Each player takes the role of an aspiring martial arts Master, aided by his or her students. By cunning movement (card play) you'll try to outmaneuver or overpower your opponent.
Onitama is an abstract two-player game, where each player takes the role of an aspiring Master of the martial arts leading their students into battle. From a strictly gameplay point of view, it looks like a simplified version of Chess played with cards, but it is much deeper and varied than that.
The game has several quotes from various works such as the “Book of Heaven, Seventh Scroll” or “The Scroll of Onitama.” They’re only used as either flavor text or to obliquely introduce a new section of the rulebook.
Although it is a game about martial arts, it is no more violent than a game of Chess.
Onitama proves that games do not need to be complex or take a long time to set up to hold players’ attention for a long time, or be fun at all. Let me explain the setup: players get out the 10 pawns (1 master and 4 students in red and blue), roll out the game mat which feels like a high-quality mousepad so it resists rolling back up, then shuffle and deal out 2 movement cards to each player, then a 5th card determines who goes first. That’s it.
Players move according to the card they choose, and are trying to either capture the opposing master (winning via the Way of the Stone) or by moving your Master pawn into the opponent’s starting archway (winning via the Way of the Stream). The high replay value comes from the fact that there are 16 different movement cards, but only 4 of them will be used each game.
Games are straightforward affairs as each player leaves their movement cards face-up. This might lend some players to have a bit of Action Paralysis, but I liked being able to look at the two moves my opponent had at their disposal, and try to also keep in mind that anything I did this round would be added to their move-set in the following round (once a player uses a card it gets passed to their opponent).
Each card has a quote pertaining to a different animal’s school of martial arts, and shows in clear detail the possible spaces to move to. Some even felt thematically appropriate, such as Tiger being able to jump ahead two spaces, the Elephant’s possible movement squares looking like an elephant’s head, or the Dragon’s movement looking like spread out wings. My personal favorite however has to be Boar. “Watch for opportunity, for it will present itself. Then strike, focusing all your might into a single rush, trampling your opponent’s Art under your own.” Boar lets you move forward, left, or right one space, and lets me shout “I AM BOAR!” every time I play it (obscure Kung-Fu Panda reference, sorry).
Sometimes a strength can be viewed as a weakness, and I’m just going to briefly talk about the couple things that keep a great game like this from reaching 10-status. The fact that games can end in just a few minutes can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how players look at it. It’s so easy to set up and go again that it really doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I could see how it would be frustrating for some to have a game end after just a few moves. However, often in those situations the fault lies with the player, not the game (hate the player not the game).
The one problem that is not in the player’s power to control is the rare occasion when someone can get painted into a corner, or feel like there is no way possible to escape or prevent the opponent from winning. Because the movement cards are so specific and don’t always have the exact movement directions a player needs, on rare occasions a player can find himself stuck moving left when his opponent is just to his right. I can recall one game against my son when all he had to do is move one space to his left to stop me, but none of the cards at his disposal would let him do so. I was able to waltz right into his temple arch without him being able to do anything about it. This rarely happened, however.
Onitama is one of my new favorite two-player games; it’s quick, easily set up and explained, and has high-quality components and art. I am hard-pressed to find a better game in a higher-quality package.
A review copy was provided by Arcane Wonders.
+ Great two-player game
+ More accessable and easier setup than Chess
+ Adorned with beautiful art
- Games can end quickly
- Occasionally players can get painted into a corner