20 May 2023
We take the first move in this abstract game where you build the rules as you go. But watch out, whatever you give to your opponent will come back to bite you in the end in Onitama
Words by Christopher John Eggett
In a previous Have You Played? we took a look at Hive, one of our favourite abstract games, and in doing so mentioned Onitama as one of those abstracts that can replace chess for players who are looking for a modernised game that won’t intimidate potential opponents. Onitama is the most ‘chessy’ looking of those we brought up in passing, and even has familiar shapes in some of the moves. For those who don’t want to stray too far from the world of chess, they’ll find a fantastic new home here.
WHAT IS IT?
Chess often gets called a war game. Whether you want to argue about whether that is the case or not, we all agree the point – one side tries to defeat the other by removing their pieces from the board and capturing their leader. Onitama has the same principle at its core, but it’s something completely different in its make up.
Onitama isn’t a war, it’s a dance. Each player starts with two cards in front of them which detail the shape of a move they could take. These might be complex diagonal zig-zags, clever side-jumps or straightforward charges. On their turn they’ll choose which one to play, and they’ll move the piece of their choice of the five on the board (a king and four pawns). Once that’s done their opponent will choose a move card of their own and play it. Then the cards will be placed so they can be added to the opponent’s hand next turn.
That’s the dance. Whatever you do now, your opponent will be able to do shortly. Maybe more importantly than this, you won’t be able to repeat the same move as last time.
At the start this is a confusing wrinkle – players often build an idea of their strategy based on the firm knowledge of what they’ll be able to do next turn. It makes sense to build up your tactical planning around a small set of actions you can repeat – it’s easy to see those shapes and moves ahead on the board. People are good at creating patterns with their brains and repeating and rearticulating the same one on a grid is second nature to many gamers.
Every move in the game, because you pass it on, has a bittersweet element to it. Rather than just thinking about what your next moves are going to be, you will be thinking about what your opponents will do with that exact move. While this might sound quite standard – a lot of games have this element in them somewhere, we are always looking for what our opponent is up to – here you’re the one originating those options. You can sometimes feel like you’ve cursed yourself with what you’ve handed over. The choices your opponent will have available to them are also limited – they have a fifty percent chance of using the card you gave them a moment ago, or the one before.
WHY SHOULD YOU PLAY IT?
The game leans into its head-to-head nature with these ‘dance’ mechanics. The back and forth is very real – players second guess themselves with what they’re going to hand over to the opposition. What will they do with this move next round, or the one after? Visualising it is a little trickier than a normal chess board where the moves are attached to pieces. Any piece here can move with any move in the hand of the opponent, making the mental model for exploring the options of you and your opponent feel fresh and exciting.
Of course, there’s only so much of this that will go on. While chess is war, Onitama’s dance is more like fencing. The back and forth of the game is quick. You might get through three or four games in an hour, if not more if one player is on a roll. This is the true joy of any abstract game in the end, that repeatable clashing of heads. Having a few drinks and taking turns outdoing one another in a game is what it’s all about. This speed also lends itself to learning the game and the cards moves within, soon different combinations of cards will teach you different things about the game and force you to adjust your play style.
As players learn the game they’ll find their strategies start to firm up, and if you have a regular game partner then you’ll find their skill grows too.
And this isn’t the only rewarding thing about Onitama. The community around the game is deeply invested in the game. A browse on Board Game Geek’s forums shows people making versions of the game out of stone and wood, or sometimes more interestingly, variants of the game.
See, unlike a game like Hive, Onitama asks to be mucked about with. A slight tweak to a couple of rules can make the game a new, weird, and wonderful experience. After about ten games while learning it for the first time, My opponent and I tried out a few variants of our own devising. Mainly these were around the way cards were dished out and held, whether we could add a draw deck or discard pile. Other popular variants include those which offer a ‘I-cut-you-choose’ mechanic, and those which give one player a disadvantage – particularly good for mismatched players.
And if making up your own versions in a game doesn’t work for you, there are of course expansions. Way of the Wind is a particularly interesting one, adding a wind pawn to the board, which is neutral and mostly spends its time mucking people about. The wind pawn blocks movement, and the cards allow you to move one of your own pieces, and then the wind pawn.
But maybe you don’t need all of that just yet. Maybe just the simple dance back and forth will keep you going. It certainly works for us.
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