It is very rare that a game is so good it has me lost for words. I own enough games now, have played enough games, and analysed enough games that it takes a lot to shock me or have me struggling to find something to say. I mean, I have an English Literature and Creative Writing degree – even if I can’t find the words I literally have a qualification in batting around the bush enough that I can fill paragraphs with nonsensical rubbish before you realise I haven’t really said anything at all. Today we put all that aside and, for once, dear reader, I am gobsmacked.
Welcome to my review on Onitama.
The Premise of Onitama
The premise of Onitama is a relatively simple one. You are in control of a Martial Arts dojo and you have to fight to maintain control of the Shrine of Onitama. To do so, you control four students and one Master. Each turn you will have two specific move bases to choose from, these oscillate from turn to turn, in order to either gain control of the opponent’s temple or take their Master from the board.
From a technical perspective, Onitama is an abstract strategy game, with elements of area management, grid movement, and hand management. The game was designed by Shimpei Sato, and features a 5×5 grid which forms the playing area – the perfect size for a two player (and two player only) game.
To set the game up, the back row of five on the board, in accordance with each player, is set up with two students on either side of the Master, who stands on the temple square in the centre of the that row.
At the start of the game, each player is given two cards that detail specific martial arts styles and that dictate the type of movement the player has access to that turn. A fifth card is used to determine the first player, and is placed on the right hand side of the board, facing that player. The first player then plays their first card, before taking it and placing it on the left hand side of the board, facing their opponent. They then pick up the card on the right hand side, to bring their hand up to two cards again. Then it is the next player’s turn.
The second player takes their turn by moving a pawn (student or Master) in accordance with one of their cards. They then place that card on the left hand side of the board (their left), facing their opponent, before taking the card on their right. Their hand is now complete again, and play returns to the first player.
If a player moves a pawn (student or Master again) onto an opponent’s pawn, they have taken that piece. It is removed from the game.
The game keeps going until either one player gets their Master to the centre of the opponent’s back row, or until the opponent’s master has been taken. It’s that simple.
Usually, when I say “it’s that simple” in a review I then go on to clarify, but there is no clarification here – the game really is that simple and it is in that simplicity that the game finds strength.
The Quality of the Components in Onitama
Onitama is, in every single way it can be, absolutely beautiful. It is one of the most incredible games I have ever played from a stylistic perspective, simply because everything about it has me grinning from ear to ear.
There are essentially four components to the game. The first is the box.
Okay, so that may be a strange one, but the Onitama box is amazing. It is a box that wraps around itself and is sealed by a magnetic clasp. The whole thing feels like it should hold high-end Scotch, and the artwork is feudalistic around the edge. The artwork throughout the game has the feel of the classic Japanese ink-wash paintings of the sumi-e tradition. Yes, I had to look that up – but the artwork deserves a full description.
Next, upon opening the box (leaving the instructions aside) the first thing that strikes you is the board – namely because Onitama doesn’t have one. Instead, Onitama uses a mat. It is thick, has a rubber underside so as not to slip, and feels incredible. It is perfect, and helps the pawns stay in place by increasing the friction between the pawn and the surface. The mat rolls up into the box for storage and we just simply love it. The whole game can be set up in under a minute.
The pawns are unique and I can only assume made specifically for Onitama. The student pawns are smaller than the masters, holding one hand up ready for combat against the opponent. The Masters are sage-like, coming across like the Masters of old kung-fu movies. The only imperfection in the entire game is that some of the pawns look like they are straight off the sprue and have mould lines, but these are a small and I am only nit-picking because I am aware I have only said positive things about the game so far. These are some of my favourite pawns/meeples in any game.
Finally, the cards are large and of a decent quality. This is important, as all cards need to be seen by both players at all times. These cards all have a black square in the middle of a 5×5 grid, denoting the position of the pawn you want to move, and grey, red, or blue squares highlighted elsewhere on the grid. These represent the legal movements for that turn. You can only make a move if it is legal to do so (ie. won’t take you off the board or land you on a space you are already occupying), with each card allowing for three or four potential movements. This means there are a maximum of 40 moves to try each turn depending on how many pawns you have left on the board.
What is it like playing Onitama?
Onitama is a game that is so easy to play, and yet could be so difficult to master that I can actually see there being a world championship held somewhere in the not-too-distant-future. I actually believe Gen-Con had a tournament both this year and last. It has the simplicity of chess, the strategic planning, but it is fresher. It hasn’t been played since the 7th Century AD for starters, but hit shelves in 2015.
Instead, Onitama offers a kind of strategic thinking that is on par with chess, but that has a new dynamic, and that is the cards. The restriction to five different styles of movement each game is beautifully done, and it is like being able to do all the moves in chess with every piece – but you can only do them one at a time. They can only be done in a specific order. This adds challenge, whilst also making Onitama delightful to play.
What Onitama has done is create a whole host of new strategies. Now it is no longer just about the position of the pawns on the table, nor is it just about the moves you can make, but it is also about the cards you hold in your hand. How can you best your opponent and stop them taking you as well? It is a dynamic similar to blocking in chess, but it is different enough to ensure that Onitama does not simply live in the shadow of the most famous game of all time. Instead, it can stand next to it as a real life alternative.
Finally, Onitama is fast moving. It can be furious. It can be fluid. It can feel harmonious. A game only lasts 15 minutes.
Conclusion about Onitama
As you can probably guess by this review, Onitama has been a great way to break the New Year in. No matter what, it is difficult to recommend a game that I would consider perfect, and this is so close that it almost makes that mark. The only thing I am holding against it is the moulding of the pawns, and even that feels harsh. Onitama is a beautiful game, and it deserves to be played by everyone who likes puzzle games and putting two minds to the test.
Let’s just say, I am writing this review at 2am, and I am still going to see if I can sneak another game of Onitama in before bed. We keep playing it back-to-back and I absolutely love it.
Okay, so off the back of the success of Onitama I am feeling like this is a year where we should look at more abstract games. I have already bought the Tsuro: Way of the Path app, which I will review in due course (in comparison to the board game), but for now – let me know what your favourite abstract games are. Introduce me to some, and let me know what they are in the comments below.