Onitama is a chess-like, abstract strategy game for two players. In the game, two masters of martial arts are battling it out, with the help of their apprentices, against an opposing school. Players are trying to win to prove they have the best martial arts school in the land.
So far sounds good, but how do you play?
Place the game mat on the table between the players. The players choose which colour to play as and take all the pieces of their colour. If necessary turn the mat round so the correct coloured side is facing the correct player.
Each player places their Master on the square marked with their colour in the row closest to them. The Students are set out on the four other squares of that row, two each side of the Master. In this guide i will use the term “Pawn” to refer to either a Master or a Student piece/
Shuffle the 16 move cards then remove five cards from the deck. These are the cards which will be used this game. Give two cards to each player. These are the player's hand and are placed face up in front of the player. The player whose pawns are the same colour as the stamp on the lower right hand corner of the card will go first. The remaining card should be placed alongside the board facing towards the starting player.
The Contest Begins
In Onitama, play alternates between the players. Each player’s turn consists of two steps - move and attack and the exchange of cards..
A Martial Arts Battle
Each of the Move cards in Onitama sets out ways a pawn can move. There are several movement options on each card. The black square on the card represents the space your pawn is starting from. The squares marked in a different colour show where the pawn can move to.
On your turn you choose one of the two move cards in front of you and move one of your pawns in the way shown on the card. You then pick which pawn you wanted to move, and move it as indicated. Other pawns do not block movement but you cannot land on the same space as one of your own pawns. You also cannot make a move which would lead to your pawn moving off of the squares set out on the play mat.
If your pawn lands a space occupied by one of your opponent’s pawns, your pawn would “capture” this piece. A pawn which is captured is removed from the game.
If you are able to make a legal move then you must move. Only if you cannot make a legal move can you pass on your turn. Even if you cannot move, you must still select a card to use in the second step.
Readying For the Next Attack
The player takes the Move card they have just used and places it to the left side of the play mat, rotating it so it is facing their opponent. They then take the card on the right side of the playmat and add it to their hand. This card can be used next turn.
Victory Belongs to...
There are two ways to win - the Way of the Stone or the Way of the Stream.
To win using the Way of the Stone you must capture your opponent’s Master using any of your pieces. To win using the Way of the Stream you must move your own Master into the starting space of the opponent’s Master. The first player to do one of these two wins the game.
Some Helpful Hints
Look at your opponent’s cards. Remember, your opponent can only carry out the moves on the two cards in front of him after your turn. You can see these cards as they are face up on the table. This can help you plan your move, either by looking at spaces your pieces can safely move to, or for setting up an attack.
Consider the card you will get next turn. In a similar vein to above you can, and should, look at the card you will receive next turn. This will help you plan future moves.
Look at the colour of the cards. Red cards have more options for players to move to the right, whereas blue cards have more options for the player to move to the left. Grey cards are symmetrical, giving players an equal number of options on both sides.
Moving your piece and passing the card on are equally important functions for the card. Make sure you don’t use a card to move a pawn which will then gift the card to the opponent. Likewise you can be clever when handing cards on. For example, if a player has only blue cards in front of them it is harder for them to move to the right of the board, potentially giving you a path to victory.
There is no harm in retreating. Many cards give players the option to move backwards as well as forwards. Part of the balance of Onitama is knowing when to go on the attack and when to retreat a pawn, readying yourself for the next turn.
Remember there are two ways to win.