Updated: Jun 28, 2019
Good abstract strategy games are hard to find. Because of their abstract nature, the game mechanics are one of the two key hooks for people to enjoy the game. The second hook being rules that are easy to pick up and remember. Some theme could be added to spice things up, but if the mechanics are not solid, then the game will fall apart and if players can‘t remember the rules after a hiatus of playing, then it won’t be picked up. Onitama succeeds in both of these regards.
Onitama is a two player game pitting martial arts masters against each other along with their pupils. Each player gets two cards that dictate how one of their pieces can move. After using a card, that card goes to the other player. The goal is to either capture the opposing master or move your own master to the opposing temple.
The theme of the game serves the mechanics surprisingly well. The types of movements on the cards reflect various martial arts moves and mimic the name (i.e. Tiger launches ahead two spaces or crouches back one space). Even the flow of the cards between the players with cards always moving clockwise around the table feels reminiscent of being in a Kung-fu movie where you go with the flow. Unrolling the mat itself feels like unrolling an ancient scroll. The game does a good job making you feel like a martial artist.
The rule book feels longer than it should. The mechanics are easy to learn and simple enough to remember even after months of not playing. It is akin to playing Checkers and not as “complicated” as Hive or Chess in terms of remembering what to do. The main things to remember are the two win conditions and then how cards flow between players.
This game is up there in depth along with Hive and Chess. At all times you know exactly what cards/moves will be available in the game so you can plan your moves accordingly. The cards are designed in a way that you can see how pieces could potentially move from the point of view of either player. Each move takes a lot of thought and planning ahead can catch your opponent off guard.
Due to the simplicity of the rules and the high level of depth, this is a game one can easily pick up and play with any friend even if they don’t know the rules. We wish they made a smaller travel version as we think it would be great to play on a plane or at the airport. This is one of our go-to’s on the shelf.
Onitama is an easy to learn two player strategy game that ties its martial arts theme to solid mechanics very well. The game succeeds in transporting you to a world where you are a master martial artist. It is comparable to Hive or Chess and is a must have for anybody who likes strategy games.