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Onitama: Kirin Strategy

Come the end of this year, it may or may not surprise some readers, that Onitama will be appearing high on our “Top Games We Discovered in 2018” list. We have played it a lot, and it is one of our go-to quick games to play on the fly. There are two expansions available for Onitama as of the end of November 2018. The second of these two is Way of the Wind (which at time of writing is on order). The first expansion; however, is Sensei’s Path.

For those who are familiar with Onitama but not Sensei’s Path, Sensei’s Path adds an additional 16 cards to the game. These tend to be funkier than the initial set, jutting off at all kind of askew angles. We actually keep them separate to the core game, and usually only play with one or the other; however, the 16 cards can easily be mixed into the core for a spicier experience. Is it worth it? Oh yes, it adds a brand new challenge and a new set of strategies to get your head around.

A little while ago (and by “little while ago”, I mean five months ago)I wrote a strategy for the Tiger card in Onitama and how it can be used to win the game really quickly. Well, after writing that strategy, I got a lot of requests for more, with most people requesting I look at the Dragon card. That was my full intention until I started regularly playing with a different card that comes with Sensei’s Path and all the wonder it holds. That card is the Kirin card, and it is brutal to behold

Onitama Strategy: Kirin

When I first laid eyes on the Kirin I made a simple mistake and assumed it should be used to try and take the opponent’s temple in much the same way you do with Tiger. This isn’t the case, but instead it is a truly brutal card used to create killing zones. This Onitama strategy will explore how and why you should NEVER play the Kirin card until you desperately need to.

First, let’s take a look at the Kirin card to see what it is like.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 2

In many ways Kirin is like the Tiger card; however, it varies in a couple of ways. Firstly, the forward is not a straight forward jump. Instead it goes forward two and left/right. Also, unlike Tiger, the back is back two rather than back one. This makes the Kirin the most vertically manoeuvrable card in the current game.

So, what does this mean? Well, first of all it can be used in a similar way to the Tiger card, and you can view what that strategy looks like here; however, it also has a lot of versatility in creating a kill zone, and this is where the Kirin card is particularly strong.

Take a look at the following diagram for instance –

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 3

The above diagram is the impenetrable barrier created by the Tiger card at the start of the game. If you are dealt the Tiger, the above shows the kill zone the opposition has. They cannot cross that line, so, in theory, if you could actually stay still and not move in the game you could stop your opponent from winning. They cannot cross (unless they have Kirin) and you cannot take them.

That being said, the Kirin card allows for the same kill zone; however, several of the spaces are doubly covered.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 4

What this means is that you can move one of your pieces and still maintain a perfect kill zone wall. Why does this matter? Well, it’s simple really – one piece is all you need to win the game

What moving one piece does, in this case, is expand the kill zone. It makes the area that the opponent cannot move within even larger, and from the very first turn you can really limit your opponent and keep them back, so long as you don’t use the Kirin card. Move forward one, very simply, and you end up severely limiting the moves they have, keeping that fear of the Kirin card your main weapon for dominating the game.


Understanding Kill Zones

Where the Tiger card is an aggro card (a card where the most efficient strategy is to win quickly) due to the nature of the jump and area control of the Kirin card, it can be used to great effect in creating kill zones. Understanding those zones is imperative to using the card effectively.

So, what is a kill zone in Onitama? A kill zone is a set of squares that you cover so, should your opponent move there, you could, in theory, take their piece.

Creating kill zones across the board is a great way of forcing your opponent to take the moves you want them to take. For instance, by simply moving two pieces it is possible to create a near impassable wall for your opponent to get past.


The left image shows how a wall has been made using just two pieces, and the image on the right shows how the wall has been bent by moving the card to an impossible to beat situation, unless your opponent has the Tiger card. Either the master moves, revealing the temple, or you take the master.

Of course, it would never play out exactly like that as we are keeping the blue side in the starting position. Realistically, the blue student would move forward if possible, into the gap, making the final position distinctly dangerous for the Red team. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not drawing out all the combinations – especially when just being used to demonstrate how kill zones shift.

I have deliberately not moved Blue in these diagrams. Usually, Blue would move, but I have kept them on their starting squares to make the diagrams clearer…for now at least…

As you can see, the kill zone for the Kirin card is always fairly substantial due to the nature of the movement squares being further away. It is through creating these zones that you can force your opponent’s hand.

The Wider Picture

Of course, the Kirin card never works on its own – you will always have two cards in your hand, so for this example we are going to look at combining the Kirin card with the Boar card. What is the Boar card? Well, it’s probably the most basic card in the game – looking a little bit like this –

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 12

What this does, when combined with Kirin, gives each piece the following danger/kill zone around them. There will be other combinations that allow for more spaces to be covered within the game; however, Kirin/Boar is fairly devastating. It can is particularly dangerous due to the distance covered by the Kirin card.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 13

As you can see, it is somewhat aggressive.

Of course, if you keep Kirin in your hand, it means you only have one card to position yourself. This ultimately means that although your base kill zone will always be changing, with the Kirin at its core.

Using Boar however, it is possible to cover a lot of the board, and as you can see – a few shifts in position and it becomes very easy to control where your opponent has to go.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 14

Just by moving your pieces forward one you already have double the kill zone, and the majority of that zone keeps itself as you move one piece forward. Depending on what the next card is, you may be able to maintain the next zone.

Consider this however, with a few alterations it is possible to cover almost the entire board with just two cards.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 16

As you can see, there are very few places safe or open to the Blue player (they would probably also have students, but again, this is more to demonstrate a point). The second they move it is game over,

If you control the best kill zone, which Kirin allows, you can control the game. Once you have your opponent trapped, you can use your spare pieces to move in for the kill. 

The Kirin Onitama Strategy: Attacking Philosophy

By this point you probably already get the idea behind this article, although we still have a few points to explore. So far, I’ve played with Kirin around five times, and all five times I have used this “creating a kill zone” strategy. All five times I have won. It is an incredibly difficult and offensive strategy to fight because of the fact it leave such little wiggle room. Before your opponent has a chance to move, the odds are you could have already limited their options. You have certainly limited them by turn two.

The Kirin Onitama strategy is to pin your opponent down so you can either head towards their temple or head in for the kill.

So, How Do You Defeat The Kirin?

All of this has made me wonder two things. The first is something I never like asking of beautiful games – is this mechanic (in this case the Kirin) really balanced? And, moving from that, how can you beat it?

Well, to answer the first question – I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.

To answer the second question though, you need to get your opponent to use it or give it up, and something this may include sacrificing a student to do so.

Let’s make an assumption that you have two cards pass through your possession – Boar and Cobra.


The position you want to get into is relatively simple. You need to either get past the kill zone or you need to make the middle spaces as unappealing as possible. The great news is that, in order to do this, you will be able to use three cards that you can guarantee getting if your opponent is always holding Kirin. Use this ability to feed what cards your opponent uses to your ability. You will need to think several turns ahead.

Assuming your opponent uses a similar strategy to what is suggested in this article, then you need to push on to make the middle squares as unfriendly as possible to lure your opponent to use Kirin to try and take you.

Onitama Strategy - Kirin 19

As you can see, the two spaces Red needs to put Blue under immediate pressure are covered. They are safe, and the only way Red can progress is either to play the Kirin card or to spend time repositioning.

Time is good. Time is your ally. Time gives you time to break that kill zone and get into a better position.

Strike Like The Kirin

So there we have it – a look at the Kirin. If you just skipped to the end, then to summarise, if you are attacking you need to create kill zones to control your opponent. If you are defending, get your opponent to spend the Kirin, or play for time so you can break their zone. It is a very difficult card and strategy to defend against.

So, what are your thoughts? Is the Kirin a card you like to play? Do you consider it balanced or would you rather not play it? Let me know in the comments below.

Other Onitama Strategies:



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