Living in Abstraction

So, I made an abstract?

I bought Onitama a week or so ago out of sheer curiosity. It looks simple, neat, and it's a beautiful production. Just stunning. The game comes in a neat rectangular box with a magnetic clasp. The board is a beautifully illustrated mouse pad, basically. The pieces are thick, stocky plastic, with nice cards. Just a nice, elegant product.

My pal Antonio and I played it many times at Kubla Con as our "the booth is slow" or "the vendor hall hasn't opened" game. It takes 5-10 minutes and practically no setup. Perfect. As we played, Antonio kept saying "man, I love abstracts." And, I can see why. Antonio is a brute force gamer. Abstracts peel away the crap and are beautiful, brute force elegance. I kept saying "we should design an abstract!" so on Monday afternoon, after the con ended, I went home and stared at the pieces.


I had an idea years ago looking at Russian stacking dolls at a craft store. I thought it would be fun to have a game where who you are changes based on the doll inside you. That idea has two problems: stacking dolls aren't cheap, and if they aren't transparent, it's tough to know who is inside you. But, that is the kernel: you can slot in something that changes who you are.

I also thought about an element of Onitama I really like, which is that it's relatively easy to gauge where your opponent CANNOT go, which helps you decide where to go yourself. I came up with the idea that you cannot move a piece the same direction two turns in a row. The arrows on the cubes indicate where you cannot go.


The other idea was that you can acquire gems, each of which gives you a special move. So, on your turn you move a direction you didn't move last turn, or you use the gem to move. It didn't start this way, but most of the gems now just move you to one of the "terrains" on the board. Use the green gem to move to a forest. Use the black gem to jump to the mountains. This makes remembering the moves dead simple, and things can move quickly.


When you spend a Gem, they are placed on a cloud. Which cloud? The one clockwise to the first one that doesn't have a gem. This means you can predict and time where Gems go, and even ferry them to other pawns you have in position on the cloud to receive them.

Component wise, this allows for a satisfying, tactile experience: slotting gems into pieces. Working with Chris Urinko, there will be 1/8 inch thick triangles. These show the direction. They have a hole in them, in which you can slot a 1/4 inch circle that'll have the gem symbol etched on it.


There are six total gems. Every game, you randomly give one to each player, which is a fun start. Three are then randomly placed in the middle on the mountains. Finally, one is removed from the game.

Here's what the board looks like with the "terrain."


The 3 terrains: mountain, forest, and clouds, all have a gem associated with them. One of those, Mountain, has an additional property. There are then 3 other gems that allow basic abstract style moves, (basically a semi-Bishop and limited Rook), and one of those, fire, has another basic property.

The game is won if a player captures all of an opponent's pieces by moving onto them, or moving a piece into their opponent's starting point with a Gem. You'll notice the similarity to Onitama. Finally, if you capture an opponent's piece that has a gem, you get the Gem AND get to respawn a character back at your home. This allows for more risky play early -- sacrificing a character for a superior position.

The Quick Recap

  • Six gems with special moves, but only five in each game.
  • Players each start with a gem, then arrange their pieces however they want on the back row.
  • Satisfying to slot gems and gain new powers.
  • Simple Terrain based movement for half of the Gems.
  • Neat "can't go the same way twice" mechanism.

That's it!