Skip to content

Onitama Review

Important Note:

All board game reviews and ratings from “A Pair of Meeples” are entirely based on the game at two players. You can learn more about our rating system by clicking below.


This post may contain affiliate links so we might receive compensation if you sign up for or purchase products linked to below. As an Amazon Associate, we can earn from qualifying purchases.

Onitama might be the game for you if you want a chess game that’s smaller, more portable, and designed around the awesomeness that is martial arts.  Wax on, wax off.

Onitama Board Game Review

7.5 out of 10
Onitama Board Game Review Block

Is it Good For Two Players? : Yes

Onitama does have some issues like requiring players to be quite similar in skill level, but it definitely has its place on many people’s shelves and we know it takes the place of chess on ours. It’s shorter, simpler, and just a much tighter game.

Theme: 7/10
Replayability: 6/10
Components: 8/10

Conflict: 7/10
Fun: 5/10

Husband’s Rating
7 out of 10
Wife’s Rating
8 out of 10

Pros

Excellent Components and Production

Portable

Quick and Straightforward

Cons

Differences in player skill can become an issue

Analysis Paralysis may be a problem for some players

Gameplay Experience:

The first time we played Onitama we were fairly new to the hobby, but the game was still pretty easy to pick up and learn.   We opened the box and just admired how cool it opened and how organized it was on the inside.  Everything in Onitama was thought out so carefully and implemented so well. They even used a neoprene mat as the board for this game which we thought was awesome, we have yet to own another game with this unique feature.  

Onitama Box
Just look at how neat and organized the Onitama box is.

Anyway, after we were all set up with our player pawns on the board, and five movement cards selected we were ready to go.  If you think about how uninteresting an average game of chess looks from the outside, our game of Onitama probably looked pretty similar.

We were moving our pawns using the cards, but neither of us being brave enough to risk a pawn or move a little closer to the opponents made the start of the game a little slow.  The tiny 5 x 5 board and the fact that we could see each other’s next available moves from the face-up cards made us play even slower on our first game (thanks analysis paralysis).

Eventually, we both subconsciously knew we needed to take some risks to get this game moving so I started to move my pawns nearer to danger in hopes of drawing out my wife’s a little. She took the bait but with the “open movement information” I soon realized that if I attacked her pawn I would lose mine with no potential gain.  So I didn’t follow through with my risky plan and we ended in another stalemate stall.

The game went on like this for quite a bit but soon we were trading pawns and then somehow, I was down to one student pawn plus the master pawn and my wife had three students plus the master.  Clearly, I was not well trained in martial arts and it was showing.  I have no idea how my wife was sneaking out to fit in martial arts lessons without me knowing but she had to be I thought as I looked at the pathetic number of pawns I had left.  

My last hope was the way of the wind and the only chance I had of winning.  I had to get my master across the board and onto my wife’s temple spot.   It would be possible since it was open but it wasn’t going to be easy. 

I started moving my sad excuse for a team towards her side of the board getting a little too optimistic as I made it fairly close.   Then my wife took her new movement card and I now saw that it was over for me.  This game’s completely open information had shown me my future and it wasn’t going to be good.  My wife surrounded my pawns in her corner of the board with me only being able to take a single student out before she took my master pawn. Game over… with me having done quite terribly. 

The game was still quite fun. Its unique neoprene mat and super quick setup time with just a few components quickly became our go-to travel game.  The neoprene mat and heavyish pawns made it so you could play Onitama anywhere.  Before we knew it we were playing it at the Lake, on the bed before going to sleep, and anywhere else we wanted.  We couldn’t do that with many other games.

Soon though, after quite a few plays something was starting to become apparent.  I just sucked at this game and quite a lot.  I don’t know if I had won a single game after our first month of playing it.

Onitama board game
Another game, another loss for me likely

I have since then but maybe just a game or two. I’m the one who normally suggests the games to play, so Onitama soon became a game that I suggested less and less.  You just have to be in the right mood to get destroyed by your wife in a board game that you have a 99% chance of losing at, and I can say I wasn’t in that mood very often.  

I know what you’re thinking, “Just Git Gud”, and I’m trying too.  I look three moves ahead and plan out everything and perform that plan to a “t” and then right near the end I realize I missed one important thing as my wife gives me that evil genius smirk and takes another one of my pawns.  I honestly don’t know if any amount of practice will help me at this point.

The fact I don’t choose to play the game that often doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like Onitama, I do and it’s a good game, I would just prefer to play a game that I have a more equal chance at winning.  In other words Onitama, it’s not you, it’s me.

Rules Summary:

Onitama is a fairly simple game, if you have ever played chess it’s like that but even more straightforward, at least in our opinion.  Each player has 4 small pawns which represent students, and one large pawn which represents their master.  These 5 pawns start on their respective sides of the board with the master pawn residing in the temple space.

Next, five movement cards are selected randomly for the current game and two are given to each player, and the fifth is placed on the side of the board.  These cards show how you can move your students and masters.  Each card shows a unique pattern of spaces and if you choose to use that card you can move a pawn to any one of those spaces if it is possible.

How to setup Onitama
All ready to play

This is where it gets interesting, whichever card you decide to use will move to the side of the board and you will take the card that was there, then your opponent will do the same and place the card they played beside the board and take the one you just placed there.  This process repeats over and over and is how you move your pawns around the board.  

This unique movement system is quite different from chess.  Each piece can move in various ways but these movement possibilities are open information.  This means planning and paying attention to the cards that you and your opponent have and are going to get, is very important.

Onitama movement and how to play
This student used the rooster card to move one space to the right and one space forward, but the student could have moved to any one of the red spaces.

Onitama Card Colors

Onitama Card Colors
Onitama Card Colors

You may have noticed that the movement cards are different colors.  It’s not specified in the rules or anywhere for that matter but we think Onitama card colors are there to help categorize the movement styles a little bit.  Blue cards focus on moving to the left, red cards focus on moving to the right, and green cards generally focus on allowing you to move in both directions.

How to win Onitama

So now that you know how movement works in Onitama, you want to know how to win. Well unfortunately as I said earlier I can’t really help you to win Onitama, but I can tell you the win conditions.  If you want to get better at Onitama, you have to ask my wife that, or take martial arts classes in secret like she does.  

Anyway, players can win either by “Way of the stone” or “Way of the stream”.  The way of the stone is when a player gets any one of their pawns in the same space as the other player’s master pawn.  The way of the stream is when you can get your master pawn onto your opponent’s temple space.

That’s all you need to know to play Onitama.  See it’s super simple right?  Wrong! This game requires a lot of thought because you can see your opponent’s moves and they can see yours (a perfect information game) so you always have to be thinking and planning if you want to win.

Conclusion:

Onitama is a great game, a really great game but it just doesn’t get pulled down much for us anymore.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the game itself but I do think it has something to do with me and my lack of skill like I said earlier.  

I’m not much of a chess player so I don’t know if this is saying much, but I would almost always choose Onitama over chess.  It’s shorter, simpler, and a much tighter game.  I mean you only have 5 pieces, 5 movement options, and are playing on a 5 x 5 board. All of this comes together to make a much more concise and straightforward version of chess. 

Not to mention that even with the tiny 5 x 5 board and limited movement and pawns there is still a lot of strategic depth to this game and it’s amazing how much thinking it can require in its short 15-minute playtime.  

Everything else about the game is great too.  The insert makes setting it up and packing it away a breeze. The nice components and the ability to play it almost anywhere because of them is just plain awesome and one of the main reasons we played the game so much to begin with. 

I think the only real downside to this game, in general, is the analysis paralysis that can occur, but I think that’s understandable for this game since it is such a “thinky” game.

So even though I’m quite bad at the game, at least compared to my wife I still think Onitama is a great game and she thinks it’s an even better one, which I’m sure her rating will reflect.  It definitely has its place on many people’s shelves and we know it takes the place of chess on ours.  Maybe one day I will get better at the game and bring my win ratio up, but for now, I can see past my losses and know that Onitama is still great.

Is Onitama Good For Two Players?:

Onitama is another two-player-only game so we will try not to repeat ourselves here like usual.  One thing to consider when deciding if Onitama is the game for you is that it requires quite a lot of thinking and skill.  Also, if you’re like us and one player ends up being a lot better than the other, Onitama may not get the playtime it deserves, especially if your opponent is typically the same person every time.  This is probably the most important factor in deciding if it’s a good game for your Pair of Meeples.

Pros

  • Excellent Components
  • Portable
  • Quick and Straightforward

Cons

  • Differences in player skill can become an issue
  • Analysis Paralysis may be a problem for some players

Onitama Board Game, 2 players
Onitama Board Game, 2 players
Onitama Board Game, 2 players

We hope this Onitama two player review has helped you.

Our reviews are not paid reviews, but some games are given to us, we do not let this affect our opinions in any way. This post may contain affiliate links so we might receive compensation if you sign up for or purchase products linked to. As an Amazon Associate, we can earn from qualifying purchases. This helps cover our site's costs and allows us to continue reviewing games.


Onitama Expansions

If you end up loving Onitama, there are a lot of expansions to explore.  For us, we haven’t even considered getting the expansions yet because we just don’t play this game that much.  I think we would have to play it a lot in order to justify adding any more content to our games.  

If you are interested the following Onitama expansions are available:

Onitama: Light and Shadow

This expansion adds a hidden movement aspect to the game.  Each player has their own additional hidden board with which they are allowed to move around a ninja secretly.

Arcane Wonders Onitama: Light & Shadow Small

Onitama: Way of the Wind

This expansion introduces the wind spirit piece.  It is a neutral player piece that will interfere with your students but sometimes also provide benefits.

Arcane Wonders Onitama Way of The Wind Small

Onitama: Sensei’s Path

This expansion just provides 16 new movement cards for the game.

Arcane Wonders Onitama Sensei's Path, for 168 months to 1188 months, Multi-Colored

We think you would have to play the game a lot in order to want any of this additional content, and adding more complexity to this great simple and highly strategic game just feels like it will detract from it rather than improve it.  What do we know though, we haven’t played them so don’t listen to us.  

Maybe one day we will review the Onitama expansions, but for now, they aren’t worth it to us.  If you disagree let us know in the comments.

Onitama Meaning

You might be asking what does Onitama mean, well your guess is probably as good as ours.  From what we have gathered though, is that Onitama roughly translates to “demon spirit”, but in this context and what we can assume, maybe it’s supposed to be interpreted as the phrase “evil spirits”.  If you have a better and more accurate translation for Onitama, let us know below.


If you would like, you can help others by sharing this Onitama review.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *