace Chess. It really isn’t intended to. But it can give you a very similar feeling in a much shorter time.

I’ve also compared Onitama to The Duke. Since these games are both new compared to Chess and their movement schemes are so similar I can say that Onitama can replace The Duke. Not that The Duke is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. But Onitama has taken something that The Duke introduced and refined and enhanced it while making the game shorter. So if I am choosing between the two, I will pick Onitama.

So where does this leave Onitama? I think it fits perfectly into the slot that the Duke created. And for those of us who wish we had time to be good at Chess, we can get that feeling here. Its simplicity, tactical structure and short play time make it immediately accessible. You have all the information you need to make good decisions but not perfect decisions.

Playing Onitama is refreshing to me. I don’t feel overburdened by choice. I don’t feel weighed down by options. I know it will be short and sweet. It strikes such a great balance.

Each game of Onitama plays out like a scenario. You have limited options provided by the cards available in your game. You must make the best of those cards. This limitation makes for quick and fun games that usually end in resetting and playing again. And again. And again.

THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB

BRYAN

I’d like to consider Onitama based purely on its merits as an abstract game and comment briefly at the end on its theme and component execution. As far as its ability to bring a 2-player abstract game to the table, Onitama has delivered a fantastic sprint of a game that can be enjoyed by a wide range of tactical proficiency in its players.

For many, abstract games like Chess and Go are lifestyle games. That is: games that provide such depth of strategy that to be competitive on a respectable level you must devote much time into learning and playing a wide variety of opponents. What’s more, the kind of proficiency one might obtain through much practice is a perishable skill, meaning that without continued practice you will lose many of the acute skills that maintain your best game.

Enter games like Onitama, which provide a similar format without the barrier of entry given by more complex games. In a way, this game will level the playing field between the lifestyle abstract player and the casual player. This is due to the concise nature of the game and the 2-path victory conditions. Keeping the piece count down to a manageable 5 per player, giving all pieces access to the same moves, keeping the movement choices limited to one of two, and the ability to see what’s coming down the pipe all play a role in Onitama’s simplicity. On the other hand, its elegance. (and responsible mechanic for brevity and tension) comes from the two-front win conditions.

You can’t escape a look at this game, though, and not feel the similarities to another beloved abstract, The Duke. It would not be appropriate to throw The Duke under the bus for the sake of elevating Onitama; but I will say that while I continue to love The Duke, Onitama has improved on what concepts may be shared between the two and produced a game more balanced and a bit more playable. While both depend on a random asymmetry, Onitama balances it by passing the limited abilities around the table. These abilities are always visible and predictable, but still variable from game to game.

Is this going to be the best abstract experience of your life? Probably not for the hardened abstract gamer. But it belongs on their shelf for the mere fact that they’ll get more of their casual friends to come back for repeat plays. For the rest, I’m ranking Onitama among the top 5 casual abstracts of all time. It does for Chess-style what Pente did for Go – which is not to say they replace or even attempt to mimic those games, but they do provide an outlet for similar concepts in a more approachable package. However, I’m still only suggesting this at the “Play It” level due solely to its genre. Though I think you’ll end up getting it after you’ve tried it.

As far as the rest (i.e. theme and components), the pieces are little unusual but easily identifiable. The board is fine if it makes the box a bit clumsy on the shelf; not anymore than the Pente tube though, so I can’t complain too much. The best components of the game are the cards, which are nice and big and viewable from across the board (which is very important during the game). All in all, a nice package for a fantastic game.