ANNOUNCEMENT: There will be a special event at my workplace, the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, running at 5PM on 7 February 2020. Dr Shuzo Sakata of the University of Strathclyde, Shogi player and teacher, will be showing us all how to play Shogi! Sets will be provided — please RSVP to me directly if you plan to come, to ensure we have enough sets.
What is Shogi?
Shogi is the Japanese form of Chess, the ‘royal game’, in which two players vie to be the first to checkmate their opponent’s King — meaning their King is unable to escape capture on the next move. Many centuries ago, when the ancient ancestor of Chess called Chaturanga was developed in India, the game spread across Asia and Europe, spawning new variations in every region that embraced the game. Shogi is first recorded in the Heisei Era in ancient Japan — around the 11th century — where it rapidly developed into its own, unique take on the royal game.
How is Shogi different from Chess?
Shogi does share the same goals as Chess — checkmating the enemy King — and shares some of the same pieces. However, many of the fundamentals are quite different:
- The Board: a Shogi board is a 9×9 playing area of 81 squares, compared to the 64 squares of the chessboard. The board is not chequered either.
- The Pieces: Chess has six types of pieces: Pawns, Knights, Bishops, Rooks, Queens, and Kings. Shogi has ten: Pawns, Knights, Silver Generals, Gold Generals, Lances, Rooks, Bishops, Dragons (Promoted Rooks), Horses (Promoted Bishops), and Kings. Some of the shared pieces move differently, too: Knights make the same L-shaped jump but only forward; and Pawns move and capture only directly forward.
- Promoting Pieces: In Chess, pawns that reach the enemy’s back rank can promote to become a Knight, Bishop, Rook, or Queen. In Shogi, any piece that reaches the enemy camp (the three rows where their pieces begin the game) can promote. A promoted piece flips over, and the other side of the piece indicates their promoted form. Promoted Bishops (Horses) and promoted Rooks (Dragons) are the most powerful pieces in the game.
Shogi’s Ingenious Addition: Drops
There’s one major rule change that was added to Shogi in the 16th century and has come to define the game ever since: drops.
In Shogi, when a piece is captured, it is truly captured — it becomes the property of the capturing player. The capturer places the piece on a small side-board called a komadai (piece stand) and holds it in reserve. At any point from then on, they may forgo a normal move and instead drop a captured piece to any empty square on the board!
However, an important point to remember: promoted pieces, when captured, are demoted. Any dropped piece must be moved into the promotion zone again to be promoted. Two other key exceptions: Pawns cannot be dropped so that you have more than one of your pawns on a single vertical line; and pieces cannot be dropped in a space where they have no legal moves.
Drops make Shogi play and feel very different from Western Chess. Since captured pieces come back to life throughout the game, the number of pieces on the board stays roughly the same throughout — there are no endgame situations with near-empty boards, as in Chess. The constant back-and-forth of captures and drops makes a Shogi game dynamic, aggressive and fierce — attacks are frequent, and giving up the initiative to play defensively is risky.
Thanks to drops, Shogi is also much more decisive than Chess — less than 2% of professional Shogi games end in a draw, a staggering difference from the ~60% draw rate of professional chess!
Is Shogi hard to learn?
Not really! The biggest obstacle for most new players is learning the pieces — as you can see in the photo of my Shogi set above, all Shogi pieces are the same shape and colour, and the two players’ armies are distinguished by the pieces’ orientation (aim pointy bits at the enemy!). The different pieces have their names written on them in Japanese kanji characters, which are not so easy to learn for people who don’t speak Japanese.
However, the best way to learn is to simply dive in — after a game or two, the kanji fade away and are easy enough to recognise. I find it helps beginners to forget they are letters — this tends to prime us to try to divine their meaning, which makes them more intimidating.
Instead, just think of them the same way as you think of the shapes of Western Chess pieces — both are abstract shapes, and neither really relates to what the piece does or how it moves. The kanji are effectively just symbols, just like the odd shapes of Chess pieces. Also, you only really need to recognise the top characters on each piece — that’s enough to distinguish all the pieces from each other.
Other than that, it’s just a bigger version of Chess! The steepest part of the learning curve after that is getting comfortable with the powerful impact of drops — this is especially strange for seasoned Chess players, who will be accustomed to captured pieces playing no further role in the game. But again, given a few games, you’ll soon start to see the exciting, combative play allowed by the drop rule, and you’ll be chucking Gold Generals at your opponent like a pro.
How the Shogi Pieces Move:
Here’s a quick reference to the moves of the Shogi pieces:
As you can see, the King, Rook and Bishop move the same as in Chess. The Knight moves the same as in Chess too, but can only jump forward. The Pawn moves forward and captures forward — no diagonal capturing like in Chess. The Gold General moves one space in any direction except diagonally backward, while the Silver General can move one space diagonally in any direction or one space directly forward.
The promoted pieces are easy to remember — all promoted pieces move the same as the Gold General, with the exception of the Horse and Dragon. The Horse moves like a Bishop, but can also choose to move one square orthogonally; the Dragon moves like a Rook but can also move one square diagonally in any direction.
You might notice that the Shogi pieces have a general forward bias in their movement patterns, and most are short-range movers. This works very well with the drop rule — the combination of forward movement and drops favours attacking play, and the short-range movements prevent the game from becoming too chaotic, as it might be with powerful pieces appearing wherever they like on the board.
The flip side to this is that you can very rarely have a condition called entering Kings, where both players’ Kings have moved into each others’ promotion zones. This makes it very difficult for anyone to win, as most of the pieces attack forward rather than backward. This is one of the very rare ways you can have a draw in Shogi. In practice this rarely happens, especially between beginners, who normally dive heedlessly into battle and neglect King safety entirely!
Note that the Horse provides a good reason for the Shogi board to not be chequered. In Chess your Bishops are confined forever to half of the board — either the black diagonals or the white ones. The Horse however can spend a move to shift from one set of diagonals to the other, so it’s less useful to have the chequers to indicate where the Bishops go — once promoted they can go anywhere.
Shogi: A whole family of amazing games
One of the things I love about Shogi is that, in a sense, it’s part of a whole game system rather than a single game.
To unpack that a little bit — you may be aware that there are many hundreds of Chess variants out there, variations on the game with different boards, pieces and rules. Shogi has these too, but unlike in Chess, many of the Shogi variants are hundreds of years old, and were refined over the centuries into fantastic games in their own right! Shogi variants are well-designed, well-balanced, and offer just as much intrigue and fascination as the traditional form of the game.
In fact, before the introduction of the drop rule made the modern game dominant, there used to be three variants of Shogi that were commonly played: Sho Shogi, or ‘Small Shogi’, which added drops later and become modern Shogi; Chu Shogi, or ‘Middle Shogi’, a much bigger game played on a 12×12 board of 144 squares; and Dai Shogi, or ‘Large Shogi’, played on an even bigger 15×15 board of 225 squares. Shogi used to come in Small/Medium/Large sizes! Alongside these main variations, there were numerous other variants of Shogi developed over the centuries, some of which I’ll describe below.
Today, besides Sho Shogi only Chu Shogi maintains a small presence — the Chu Shogi Renmei in Japan is the official governing body, and holds regular tournaments. This is unfortunate, really, as the Shogi variants are quite unique — particularly the larger variants, which are far larger than any commonly-played Chess variants, and offer hugely creative pieces and styles of play.
Thankfully, the efforts of one George Hodges in the late 20th century led to the revival of these ancient forms of Chess, and remarkably he even manufactured affordable sets for most of the large variants. Sadly George left us a few years ago, but his wife carries on that business, and she remains the only source on the planet for physical sets of most of the Shogi variants. I of course have bought several of them myself 🙂
Without further ado, here’s a brief intro to a few of the more spectacular Shogi variants — several of which I will bring with me to the Shogi event in a few weeks time!
Chu Shogi is a spectacular game. Those lucky few who have played it frequently class it as one of the finest Chess games ever invented — and I thoroughly agree.
The game is not super accessible at first — the board is much larger than in Shogi (144 squares vs 81), and there are far more pieces on the board (46 pieces per player, compared to 20 each in Shogi). All told, you’ll have to remember 28 different piece movements instead of 10 like in Shogi! But the rewards are very much worth it.
I should say that the larger Shogi variants do not use the drop rule — otherwise the games would go on far too long! Instead captured pieces are lost permanently, as in Chess.
Despite the large board and huge armies, Chu Shogi maintains a pretty swift pace. Each player starts with powerful pieces on the board from the beginning — including multiple Dragons and Horses, and the Free King which moves as a Queen in Chess. Interesting to note here that the Queen in Chess was invented three centuries later — Chu was an extremely innovative game for the time.
The most powerful piece, and the piece that defines Chu Shogi, is the Lion. The Lion effectively moves twice in one turn — it can make two consecutive King moves in any direction, with all that implies: it can capture twice; capture once and return to its starting square, appearing to capture without moving; or it can move once then return to its starting point, effectively passing its turn. All of these abilities are staggeringly powerful for different reasons. The Lion is so important and so engaging that the Chu community wisely added some rules to prevent players trading them off early in the game — it’s a bit complicated, but essentially you can’t sacrifice your Lion for your opponent to recapture unless you captured a sufficiently powerful enemy piece in the process.
Notably, Chu Shogi includes a piece called a Drunk Elephant, which moves like a King except it can’t move directly backward. This piece promotes to Crown Prince, which is a second King — and both Kings and Princes must be captured to win the game! Because of this, Chu and the other large variants with Drunk Elephants (most of them) don’t actually have a checkmate rule — any royal pieces must be actually captured to win the game. This allows you to sacrifice a Prince or King for tactical reasons — although honestly that’s rarely advisable!
At any rate, it’s a fabulous game, definitely worth your time if you’ve ever enjoyed a game of Shogi or Chess. It’s also the root of many of the larger Shogi games, meaning if you can play Chu it’s easier to jump up to the larger games afterward.
Dai Shogi, big brother to Chu, is much bigger than its sibling but not that much more complicated to learn. Essentially, take Chu, add eight more piece types with fairly easy-to-remember short-range moves, all of which promote to Gold General, and you have Dai!
Some criticise Dai as being too slow or not exciting enough, given that it’s essentially a scaled-up version of Chu with more pieces and a bigger board. But I strongly disagree — the larger board significantly expands the options available to players, the larger armies make the game more forgiving given the lower importance of material losses, and the powerhouse Lion is less dominating on the larger playing area. The game is indeed slower, but it’s also strategic, intriguing, and a great introduction to the larger Shogi variants given it’s easy to pick up once you know Chu.
Tenjiku Shogi — sometimes translated as ‘Exotic Shogi’ — is one of the most unique and dynamic games of Chess ever devised. The game is played on a massive 16×16 board (256 squares), and each player starts with 78 pieces in their army — and yet, the pieces are so powerful that the game can be over in less moves than a game of regular Shogi!
Like Chu Shogi is defined by the Lion, Tenjiku is defined by the Fire Demon. Each player starts with two of these. The Fire Demon can move as far as it wants in six directions — already extremely powerful by Shogi standards. But on top of that, it burns everything it touches!
In other words, the Fire Demon instantly kills any piece adjacent to it when it finishes moving, meaning it can capture up to eight pieces in one move. Not only that, but if the opponent isn’t thinking and moves a piece next to it on his turn, that piece is also instantly captured — and that doesn’t count as your turn!
On top of that, your army also contains a Lion, two pieces called Water Buffaloes that promote to Fire Demons, and a number of range-capturing Generals — these are pieces that can jump over any number of enemy pieces in order to make a capture. The upshot of all this is that, right from the opening, Tenjiku is a dynamic and dangerous game — attacks start immediately, and your huge 78-piece army starts dwindling very quickly. No other Chess variant plays like this, and it’s an absolute blast.
Dai Dai Shogi
Dai Dai Shogi — or, literally translated, ‘Big Big Shogi’ — definitely fits its name. The game is played on a 17×17 board of 289 squares, with each player leading an army of 96 pieces! The starting setup, unlike most Shogi variants, is highly asymmetric — amongst the 96 pieces in your army, there are 64 different types of pieces, so many of your army are unique single pieces. All told, you need to remember 68 different piece moves — again unlike most variants, only 20 pieces promote in this game, and most of those to Gold General.
Dai Dai is quite a fascinating game, with a style of play all its own. This is the first large Shogi game to introduce promotion by capture — pieces promote as soon as they capture any enemy piece, and don’t have to wait until they reach the promotion zone. This creates some intriguing tactical decisions, as some pieces effectively demote, becoming much weaker when they make a capture — so you’d better make that capture count!
This is particularly true in the case of the powerful hook-moving pieces introduced in this game: the Tengu, or long-nosed goblin, that can make two consecutive Bishop moves at right angles to each other; and the aptly-named Hook Mover, which makes two consecutive Rook moves at right angles to each other. If that doesn’t sound so amazing, consider that a Hook-Mover on an empty board can reach any square in one move — hard to keep your King safe from that! But, both these pieces demote on capture, so they’re effectively one-shot nuclear weapons — use them wisely.
Dai Dai Shogi is well worth a try if you’re interested in a unique twist on Shogi — the asymmetric setup, huge piece variety and powerful hook-movers make for a surprisingly aggressive game, considering the size of the board.
Maka Dai Dai Shogi
Maka Dai Dai Shogi is yet another step up in size from Tenjiku, played on a 19×19 board of 361 squares, with each player starting with an army of 96 pieces. The name is a bit interesting — ‘Dai’ means big or large, as we know, and ‘Maka’ is a word derived from Sanskrit that means something like ‘Superior’. So ‘Maka Dai Dai Shogi’ means basically ‘Superior Large Large Shogi’, or less awkwardly, ‘Superior Ultra-Large Shogi’. I would argue this is pretty accurate — it’s definitely ultra-large, and has a number of superior qualities.
One of the standout qualities of Shogi as compared to Chess is that most of the pieces can promote, and the large variants for the most part carry on this tradition. Maka Dai Dai, however, takes it to the next level, and allows the King himself to promote! A promoted King becomes an Emperor, the most powerful piece to exist in any variant of Chess: the Emperor can instantly teleport to any unprotected square on the board, including squares occupied by enemy pieces. In other words, the Emperor can instantly go anywhere and capture anything, so long as that square isn’t directly threatened with recapture by an enemy piece.
Alongside this, in Maka Dai Dai promotions occur by capture, as in Dai Dai Shogi. This helps to speed up the pace of the game, as on such a large board reaching the promotion zone would take forever. Promotion-by-capture also makes attacking the enemy King a risky proposition — if you mess it up, the King might capture an attacking piece, thereby immediately becoming an Emperor, which is both extremely powerful and desperately hard to checkmate!
“If you come at the King, you best not miss.”
Maka Dai Dai, like most of the large Shogi variants, was invented by Buddhist monks — after all they have lots of time on their hands. This is more apparent in Maka Dai Dai than the other variants, as it includes pieces drawn from Buddhist mythology that behave in unusual ways. The Deva and Dark Spirit, for example, promote to Buddhist Spirit and Teaching King respectively — and any piece that captures them becomes a Buddhist Spirit or Teaching King, so these immortal creatures effectively never leave the board.
Substantial research has been done on this game by Professor Tomoyuki Takami, who states that Heian-Era sources suggest that Maka Dai Dai was actually one of the earliest forms of Shogi to exist. He says that the pieces of the game are inspired by Chinese astrology and traditional masked dances and festivals of the early Heian era, and that in the early days the game was played as a form of ritual rather than entertainment. Over the centuries, the game was reduced down to smaller forms, like Dai Dai Shogi, Dai Shogi and Chu Shogi, once they discovered that this ritual game was actually quite fun to play, but pretty long….
How long, you ask? Well, George Hodges once compared the lengths of various versions of Shogi — this is the number of total moves in an average game for each variant:
- Chess: 80
- Shogi: 110
- Dai Shogi: 400
- Dai Dai Shogi: 800
- Maka Dai Dai Shogi: 1100
- Tai Shogi: 2000
Wow, that’s long. If you start up a game of Maka Dai Dai Shogi, make sure you have the weekend free 🙂 I should say that I, of course, own a physical set for this game and would happily play it with anyone who asks. The board is too big for my table, however, so we’d have to find a place big enough!
OK, now this is getting ridiculous — Tai Shogi, or ‘Supreme Shogi’, is a spectacularly huge game played on a 25×25 board of 625 squares, invented in the 15th century by Buddhist monks (of course). Each player marches into battle with an army of 177 pieces each, and in order to play you need to remember 99 distinct piece movements.
I’ve never personally played this, but remarkably, you can actually buy a set of this from Angela Hodges here in the UK. The board is more than a metre square! Even experienced players take upwards of two hours to set up the pieces in their initial position. As you can see below, each players’ starting ranks are absolutely chock full of pieces — in fact the opening phase is a bit like a sliding-block puzzle as you try to free up lines for your pieces to get into the action.
Notably, there are actually no Kings on the board — each player starts with an Emperor in play (!), and a Crown Prince that moves like a King. Both must be captured to win the game. Many of the other pieces have strong promotions, which occur by capture as in Dai Dai and Maka Dai Dai rather than by entering the promotion zone — so carelessly leaving pieces out to be gobbled up can rapidly turn the game against you!
Those who’ve played Tai say it’s an extremely challenging game, because it’s very hard to formulate any kind of sensible whole-board strategy in a game this large. As a result the game plays more like a wargame, with intensely tactical local skirmishes of great complexity breaking out across the board. Meanwhile, the everpresent Emperors make each move feel consequential — leave anything hanging and you may give the Emperor a chance to start some carnage. Given how old this game is, the creativity of all this is astounding — it’s kind of like an ancient version of Warhammer or something.
I don’t yet own this game but certainly plan to at some point — consider this a standing challenge to all! Once I get a set for this, I’m happy to give it a go with anyone who’s interested.
Unbelievably, Tai Shogi is not the biggest Chess game to ever exist. It used to be, until some documents were uncovered in 1997 with rules for a 16th-century Shogi variant called Taikyoku Shogi, or ‘Ultimate Shogi’.
This preposterous game is played on a 36×36 board of 1,296 squares. Each player has an army of 402 pieces, and to play you must remember 253 distinct movement patterns. Each side starts with a King and Crown Prince on the board, and a Drunk Elephant who can promote to Crown Prince — meaning you may have to capture three royal pieces to eventually win.
Unlike the other huge variants, in Tai Shogi promotion is once again by entering the enemy camp rather than by capture. Each army contains a huge variety of pieces with whimsical names like the Running Bear, Vermillion Sparrow, Violent Ox, Enchanted Badger, and — my favourite — the Vertical Puppy. If I ever play this game somehow, I’m going to devote my entire strategy toward devising a way to checkmate my opponent using the Vertical Puppy.
Amazingly, a real-life wooden set for Taikyoku Shogi was carved and used for a special segment on the Japanese variety show Fountain of Trivia back in 2004. Two Shogi pros faced off in a game of Taikyoku Shogi, using a little reference book to help them remember how the pieces moved. The game lasted 32 hours and 41 minutes, and ended in checkmate for the first player after 3,805 moves!
There’s a clip of the match on YouTube, unfortunately the quality isn’t great but the whole segment is there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c0Y26iTPSM
At the end of the match, the winning player says ‘I don’t want to do that again’; the loser says something hard to translate, but it’s kind of like ‘I have no regrets’, conveying the impression he doesn’t mind losing something so bizarre, and is mostly glad it’s over.
Where do I go from here?
Well, as you can see, Shogi offers a whole world of interesting games. I wrote far too much here, and yet still didn’t cover anywhere near all the variants — there’s a number of smaller ones too, but I just love the big monster games. If you fancy trying a variant of Shogi, and want to pick just one, I’d recommend Chu Shogi — it’s monstrous without being ponderous, and the Lion is such a creative and beautifully-balanced addition to the game. Leaving aside my nerdy fascination with all things Shogi, it’s a genuinely delightful game.
Your best bet of course is to play modern Shogi — in my opinion it’s the finest version of Chess by quite some distance, and can easily support a lifetime of play and study. There are numerous places these days to play online, like 81dojo which is free, in English and supports several variants as well. Obviously modern Shogi has by far the largest playing community of any version of Shogi, and rightfully so — it strikes a balance between complexity and simplicity that’s hard to beat.
For a taste of Shogi, come on down to our Shogi event next month and get acquainted with the modern game! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, even if just as a peek into a corner of Japanese culture most of us never see. For those of you who really take a fancy to the game, you’re welcome to join Shuzo and myself in our soon-to-be-launched Shogi club, which will meet regularly in Glasgow to play Shogi and learn about the game.
And, if you’re a weirdo like me who can easily spend all day playing games, join me for a game of Chu, Dai, Tenjiku or Maka Dai Dai Shogi! Just make sure you free up your schedule first 🙂