Most people, even those with just a passing interest in board games, know that chess is an ancient game. In fact the chess game most of us recognize dates back to the mid-1400s, but comes from even earlier roots.
However, as chess migrated away from its likely birthplace in India, the game evolved down divergent paths depending on where it was taken and nurtured.
In Japan the game became known as Shogi, and it remains one of the more fascinating chess variants available to play today.
Shogi, as a game in its own right, dates back about a thousand years, with an estimated creation around 1000. It's rather phenomenal that any game has survived so long.
While Shogi is clearly a chess variant, the familiar bishop, rook, pawn and horse (knight), there are a number of significant differences which make the game compelling different for game players.
To begin with, the gold general and silver generals are pieces that are different than western chess, and new pieces are always interesting to explore in terms of interaction with other pieces. Finding synergies between pieces create the strategies to win.
Another major difference is that while in western chess only pawns promote, in Shogi almost every piece has the ability to upgrade when it reaches a particular rank on the board. In this game it's a unique way they deal with such promotions too. The pieces are flat, more like a checker piece than a standard western chess piece. The Japanese symbol for the starting piece is on one side, and the advancement piece on the other. Players simply flip the piece over when they reach the rank to advance.
The advanced pieces have changes, and/or enhanced movement abilities, adding a nice layer to the strategy of the game which goes beyond the western concept of a pawn becoming another queen on reaching the farthest rank.
The second aspect of Shogi that makes it unique is that captured pieces are not totally eliminated from the game.
A captured piece is held 'in-hand' by the player who captured it. That player has the option of foregoing a traditional move on his turn to place a captured piece on the board under his control.
The ability to 'drop' captured pieces back into the fray dramatically changes how Shogi plays compared to western chess.
A captured piece can become a key resource which can be brought to bare to fashion attack strategies, or provide added defence to protect a threatened king.
The fact that captured pieces usually find their way back into action also changes how the Shogi board develops through a game. The game is played on a 9X9 board, with each player starting with 22 pieces, so the board has a piece density of just more than 27 per cent.
In western chess the density of pieces declines as the game progresses, and pieces are captured. In Shogi that density tends to stay constant, since pieces are often reintroduced, so you must battle through a more crowded board to win.
Overall, Shogi is familiar enough for chess players to pick up fairly easily, yet different enough to offer new challenges. while getting a taste of a different culture's development on the game.
And, for the truly adventurous into the world of Shogi there are numerous variants, including Tori Shogi a variant on a 7X7 board with bird themed pieces, and the huge Chu Shogi played on a 12X12 board with each player controlling 46 pieces, and Dia Shogi on a 15X15 board with each player having 65 pieces.
-- CALVIN DANIELS
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Nov. 19, 2008 - Yorkton, SK. Canada