Onitama is a two-player abstract strategy game in which you and your opponent are martial arts masters battling at the Shrine of Onitama. It has all appearances of a mini-chess game. I’ll admit that made me nervous. See, I’m a bit of a poor loser when it comes to chess. It’s a shame because I love doing chess puzzles, but it’s just not worth subjecting my opponent to my moodiness.
But, I love playing games with Josh and Onitama had excellent reviews, so I gave it a try. I was so glad that I did, because it turns out that to me, Onitama is like one chess puzzle after another. It quickly became one of my favorite two-player games.
Each master arrives at the Shrine flanked by four monks. One wins by either passing through the gate the opposing master is guarding or defeating him by landing on his square.
Unlike chess, all pieces in Onitama can move the same ways. The moves are dictated by (and limited to) the five cards drawn at the beginning of the game. Two are dealt to each player and then the fifth is dealt to the side facing the player with the matching color. That player goes first.
On your turn, you can move any of your pieces according to the pattern on one of the two cards in front of you. It’s no problem moving through other pieces, you just need to land on one of the shaded squares to use the move. Then you place the card on the left side of your board facing the other player, and take the card on standby to the right. Next player takes their turn and so on until a Master is defeated or passes through a gate.
Because you’re limited to a set of five randomly drawn moves, each game of Onitama feels quite different. In some, there’s a scarcity of cards with forward movement. Other sets bias moves toward the left or right. Because all of this is open information, strategizing can become quite intense, too.
The rules are simple, however. It’s a very quick game to teach, even if you’re several pints into a gaming session. Because you have perfect information about all available moves on both sides, too, there’s nothing to remember, no study needed. You can potentially win against a seasoned player the first time you play. I love games like that.
We loved Onitama enough that Josh ordered some promotional cards which allow new movements. I’ll never forget pulling them out of the envelope and both of us saying oooh over the new possibilities. There are four promo cards available out there, plus a full expansion (Sensei’s Path) which has fifteen more. We will also pick this up soon, I imagine, since we enjoy this game so much.
The Pub Play Experience and Other Ratings
The Onitama board is a roll-out mat that would easily survive a bit of moisture from your beer’s condensation or a rogue spill. The pieces are plastic, so perfectly pub proof. The cards are the only thing that require any pub-proofing and require tarot-sized sleeves.
Onitama has a fairly small footprint, so table size usually isn’t a factor. Since no verbal communication is necessary, it’s also easy to play in a noisy bar. The game does require a bit of brain power, but there’s plenty of room to be social between turns. Your partner mulling over a difficult move is the perfect time to get up and buy another round for the table, too.
Although Onitama is a competitive game, it’s not particularly mean. All the moves are out there on the table, it’s up to you to notice them. The meanest you can be is to hold onto a great, powerful card from the second it’s dealt to you, but sometimes that can screw you over anyway. I have a terrible habit of hanging onto the Tiger card the second I get it.
I also have a habit of doing this mantid dance when one of my pieces does the Mantis move. (I assume this is totally accurate.) Generally, Onitama doesn’t get the same sort of notice in the pub as games like Raptor, but maybe it will if I up my dance game a bit.