Five Reasons I Love Onitama

Let’s be honest here: I’m not an abstract strategy game kind of girl.  Growing up, I could never beat my father in checkers. In junior high, I encountered a chess player who assumed I must not be intelligent, since I didn’t play chess.  That put me off abstract strategy games (and chess players) nearly entirely, and more than three decades later, I still don’t play chess.  Maybe I’ll get around to learning it someday.  Or, you know…not.

I’ll never understand how I managed to give birth to a son who so thoroughly enjoys chess. Where did I go wrong?

Okay, I’m jesting. Maybe. A little. He really does enjoy chess, and I really enjoy gaming with him, but in this house, “chess” and “with mom” are mutually exclusive. What we really needed was a game that feels chess-like, but plays faster and lighter.


Enter Onitama, published by Arcane Wonders.

I love this game.

Here’s why:

  1. It plays quickly. Arcane Wonders says it plays in 15 minutes, and once you’ve played a game or two, that’s pretty accurate, assuming neither you nor your opponent bogs down in AP (analysis paralysis). The beauty in this is that you don’t need to bog down in AP; if you’re not happy with how you’re playing, you can play again in a few minutes!
  2. There are only 5 cards, 10 pieces, and 25 squares in a game. This is in sharp contrast to the 32 pieces and 64 squares in a chess game. Plainly said, there are fewer things to track and a smaller area in which to track them, contributing to both the shorter playing time and lighter feel of the game. It also means that there are no long strings of ho-hum opening rounds–the board is tight, and you get down to business from turn one.
  3. It’s a good gateway game as well as a good game for people who play chess to play with people who don’t. The move cards provide visual reminders of which moves are available to you on a particular turn and what your opponent can do in response to your moves.  There are only five cards per game, they’re randomized, and they rotate between players, so you only have two of them available at any given moment.
  4. It has excellent table presence. The player board, which is printed on the equivalent of a mouse pad, has lovely artwork; it adds to the feel of the game but isn’t a distraction. The move cards are likewise both pretty and clearly functional. The pieces are well-made and attractive. I’ve played in a McDonald’s, and it drew questions from nearby children as well as a tournament chess player.
  5. It’s fun. Each game is different from the one before it, and this makes for interesting choices and a lot of replay value. If you lose, you handed your opponent the move card used to beat you. It makes you think, but never feels like work. Best of all, game end is often followed by a request:
    “One more game?”

In short, Onitama is a fun, attractive, quick game which is an accessible introduction to abstract strategy but still interesting to more experienced gamers.

My answer to the request for one more game:
“…would you prefer to shuffle or set up the pieces?”

What’s your go-to abstract strategy game for gateway situations? Feel free to share in the comments below, and check out my Instagram post for an Onitama setup using Azul components.

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