Designer: Shimpei Sato
Artist: Jun Kondo
Publisher: Arcane Wonders
Number of Players: 2
Playing time: 10 minutes
Onitama is 2-player abstract game created by Shimpei Sato and published by Arcane Wonders. This is the second game in Arcane Wonder's "Dice Tower Essentials" line, a series of republished games headed by Tom Vasel, the creator of the website/podcast The Dice Tower. Onitama only takes a minute to learn and a couple minutes to play, but it packs a lot of game into a little package. I picked up my copy shortly after trying a demo at Dice Tower Con in July, and the volunteers and employees working with Arcane Wonders had told me it had been flying off of the shelves since they released it.
Onitama is played on 5x5 square mat with five pieces per player. Each player takes their five pawns (4 students and 1 master) and places the master piece in the middle "temple arch" section on their side. The student pieces fill out the rest of the row. Players take turns maneuvering and capturing their opponents pieces until one of the win conditions are met. Players win through the Path of the Stone (capturing their opponent's master pawn) or by the Path of the Stream (getting their master pawn into the opposing player's temple arch square on the opposite side of the board).
The key mechanic that separates Onitama from other abstract games like Chess or Hive is the movement cards. Each player is dealt two of the movement cards, with a fifth one set aside. Each card tells you where your pawns can move. Some allow pawns to move diagonally or side to side, others allow them to jump several spaces across the board. Each time you use a movement card, you replace it with the middle card that is sitting between the two players. That means that next turn, your opponent will get the same movement card, and you'll be getting one of theirs, switching back and forth between the two players until a victor is declared. And since there are 16 different movement cards, it means no two games will play out the same.
The game has absolutely no luck involved. It is open-information, and you can see what your opponents can do and what they are able to do several turns ahead. No one strategy is stronger than the others. The game does have a strong Chess feeling, and those familiar with that game will feel comfortable playing this game. The game is not overly colorful but not entirely bland either: the art design fits perfectly with the feeling of the game. There's little chance of being distracted by overly ornate pieces or colorful cards when you're trying to outwit your opponent.
I don't own many abstract games; I'm someone who enjoys a good theme to their game. That being said, Onitama is such a unique and challenging experience that I couldn't pass it up. The movement cards are so diverse that each round feels like a completely different game. It's easy to explain, set up, and play, and I can understand why it sold out so quickly. I highly recommend Onitama. If you're like me and always on the lookout for a good two-player game, you can't go wrong with this one.