Good Lord! Look at the Pieces!
June 28, 2009 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Shogi (将棋), or "Japanese chess," has been described here before, but it's such a fascinating game that a little more exposure can't hurt. Specifically, shogi has spawned a lot of variants, many of them astonishingly large.

Chu Shogi (中将棋) is pretty well known, only slightly larger (with a 12x12 board instead of the standard 9x9 and 46 pieces per side to shogi's 20), and seems to get played with some regularity today. Here's a video introduction.

A step or two up in size is Maka Dai Dai Shogi (摩訶大大将棋), so large it needs two "bigs" in it's title (25x25 with nearly 100 pieces on a side). A time lapse video of a game gives a sense of the play, and here's another by the same guy with some commentary on the moves.

The largest currently known version is four times the size of Maka Dai Dai Shogi (36x36 with roughly 400 pieces on each side) and is called Taikyouku Shogi (大局将棋). For those who want to experience a small taste of this huge game, here's a video showing a three-day match (skip the first 45 seconds or so, unless you enjoy Japanese game shows).

Many of the large variants have more than one "king" on a side, making victory more difficult and strategy more complex. The situation is exacerbated by the number of pieces and different types of moves (and most pieces can "promote" and change their movement abilities). in the last video you see the shogi experts examining booklets of moves to try and figure it all out. Fortunately, the large variants don't allow shogi's option of dropping captured pieces back on the board (since they predate that mechanic), or the games might never end...

So, why care? Well, the evolution of shogi variants seems to match the development of modern war games from relatively modest and simple beginnings to gigantic titles that seem more likely to be collected than played (Campaign for North Africa, anyone?). Also, who can resist a game with pieces called "Flying Cat," "Fragrant Elephant," "Free Pig," and "Great Tapir?"
posted by GenjiandProust (18 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
... And Drunken Elephant. Awesome!

Nice post.
posted by Elmore at 12:50 PM on June 28, 2009

I had never heard of this, and I'm glad for the post. Shogi joins go on the list of games I will never learn (but would like to)!
posted by ixohoxi at 12:53 PM on June 28, 2009

Taikyoku shogi looks absolutely insane. Makes 3D chess look like Candyland.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:03 PM on June 28, 2009

Pro Tip: if you want to learn shogi by playing the two-player Java version linked in sonic meat machine's previous post, but you don't want to annoy experienced players with your utter ineptitude:

Click on "play as a guest" on the right side of the page. When it prompts you to send the game URL to your opponent, just open a second browser tab and paste the URL in there. Now you can play against yourself to get a feel for the mechanics.
posted by ixohoxi at 1:04 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Even ordinary sized shogi has a large enough branching factor to be difficult for artificial intelligence, thanks to the drop rule. It's an interesting middle ground between Western chess, pretty much entirely broken by AI, and Go which is wide open.
posted by Nelson at 1:22 PM on June 28, 2009

Are all of those pieces different, or does it have the equivalent of like 200 pawns, 24 bishops, etc? If it's the former... holy crap that's fantastic. It reminds me of an "Ancient Chinese" game some friends and I made up back in the day called "Hung Tuang", which had a lot of elaborate wooden pieces and played similarly to Mornington Crescent. Amazing to think that such a thing might actually exist.

Anyone know what the two players are saying, when the game's finally over?
posted by rifflesby at 3:45 PM on June 28, 2009

Great post, thanks.
posted by zardoz at 4:23 PM on June 28, 2009

I would love to learn to play Chu Shogi. I've played Go with friends from Japan and they mentioned Shogi, but we never played.
posted by garnetgirl at 4:37 PM on June 28, 2009

It's a mix. It seems there are 36 pawns, plus duplicates of some pieces (2, sometimes 4, of the same piece), plus other pieces promote to the same movement. There are also some mirror pieces (e.g. right and left dragon) that have symmetrically matched movement. So it's not 400 separate types of movement. It's also worth noting that, as with many historical board games, the rules are, at least to some degree, a reconstruction -- no one left a handy "How to Become a Better Taikyouku Shogi Player in 350 Easy Lessons," more's the pity.

My Japanese is pretty bad, but I think the first player says something like "I'm not doing that again," while the second one says "I don't regret the defeat." No doubt someone with better fluency could clarify matters.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:55 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm more of a Go guy myself, but I've been interested in Shogi because of all the refs in places like Hikaru no Go.
posted by DU at 5:12 PM on June 28, 2009

I'm more of a Go fan, but my son (8) is learning Shogi with my wife, and I may have to learn it to keep up my dominance of all things game-realted in the household. The hardest part for me is distinguishing the pieces - and I can read kanji, somewhat.
posted by bashos_frog at 6:30 PM on June 28, 2009

There's also Chinese Xiangqi and Korean Janggi. The pieces include elephants!

(I remember learning Janggi as a small child, and although I couldn't read the Hanja on the pieces, I learned to recognize the different pieces from the differing sizes and just regarding the Hanja as pictures or symbols)
posted by needled at 8:42 PM on June 28, 2009

Shogi's great. GenjiandProust and I have been learning it together. I have some chess experience and a lot of those mental skills travel pretty well, but it's a lot harder to keep the matrix of possible moves in your head when at any moment one can expect DEATH FROM ABOVE.
posted by Kattullus at 8:47 PM on June 28, 2009

I used to play shogi with my father-in-law (he was a terrible player) and friends (a farm household with Dad + four grown sons). Good times, but I still haven't mastered the endgame, but my opening and middle moves are pretty good, but not very creative.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:02 PM on June 28, 2009

it's a lot harder to keep the matrix of possible moves in your head when at any moment one can expect DEATH FROM ABOVE.

That's what I love about this game. I've had a few exciting games of chess, but shogi often ends up to be thrilling.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:38 AM on June 29, 2009

Shogi's great. GenjiandProust and I have been learning it together.

Kattullus is correct, but overly modest. While we have been learning the rules together, I have been focusing on losing graciously, and Kattullus, I suspect, has been practicing the "not gloating" style.

One correction: Maka Dai Dai Shogi, as one can see from the videos, is played on a 19x19 board. The 25x25 board (and it's 177 pieces per side) belongs to Tai Shogi, a slightly larger game. So many shogis, so little time....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:19 AM on June 29, 2009

This is the book I used to learn Shogi. It's quite good.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:19 PM on June 29, 2009

I used to play a lot of shogi with a friend. Once we were playing and a third friend popped by and looked over the board. We explained it was something like chess. He smilingly shook his head at the pieces with the kanji names and those silly Japanese making a game where you couldn't tell what the pieces were. I found it difficult to formulate a coherent response: the pieces are labelled WITH THE NAMES OF THE PIECES, for fuck's sake. On the other hand, the designs of chess pieces are pretty stylized, something he might realized if he did not live at the corner of Racist and Parochial.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:51 PM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

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