Onitama Review

Onitama Feature
Released 2014
Designer Shimpei Sato
Publisher Arcane Wonders (Website)
Players 2
Playing Time 15-20 minutes
Category Abstract Strategy
BoardGameGeek View on BGG

So many ‘Wax on, wax off’ jokes

When you say two player abstract strategy game, people will either look at you strangely or think you are talking about chess. No real reason – it’s just one of those interesting things I have observed over the years.  It’s kind of when you say you play board games, and people just assume you are talking about Monopoly or Risk.

Chess has a well-deserved place in gaming history.  Believed to have originated in India before the 7th century, Chess is a game that almost everyone in the western world has been exposed to. It is the epitome of ‘simple to learn, hard to master’ type design, and a game that today’s game review, Onitama, will be compared to again and again.

One one hand, one way to win is to take the opponent’s king piece.  But in the lore of Onitama, two martial arts schools are facing off to show which is the better school.  Which sounds more exciting to you?

I have heard Onitmata referred to as ‘simplified Chess with a theme’, and as usual this is both correct and wildly inaccurate.

The components and presentation definitely make it look like Chess.  A small board of squares and five pieces per side certainly give the impression of Chess, but when you look at the pieces you pause.

Two sides, red and blue.  All of the pieces look like they are from a bad Kung Fu parody.  And in some ways, they are.

A beautiful square box opens and reveals a game that has been bought back to life with care by Arcane Wonders

But if you have any knowledge of Chess, you already have an idea of how to play Onitama.  Five pieces, four smaller pawns and one ‘king’ type piece.  Chess players are wondering by now what the moves are, and if the game is as simple as taking the old man king piece.

And here is where Onitama throws such players a curve.  Each game, there are only five moves available – two in front of each player, the legal move, and a floating move that is rotated out.

It can sound complicated initially, but movement in Onitama is surprisingly simple.  Of the two cards before you, choose one piece to move as shown on the card.  It doesn’t matter which piece, as long as it’s a legal move – no wrapping around the board or other tricks.

When you have made your move, push that move to the side of the board and take the move that was waiting.  These are your new moves for the next turn.

The Move cards allow lots of play variety, but also helps players visualise the options

Play continues like this until one of the two victory conditions are met.

The first condition, ‘The Way of Stone’, is similar to traditional Chess.  Here, you simply take the opposing Master (king piece).  It does not matter which piece takes the master, just that it is taken.

The second condition, ‘The Way of Water’, is subtler and a challenge.  You simply need to get your Master into the opponents school – the square there Master starts on.  This sounds simple, but trying solely for this condition adds a lot of challenge to the game.

And that’s it.  Two players try to outplay each other.  Onitama is simple, quick to learn, and has a loose theme that instantly makes people click on what to do.  Try and suggest a simple Chess variant to people, and they will run for the hills.

But a game with two rival martial arts schools that takes about 10-15 minutes?  That gets people interested 🙂

But if you take this track, you may still get the hurdle of “You’re trying to get me to play Chess” when you set them in front of the setup game.  If this happens, the person is probably just against Chess and will see nothing but the similarities and it may be best to switch games.

You hope people will see the pieces facing off, but a some people just see the Chess similarities

It’s games like Onitama that also tend to trigger a strange pattern when I watch people trying to find new players.  I have seen arguments with people trying hard to get friends and/or partners to play games like Onitama.  This is really a game that can simply be explained as a Chess variant, but that offers so much more.  But some people will only hear the words ‘Chess Variant’ and make up their minds before they hear anything else.

If someone doesn’t want to play bigger games like Twilight Imperium I see people tend to just accept it.  But a quick game that someone won’t even try?  People will spend hours trying to convince another they are wrong.

Remember we all have this kind of preconception about different things.  It’s a fine line between trying to open someone’s mind to a new experience and bullying someone into doing something they don’t want to.

One of the things that cause this type of friction is a perceived simplicity on the positive side, and in Onitama that is the move cards.

One one hand, restricting the movement to five random moves each game is a great opportunity for mixing it up and keeping things simple.

But the moves offer more than that.  By having the moves printed on the card with the valid moves highlighted in a grid, it makes it easier to visualise on the board the valid moves.  One problem people have in Chess is seeing all of the possible moves, and with these cards, both players can see all of the options at the same time.

Simple, clear, and easy to visualise on the board. Onitama's move cards are truly it's best and most underappreciated component.

Even experienced strategy players can get benefit from these cards. There have been many games I have played with people I consider experienced gamers where my opponent was so focused on their own strategy and cards.  Simply, they forgot they could just look at my options.

Now when I am trying to help other players, stopping them and explaining my options can take a while and take them out of their thought process. This is the kind of help that can put of players from some games, it can be so distracting.  In Onitama though, simply pointing at my cards to remind them to look at my options as well as theirs does the same thing in literally seconds – it’s a natural tactical recovery form them and they don’t break their mental rhythm.

Moves on a card might look a simple thing, but Onitama really nailed a deep strategy game that is truly accessible to players of all skill levels and play styles with this ability.

Onitama’s components are beautiful without going overboard.  The neoprene playmat is nice and folds nicely.  The cardstock is nice, and the print clear.  The box itself feels good to open and close with its magnetic seal.

But the pieces?  I am really torn on these.  They are weighty and easy to tell apart, almost like the feel of quality poker chips in your hands.  But I sometimes get a sense of casual racism from the simplified stereotypical design.  It’s not something that stops me from playing or embarrasses me, but the design does seem to play up to an old parody stereotype.

That said, I really want to paint these figures and finish off the feel of the game.

I am tempted to paint these guys. I need to get my eye in, so that could be a future project.

There is also another great thing about Onitama.  For everything you get, it’s relatively cheap.  USD$30 or here in Australia $50 if you hunt around, the replayability and depth of Onitama cannot be understated.

Simply put, Onitama is a beautifully simple game that is simple and beautiful in its execution.  If you are looking for a gateway abstract game, Onitama is near perfect addition to any shelf – as long as you don’t mind convincing people it’s really not Chess.

Until next time,

Onitama - Kung Fu meets Chess

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of people that look at chess but are intimidated by the number of possible moves at any time.

Onitama simultaneously simplifies the number of choices while capturing the strategic thinking of chess.  The random moves allow massively variable play while making it clear where the limited number of pieces can go.

I have met very few people that have not enjoyed playing Onitama, and I think everyone should give it a go if they get the chance.  This is a game that will be in my ‘take to games night’ shortlist for a long time to come.

Until next time,



  •  Easy to teach and learn
  •  Gorgeous design
  •  Very quick to play


  •  May have to convince people it’s not ‘Chess’
  •  If you get opponents that only play one set of moves, can get very boring
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