I’m excited to say this review is for a fairly new game. It’s one that actually caught me a little off guard. I love board games, and I own more of them than I probably should. Nevertheless, I’m actually a cautious consumer. When I find a new game that intrigues me, I go through several steps. I look into it online, finding reviews and play throughs. I way pros and cons and costs. I like to sit on the topic, just thinking about.
If time passes and I still want the game, I usually get it. There are some mitigating factors of course. Mostly money, since board games are expensive and I don’t make a tremendous amount of money. But in general I find this system to be successful for me. I genuinely like almost every game I own. There are only a small portion I don’t really wish to play anymore.
Which is why Onitama caught me so off-guarding. I first heard about this game only a few days ago, and I was immediately intrigued. I looked into and everything about it reinforced my curiosity. So great was my interest that I went and bought the game the very next day. I eschewed almost the entirety of my purchase process!
And do I regret my decision? Well let’s talk about the game first.
Onitama is a turn based, two-player, abstract strategy game of martial combat. Each player represents a school of eastern martial arts. You play on a five-by-five grid and have five pieces: a master and four students. On your turn you can move one of your pieces to a different square. Similar to chess, if you land on your opponent’s pieces they are captured and removed from the game.
The game can be won in two ways. First off, you can simply capture the enemy master. He’s just as fragile as his student, though your opponent is likely to play fairly cagey with him. The second route to victory is moving your master across the board to your opponent’s temple. Again, it’s a simple method. But the smallish grid makes it easy enough for your opponent to defend the target square.
Each player is given two cards at the beginning of the game. These cards represents techniques the students and masters can do, indicating how they move. Each technique is named after an animal, such as ox, elephant, eel, or horse. Each technique has a unique movement pattern, and there are sixteen in total.
On your turn you choose a single piece and one of your two techniques. Then you move your piece accordingly, capturing opponent pieces if you land on them. You can’t move off the edge of the board or onto one of your pieces, and you can’t pass on your turn.
The wrinkle in the plan is the neutral card. A neutral fifth card from the technique deck is placed beside the board. After you take your move for the turn you take the technique card you used and replace it with the neutral one. On your opponent’s turn, after they make their move, they take the card you used from the neutral spot and replace it with their own.
In this way all five of the technique cards in the game are used. They cycle back and forth between the players’ hands and the neutral space. It forces you to pay attention to a lot of things. What you can do next turn. What your opponent can do next turn. And what your opponent can do with the card you’re about to use. It might seem like a lot to keep track of, but none of it is complicated. It’s all clearly represented by pictures on the cards.
So, now we understand how the game works. What do I think of it?
In short, I love it. I’m not going to beat around the bush on the topic. Onitama is a brilliantly executed little game. This caught me more than a little by surprise. I generally prefer crunchier, more substantial games. I also generally don’t like abstract games, or two-player games for that matter.
But Onitama manages to scratch a great little itch. When you boil it down, it feels very much like a svelte version of chess with a nice reskin. The martial arts vibe comes through way stronger, and way better, than you might think. My friend’s and I ended up having a fun time shouting the technique names back and forth to each other. And while it had the same involved feeling as chess, the games take between five minutes and half an hour. Their really fast, which makes it really easy to play.
Easy to play is perhaps the name of the game here. Set up takes about two minutes, tear down even less. Teaching the game can be done about as fast as unpacking it, and as I said playing it takes a short time. The barrier to entry for the game in practically nonexistent. It’s the kind of thing you could pull out to fill a quick gap in your schedule. Since the box is so small it isn’t even hard to bring it with you somewhere.
Best of all the low barrier of entry doesn’t result in an equally low skill ceiling. The techniques you can use allow for impressively deep strategy. It’s not hard for even an inexperienced player to start planning a few turns in advance. The neutral card mechanic, forcing the techniques to cycle, keeps you on your toes. You’re constantly worrying not only about what options you’ll have, but what options your move might give your opponent.
And beyond all of this the game’s can play out very differently because of the sparing use of the cards. There are sixteen different technique cards. All of meaningfully different, but you only use five in a game. Which five you get can change things up dramatically. In one game we played, for example, all five cards offered diagonal movement. None of them allowed a piece to move directly forward, however. It caused the game to have a clear line of battle that pushed up and down the board. It naturally created a layered defense that was hard to punch through.
I can’t say enough about how great this game is. Even the little details add to it. The art and components are phenomenal. There are only a handful of pieces to the game, and all of the are a very high quality. The board is no board at all, but instead a roll up mat made of mouse pad material. It’s tremendously convenient and looks absolutely great. Even the price point of the game makes me happy, ringing up at a measly $30.
I whole heartedly suggest Onitama to anyone who loves board games. I suggest it to anyone who loves chess. I suggest it to anyone who loves fun. The game is worth every single penny you spent on it. If I weren’t writing this review in the middle of the night, I’d go find someone to play it right now.