A New Twist on Chess: Onitama


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Onitama elegantly distills chess-like gameplay into a refined tactical essence. With its novel card-based movement and simple rules wrapped in historical Japanese theming, Onitama provides fresh takes on classic abstract strategy. This excellent iOS adaptation captures the spirit of the original board game.

As in chess, two players face off on a 5×5 grid to capture the opponent’s Master piece or maneuver to the enemy starting space. But unlike chess, you don’t control pieces directly. Instead, you select from two available Movement cards that show L-shaped move patterns.

Onitama elegantly distills chess-like gameplay into a refined tactical essence

This card system replaces chess openings and memorization with pure moment-to-moment tactics. You must constantly react to your opponent’s changing move combinations while optimizing opportunities for your own Master. Each duel evolves into an intense back-and-forth of action and reaction.

Mastering how to retaliate against or counter the opponent’s move sets becomes critical. The shifting movement cards force you to plan flexibly and foresee contingencies several turns ahead. You are always adapting on the fly.

This elegant card play system provides endless replayability. No two games ever feel the same as movement possibilities vary widely. Yet the rules remain simple enough for anyone to pick up and understand after a few plays.

The iOS app translates the physical experience into digital form. The visuals evoke feudal Japan wonderfully through tranquil animations and soundtrack. One-touch controls keep the gameplay smooth and responsive.

I especially enjoyed the solo campaign with adjustable AI difficulty. The escalating computer opponents push you to refine tactics and strategy. However, the lack of online multiplayer is a letdown, as facing real opponents would take it to the next level.


  • The core mechanic is selecting one of two Movement cards each turn to dictate how your pieces can move.
  • The five piece types each move uniquely – pawns diagonal, rooks orthogonal, bishops far reaching, etc.
  • You must constantly adapt your strategy based on the available move sets each turn.
  • Movement cards rotate after each player’s turn, so the options are always shifting.
  • This forces you to foresee and set up combinations a few turns ahead.
  • Each Movement card provides 16 possible move combinations across pieces.
  • Multi-turn tactics are needed to trap or block the opponent’s Master piece.
  • Sacrificing pieces to set up the decisive strike on the Master is common.
  • The limited board size makes strategic positioning and control of the center critical.
  • Choosing when to exchange pieces versus go on the offensive is key.
  • Overall it balances easy to learn rules with immense depth through movement card combinations.

Onitama distills classic abstract gameplay down to its essence. Simple rules wrapped in tactical depth make this a must-play for fans of chess variants or short yet brain-burning games. Kudos to the developer for honoring the elegance of the original experience in digital form.

8/10 – Great

BGG: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/160477/onitama

App Store: Currently unavailable

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