In our Onitama review, Board Crazy examines this simple and elegant abstract game, designed by Shimpei Sato and published by Arcane Wonders. In Onitama, each player is working to capture their opponent’s master pawn or move their own master pawn into their opponent’s Temple Arch. Continue below to read our reviews of Onitama.
D reviews Onitama
(Author’s note: this review is meant to accompany our gameplay video and will not go in-depth on the game’s rules. If you’re interested in learning how the game is played, please watch the video. It’s not bad.)
Shimpei Sato’s Onitama is a game that I had had my eye on for a while. On numerous occasions when I would go to my local gaming store, I would see it there and consider buying it, but for one reason or another I didn’t pull the trigger until quite recently. And very quickly I regretted not buying it sooner. Doing these videos here on Board Crazy has made me realize that I am a big fan of abstract games. I’ve always enjoyed chess, and checkers was fun when I was a kid, but playing games like Santorini, Element, and Quantum has opened my eyes somewhat to the genre. As much as I enjoy a game that is thematically rich and pushes the boundaries of the medium, there is something very satisfying about a game that keeps things simple and elegant while offering a healthy dose of strategy. And Onitama does that pretty much perfectly.
That isn’t to say that Onitama is theme-less or derivative, by any means. In fact, I would say that it does a nice job establishing its traditional, Japanese martial arts setting with just a smattering of art and some flavor text in the rulebook. I don’t know much about martial arts and I don’t know if Mr. Sato does either, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of the maneuvers in the game, but everything certainly feels authentic. And this sense of authenticity contributes to the “classic” feeling that emanates from the game. If you had told me that this was a traditional Japanese game with fancy, modern packaging, I wouldn’t really have questioned it much. There isn’t any inherit value in a game being old or traditional, of course, but in this case I think it pairs nicely with the game’s theme and overall design.
Speaking of that fancy, modern packaging, it sure is nice. I don’t own a deluxe edition of the game, but I was very impressed when I opened it for the first time. Similar to the newer Tortuga 1667 that we played a while back, the box is magnetic and the game mat is a roll-out piece of neoprene (similar to a mousepad), which is both sturdy and attractive. The pieces are pretty basic in design, but have a good weight for them, which I always enjoy in a game like this. A greater amount of variety or detail would have been nice, but I imagine that would be available at a higher price point. The rulebook is short, as you would expect from a relatively straightforward game, but as I mentioned earlier, it contains a nice bit of flavor to help establish the mood before your first game.
And as for the ever-important gameplay, Onitama succeeds mightily. The game is really quite simple to grasp – it only took me about three minutes to explain the rules to the others before we played it the first time. The strategy, though, slowly reveals itself as the game wears on. Both win conditions involve the “master pawn” pieces, so choosing when and where to move them is always a grueling decision, especially given the relatively small size of the board. The ever rotating movement cards really add the greatest bit of fun and strategy, though. You really have to start thinking at least two moves ahead to be successful in this game, as what is a valuable maneuver for you now will be at your opponent’s disposal very soon, and vice-versa. It’s very satisfying to see a plan come to fruition, similar to a successful strategy in chess. The base game includes a good number and variety of movement cards to keep things fresh for a while. Also, a new expansion was just released, called Onitama: Sensei’s Path, which adds sixteen new cards to the game to further increase its replayability. Also, the game seems very adaptable for house rules, if that is your type of thing. Overall, Onitama is one of my favorite games that we’ve played for this site so far and I cannot recommend it enough.
D’s Rating: Five Stars out of Five.
Will reviews Onitama
When I first read about Onitama, I was unimpressed. Sure, the theme was cool and the presentation was slick, but the gameplay sounded like an underwhelming abstract version of chess. And to be clear, I don’t like chess that much, so my feelings toward Onitama were similarly jaded. But then D got the game and we decided to play it, and I’m surprised to say that it’s actually pretty good. I’m not in love with it or anything, but objectively, Onitama has a lot going for it.
From a thematic standpoint, this game really works for me. The idea that the players are utilizing the “masters” and “students” to fight a battle in the “Shrine of Onitama” is really sold by the simple and effective artwork (by Jun Kundo & Mariusz Szmerdt). It’s not a battle to the death, but instead a spiritual learning experience for all those involved. After all, the “Animal spirits” only wish to guide the masters and their students so they can learn from the experience. While this fact does remove some of the stakes from the proceedings, it also keeps game sessions of Onitama relaxed and friendly. Conceptually, this entire game feels very cerebral, and the gameplay reinforces that feeling.
At the end of the day, Onitama is a lot more than an “abstract version of chess”, a phrase I discovered was inappropriately reductive. Yes, the master pawn is similar to the king – if you capture it, you win. Other than that, there are few similarities. For instance, in Onitama a player can win if they move their master into their opponent’s “Temple Arch” space, which is where the master pawns begin the game. Having two victory conditions was a really smart choice by the game’s designer, Shimpei Sato, because it prevents players from focusing in on one strategy. At one moment, capturing the master might seem like the best plan, but if that pawn moves, making a beeline for the Temple Arch might become the path of least resistance. In a game this simple, I was surprised how much I found myself juggling with these strategies. There was definitely more to consider than I initially assumed.
Moving the master and student pawns is the bread and butter of Onitama. In order to do so, you have to use five of the sixteen “Move Cards” that each represent a different “Animal spirit”. Each spirit allows you to move in different ways, so you’ll have to scan your cards and your opponent’s cards in order to ensure that you don’t shift your pawns into a trap. Again, there’s more to think about than this game lets on, which is both a good and bad thing. If you’re like any member of Board Crazy, then you’ll probably find yourself over-analyzing every move you make, especially once the pawns start falling. Towards the end of a session, it’s also pretty easy to work yourself into a little stalemate with your opponent. All of this extends the game, which means that the attractive fifteen-minute playtime could easily double or triple in length. I almost feel like this game would’ve benefited from a little hourglass that could limit turns to a minute or so. Without it, the gameplay lags, which is partially due to the lack of stakes and urgency that’s inherent with casual abstract games like this.
Overall, Onitama impressed me with its clever simplicity and surprising nuance. While not as brief as the playtime suggests, this game can be played in well under an hour, which leads to replayability. However, I get the sense that if you were to play this game a lot, you’d see every Animal spirit card enough that it’d negatively affect replayability. Thankfully, there are some expansions that deal with this issue. Whether or not you’ll enjoy Onitama depends on how much you appreciate abstract games, given that kind of game is often relaxed and therefore lacks urgency. It was for that reason that I couldn’t love Onitama, but I do like it. It’s definitely way better than chess.
I give Onitama a: B
Graham reviews Onitama
It’s strange because there is something about simple, abstract strategy games like Santorini or Element that make me hesitant to play them until I actually start playing. These games are great because strategy takes over and naturally creates the fun and tense moments that we all love about board games. Onitama is just another reminder that I need to play these games more often. It accomplishes everything that’s great about other abstract strategy games while still providing its own twist. It does this with its unique movement cards and refined gameplay.
Like I mentioned, Onitama has a very interesting mechanic for moving. Each player starts with two movement cards, and there is an extra movement card that rotates to both players. When you play a movement card, you swap the card that you just played with the extra movement card, and the same thing happens when your opponent moves. This way each player gets a chance to play with all of the movement cards on the table, which significantly reduces the impact that luck has on the game. The movement cards are really creative, and it’s exciting to see how certain cards become more powerful depending on the situation you are in. Another great thing about these cards is that there are 16 cards in total, so each game will feature a different set of movement cards being used. On top of that, each card is named after an animal or creature, like the Frog or the Dragon. This is insignificant to strategy, but a fun way to bring some thematic elements into Onitama.
The movement cards are the majority of the gameplay, but the simplistic board and minimal game components refine Onitama, keeping it easy and relaxed. This refinement makes this game more appealing than some of its counterparts, like Santorini or Element. Also, the goal of the game is straightforward: capture your opponent’s master pawn or move your master pawn into your opponent’s Temple Arch. After you grasp how the gameplay functions in addition to the goal of the game, there is nothing else you need to learn to be able to play Onitama. It’s really that intuitive.
Onitama is everything that an abstract strategy game should be. The movement cards are fun and creative, and the gameplay is refined and to the point. This game is simple as well as brilliant. I give Onitama two thumbs up.
Onitama Game Review – Board Crazy’s Ratings