Onitama Review

By Chris / September 7, 2018
onitama - feature

A two player duel game of strategy, and it's FREE!

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Platforms

Android & iOS

Game Length

< 5 Minutes

# of Players

1-2

Game Publisher

Arcane Wonders

App Developer

@AsmodeeDigital

Our Rating

Multiplayer Options

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    Asynchronous  Online
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    Local Pass and Play
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    Cross-platform
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    Online leaderboards
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    Random matchmaking

Overview

Onitama is a two player hand management, grid movement game from Asmodee Digital. Players take turns moving their pawns across the board attempting to capture opposing pawns. Victory can be achieved via Way of the Stone or Way of the Stream. A game typically finishes in under five minutes.

Onitama is a fascinating take on chess. I, for one, didn’t know I needed an alternate take on chess, but I’m happily surprised by this game. Knowing what your opponent’s movement options are and strategizing ahead is a core component of chess, and that is carried over as the key component of Onitama, with a bunch of other changes, of course.

To begin Onitama, each player places their four pawns and one Master on the row closest to them on a 5x5 grid playing area, the Master is always in the middle column. Each player is then dealt two movement cards. A final fifth card is drawn, the color of which determines which player goes first. The first player takes this third card, but it cannot be used on this turn. The player then selects a movement card to use. Each card has a unique set of movement options. One might allow a pawn to move forward, backward, or to the right, but not to the left. Another might allow one diagonal movement in any direction, and so on. The player selects the movement card they want to use, then selects which pawn they want to move (this can be the Master as they move the same as any other pawn), and finally chooses which movement to take by selecting the appropriate destination square on the board. The pawn moves, capturing any opposing pawn that might be on that space, and the turn ends with the movement card being passed to the other player. The second player repeats this process, with the card they just receiving not able to be used this turn. Play continues in this manner, with two active cards each turn, until a player wins.


Victory can be earn by Way of the Stone or Way of the Stream. Way of the Stone occurs when any pawn captures the opposing Master pawn. This is akin to the king in chess (although you don’t actually capture the king, I know that!) Way of the Stream occurs when a Master pawn, and only a Master pawn, lands on the square on which the opposing Master pawn began the game (dubbed the Temple Arch). So either capture the Master or move your Master to the Temple Arch, that’s all there is to it.

One last rule issue to note; the base game has 16 unique movement cards, only five of which are used in a game. I want to point that out so it doesn’t seem like you use the same five cards each game.

Onitama is an elegant, brilliant little game. I don’t use “little” to demean it in any way, I simply mean that you can play a game in two or three minutes. The game is incredibly simple on the surface, but the strategic depth is fascinating. Much like chess, Onitama zen is achieved when you can see a few turns ahead and bait your opponent into a tempting move only to turn it on them into victory. The fact that you will receive the cards your opponent plays amplifies this quite a bit. You aren’t only trying to manipulate your opponent into moving pieces to or from certain spaces, you are also trying to get them to use certain cards so you get the chance to use them a couple of turns from now.

My personal experience with chess is that it’s a hit-or-miss game. I suspect Onitama will be the same. It scratches a similar itch in unique ways, anybody looking for a shorter variant with similar strategic elements will find a lot to love. Anybody who has zero interest in ever playing chess again likely won’t be swayed by what Onitama is offering. Onitama is a bit lighter and there are less possible opponent movements to consider when planning, so there is potential for this to find a fit with non-chess fans, but it’s my guess that they are similar enough for that to not be the case all that often.

onitama - menu

Barrier to Entry

When you first launch Onitama you will be prompted to play the tutorial, if you wish. You can also play it later through the options menu. The tutorial is extremely short and to the point: here are movement cards. Here is one way to win. Here is the other. Have fun. You can finish out the tutorial game if you want, but the actual tutorial is short, and it gets the job done.

There are text rules. One page for the basic game rules is appropriately concise. The other page explains the app-specific features, mainly online features which we will discuss later. Overall, Onitama is a very easy game to explain and the app reflects thats and does a good job here.

Look and Feel 

onitama - game

Onitama looks very good. The visuals are nothing spectacular, but they look good and do the job. The pieces look nice and a cool lighting effect comes into play as the player turn switches between the two sides. The menus are clear and functional.

The controls are similarly well done and functional. There aren’t a lot of actions in this game so the controls are as straightforward as you would hope. Select the card to use, select the pawn to move, select the destination square, and your turn is over. The one nit to pick here is that there isn’t an undo or even confirm button. Once you click a destination space, your turn ends. I’m a bit torn on this one. On one hand, I make a lot of dumb moves and occasionally I recognize that the move is done immediately after hitting that destination space. A “confirm” would have save me a few games for sure, well, it would have at least delayed a loss! On the other hand, the entire point of the game is foreseeing the consequences of your movements, so it’s kind of tough to fault the game for not giving you the chance to undo. This one will come down to personal preference.

Multiplayer

Onitama is cross-platform, can be played with timeouts ranging from 30 minutes to 48 hours, can be joined via “Quick Play” to quickly find an opponent or an online game lobby. There is an online ranking system for ranking player skills and a separate karma system for ranking how likely players are to ditch games before they end. There is also a general online lobby chat as well as in-game chats. That’s a whole lot of awesome options.

Now, for the downside. There’s only one real downside and that is that there are no system notifications. You allow 48 timeouts (note that is a cumulative timeout for the entire game, not per-turn) and allow me to exit the game and play a different one, but no system notifications telling me it is my turn? Frustrating. We’ve said this in other reviews, if you have async games without working notifications, you don’t really have an async game at all. Hopefully this gets fixed soon. We will point out that the “Current Games” menu option in the app does have a visual indication when you have a turn to play, this simply needs to be carried over to system notifications.

On the less important, more nitpicking side, you must remain in the lobby while you wait for your game to fill. This is annoying as I would like to leave and get a notification when the game starts, but certainly not a dealbreaker by any means.

Overall, online play for Onitama is fantastic. They did a great job with all of the options here and even very shortly after launch I’ve had no trouble finding games to play.

onitama - stream

Single Player

Single player games have three AI difficulties to choose from: For Beginners, A Little Challenging, and Tough to Beat. I’m not a great chess player and that carries over to Onitama, so I found “A Little Challenging” to be “A Lot Challenging” initially. As I played more I started to pick up more wins on this level. “Tough to Beat” remains tough for me, as a relatively inexperienced player. I’ve seen some complaints that the AI is too easy, so be warned if you are an adept chess player, but for a novice I’ve found the AI to be a fun challenge which has certainly helped me improve my Onitama skills.

What Else?

onitama - victory

This app is free. Not freemium, not on a temporary release sale, but actually, legitimately free. You get the base game (16 card deck) and all play modes just for downloading the app. It can’t be understated how awesome that is and a big part of me just wanted to give this app 5 stars for that alone and call it a day.

There are in-app purchases which come in two forms: Sensei’s Path and skins. Skins are different pawn figures and boards, there are currently two available (one of which you get for free when you sign into your Asmodee account, which is required for online play): Days & Knights and Arachnoids Attack. Sensei’s Path is an expansion from the physical game and comes with 16 additional movement cards. These cards are generally more of the same from the base game, but do offer unique movements, fans of the base game will likely find themselves picking up Sensei’s Path at some point.

The Wrap Up

Onitama needs system notifications for online games. I’m starting with the weakness because that’s simply the only big issue we have with this game. You can nitpick about having to stick around for matchmaking, the need for a confirm button, or point out that, like chess, Onitama might not be for everybody, but those are minor blips.

The positives of Onitama are immense. Let’s start with the obvious: it’s free. It’s such a well made app that it’s hard to believe they are giving it away, but we aren't complaining. The app features great online and offline play (at least for a beginner like myself), has no glaring issues, and goes above and beyond with the extensive online ranking and karma systems. It’s a great game and the app lets you play it quickly, online or off, and that’s really all we can ask for with a game like this.

this is a great game and app, and it's free.  Go download it right now.

What we like


- A brilliant take on chess; a great, light, fun, strategy game

- App looks great and controls very well

- Easy to start online games with Quick Play option

What we don't like



- No system notifications for online games


- A 'confirm' button for movements might be nice


Our Rating

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