Even the Masters Are Pawns
I have a tender spot in my theme-and-potatoes soul for abstract games. And Onitama is one of the most gripping, teachable, and clever abstract games I’ve played in a very long time — perhaps the best, even, since The Duke. Maybe even better.
Onitama doesn’t look like much at first glance. Even I was skeptical. How could I not be? With only five pieces to a side, four regular pawns and a “master” who behaves in every way identically to the little guys but with the added danger of getting captured and losing the match, it doesn’t exactly swagger around with a surfeit of substance on its sleeve. The 5×5 grid seems cramped. The pawns smell like Silly Putty and, along with the roll-up mat, seem dramatically overproduced.
Five minutes into my first attempt at Onitama, all my concerns had evaporated. This is a game that knows size isn’t what matters. The compact grid gives the exact right amount of wiggle room, giving you enough space to move around but not so much that you’re ever overwhelmed with options. And the way you move your pieces around — well, that’s where this game starts to show its brilliance.
Here’s how it works. There are 16 moves in Onitama, each representing a different style of martial art. Sounds like a bit much, right? Well go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief, because each match only features five of those. At any given time, you have two moves in front of you. Your opponent also has two moves in front of her. And there’s a fifth move on cooldown, waiting to be passed between players. Whenever you use a style, you pass it halfway to your opponent, where it waits on the table until they take a move of their own and claim the one you just spent.
This is very cool stuff, with deep implications for the strategies unfolding in front of you, because every single thing you do will eventually empower your opponent. It might sound like passing the same moves back and forth could result in endless stalemates, and that can certainly happen if neither player is paying much attention. On the other hand, those who study a match’s five moves will find all sorts of ways to take advantage of the back-and-forth flow of styles and opportunities.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you have the Rabbit style, a move that lets you either move a pawn diagonally forward and to the right or jump across an intervening space to the right. Basically, this is a very good move when used to move pieces in a rightward direction. The trouble is that if you lead with it, you’ll end up with pawns on the right side of the board. This might not matter depending on the other moves on the table, but there’s a chance that if you use the Rabbit style early on, you won’t be able to use it particularly effectively once the game really gets going. Better to move up pieces on the left side first, giving Rabbit the room it needs to breathe later on.
Or let’s say you’re holding Tiger (a leap forward) or Dragon (big diagonal jumps). In a game where most options only let you slide a single space, these are incredibly potent styles, making it tempting to spend them on capturing pawns. However, it might be better to hold onto such styles and worry instead about getting your master into a position where they might give you an unexpected victory. See, there are two ways to win at Onitama. You can capture the opposing master or maneuver your own master into the center space of the opponent’s back row. This gives the game a constant forward momentum. And by holding onto the rare jumping moves, you might be able to place your master in a safe spot that will easily leap into that prize-winning spot on the next turn.
Ultimately, this is a game about using moves in such a way that they benefit you without helping your opponent. It’s difficult to describe, as many abstract games are, but it’s absolutely a cinch to teach. Each match lasts maybe 15 minutes, and that’s with plenty of thinking thrown in — an absolute necessity, especially since the tiny board and tight flow of information make it possible to hold mental images of two, three, or even four as-yet-untaken moves, branching trees of potential moves and counter-moves analyzed with relative ease. It’s the sort of thing we talk about doing in abstract games, but thanks to the way all of Onitama’s information is readily parsable, here it’s entirely possible to be playing a duel in the future more than playing the actual board state.
To recap: this is smart stuff, easy on newcomers, tough on the brain (but in a good way), and it takes 15 minutes to play. Other than the fact that some people don’t particularly enjoy games where their self-image as geniuses is on the line — or, to be less snarky, games that require a solid brain-burn — I can’t think of a downside.