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Onitama: Way of the Wind Review

Onitama is one of those games that I have mentioned quite a lot recently. Between strategies, lists and reviews, it is a game that gives more and more the deeper we look. There is something so insanely simple about it and yet something incredible at the same time. It is abstract, yet beautiful, simple, and yet complex. It is a breeze to play and difficult to master. We (by which I mean myself and my girlfriend) recommend Onitama to everyone we come across. It is certainly going to be in our list of best games of the year, and is a strong contender for one of our favourite games of all time.

This is why I was overjoyed when I heard that Onitama designer Shimpei Sato, along with John Rogers, were releasing its second expansion pack. This time, unlike with the previous expansion, Sensei’s Path, it was going to change how the game played with brand new mechanics. Enter Way of the Wind.

Onitama: Way of the Wind Review

The Onitama Family – Onitama – Sensei’s Path – Way of the Wind

What is Onitama Way of the Wind?

I’m not going to go into the base rules for Onitama in this article (but I do here, if you want to read them in detail) but will go through what makes Way of the Wind different.

So, what is in the box? Well, Way of the Wind comes with two different types of component in the box, not including the rules. The first is the Wind Spirit, a new pawn piece, which looks like an Otter riding a windy Turtle. It then comes with ten different cards. Two of these are Goat and Sheep (which I thought were promos and bought them from The Dice Tower at the last UKGE so now have two copies). Then there are eight new movement cards.

Those addition components mean Onitama Way of the Wind add two very different aspects to the game. We’re going to look at these one at a time.

The Wind Spirit

The Wind Spirit in play

The Wind Spirit

The Wind Spirit is a new piece in Onitama that cannot be moved through. This leaves players with two different options – you can move the Wind Spirit on your turn rather than one of your own pieces, using it to block opponents. Alternatively, if you are to move the Wind Spirit to a space that has a student on it, that student switches places with the Wind Spirit, effectively catapulting it across the board.

The Movement Cards

Thus enters the second aspect of Way of the Wind – the movement cards.

Way of the Wind introduces ten new cards into the game. There are eight truly new cards (not including Goat and Sheep for the aforementioned reasons), and these are really neat, as they comprise of two different aspects. First, you move your master or student in the usual sense – then you move the Wind Spirit. As usually, all the new cards are thematic and beautiful to look at. They comprise of Bat, Octopus, Eagle, Hawk, Rhinoceros, Scorpion, Spider, and Lion.

These cards add a lot of variety to the game and can even drastically change how it plays. They can also be played in almost any combination, using two, three, four, or five in play, replacing the original game cards. They change the game, but the question is – do they change it for the better?

What is Way of the Wind like to Play?

Okay, let’s review Way of the Wind. What is it like to play?

The first person to play Way of the Wind with me was actually my old man. We played it in more or less silence. Afterwards we sat back and just said “wow”.

Before I delve deeper, you’re going to need a bit of context to this review and there is a bit of an elephant in the room. I love Onitama as a game. It is, for me, one of the all time great games of the modern gaming renaissance, and so you need to take into account when listening to (or reading) my opinion. That means two things – firstly, this review should be read with that concept in mind – that to me it is an amazing game. Secondly; however, it meant my expectation of Way of the Wind was fairly high. It needed to cross an already high bar to make it a expansion worth buying.

So, does it cross that bar? I think so, yes.

The Wind Spirit in play, being used to block the middle two students.

The Wind Spirit in play, being used to block the middle two students.

Why does it cross that bar? Well, dear reader, thank you for asking. Why, indeed, is Onitama: Way of the Wind enjoyable in my eyes?

Acting as a purely rational, and non-fanboy, gamer I think it comes down to two reasons. The first is that, in my opinion, expansion packs are at their best when they add new replayability or a new method to a game. Having the whole aspect of the Wind Spirit means that strategies that were available in the base game of Onitama are no longer available. You can’t win the game in three turns with the Tiger card if the Wind Spirit is sat exactly where you need to go.

The strategy of being able to move the Wind Spirit, as a neutral piece, is something I find really appealing. It means you can use the Wind Spirit to block your opponents, which is a neat strategy to have in your back pocket.

This leads onto the second point, the strategy of the Wind Spirit goes deeper than that. The fact that the Wind Spirit can land on a student and catapult it to where it was opens the game up to hit-and-run strategies. Move a student, take a piece, land the Wind Spirit on the student to whip it back into safety again. I love the fact that the Wind Spirit allows for that kind of fast paced strategy. It’s ace.

Alternatively, if you don’t like where your opponent has put a pawn, you can scupper their plans by moving it.

So, for me, Way of the Wind doesn’t just pass the bar, but it surpasses it. It goes beyond what I wanted when I was expecting just “more of the same”. It adds a new dynamic.

Way of the Wind - The Wind Spirit being used to block two masters and two students.

The Wind Spirit being used to block two masters and two students.

That being said, like all things Onitama, any specific strategy can fall flat depending on the cards that are in play, and this wouldn’t be a fair Way of the Wind review if we didn’t acknowledge that.

There has been some criticism that Way of the Wind adds a mechanic but it doesn’t add enough to really differentiate it as an expansion that is worth playing. I think that can be a fair assessment depending on your playing style and also if the cards in play are problematic. It can stunt a slow game if the cards are wrong, and likewise, if you find the Wind Spirit getting in the way more than helping, it can draw the game out. This may lead to it being seen as a bit of a dud.

Beth, my partner, raised the point that if you absolutely love Onitama in its purest form then Way of the Wind may be unnecessary.

For me, however, that just isn’t the case. I love the extra mechanic and the additional challenge. It adds more movement to the board and can open the board up as much as it can shut it down.

It is for this reason that I would recommend Way of the Wind as an expansion to Onitama.

Onitama: Way of the Wind (I Lost)

Onitama: Way of the Wind (I Lost)

TL;DR – The Good, The Bad, and The Wind Spirit

So, now for the much briefer Way of the Wind review – what are the good, bad, and neutral points of the expansion?

The Good:

  • It allows for new strategies in the game including the ability to catapult students, hit-and-run, and the ability to block.
  • It adds a new dynamic and neutral piece to use as you see fit.
  • The Otter style Wind Spirit mini is fantastic, and it is a relatively cheap expansion. I got it for around £11.95.

The Neutral:

  • It probably doesn’t work quite so well if you use 5 Wind Spirit cards as your only options in the game due to the limited movement available for the students and masters. It can slow the game down.

The Bad:

  • With the wrong cards, it may not feel like the Wind Spirit adds much to the game.
  • This can end up stretching a game out.
Mid-game.

Mid-game.

Conclusion:

If you were to just ask me my opinion then I would say – yes, buy this expansion. If you love Onitama then this adds something new; however, it is not just up to me.

It is impossible not to hear the voice of objection that this expansion can lengthen a fairly quick game as well as sometimes feel like it is not adding much at all. I, personally, don’t feel like I have hit these kind of issues, but it needs to be recognised that other have.

I would recommend it, and I really love the new strategies, but I would ask you to contemplate why you enjoy Onitama before you buy. If you like it because it is a fast and furious game then consider whether you want to potentially reduce the speed for different strategic options. If you enjoy Onitama because you enjoy an intense game, that can swing either way, then Way of the Wind is something you should probably consider buying.

So, what do you think? Is Way of the Wind something you would enjoy or is it something you’ll hold back on this time around? Let me know in the comments below.

Other Onitama Reviews:
The Onitama Base Game
Onitama Expansion #1: Sensei’s Path

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