Shuffle Reviews: Onitama

Onitama – A Surprising Challenge
Onitama is a two-player abstract game, simple to understand, and generally quick to play.  Most games will last 5-10 minutes, but with such a short game time, you will be surprised how much strategy is involved.

It is described as a “perfect information” game. There is no hidden information, no revealing extra information or actions through the game, and yet it is this simplicity which gives the game its beauty.

The game is played on a 5×5 grid. Each player occupies the entire row on one edge, his or her opponent on the opposite side. The central piece of each row is the “master” pawn – and if this piece is taken from the game by your opponent, or if the master pawn’s starting space is occupied by your opponent, it’s game over, you lose.

Players take turn to move one pawn at a time. Each move is dictated by a card – cards show a number of possible moves, and players decide which pawn takes one of the possible moves. If a player moves a pawn onto a space occupied by their opponent’s pawn, the opponent’s pawn is removed from the game
Any given game only features five such cards, and herein lies the simple, beautiful strategy.   Each player starts with two cards, with a fifth card on the side of the play area.

When a player activates a pawn by moving on the manner depicted on one of his or her cards, that card is then swapped out for the card on the side. This means that the card you discard on your turn becomes available to your opponent immediately after their turn.

The strategy comes in considering which cards to make available (or not!) to your opponent, knowing that they have a card which they may not want to play yet.

Each turn you take is therefore a careful consideration of strategy, driven by the need to balance your own possible positioning on the board for best effect, whilst also trying to kneecap your opponent, by simultaneously preventing them from having the moves available to them which would assure a win.
It would be easy to liken Onitama to chess – indeed the move planning and management has a similar feel, but it plays very differently, as each pawn can take a number of possible moves (and the move selection changes turn by turn), and there are fewer pawns on a smaller board. The board itself sometimes seems to present a strategic element, as it can also limit the card actions/moves available.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the playtesting of this game, so I am aware of a number of additional move cards which were considered. It definitely feels like they made sensible selections in restricting the availability of some moves. Playtesters also saw other cards in the mix which change the way that game play feels (such as cards which allow you to move your opponent’s pawns instead of your own); it would be nice to see some of these appear as a mini-expansion.

The only reservation I have with this game is with the dual vulnerability of Master pawn and Master Pawn Starting Space. This inevitably leads to the tendency to avoid bringing out your Master Pawn (he is no more powerful than the other pawns, after all), since this keeps the number of spaces you need to protect to a minimum. Also, if the Master Pawn remains on his starting space, he can provide it additional protection. There may be more to be gained from making a full on assault with all five pawns, but since the Master Pawn is also a target, this is a risky strategy. And if one of your opponent’s pawns manages to break through your lines, there are few cards which allow you to move backwards (there may not be any in a given game). This means you cannot back up to capture the invading pawn, making management of cards available to your opponent even more crucial. It would be nice to see some way of mitigating this in additional cards (remember the cards I mentioned during playtesting?)
For such a simple game, the presentation is a delight. A magnetic snap box, neoprene play mat, and figures for pawns all give this game a feeling of quality. For a quick two-player filler, Onitama deserves to be on a lot of shelves.

Louis Noble is a regular contributor for Shuffle and Play – Check our ‘Contributors page to see his bio!

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