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Review: Onitama

Onitama is a simplified, quick, tactical game between two players. The box claims this game is “An elegant and simple game of martial tactics”. Does it stand up to this description though?

Onitama Box Open
2 players | ~15 minutes | Beginner – Medium Difficulty

Upon opening this curiously shaped box, the simple and refined design of this game is clear. The components only include one roll-out game mat, 10 solid plastic pieces, and a deck of 16 card. Onitama does not require reading or memorization to play and games are short, so the game is generally child friendly.  The 14 year old+ age recommendation should only be expected for serious gameplay or tournaments.  Even though this game is simple to learn, there is a fair amount of tactical gameplay.

Onitama gameplay feels bit like various Chess training puzzles, but more dynamic and against a real opponent. Unlike Chess, all pieces for a player have the same movement choices each turn. Instead, two different movement cards available per turn limit the possible moves. Turns rotate after a single move like most abstract games, but a player chooses a move from only the two cards available on that turn.

Once a player uses a card and makes a corresponding move, the player discards this card into the empty space at the side of the mat between the players. The first player then takes the card that was sitting in the space between players on the other side of the mat before the turn. The next player continues this pattern until the end of the game.

Like in Chess, a player can win by capturing the Shaolin Master (King) of the opposing player. In addition, a player can win if a Shaolin Master reaches the throne space in the middle of the opposite side of the board first.


  • The very short rulebook includes great visual examples of rules and gameplay.
  • Instead of a board, the game plays out on a rubbery mat that rolls out from the box. The mat and game box are extremely portable.
  • The mat art fits the Kung-Fu (aka wuxia) theme perfectly with the drawings of Shaolin temples.
  • The playing pieces look like Shaolin monks and add to the theme. The pieces also have a nice, solid feel to them.
  • The cards are thoughtfully done, easy to understand with clear visuals. The cards are the heart of this game. They also give the game a mild wuxia feel through the move names and descriptive text.
  • The black square on a card represents any space where one of the current player’s pieces reside. The blue or red clay colored spots represent the possible moves from the current space with that card.  See the first picture of Onitama in play below for reference.

Onitama Play

Onitama in play | photo by Henk Rolleman
Onitama in play | photo by Henk Rolleman


  • Turns are very quick thanks to the reduced number of possible moves in comparison to most abstract games
  • The board is small and there are only 5 pieces per player so there is no time to build a long-term strategy. Onitama rarely goes past 30 minutes of total game time.
  • Tactical play is deep and varied enough to keep replay high.  When a player uses a movement card, the opposing player can use that card in as little as two turns.  Therefore, good gameplay weighs the best possible move this turn against the likelihood that the opponent could use the same card later for a future advantage.
  • The components add somewhat to the theme but the gameplay is purely abstract in nature.


  • The simple mechanics and quick play makes Onitama interesting even for gamers that usually prefer theme heavy games.
  • The gameplay includes extremely low luck and high skill.  Unlike other recent abstract games, the designers were clearly uninterested in trying to improve upon Chess, if this is even possible.  Instead, Onitama feels like a sort of quick and raw version of a mini speed Chess game. If a Chess player does not have time for a game of Chess but wants to play a complete game of skill, Onitama works perfectly.
  • The Tiger movement card in certain movement card combinations strategically break this game when played perfectly by a player. Therefore, expert abstract game players should not play with this card if expectations are for a well-balanced and varied game.
  • Onitama was officially published this year. The tactics carry over very well from Chess, but there has been very little deep analysis of this game to date. If a very good Chess player has the interest, there is a real possibility of building a reputation as a top player.

Collection Management

Onitama is among the most approachable pure abstract games ever designed. It naturally works as a filler game for two players while waiting for the rest of a group to arrive. On the other hand, a small round robin or moderate sized bracket or Swiss style tournament could be enjoyed by most people in about 3 hours using a 25 minute game time limit. This game could even fit into a the game library of a Chess player for any time when looking for a much shorter game of skill.

On the other hand, Chess masters and abstract game savants could quickly bore of this game. Additionally, Onitama, The Duke, and Hive are somewhat redundant Chess-like games. Onitama could be a welcome replacement for either of these or similar games due to its extremely high accessibility.

Overall, this game gives a fairly unique and dynamic experience that would be welcome in most game libraries.

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