Today I’m going to talk about something a little different. It’s still a board game, but it’s not a hot off the shelf release from Essen, or a Kickstarter reward or my latest adventure in solo gaming. It’s about shogi, Japanese chess, the game which I have undoubtedly played the most in the past 10 years. Many people compare the game Go to chess, but shogi is much closer. Several of the pieces move the same, lending a sense of familiarity to those who’ve played chess. But it’s also hugely different, and in my humble opinion, better by far.
Before we go on, I want to say that I won’t be using the Japanese names for pieces etc, just the names in English that I know them as, as taught to me. It may not be technically correct, but to me the words carry more than just meaning.
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to play chess. We had a beautiful wooden set in our home, and it called out to me. I don’t know what intrigued me about it so much, but I have no doubt that the cliche that chess players are intelligent struck a chord somewhere. I learned the basic rules, how the pieces moved, but I never progressed beyond that. Perhaps this was due in part to where I lived: a small, rural village in Ireland.
From there on, I played intermittently, never getting good, frequently getting worse, often getting destroyed in any game I played and making the same mistakes over and over. My knowledge around the game deepened, and I became aware that getting good at the game involved more than just playing, but actual study and memorisation. My desire to play chess faded.
Then I moved to Japan.
I decided I wanted to learn how to play shogi, the Japanese variation of chess (they share the same parent: chaturanga, an Indian game that spread all over the world). For my first class in Japan I had to do a self-introduction and I mentioned my desire to learn, and through the magic of the grapevine, one of the teachers volunteered to teach me. He was an eccentric guy, friendly, a history teacher with a huge amount of knowledge, decent English skills, and a shogi player since childhood. What followed was nearly 5 years of once a week shogi sessions for 40 minutes each, where we would play, and he would correct mistakes I was making as we went.
But how does shogi play? I don’t want this piece to devolve into a rules explanation, but I’d like to give a brief overview. Some pieces will be familiar to chess players. You have pawns, bishops, rooks, knights and a king. There is no queen. There are also shogi exclusive pieces, like the gold general and silver general, which have unique movement, unlike any seen in standard chess. Like standard chess the game is completely symmetrical, each player starting with the exact same pieces in the exact same lineup, trying to use skill and cunning to defeat their opponent. Unlike standard chess, the board is a 9×9 grid, not 8×8.
The mechanics of the game differ slightly too, including exciting opportunities such as ‘dropping’ and ‘promotion’. If you capture an opponent’s piece, it doesn’t leave the game, but rather it becomes your piece, sitting at the side of the board, ready to drop back onto the board in place of a movement during your turn. This adds an element of unpredictability to the game, and prevents you from planning more than a handful of turns into the future. Did you capture your opponent’s gold general, one of the most versatile, powerful pieces in the game? Well, now your opponent never knows where you’ll drop it, or when you’ll use it. It’s a threat that looms in your mind instilling fear and doubt. Will they use it this turn? Or next turn? Sometimes, they hold onto the piece for so long, you forget they have it, until BOOM there it is, gold general parachuted onto the board to checkmate! Game over.
Let’s not forget about ‘promotion’. When one of your pieces enters the opponent’s starting area (the first three rows of the board, larger than a chess starting area), after the movement is finished you can choose to ‘promote’ that piece. In practical terms, this simply means you flip it over revealing a different symbol. Mechanically this means it gets different movement, opening up a world of tactical choices. This means that even the lowliest pawn can become incredibly effective when used correctly, especially when used in conjunction with the ability to drop pieces on the board. But it also means you need to use judgement to determine when you should promote and when you shouldn’t, because sometimes the original movement will fit your strategy better in that situation.
How does this come together? Picture the scene. You’re head to head with your friend, concentrating hard, trying to outwit and outmaneuver them. You’re on the ropes a little, and your friend is getting a little arrogant. You drop a pawn onto the board near their king, and they snicker. HAHA! A pawn, there’s no way that you’ll be able to turn this game around like that! They play their move, slowly building an attack on your defenses. In response you move your recently dropped pawn forward a single space. It’s promoted, its movement range expands, and suddenly his king is in check, and he’s on the defensive. The whole game is flipped, and he now tries to escape the vice you’ve caught him in.
This is why I love shogi. It’s unpredictable, you can be blindsided by moves you never saw coming and it rewards aggressive play. But at the same time, you learn to recognise certain patterns and shapes on the board that you reward experience and skill. A defensive strategy where you sacrifice pieces to your opponent to hold them off, waiting for a mistake will not help you win a game of shogi. Eventually, your opponent will just have so many pieces to drop, they’ll suffocate you.
As I said earlier, I played shogi for nearly 5 years in Japan, but not as much since I came home. It’s taken that space where chess lived as a kid and filled it. There’s not much of a shogi scene in Ireland. I miss my weekly games. There are checkmate puzzles (known as tsume shogi), but it’s not the same as trying to outwit an opponent. To tell the truth, I never went beyond a handicapped game with my teacher, where he would play with a reduced number of pieces. He would still destroy me. Joining online games is intimidating, as the players there are frequently of a very high level. I made progress in my 5 years of playing, but I still have so much to learn.
I’d love to finish this article off with some kind of deep message. Perhaps something about how a childhood desire to learn chess was the start of a journey that lead me to shogi and probably board games in general. But I don’t think I have one. However, looking back on the time spent learning shogi, how the game has stood the test of time, how experience and practice can make you a significantly better player, I’ve come to appreciate the benefit of playing the same game over and over. I look at my game collection, games that have only been played a handful of times, and wonder, could they stand up to centuries of play and attempts to master them? Is there depth to these games that deserve my attention? Perhaps this is something I should look into exploring.