Review: Onitama

Review: Onitama

Onitama is a gorgeous looking game of rival kung fu monks. But does its gameplay live up to its good looks?

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Onitama board game
Onitama is a light, simple abstract game with beautiful presentation.

Anyone who’s been into board games for a while will have come across the terms “Eurogame” and “Ameritrash.” They describe two distinctly different game design philosophies – one which prizes clean, systematic design, and another which crams games with combat, dice chucking and dramatic themes of zombie uprisings and monster-strewn dungeons.

Both styles have their fans and their detractors, and you could argue that these days the distinctions between the two have become so fuzzy that the terms no longer have any real meaning.

But this division of games into American or European camps ignores the fact that an increasing number of new titles are coming from other parts in the world. Case in point: Japan.

In 2012, the tiny, elegant Japanese card game Love Letter became an unexpected hit when US publisher AEG released it to Western players. Designed by Seiji Kanai and consisting of just 16 cards, it sparked a surge of interest in similar simple titles that packed a lot of gameplay into a diminutive package.

Onitama, by designer Shimpei Sato, does just that. A two-player game of rival kung-fu monks, it comes in a box about a third of the size of an average board game (at the risk of sounding like I have a problem, it has pretty much exactly the same dimensions as the box for a nice whisky). Open it up and you’ll find a board – actually a roll-up flexible playmat – with beautiful artwork that looks like something from a classical Chinese scroll. You’ll also find a set of plastic figures representing temple masters and their devoted students.

Onitama board game
Onitama sees players attempt to capture their opponent’s master, or occupy their temple space on the board.

Essentially, this is an abstract strategy game similar to draughts or chess. You’ll move your monks across the board, capturing your opponent’s pieces when you land on spaces they occupy. You’ll win by capturing your rival’s master, or by moving your own master onto the temple space on the opponent’s side of the board.

So far, so unexciting. But what makes Onitama stand out is the way in which it dictates the moves players can make on their turns. Before the game begins you’ll draw five cards from a deck of 16, each showing a different move with a suitably kung-fu-sounding name – Tiger, Dragon, Mantis, err… Goose. You’ll divide these between you and your opponent, and on your turn you’ll choose one of your cards and move one of your figures on the board as it instructs.

And that’s where the game gets interesting, because after you move, you’ll pass your chosen card to your opponent, allowing them to use it against you.

It adds a layer of complexity to the game, and while the options open to you on every turn are limited, there’s some careful consideration required. What looks like a strong, aggressive play can easily open up opportunities for your opponent, and you’ll need to think several moves ahead to avoid blundering into a devastating counter-attack.

It’s a constantly evolving mental puzzle, and it makes Onitama feel like a shrunken and distilled version of chess. But it does have one unfortunate side effect. The constant focus on your opponent’s moves can make for a very conservative start to the game, with players timidly shuffling their pieces around, more concerned about avoiding handing an advantage to their opponent than actually attacking.

There’s also the fact that while the set of movement cards in play changes with every game, some combinations allow for more a more varied range of moves and tactics than others. If you happen to draw cards with broadly similar moves, it can make for a far less interesting time.

But while Onitama has its flaws, it has a lot of things going for it. It’s physically gorgeous – the kind of thing you’ll want to keep sitting on display on your coffee table rather than tucked away on your game shelf. It’s also easy to pick up, and after playing a turn or two you’ll never have to look at the rulebook again. And as a rule, there’s always something to be said for having another quick two-player game in your collection.

If you’re the kind of person who’d rather walk over hot coals than play something this unabashedly abstract and chess-like, Onitama isn’t going to change your mind. But for anyone else, it’s an intriguing and competitive brain-teaser that offers a new challenge every time you play.