The Dice Tower Essentials line, a series of games put out by Arcane Wonders and hand-picked by Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower, was off to a fantastic start in 2014 with Sheriff of Nottingham. Roughly a year and a half after that release, Arcane Wonders has finally released the second game in the line – Onitama, an abstract strategy game (!) by Japanese designer Shimpei Sato. The game seems different in just about every way from Sheriff – but despite that, does it continue the high quality of the Dice Tower Essentials line? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: I hate to use the word “over-produced”, because I strongly believe games should look amazing, and this one does. Despite coming in a very awkwardly-sized box, the components of this game are about as blinged out as possible. The pawns are very nice plastic miniatures, the board is a beautiful neoprene mat, and the cards are large, elegant, Tarot-sized beauties with impeccable graphic design. Even the insert is great. My only weird complaint is that the rulebook fits awkwardly along the magnetic lid (which is also very stylish in the way it wraps around the box) instead of having its own place. The game could have been cheaper without this treatment, but I’m willing to pay the $29.99 MSRP for a game to have this level of production value. It’s the same principle that led to the success of games like King of Tokyo, and it works well here too.
Accessibility: This game draws obvious comparisons to Chess, but even for people who don’t play that classic abstract, this truly is an incredibly simple game to learn. You move your pieces in an attempt to either capture your opponent’s “King” (Master Pawn is the phrase, I believe) or to move your own “King” to the center of the other side of the board. The unique aspect to this game is that the styles of movement available to you change each game, and the five moves available in a single game rotate between the two players. That means any powerful move you use will soon end up in the hands of your opponent. This is an incredibly clever twist, because it allows for some very tough decisions without increasing the complexity of actually learning the game.
Depth: The comparison to Chess is a valid one; I’ve lost five games of Onitama in a row to a friend who is an avid Chess player. The game rewards long-term planning, but it requires a different way to wrap your head around it than Chess, because you have to be very aware that the way each piece can move is constantly in flux, both for you and your opponent. While that could lead to a game of cumbersome difficulty (Chess, by comparison, is incredibly hard to play at a high level), the very small board and low number of pieces prevent the game from overstaying its welcome, both time-wise and mind-wise. It’s easy to play several games in a row, but I would encourage players to stick with the same five cards for several games, to see how that particular combination opens up. And since there are 4,368 five-card combos to use (ignoring starting distribution!), there are plenty of new rearrangements to study once you feel like you’ve completely explored that one combination. There’s endless variety, and more importantly, every game has been exciting and mentally satisfying, regardless of the cards used.
Theme: I have never seen so much work put into the theme of a game obviously meant to be advertised as an abstract. Between the box art, the awesome, chunky miniatures, and even the flavor text on each card (which are named after animals, similar to some martial arts styles), the game brings a level of immersion I would not have considered possible for this game before I witnessed it. The work put into the game on this end has me thinking I should quit letting abstract or abstract-Euro type games off the hook in the theme department – it can be done, people!
Fun: This game certainly requires a certain type of gamer. If you don’t like the gameplay of other two-player abstracts (not necessarily Chess, but games like Kamisado, Niya, Othello, and so on), you won’t like this game, despite all the effort put in. But if you’re a fan of that genre, this one lands right near the top of the list for me. I’d have no problem recommending this one as a blind buy to abstract lovers.
Onitama proves that abstract strategy can provide things you’d never expect, like thematic integration and infinite replayability, while still retaining everything we already love about the genre. I hope to see the Dice Tower Essentials line continue this level of excellence.
5 out of 5