Light & Shadow is the brand new expansion for the 2014 Dice Tower Essentials title Onitama, published by Arcane Wonders. Designed by Collin Meller, Bryan Pope, Robert Geistlinger and Shimpei Sato, this sees hidden movement introduced into the 2 player only abstract strategy game. Adding secretive ninjas into the mix, no new move cards are included this time around. Should this be ninjaing its way into your collection? Let’s find out!
There are 2 different ways to utilize the content of the Light & Shadow expansion. The Light side of the expansion makes the experience asymmetrical. One player utilizes the new ninja content, whilst the opposing player plays with the traditional master setup. In the Shadow variant both players ditch the standard setup for master with ninja setup.
After rolling out the main board, the player or players using a ninja variant take a screen, small ninja board and ninja pawn(s). The opponent of a ninja player gains two lanterns, meaning both players get two lanterns in the Shadow mode. The ninja board features a small 5 by 5 grid, which represents the main board. As in the usual game, five Move cards are utilized, two being given to each player, with the final card placed to the right of the starting player.
For Light, one player takes the two ninjas and none of the normal pieces. The opponent sets up as normal. The ninja player in this case secretly places the two ninja pieces onto spaces on the back row of their ninja board. During play they will still use a move card to move one of their ninjas on their secret board. The aim is simply to defeat the opponent’s master piece, while they aim to capture the ninjas or make it to the temple arch (way of the river).
For Shadow, each player takes a ninja and 2 student pawns alongside their master. With the master central as normal, the two students are placed on the two corners of your back row: leaving an empty space to either side of your master. Secretly, players then, behind their screen and on their small ninja board, place their ninja. It must be placed in one of the two spaces that correspond with their two empty back row spaces on the main board.
In this mode, players must move one of their pieces on the main board by using a movement card. However, they may then use the same move card, but not necessarily the exact same movement on it, to secretly move their ninja on the ninja board. Like normal Onitama, a player cannot have 2 pieces in the same space. So, the player must check the corresponding spaces from the main board with that of their ninja board – though the opposing ninjas may unknowingly stand on the same space. The aim of the Shadow mode is the same as the base game: defeat their master (via any method) or get to the opponent’s temple arch.
Regardless of the mode, if an opponent ever moves a piece on to the main board space corresponding with where your ninja is on your hidden ninja board, you must reveal it and the ninja is captured. When you move a ninja onto a space on your ninja board with an opponent’s piece on the same space on the main board, you reveal this by lifting your screen. This captures the piece as normal, though gives your ninja’s location away.
Apart from on the first turn of the game, after movement a player with a lantern may spend it to ask if the opponent’s ninja is in a single row or column. The ninja player must truthfully respond yes or no, but isn’t required to give any further information. Players can use this to piece together information to locate and potentially capture ninjas. Importantly, a player only ever has two of these lanterns and there is no way to regain them once used.
The base game of Onitama is a phenomenal abstract strategy game of perfect knowledge. All of the information, from the location of player pieces to the moves they can make, is on show. The previous expansions have increased variety, or chances to move around the board. Light & Shadow however introduces hidden movement.
All of a sudden a game where you know everything is flipped on its head. In the symmetrical Shadow mode both players are a little in the dark. Not only does your opponent get to pick from two starting spaces any movement could see the ninja stay still or move to up to 3 locations. Some will be dismissed due to movement constraints but still ever knowing the exact space a ninja is in is nigh on impossible. Having both players unsure of things, as in the Shadow mode, keeps things feeling much more balanced and fair.
When playing the Light mode one player is fighting an invisible enemy, which they can hardly pin down, still only armed with 2 lanterns. Often, there seemed to be as much accidental treading on the secretly placed ninjas as purposeful moves based on deductions. It’s rather stressful seeing an empty main board in front of you, yet knowing somewhere are two ninja. The ninja player can of course see perfect information in this case, giving them a slight advantage and much less stress on their turns.
Production wise Light & Shadow is on par with the brilliant quality of the base game. The ninja pawns sit proudly alongside the students and master, indiscernible in quality. The ninja boards are the same material as the main board, which roll up into the box, which again features a magnetic close. The only components to minutely let the expansion down are the screens. These are thick screens, even coming with how to play reminders. Alas, they need to be bent a little so that they fit around the board from their folded away position – it’s a minor issue though.
Onitama Light & Shadow introduces hidden movement into a game that wasn’t really asking for it. Fans of the base game will likely be split, as it removes the perfect knowledge aspect. Playing against a ninja though provides a new challenge to overcome, potentially giving a less experienced player a chance to compete quicker. Light & Shadow isn’t the sort of expansion you’ll want to play every time, though it certainly changes the game up when it does hit the table!
(Editor’s Note: Onitama Light & Shadow was provided to us by Asmodee for the review. The game/expansion are currently available from local board game stores! Find your local store here.)