Designer: Shimpei Sato
Publisher: Arcane Wonders
Player count: 2
Runtime: 10 minutes
“Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend.”
― Po from Kung Fu Panda
Onitama roughly translates as “Awesome Kung Fu themed abstract game”, which, like a tin of Ronseal, it does exactly as it says on the tin, or in this case, box. This game also graciously offers you the opportunity to constantly refer to your opponent as “Young Grasshopper”, to say things like, “Your Kung Fu is strong”, and of course, “Stop trying to hit me, and hit me”. There is such a thing as being a poor winner, so watch it, as the tide of battle can turn very quickly in Onitama.
One cannot but notice the similarities between Onitama and Chess on first impressions, and although this is true, it is only fleetingly so, it is much like comparing a Harley Davidson to a BMX, more on this later, first bow into the dojo and we shall begin.
You and your opponent are rival Kung Fu dojos, who are battling it out for supremacy, and to the field of this great battle, you take four of your most skilled warriors. Facing off against one another across the tranquil arena you stretch and shake off that nervous pre-fight excitement, bow first to your master, and then respectfully to your opponent and go.
Not quite, Onitama is a game of skilful, precise strikes, of calculated risks, and of considered judgement. Of knowing your opponent, and predicting their attacks and retreats. It is Kung Fu (well, as much as a board game can be Kung Fu). Unlike a game of chess, of near countless openings, strategies and moves, Onitama, deftly, and simply imposes restrictions and limits on your form and creativity. And it does this with a handful of cards. These cards are your movements, all of your attacks and retreats, all with an appropriately Kung Fu-ey related animal names, like Frog or Crab.
Each card further abstracts the game board and depicts it as a simple grid, with a number of the squares shaded, with one being darker than the others. This darkest square is your warrior, any of them, and the shaded cells are all the possible squares they can move to. Should you land on an opponent you take them and they are removed from the game. It is that simple, and yes, up to this point, the game may sound a little linear, and you’d be right, but obviously, that isn’t the game.
You see, you only get five cards per game, randomly drawn from the deck. These are the only moves any player can make. Five cards. Five attacks, five prescribed movements that both players can see, predict and plan for. Again, that may sound a lot more interesting, and it is, but that still isn’t the game.
These five cards total all the cards you’ll use, and you will share them with your opponent in a manner that makes this game very, very interesting. Two will be dealt to you, two to your opponent and the remaining card placed between you both. Any of your pieces can move as either of your cards show, but then you’ll place that card to one side and take the card that was previously left out of the game. Now your opponent does the same, sifting one card at a time between the cards in front, to the card at the side.
This mechanic creates a flow, almost a sense of a dance across the play area as you and your opponent/partner sway back and forth. It creates a harmony and a balance which sits right at home with the theme. One of the things I love about this game is how quick and accessible it is, there is no text to read, its a case of pattern recognition in the moves you can make now, what your opponent can make and what move you can make later. A game of Onitama is so very quick, I don’t think I’ve played a game longer than ten minutes, and in that way the game too feels very kinetic. Although Onitama is an abstract game, the production and these notes of energy and flow really capture and encapsulate that Hollywood-stylised essence of Kung Fu.
So, how much like a game of chess is Onitama? You do move pieces back and forth across a board in varying patterns, the win condition is very similar, it is a greatly abstracted view f a battle, and here, I would say the similarities end. Chess can be “mastered”, there are opening moves that are better than others, someone who has played many games will have little difficulty besting a newbie. Onitama, on the other hand, has such a degree of variability that a “perfect” opening doesn’t exist, as it can’t exist every game. Likewise, chess is often considered a battle above the board as much as it is on it, and Onitama isn’t that. Each of your opponents pieces can only move in two ways, and you can see those two ways, the difference is in this joy of pattern recognition, of building up your opponents move now, and move next and layering that against what you want to do, and the cards/moves you do not want to give them.
The production of this game, heck, even the box screams “Hey, pay attention to me!”, it has a cool magnetic closed box that looks more like a fancy bottle of whiskey than a board game, the insert is moulded perfectly to fit everything nice and tidy, and of course, you have the neoprene plat mat and the gorgeous oversized cards. However, and it’s sizeable, however, it feels overproduced. The moulds on the figures aren’t what I’d expect from a game made in 2014, but even then I think there is a degree of charm, the impression of ancient skill and strategy that this game wants to have is well overshot with plastic models instead of something more solid, timeless and classical. The playmat tough great and functional is, I can’t help but feel is a half inch too narrow, those oversized cards don’t align neatly with my compulsion towards the neat and parallel.
Am I being picky? Yes.
Am I acting like a teenager at a house party dissecting the latest arrival?
(what an odd analogy) Well, yes, I am. But, in my defence, the game is crying out for attention about how it looks more so than how it plays.
And that is the main point, isn’t it? How good is this game? In short, it is a great, quick game that offers an interesting array of game restrictions each time you play. Each game feels noticeably different, and yet fundamentally the same. Part of that greatness stems from its shortness, its brevity, but also for its ‘feel’, it is an abstract game that wears its theme like a well-tailored suit, you’ll see it on the board and the pawns, you’ll see it scrawled across the cards, but you feel it in the game with the flow and sway of combat. Onitama isn’t the type of game you’ll play for hours on end, it is the type of game you play between games, while you’re waiting for your dinner, and it’s perfect to travel with or for lunch break games, and at around £25 you’ll get a lot of mileage out of this little gem.