Review – Onitama: The Board Game (Digital Version)

Onitama: The Board Game (Digital Version). Asmodee Digital, 2018, Lucky Hammers, developer. iOS.

I am terrible at chess. Catastrophically awful. If the people in charge of chess (The Chess Board?) ever saw me play, they’d ban me from ever touching a pawn again. It’s not that I don’t l know how to play; I know how the pieces move and I understand the strategies behind it, but I just make bad choices. Repeatedly. It’s just how my brain is wired.

Onitama is one of those games that I look at with curiosity every time at I’m at the game store. It looks like chess, but smaller, and with an Asian martial arts theme. I’m always looking for 2-player games, but I also know that these chess-style games are difficult for me, and my wife hates chess (she burned out on it in high school). I’ve always wanted to give it a try, but I don’t want to buy it and then find that I hate it, and I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of strangers. But last week, I saw that Onitama has a digital version, and that it’s free on iOS (and I would imagine Android). Free is a price I’ll pay for anything, so I said, “let’s do this!” and threw myself into it.

Punch, kick–it’s all in the mind.

What’s going on here?

Onitama The Board Game is the confusingly-named digital version of the the board game, Onitama. Each side gets five pawns, one of which is the “Master Pawn.” Players take turns playing one of two cards in front of them, moving one of their pawns on a 5×5 grid as designated by the card they played, and then giving their played card to their opponent for them to play the turn after their next turn. This card play causes each player to always have two cards, with one extra card in the transition between turns.

The cards that dictate a player’s movement are named after animals, and each one shows the spaces a pawn can land on when it is played. These cards represent animal spirits that overtake the pawn’s bodies, though I suppose a more less-literal reading would say that the cards are martial arts styles. The cards affect the standard and Master pawns in the same manner; the only difference between pawn types is their importance to the victory condition. A player wins when they have captured their opponent’s Master pawn, or when they have gotten their own Master pawn pawn to the space in which their opponent’s Master pawn started.

What’s so good about it?

The digital version has three levels of AI you can play against. The beginner AI is very easy to beat, and I’m batter that 50% against the intermediate AI. The advanced AI ALWAYS beats me, so the difficulty levels seem pretty accurate. If you don’t want to play against an AI, there is a two-player pass-and-play mode, as well as online play with a ranked matching system. This is all free if you sign up for a free Asmodee Digital account, which is pretty generous if you ask me.

The multi-player lobby. I don’t spend a lot of time here.

The free account also gets you a free reskinned fantasy version of the game with knights and wizards instead of martial artists. You can also purchase a sci-fi-themed skin, as well as the Sensei’s Path expansion that adds 20 more cards.

My favorite thing about Onitama: The Board Game, and this probably translates over to the board game Onitama, is that it’s a quick game. I think my longest game might have been three minutes. In that time, though, the game packs in a lot of strategy, and there’s plenty of opportunity for clever moves that trap your opponent and force their moves. It’s a lot like chess, but with far fewer pieces to worry about, and the fact that you know what cards your opponent has and what card they will have in two turns means you can plan ahead several moves. It’s the best of all worlds.

What’s not-so-good?

As far as the game itself, I have no problems with Onitama as a game. My only criticisms would be in certain elements of the interface and other bells-and-whistles.

First off, once you’ve signed up for an account, you’ll get notifications on the menu screen if there are any messages for you. This would be really useful, except that it also does this if someone is sending a message to everybody in the multiplayer lobby. Or maybe it’s when there are friend requests. I’m not sure because there’s an unlabeled part of the lobby with people’s names, and when you click on them, it just brings up their profiles. It’s not a game invite as far as I can tell, but then I’m not sure what else it would be. A simple label would fix this.

Secondly, it would be really handy to have an index of the cards in the game. I honestly don’t know how many cards there are; the rules section on the app doesn’t say. I could look this up on the BBG page for the physical version, but 1) I shouldn’t have to, and 2)there’s no telling if the cards are exactly the same as in the physical version. Again, this would be so easy to fix.

Lastly, the skins…kind of suck. I know they are not important to the game, but the pawns of the fantasy version look to similar, and the sci-fi version is just robot spiders. They are kind of pointless, and I’m not sure why anyone would want them. But this is the smallest of complaints because, hey, if you don’t like them, don’t buy them.

Whose fantasy is this, anyway?

What do I think?

Overall, Onitama: The Board Game is a surprisingly deep, surprisingly quick strategy game that’s free to buy and worth at least twice that. I’m even considering picking up a physical copy from my FLGS. It’s not something I’d play all the time, but it’s there when I need it to be, so I’m giving it 7/10 victory points.

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