Onitama Review

ONITAMA (Arcane Wonders)

Game aesthetics are a weird thing in 2017. Sometimes a simple wooden cube is just as (if not more) effective a game piece as a beautifully sculpted miniature. Sometimes themes get in the way more than they draw players into their own worlds. In a handful of rare instances, sometimes everything fits together perfectly. Onitama is one of those tabletop games that deftly establishes a world in which its gameplay mechanics totally make sense. Just how engaging that gameplay may actually be, regrettably, often comes down to random card selection.

The Shrine of Onitama is sacred ground for practitioners of the martial arts. Masters of various schools make pilgrimages there to test themselves and their students in unarmed combat against disciples of other schools. It is said to be a mystical place where the spirit animals who inspire various martial arts styles can be channeled into devastating attacks.

Onitama taps into that same part of players’ brains that chess has done so successfully for hundreds of years. There are, however, some key differences. Gone is the 8X8 grid that gamers have known for generations, replaced by a much more claustrophobic 5X5 grid. Also gone are chess’ six unique game pieces along with their individualized movement restrictions. Instead, Onitama puts players in control of four students and a single master. The master is placed in the middle square of each player’s home row and is flanked by two students on either side. Rules for movement are determined by randomly drawing five of the 16 move cards included in the brilliantly designed game box. Each player takes two move cards, an additional one is drawn and placed next to the board, and the rest are returned to the box. All five cards being used are displayed face up, so that both players can see all potential moves.

Let’s focus on the move cards. They’re all named after members of the animal kingdom and feature cool-looking kanji and fitting flavor text. There are four blue cards, four red cards, and eight green cards. Blue and red cards are opposites of one another (blue goose and red rooster for example), with one heading more to the right and the other more to the left. The eight green cards are centered, offering the same options for moving left or right. Once a player activates a card to move one of his five pieces, it is immediately replaced by the unassigned card and the activated card moves to the side of the play mat. Repeating this pattern, all five moves rotate between players throughout the game. A player wins by either taking the opponent’s master (moving either a student or master into the space it occupies) or by maneuvering her own master onto her opponent’s temple arch.

Single sessions of Onitama can range from quick lightning strikes that are over in an instant to grueling slogs that ultimately test players’ patience to truly engaging dances with opponents jockeying for position. Unfortunately, which of these types players are likely to experience boils down mostly to which of the 16 move cards are randomly selected at the beginning of the game. If the randomly selected cards offer few compelling movement options, players are in for an underwhelming experience. On the other hand, the right combination of cards can make for some incredibly tense battles of wits. A Player could also hold onto a single move card for the entirety of the game if they wish to limit their opponent’s maneuverability. That can be a bit of a bummer too. Fortunately, after a few games it’s easy to see at a quick glance whether or not the five move cards in play are going to make for an enjoyable game. If not, just redraw some cards to replace them. Or screw the whole random drawing mechanic and do your own card draft!

Onitama: Sensei’s Path is a necessary expansion for anyone who quickly grows tired of the 16 move cards included in the base game. It doubles the number of potential move cards (or replaces the original deck) with six new blue cards, six new red cards, and four new green cards. They give plenty of new options for movement and feature the same great stylistic choices as seen in the original deck. The only real negative aspect of this expansion is the massively wasteful packaging. The box design made sense for the base game, but this expansion is nothing more than a small deck of cards! Packaging waste aside, it’s a quality expansion to a game of surprising depth. (Arcane Wonders) by Kris Poland