Onitama – a relaxed, fun chess-like game that isn’t anything like chess


I tend to look at my board game collection as an investment. Not in the monetary sense but more in the sense of time well spent or time that could be well spent. I’ve got games in my collection that I have not yet played and probably won’t play for a year or two. Why? Because I think they’d be a great fit for my almost 11 year old and me when she’s a bit older. Or that they’d work really well with some friends who I just haven’t been able to get together to play games with. Others are there because I could see myself playing them now and for years and years to come. Onitama fits into all of these categories.

Onitama is a game by Shimpei Sato, published by Arcane Wonders, for two players ages 8+ and playable in 15-20 minutes.

How to Play

The actual rules for Onitama are easily fit on to a single printed page. It’s not terribly complex in execution. The strategies and tactics that you’ll find yourself employing while playing however are anything but simple. Here’s the first comparison to Chess – there’s just a few pieces and a board consisting of 25 square spaces (compared to Chess’ 64).

Players unroll the board, which is printed on a play mat, and set up their pieces. Each player gets one  Master piece and four Disciple pieces. There are also 15 different movement cards, of which five will be used every game. The Master piece is placed on that player’s Gate (the middle of the 5 spaces closest to that player) while the four Disciples are placed on the two spaces on either side of the Gate.


Shuffle the movement cards and deal out two to each player. Flip over the top card of the deck to determine who goes first – each movement card has a colored icon to represent one of the two players – blue or red. This fifth movement card will be placed next to the starting player’s right side of the board. The movement cards are each named after a (real or fictional) animal and show one black space and several lighter spaces. The black space represents the current location of the piece you’re moving. The lighter spaces represent spaces relative to the starting space where that piece will end it’s move.

The starting player selects one of their movement cards and executes the move on it. They then take this card, slide it up to their left hand side of the board and take the fifth movement card placed to their right side of the board.

The second player does the same, and play moves forward with a continuous exchange of just-used movement cards.

If either the Master or the Disciple pawns ever end their movement on a space occupied by an enemy pawn (either Master or Disciple) that enemy pawn is knocked out of the game. Players can move through their own pieces while executing a move but cannot end their move on one of their own pieces.

Play continues until either one player’s Master is removed from the game or your can position your Master pawn on an opponent’s gate (which is the middle space on the row closest to that player).


Why you should play

Onitama is one of those rare games where I don’t just play it. I play it four, five, six times in a row – generally against the same opponent. I could easily burn an hour or two playing, resetting and playing again. It’s wonderfully addictive, easy to teach, always the same basic game but constantly different as each game unfolds. No two games really play the same when you’re only using a third of the available moves in each game and those constantly change with a shuffle.

This game is one that I love playing now. My daughter enjoys it but hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it – as she gets older though I can see her mastering this more and more. I can also see myself playing this game essentially for the rest of my life. Once you get the hang of it, you really want to spend more time with it so you can start to master it. That’s where I just can’t escape the Chess comparison. There’s a lot going on and you have to think several moves in advance. On the surface it’s simple, deep into the game though it’s really a match of wits with your opponent and game play can get very complex in the back and forth. So it’s not Chess, even though it shares some qualities.


The components are beautiful, from the box that houses the game right down to the individual cards and pieces. The artwork is minimalistic but elegantly so and clearly reflects the spirit of the game. The theme is, well, about as appropriate as that of Chess. It’s a fight you’re entering into with each game but it’s an elegant fight.

I’d say that Onitama would make a perfect opening game except I think I’d find myself playing it a whole bunch and having it turn into one of the main courses. It is a great lunch time game if there’s two of you. Once you have the basics down (which takes one play) you can get 3-5 games into an hour, depending on how much long and your opponent think during your turns. While this game is no longer in the ‘new hotness’ category, I’d highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t already and have a place in your collections for a two player game.  This is a game that I can see myself playing for as long as I play games.


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Zen and the Art of the Fireball

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.

If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.

If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

– Sun Tzu

A party lives and dies by teamwork.

Too often, the failure of one creates the failure of many.  For when one commits to battle, the whole must commit to battle.  The impatience of one ruins the plans of the many.  When one falls, he burdens another to save him.  You must study these lessons and victory shall be yours.

The Essence of Tactics

Retain your ability to act, and deny your enemy the ability to act.  This is the sole principle of tactics.  You must study this well.

An enemy who is dead is denied all future actions.  The sooner he is rendered dead, the more actions he is denied.

Two bloodied enemies have twice as many actions as one untouched and one dead enemy.  When all other things are equal, damage must be concentrated.

A sleeping enemy is denied actions until he awakes.

A slowed or immobilized enemy is denied actions only as long as nothing is within his reach.  Slowing artillery does nothing, unless you or an ally threatens them.

An action which misses is equivalent to an action not taken.  An enemy who is blinded and swings wildly is no different than an enemy who is stunned.

While death is permanent, a great and mighty enemy cannot be killed quickly.  Denying him actions grants reprieve from his wrath.  Learn when to deny and when to damage.  This is a difficult lesson.

The master neither rushes to battle, nor flees it.  He delays precisely as long as he must, and no further.

The weak enemy stings lightly, but falls quickly.  The great beast pounds with force, but falls slowly.  The master studies his enemies, and calculates each reward in measure of the effort required.  Then the enemies are picked one by one, like fruit from a tree.  He is a master of tactics.

The Application of Tactics

If you face two groups of enemies, engage one as quickly as possible, while delaying the other.

When you face an group of enemies who have no or little power at range, and your power at range is great, then do not gleefully rush into melee.  By forcing them to come to you, you sacrifice the actions of part of your force, while causing your enemy to lose the actions of his entire force.  Your patience is thus rewarded.  If you can place dangerous ground between your enemy and yourself, the effectiveness of this technique is heightened.

If you are in a room, with two locked doors, and your enemies are attempting to break both doors down, gladly open one.  In doing so you draw half the enemy in early, giving you time to defeat him before facing the rest.

If you have the great power to kill an enemy with two actions, and a lesser power which kills an enemy in four actions, you must use the greater power first.  In doing so, your enemy will be denied actions sooner.

The Warlord with the Bow

A warlord was walking along the river, when he saw hungry wolves.  He took out a bow and began to fire at them.  Though his aim was shaky, and many arrows missed, he killed several before they crossed the river.  Once they had finished, he drew his sword and fought with great power, slaying them all.

A bard saw this and asked, astonished, “Why did you use a bow when your aim is inferior to your swordarm?”  The warlord asked, “How are wolves at archery?”  The bard said, “They have no skill.”  And so the warlord said, “My superiority in melee is excellent, but my superiority at range is total.”

And the bard was enlightened.

The Ranger and the Wizard

A ranger said to a wizard, “Your area spells are only useful at killing the weak.  You cannot kill the strong.  Why do you keep asking me to hold back until you have cast your spells?”

The next time they ran into a horde of orcs, the wizard said, “There is one strong leader amidst a field of minions.  If you kill first him, then I will finish the rest.”

The ranger asked, “These orcs look the same to my eye, how can I tell who is strong and who is weak?”

The wizard demonstrated with a fireball.


The party said to the paladin, “Why do you always tell us to attack this monster and strike that monster.  Who gave you the right to decide?”

The paladin said, “Very well, if you do not accept my leadership I shall step down.  Who shall you chose to lead in my place?”

The party said, “We are equals and require no leader.  Thus we shall each decide for ourselves.”  When the paladin heard this, he left in disgust.

Later, the party stumbled across goblins.  One wanted to rush their archers, the other wanted rush their mage, the third insisted their leader must be broken, the forth insisted the weaker minions had to die first.

In the afterlife, each one was absolutely certain they would have all survived, if only the other three had followed their plan.  Each was correct.


A sorcerer said to a rogue, “Your effectiveness relies too heavily on an ally.  My spells can harm from afar without the aid of anyone else.”

The rogue did not answer, save to frown.

Later, the party was overrun by gnolls.  The sorcerer screamed and shouted, “Where is our front line?”

The rogue did not answer, save to smile.

Trading Places

A barbarian and a fighter were unhappy with their roles in life.  “I am forever being hit,” said the barbarian.  “I cannot cause serious harm,” said the fighter.

So the fighter studied large, exotic weapons, and the barbarian took up heavy armour.

When they fought side by side again, their enemies were astonished.  Seeing the fighter’s massive weapons yet light armour, they ignored the barbarian and strove to defeat the fighter first.

Overwhelmed, the fighter asked the barbarian for relief.  The barbarian replied, “I cannot mark, and they do not care to attack me in my heavy armour.  Additionally, your powerful blows frighten them to aggression.”

Then both understood that the envy of the other had diluted their purpose.  They retrained, and remained fast friends forever.


The master said: the essence of choice pervades everything.  You must grasp the complexity of each element, and the decisions they must make.

The student asked: Is there choice in the great weapon fighter?

The master said: Of course, for where he stands influences the flow of his enemies.

The student asked: Is there choice in the devoted cleric?

The master said: Of course, for where he directs his magic directs the flow of his allies.

The student asked: Is there choice in the archer ranger with twin strike?

The master coughed and then said: The lesson is over for today.


After a lengthy battle, the warlord was preoccupied with the outcome.  “Perhaps if we struck from here we could have killed the troll faster,” and “We did not use this high terrain, when we could have.

The swordmage said, “Good warlord, why do you preoccupy yourself with this battle?  We were stronger and we were victorious, and not a single one of our number fell!”

The warlord said, “I am not preparing to fight this battle again.  I am preparing for the one like this, but harder.  We will not always be stronger than our enemies.”

The swordmage thought carefully, and then said, “I marked the harrier, and he led me away from the field of battle.”

He is on the path to enlightenment.

[tags]D&D, 4e, Tactics, Sun Tzu[/tags]

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