Saturday, August 11, 2018

Getting Board: Onitama Review

So, while tabletop RPGs are most certainly my passion, I also enjoy board games on occasion. I'm particularly a fan of two-player abstract board games, especially historic two-player abstract games. Games like Chess, Checkers, Go, and the like. Hnefatafl is a particular favorite of mine. I enjoy these types of games because they are typically easy to learn, only require one other participant, and are (for the most part) fairly cheap to purchase. In the modern board game market, I don't find a lot of two-player abstract games, especially ones with a strong historic theme. However, last year I came across Onitama after being pointed in its direction by Wayne Humfleet and Moe Tousignant. Since that time, Onitama has become my favorite board game.

Onitama is billed a martial arts themed tactical game. It is played on a grid board that is 5x5. Each player has five pieces, a Master and four Students. The base game also includes a deck of 16 move cards. The deck of move cards is shuffled and each player draws two, placing them face-up on the board in front of themselves. A fifth card is drawn and set to the side face up. Each player's collection is set along their own back row, with the Master occupying the center square back square. The Master's beginning space looks slightly different on the board and is called the Temple.
Example of Set-up
The goal of the game is to capture your opponent's Master (which is done by landing in the space occupied by the that Master), or by moving your own Master into your opponent's Temple. Each turn you move a single piece (Master or Student) based on the image depicted on one of the Movement cards on in front of you. That card is the set aside and you take the other unclaimed card into the now empty place in front of you, thus replacing your movement options on your next turn.

Your opponent then goes and does the same. They pick one of their movement cards, moves a piece, and takes the card you just got rid of into their hand and sets the movement card they just expended aside. Thus, you cycle through both your own movement cards and your opponent's movement cards.
Cards show permitted movement

The game is ridiculously simple too learn, set up, and play. The constant shifting of movement cards keeps the game dynamic and prevents a sense of staleness or inevitability that is often found in more traditional two-player abstracts like Chess or Checkers.

There is a single expansion for Onitama that's currently released: Sensei's Path. It is just 16 more movement cards. That's it. No huge rules changes, no extra things to learn. A great, solid expansion. Soon Arcane Wonder Games will be releasing a second expansion: Way of the Wind. This expansion adds a new neutral piece that can be manipulated by both players. I'm both excited and cautious about this. Onitama's big appeal for me, beyond the strong themeing, is the depth of play behind the simplicity of the rules. I hope future expansions don't clutter up the elegance of a beautifully designed game.

Onitama is available for $30 MSRP, though online retailers usually sell it for about 30% less than that. Sensei's Path MSRPs for around $15, but again online retailers offer it at about 30% off if you hunt around. Way of the Wind is the forthcoming expansion and is priced at about the same as Sensei's Path. All that being said, if you have a local game shop, spend the extra cash and support the brick n' mortar business.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Simple vs. Beginner: There's a Difference

So, earlier in the week I got into a conversation on Facebook with someone who had some constructive criticism and questions regarding Untold Adventures. I encouraged them to ask their questions because the person was both respectful and the questions were really insightful ones about the nature of the game. It got me thinking about something that seems a bit counter-intuitive.

Untold Adventures is a rules light game, but I would not call it a game that's a good game for new gamers. That's a bit confusing, eh? Without a lot of rules, beginners won't get overwhelmed - right? Sure, that's true. But Untold Adventures relies heavily on Referee fiat, descriptive play, and abstraction. Those three skills don't always come easily to new players or Referees. That's because they need time to build their confidence as gamers and trust their instincts.

Part of the reason I love Untold Adventures so much is that it is a game I wrote, first and foremost, for me. I didn't want to do "just another retroclone" for the sake of sales. That's why it's a PWYW PDF and the PoD will be under $10 in softcover. It's a game that I know I can run given my current life. It's low prep, fast-playing, and character creation takes five minutes. I abstracted so much of the game because I trust in my abilities as a Referee and to make a call on the fly.

That comes from thirty years of gaming and over half a decade creating OSR content. The mentality of "Rulings, not Rules" comes to me almost instinctively. I recognize that such a style of play doesn't come easily to new gamers and that many experienced gamers don't care for it. They want a more defined selection of classes, a more concrete gear system, and other things. That's perfectly valid and reasonable. But, it's not the way I prefer to play, so I didn't write Untold Adventures with that in mind.

Another reason to make it as rules light as possible was to make it as easy as humanly possible to drop in other OSR content. Heck, I wrote it with running Small Niche Games' Chronicle of Amherth (originally written for Labyrinth Lord) and Glynn Seal's Midderlands (originally written for Swords & Wizardry Complete) in mind. I could use both settings with no mechanical conversion, or simply by changing all HD to d6. Conversion takes seconds and can be done on the fly. But that comes at the expense of concrete rules, forcing me to rely on my own confidence that I gleaned from experience as a gamer and creator.

I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. I'm simply pointing out that the level of experience of the individual running a game and playing in a game has a huge impact on that game and is a key factor to consider when choosing, designing, or playing a game.