Onitama

Much as I like abstract strategy games, I have to concede that they can become a bit repetitive if you’re not careful. When there is no random element, and every possible move is clear to both players (as is the case with chess, for example), it is possible reach a point at which the same players keep making the same moves and each game is largely the same.

Onitama elegantly and effectively solves this problem, essentially by adding a random element to the rules.

The game is played on a 5×5 board and each player has five pieces — four students and a master. The aim is to either capture your opponent’s master or to move your own master into the opponent’s temple square.

What makes this game really unique, though, is that the possible combinations of moves are different for every game.

The game comes with 16 move cards from which you draw five at the beginning of the game. Two are dealt to each player with the fifth card being put to the side as a ‘draw card’. The first player can then take any of the moves indicated by the two move cards in front of them, after which they discard that card and take the draw card. The discarded card then becomes the next player’s draw card.

In this way, each player always has two move cards available and can see what their next move card is going to be.

With over half a million possible combinations of move cards, it will be a long time before the games start repeating themselves which massively improves the variability of the game. It also adds an additional level of strategy in that, by deciding which card to play and discard, you are able to exert some control over your opponent’s options.

The recommended age for Onitama is 14+ which, quite frankly, is nonsense. As with many strategy games, the rules are straightforward enough that they can be grasped by a nine-year old and probably younger. In many ways it plays like a simplified version of chess for which you don’t even have to remember the possible moves as these are in the cards in front of you.

Aesthetically the game is beautiful. The pieces are beautifully crafted and, combined with the artwork on both the board and the card, give the game a wonderfully Shaolin feel.

Overall, Onitama is a beautiful looking game that is very easy to learn and quick to play. The game also offers enough depth to keep us all coming back to it and, because it randomises the available moves, we can be sure that no two games will ever be the same.

Game Night

Yesterday evening was spent mainly playing board games (and a card game). Specifically, Quoridor, Hive, Onitama and Sushi Go. I have talked about Quoridor in the past and keep meaning to post something about the other games at some point, but for now all I have is an observation about the type of games I enjoy most: Abstract strategy games.

These are games that, in general, have no — or very little — theme. They are also games for which the rules are tend to be very simple allowing for complexity to emerge from the gameplay itself.

The perfect example of this is probably Go, a game that can be summed up with about four rules and one that remains fiendishly to get to grips with. This is a game I started playing about 18 months ago, and I’m still rubbish.

Games with a strong theme can be fun, but for me the emphasis on the theme can get in the way of the gameplay. These games often come with thick, comprehensive rulebooks that attempt to make the theme come to life but which also require you to keep checking the rules. Complex rules can also give rise to ambiguities and, in the worst case, rules-lawyering.

Abstract games avoid many of these problems. A simple and clear set of rules removes ambiguity and, once understood, never need to be looked at again. This allows me to focus purely on the gameplay and become fully absorbed in the complexity that emerges from the game.

These types of games also tend to either remove or minimise luck as a part of the gameplay. When I lose, I can usually see exactly when and why I lost — if not immediately, then eventually. This gives me a clear route towards thinking about strategies and towards improving my game — whatever game that might be.

I’m not particularly exclusive in my game-playing and will try pretty much anything at least once. But over time, I have developed a clear preference for abstract games that allow me to focus entirely on how to beat (or not lose too badly to) my opponent.