Played on a square grid with five pawns per side, Onitama by Arcane Wonders is an alternative take on Chess. As much as I respect the all-time great, I’m terrible at it. With so many options to think through, I usually result to reckless play or crippling analysis paralysis. Onitama has a unique way of mixing things up that I think work really well.
Each player starts the game with four regular pawns and one main pawn in the middle. The point of the game is to either defeat all of your opponent’s pawns by knocking them out of their space or by taking the opponent’s starting space.
What makes this game unique is the way that moves are handled. Unlike Chess, where each unique piece has its own set of movement rules, moves are governed by move cards, which all players can see. Players will start with two each while a fifth is put to the side. The remaining 11 cards are not used. On your turn, you can use either move card and apply its movement rule onto any of your pawns. After that, you’ll swap the move card you just used with the one in the middle.
Being limited to only two moves at a time gives this game a few neat dynamics. One, the game generally moves faster, as there are fewer movement options to think through. Two, being able to apply the same move logic to any pawn can make for some really interesting offensive and defensive tactics. Furthermore, you have to plan ahead, as the move you lose now will be given up immediately after.
Going into this, I had concerns that it would be too simplistic. After a few games, I was gladly proven wrong. Between which move to use and which pawn to apply the move to while trying to account for your opponent’s next move options gave me enough to process without being overwhelmed. Some games can wrap up in five minutes if someone makes a crucial mistake, though most of our games were between 15 and 30.
Onitama is not going to overtake Chess, but it is a fast and clever alternative. I enjoy playing this one and the build quality of the components is great. Wish it came with a few more move cards for variety, though it’s something that could be easily addressed in an expansion. Give this one a go if the opportunity arises.