Reviews You Can Use: Onitama

Hats off to Japan’s game designer Shimpei Sato for creating this “elegant and simple game of martial tactics.”

Onitama‘s complicated predecessor Shogi remains largely inaccessible to chess enthusiasts in the Western world (owing to Shogi’s two-dimensional complexity, prisoners of war, promoted pieces and Japanese characters.)  Here at last, is a delightfully accessible way to enjoy a Japanese spin on an old favorite of the Eastern world, playable in half the time (or less) than the time that’s usually required for two players to complete a proper game of Shogi.


What makes Onitama delightfully accessible, you ask?  Everything about it.  Sturdy compact packaging festooned with Far East flavor.  Durable playing pieces of blue and red, against a golden yellow backdrop of the roll-up playmat board make for a pleasant primary colors aesthetic.


Cards accompany the pieces to complete the picture; each card adorned with different animals (such as Dragon, Elephant and Rabbit) representing the legal moves of any one piece during any one turn of gameplay.  With only five of the sixteen cards used during a match of Onitama, a multitude of possible card combinations can appear from one game to the next.  Herein lies great replay value.

A closer look at the Cobra card (shown below) reveals how legal moves are displayed.  See the black square in the center of the grid.  This black square represents your piece on the board.  The red squares represent your legal moves when performing the technique of Cobra style to advance, attack, patrol or retreat.  During each player’s turn, there’ll be two available techniques to choose from, with a third technique waiting in the wings.  As gameplay progresses, the game’s five cards will flow around and around, with each player ultimately having a say in what becomes an opponent’s card two turns ahead.

Each card is adorned with flavor text, enhancing the atmosphere and giving each player something to think about while their opponent takes his or her turn.  For instance, the Eel card reads “If your opponent strikes with fire, counter with water, becoming completely fluid and freeflowing,” while the Rooster card reads “Do not allow your enemy to rest, but focus your Art to deliver quick, sharp strikes whenever he lags.”  It’s akin to having your own personal advisor or counselor, imparting cryptic and strategic wisdom unto you during the battle, cryptic and strategic.  Your opponent will receive the same guidance during the course of the game, and yet never at the same time.  Above all else, this is perhaps the shiniest example of Onitama‘s brilliance.

Each army consists of five pieces; four students and one master.  Each piece moves according to the legal moves depicted on whichever two cards are available to each player during any given turn of the game.  One key to victory is knowing when (and, perhaps more importantly, knowing when not to) play certain cards, as they will become available to your opponent two turns later.  Unlike the centuries-old Japanese game of Shogi, captured pieces in Onitama remain exactly that:  captured.  Prisoners of war do not return to the battlefield as soldiers for the opposing army here.

With two ways to win (capture the opponent’s master or position your master on the starting space of the opposing master) a player’s strategy might very well change multiple times during the course of a match.  Worthy opponents will know to carefully guard their master’s starting space.  Playing cautiously and conservatively can yield big rewards.  Protect your students as they advance.  Use decoys sparingly.  Use traps wisely.  Know the merits of sitting on one card for as many turns before playing it (such as the Boar card, which enables a piece to advance one space forward orthagonally; important because less than a third of all cards combined will allow this as a legal move – Boar, Crab, Crane, Horse and Ox.)  Keep a watchful eye on the Tiger card (if it’s one of the five cards in play,) for it is the technique of Tiger style which allows a piece to advance TWO spaces forward (the only card to do so.)  Remember that each army has only five pieces, and the action takes place on a 5×5 grid.  No piece is expendable.  Every piece is valuable.

Knowing whose turn it is during a game of Onitama is another one of this game’s great features.  Players can enjoy a tea break, leave the game table for a while.  When they return. they’ll always know whose turn it is next by observing the placement of cards on the table.  If a card is waiting in the wings and facing the blue player, it is the blue player who goes next.

Knowing which player goes first to begin a match of Onitama is another excellent part of the game’s sleek design.  Each card has symbols on the bottom right which will either be blue or red.  The fifth card up (the card that starts by waiting in the wings) is the card which determines which player will make the first move. If it is a blue symbol, the blue player goes first.  If it is a red symbol, the red player goes first.

Affordable, lightweight and portable, Onitama is highly recommended for chess enthusiasts, martial artists, and those with a taste for both the abstract and the exotic.