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Elegance and poise – Onitama Review

Is Onitama essential? Let’s find out!

Onitama Board Game

The box stands upright, and has the Dice Tower Essentials logo at the bottom.

Onitama was originally released in Japan in 2014, a design by Shimpei Sato, and it has now been republished in a luxurious new edition by Arcane Wonders. It might well have slipped onto the release schedules unnoticed but for the fact that it is the second game to bear the logo of the new Dice Towers Essentials product line, a new series of games recommended by well-known reviewer Tom Vasel as being suitable for being in everybody’s collection. While the first game in the series, Sheriff Of Nottingham, is a fast-paced party game of interaction and bluffing, Onitama is a pared down abstract for two players only. It was nominated for a 2014 Golden Geek Award, so it has acquired some fans even prior to this re-release, but it fills a very different niche from Sheriff Of Nottingham. Is it truly essential or does it pale in comparison with the classic abstracts?

The first thing that will strike you about Onitama is that it has been designed with genuine attention to detail and with real care. The box is an upright affair, tower-shaped, and I suspect that this decision was made so that Onitama could find its way onto bookshelves as well as into gaming collections and hopefully enhance its chances of getting played. The artwork is beautifully elegant and suitable, and the entire package feels solid. Lifting up one side of the box flips it open, and I must admit that I gasped at the wonder of what lay inside – not only is the box fully illustrated both inside and out, but the rule book lies flat against the main box, while eight student pawns, four red and four blue, and a gorgeous playing mat sit in the box itself.

Onitama Board Game

The box opens up and this is what awaits you inside.

The sixteen cards sit upright in a slot between the pawns and the mat, and when you remove the mat you reveal the two master pawns lying in their slots underneath. The insert is one of the best I have encountered, and when you add in that the top and bottom of the box are red and blue respectively, denoting which side sits where when packed (although this makes no real difference in the end) you will appreciate that nothing has been left to chance. The cards are large and feel durable, the figures solid and satisfying, while the playing mat is simply gorgeous, displaying imagery inspired by traditional medieval Japanese inked scroll art. The art design team was led by Jun Kondo and they deserve to be congratulated on this production, as it really is a thing of rare beauty and pretty much guaranteed to widen the appeal of this game.

Onitama Board Game

The master figures are hidden underneath the play mat.

Looks like gridlock? Battle is joined!

All this means nothing of course, if it does not play well. Onitama is played on a 5×5 grid, printed on the beautiful roll-out mat with fighting tigers pictured in the background, and each player has four student figures and a master in their colour. The figures begin the game on the row closest to the player with the master in the middle sitting in the Temple Arch space and two students on either side of him. The artwork depicts steps leading down to the Temple Arch space, and the design of the play mat is as thoughtful and appropriate as one might expect, given the thought that has gone into the whole package. I can easily see some intrepid players painting the master and student figures to give Onitama the level of exquisite detail it deserves as they are the only items that stand out as being just a little functional at the expense of appeal.

The sixteen movement cards in Onitama represent different animals and their abstracted movements, and fall into three categories. The four blue and four red cards are mirror images of each other, while the eight green cards represent symmetrical movement options. This idea for the movement of pieces has been seen in games such as The Duke and also Tash-Kalar, and it works well enough here without throwing out any major surprises. Each card shows a dark square which represents a piece’s current position, and then other shaded squares which represent where moves may be made, and at the bottom of each is an enlightening quotation. Again, for all the abstractedness of the game, the theme and idea behind Onitama have been carefully woven into its presentation.

Onitama Board Game

The game takes place on the 5×5 grid on this beautiful mat.

Shuffle up and deal! Let’s get it on(itama)…

At the beginning of a game of Onitama the movement cards are shuffled and two are dealt to each player and placed face up in front of them. A fifth card is then placed in to the right of the play mat, facing the player whose colour is indicated in the lower right hand corner of that card, who will also start the game. The remaining eleven cards are returned to their slot in the insert, as they will not be used. Each game of Onitama therefore presents its players with a severely restricted set of movements.

On their turn a player chooses one of the two cards immediately in front of them, and then moves one of their pieces to a space permitted by the illustration on that card. This is referred to in the rules as Move & Attack (“for the body”). Movement is easy to understand and clearly indicated on the cards, jumping over other pieces is possible, and the only real requirement is that pieces cannot move off the board. If you finish your move on a space containing an enemy piece then that piece is captured and removed from the board – if you manage to do this to your opponent’s master you win the game (winning by the “Way Of The Stone”). When a player has taken their move they take the card they have used and place it by the left hand side of the board, facing their opponent. They then take the card which was on the right hand side of the mat and it becomes available to them on their next turn. This phase is called Exchange Cards (“for the spirit”). This means that the five movement cards in each game gradually cycle between the players, and those with powerful brains and intellects can plan ahead based on what their opponent has and what they will receive after their next move. Those with normal brains, like me, will simply look at what they have and what their opponent has and try not to make some calamitous mistake.

Onitama Board Game

The movement cards, red, blue and green.

There is a second way to win the game, and that is to move your own master into your opponent’s Temple Arch (winning by the “Way Of The Stream”). While it useful to have a second win condition, and one that is based on subtlety and cunning rather than brute force, none of the games I played ended in this manner, even though we always made sure that our back rows were defended. In truth, it felt as though we played until one of us made a mistake and the other player noticed and struck for the win.

Elegance and economy! Strength or weakness?

Unfortunately, Onitama’s elegance and economy, the thing that really marks it apart, is also its very downfall. The limited space on the board and the five movement cards per game make for a very restricted environment. It also feels like solving a puzzle in very slow motion rather than an opportunity for creative play. A game like The Duke is very similar to this, but has a much more open feel thanks to the random bag draw and the flipping of tiles after their moves, which alters their capabilities. While abstract purists might blanche at the thought of drawing tiles randomly it does mean that the game is just more fun. The Duke also has many extra tiles, expansions and scenarios which keep the game fresh and interesting and turn it into a flexible game system based on a simple set of rules. It is also hard to ignore that all the pieces in Onitama have the same possibilities of movement, the master no more powerful than his students.

Onitama feels like Chess in many ways, but pared down to its absolute minimum. If you want to get your elbows out and flex your creative muscles then this is probably not the game for you, but it would appeal to players who like the challenge of a severely constrained set of decisions. These are even more limited than might be expected from the components, because the mirror images of the red and blue movement cards mean that there are really only twelve types of movement available for each game. If you are unlucky enough to end up with two sets of mirror-image cards in each game it will mean that you are only truly playing with three types of movement, which feels like the gaming equivalent of eating several cream crackers in a row. Dry.

Onitama Board Game

Red and blue cards are mirrors of each other, greens are symmetrical.

Up against the competition! Does Onitama have the moves?

Even in the realm of games of perfect information, there are some classic modern abstracts around that do similar things in much more intriguing ways – the GIPF series springs immediately to mind. At this kind of starter abstract level I would rather introduce people to TZAAR (and I have done so, with success), then get them to play Lines Of Action or Arimaa with their neglected chess and draughts set, or move on to something like Hive, which takes chess and strips away pretty much all of the dull stuff. Abstracts can and should be about purely intellectual competition, of course, but gaming is also about fun and there is a balance to be struck that those other classics have but which Onitama lacks.

Onitama has stepped into a hotly contested field full of genuinely brilliant games and exquisite designs, and it is not a bad game at all, but it suffers badly from feeling like a puzzle, and not a hugely engrossing one at that. Even with the Tom Vasel seal of approval and the frisson of excitement that will undoubtedly generate, it is hard to see it being viewed as a classic a couple of years from now. There are also ominous whispers online of certain combinations of movement cards having been solved, offering guaranteed wins to the starting player in other words. To most players this would not matter too much, but it is not a good sign for the longevity of the game.

Onitama Board Game

Set up and ready to go…

A killer move? Or a wasted opportunity?

Players who love abstract games will definitely enjoy the occasional encounter of Onitama, and I can see that two players of similar ability would be able to have some wonderfully cut and thrust encounters across the limited board, but a game like this is always going to favour the more experienced player. Unless you want to invest significant time into it (and I am not convinced it warrants that) you are either going to have to play it casually with another beginner or accept the fact that you are going to be routinely humbled.

Onitama Board Game

Master and pupils.

The really strong point of Onitama is its production, which is sheer delight from start to finish, and it looks wonderful laid out to play and even tucked up and put to bed on a gamer’s shelf. I want to love it because a huge amount of thought and care has gone into this game, and it deserves recognition for that, but for all the brilliance of its lean design it just does not feel like fun. Despite wishing the best for this game, I would have to recommend that those looking for a great and genuinely essential starter abstract hold their horses for now and wait for the rerelease of TZAAR or YINSH later in the year.

5 (100%) 2 votes
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.

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