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Sunday 9 October 2016

Why Chess? Part 2: Onitama and Charity Chess

'Why chess' is an ongoing exploration of chess and its alternatives. The question connecting these posts is "why did the game we know as chess become the predominant strategy game?" Last time I looked at versions with smaller boards and fewer pieces than the orthodox game, like Martin Gardner's mini chess.


Onitama is a recently released chess-like board game. It is played on a 5x5 board between two players controlling 5 pieces each. Four of pieces are 'students' which function as pawns, and one is the 'master' which functions as the king. The goal is to either capture the opponent's master or place any piece on the starting square of the opponent's master.

The movement capabilities of the pieces are determined by five cards. Your opponent possesses two of these cards, you possess two, and the fifth card is a 'swap' card. Each of these cards contains a move set. For example, the 'boar'  card allows a piece to move one space laterally, or forward.

Any of your pieces can be moved using either of your cards. However, when you make a move, the card you used is traded with the 'swap' card. For example, using the 'boar' to move means giving up the boar, and allowing you opponent to obtain it after they make a move. (In the case where a move could have been made with either of your cards, you decide which one to give up.)

Games of Onitama are typically short. It took 10-25 minutes for each of 7 games a friend and I played when we were learning it. The game box includes 17 cards, so we were quickly able to see many different combinations of cards.

In two of these games, there was no card to allow the most basic of moves - 1 forward. All forward motion had to be done either diagonally or with a 2-side-1-forward move. These two games played radically different, often adjacent opposing pieces were safe from each other.

Only one card, tiger, allows a 2-forward movement. To balance this card, it only allows 2-forward and 1-back; there is no side movement or 1-forward allowed. This card is incredibly powerful, but in the one game we played with it, it became 'too awesome to use'. That is, using it would mean handing over the ability to the opponent, which could be disastrous. However, never using it meant only having one card of movement options at any given time.

For the setup of the game, 17 cards seemed exactly right. We imagined other card possibilities, but most were either obviously stronger than an existing card (say, by containing all the moves of that card and more), obviously weaker (containing a subset).

What Onitama is, to me, is an efficient, elegant way to try games with sets of hypothetical chess pieces and see the implications first hand. It's easy to imagine a chess-Onitama hybrid using an 8x8 board and cards of the orthodox pieces and some popular fairy chess pieces. There would be some complications with rank and with there being different kinds of pieces instead of identical movers, but the potential is there.

There is a detailed discussion of this game on the boardgames subreddit. There is also heated argument about whether Onitama is better than chess on the boardgamegeek forums.

Charity chess

I've been learning to play the orthodox chess game at a website called Charity Chess. This website hosts correspondence style and live games, as well as provides articles and training exercises. The profit from the advertising revenue is split among five charities, in proportion of the weighted votes of registered players. The weight is determined by the amount of activity in the community, mostly from seeing ads but also from publishing articles that receive high peer ratings.

The community is small now, about 300 users, but it has the potential to be the best gamification of charity I have seen yet. Rather than trying to create a game from scratch and make that charitable, this group simply took an existing, proven game and attached ad revenue.