Onitama: Way Of The Wind Review – A Brain Burning Expansion

Way of the Wind is the latest expansion for the awesome abstract strategy title Onitama. Released last year, designed by John Rogers and Shimpei Sato, the expansion adds in a wind spirit. Along with it comes a new type of card that can be added into the regular card rotation gameplay. With animals such as an octopus, a scorpion and a humble sheep making the cut the animal ranks are once again bolstered. However, is the wind spirit an ideal addition or something to blow over? Let’s find out!

Whilst the expansion is flexible it suggests for your first few games to shuffle the Wind deck and deck a single card to each player. These are then topped up with 3 standard Move cards. Following the same logic as the base game, one is dealt to each player before a final card indicates the player to start the game.

Unlike the standard move cards, Wind cards feature a movement to be taken by a master or student pawn followed by a movement to be taken by the wind spirit. It is always in that order, however if one of the two movements is impossible it can be skipped. These cards otherwise work in the same way normal move cards do. They both feature a movement pattern and are passed on after use. When the wind spirit is in play move cards can also be used to, instead of moving a player master or student, move the wind spirit.

It is not possible to move any player piece onto the space with the wind spirit, essentially blocking a space. Conversely, the wind spirit can move onto space with a student of either player. Note, it cannot move onto a space occupied by a master. When the wind spirit moves to a space occupied by a student, instead of removing it from the game like normal, the two game pieces swap locations. The wind spirit does not change any of the win conditions, with the rest of the game rules unaffected.

As with the previous expansion two move cards, which were originally only available as part of a crowdfunding campaign, are included in the box. This time around it is the turn of the Goat and Sheep – which were originally made for the 2017 Dice Tower Indiegogo campaign. It’s nice that fans of the game that missed out getting them are not resigned to the secondary market – especially for completionists. These aren’t as original in pattern as the turtle and phoenix included in Sensei’s Path though.

Onitama can be a bit of a brain burner at times, but I hadn’t anticipated how much the introduction of a single piece could ramp this up. It isn’t just the case of new movements to watch out for. All of a sudden old and new cards can interact with the game differently. Being possible to block and swap pieces opens up many new options, all of which can be considered – adding a wave more AP (analysis paralysis) to the title. For this reason I would never introduce someone to the game with the wind spirit included, unlike the first expansion which shuffles straight in.

Not just the new swapping mechanics are added in but also the ability to stall. Without the Wind expansion it was never possible for a player to not move a piece on a turn. Backing a master piece into a corner was therefore a possibility, as they would eventually be forced to move into a capturable space. With an uncapturable wind piece in play a player could indefinitely move it around or move it once to effectively skip a movement turn of their usual player pieces. This makes games last longer. Especially once players have got to grips with how it can impact general movement, as they have even more opportunity to dance around the board.

The only minor rule quirk that I have an issue with is the exemption that the wind spirit cards add to the game. Move cards can only be played if the movement can be taken. This isn’t the case for wind cards as you can ignore part of their movement patterns. I understand that it is a necessary evil, to allow wind spirit cards to always be played. Nevertheless, adding an exception to such a basic rule feels odd. Plus, it can be easily forgotten when new to the expansion.

There is a large difference to how the game plays from including 0 through to a full 5 wind cards. While at the top end the wind piece will always move, the movements are restricted to the predetermined wind movements on the wind cards. When no wind cards are used and the wind doesn’t have to move – but can via any of the move card patterns – it becomes when or if to use it, rather than just where to move it. Both create interesting gameplay dynamics, and almost shuffling the wind and move cards together to get a random amount each game would be ideal – at least if it wasn’t for the following slight component issue.

The finish on the cards isn’t the same as the base game nor the first expansion set – which are identical to each other. Thankfully, visually the cards are the same, minus a touch of glossiness. On top of this, the Wind cards aren’t supposed to be directly shuffled with the standard move cards, so it is only the two move cards the goat and sheep that it impacts. Even then this isn’t a game where shuffling particular cards to yourself would win you the game. It is more of a production oddity, especially when the cards included in Sensei’s Path matched the base set perfectly.

While it would be hard for a player piece to represent wind or air, the blue piece is much closer to cresting water waves. I doubt it would be as eye catching in a white or clear plastic, so blue is a strong choice. However, numerous times players new to the expansion have intuitively referred to it as the water not the wind piece. Again, more of an oddity than an issue but noteworthy nonetheless.

As mentioned in the Onitama Sensei’s Path review is was an expansion to shuffle in and leave in. Aside from the two new move cards, the same cannot be said for Way of the Wind. It adds a decent amount of extra thought needed to play, even for those whom have ample games of the original under their belt. It is certainly an extra layer of puzzle and strategy that is enjoyable, but one to experience from time to time – rather than every game. The components just fit into the base game box and there they will stay – at times even when the game hits the table.

[Editor’s Note: Onitama Way of the Wind was provided to us by Asmodee for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £13.99. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]