Those few of you who keep track of what games I play will notice that, of late, I have played a lot of regional Chess variants. Talking to people at my regular game night, I'm learning more and more that Chess is more-or-less a common bond. Not everyone there played it a lot, but most of us learned it young. And all of us know how to play, even if it's not at an especially high level of skill.
I first learned to play the game when I was six. My early play was all about wiping my opponent's pieces off of the board. My strategy was far from strong. But I learned and improved.
I'm not a strong player. All through Junior High and High School, I was in the middle of the pack skill-wise. I would probably have been a better player if I'd just buckled down and played with the intent of learning instead of playing with the intent of winning. Because they are very different modes of play, sometimes.
I would have probably set the game aside had it not been for my Japanese class. We took a field trip to the International District in Seattle. There is a book store called Kinokuniya. At the time, it was upstairs from Uwajimaya. Our field trip was to Uwajimaya, but we were allowed to shop a few blocks around it.
While browsing Kinokuniya, I wandered over to the gaming section, because that is what I do. I've been a roleplayer for longer than I've been a hardcore boardgamer, and so every time I visit a new bookstore, I make a beeline for the gaming section. Generally in English-language bookstores, there are a few RPG books. And some books on classic boardgames. At this store, there were no RPG books that I could find, but mixed in with the books on Go there was a book called Shogi for Beginners. I saw it referred to as "The Japanese Chess" and was curious enough to flip through it. And there was a magnetic travel set there, too. Both were within my budget, so I picked them up.
I read the book on the way back into town. Not cover-to-cover, but enough that I could figure out how to play. The pieces in the magnetic set weren't exactly the same as the pics in the book, but they were close enough that I could figure out which was which.
And that is where I can trace my deeper fascination with Chess and its regional variants to. A cheap-o magnetic travel Shogi set and a book that has since gone out of print.
Chess itself had laid the foundation for me. And it was an okay game, but there were things about it that had always bugged me. The Queen, for example, seemed badly overpowered. The play itself seemed very formulaic and rigid with centuries of history. As it turns out, chess in its current form is much younger than many of its regional flavors. The last piece to finalize in the game was the queen, who was set in place only about five hundred years ago. Shogi is a few hundred years older. Xiangqi is up to a thousand years older. Changgi is contemporary with Shogi. Makruk is older than Shogi, but is reportedly the most similar game to Chaturanga still being played anywhere in the world. Ouk Chatrang is a slightly tweaked variant of Makruk.
Of course, all of them are descended from Chaturanga, according to most scholars. But - as Wikipedia points out - "The exact rules to chaturanga are unknown." And the history branched early - Chaturanga became Shatranj as it headed West, and Chess is descended form Shatranj. As it headed East, Chaturanga became Makruk and Xiangqi and Changgi and Shogi - but the actual path from one to the next is unknown to me - and the more I dig, the more versions I find that I want to try ...
It's very interesting to me to see what the games have kept and lost in relation to one another. For example, all of them have a Knight piece whose move is roughly equivalent. Roughly. In Chess, the knight can move forward, sideways, or backwards. It moves two spaces in its chosen direction before moving one space perpendicular to its initial movement. It can jump over intervening pieces, both friendly and hostile. In Shatranj, the equivalent piece is identical to Chess' Knight. In Makruk, the knight is also identical to the Knight. In Shogi, the equivalent piece can only move forward. And, instead of moving in an L shape, it's described as one space forward followed by one diagonally. It has the end result of the same L-shape, but the "one forward, one diagonal" movement is an important distinction. And the Shogi knight can still jump over intervening pieces. In Xiangqi and Changgi, the knight equivalent moves one space orthagonally and then one outward diagonally - a Xiangqi knight on an empty board can move to the exact same spaces as a Chess knight can. But you can "break the legs" of these Knights because they can't jump.
Right now, I'm still playing to learn most of these. Until you don't need to concentrate on "what is that piece?" you won't be able to play to win. Or to develop any sort of effective strategy.
If you're curious about any of these, you can play Makruk with a traditional Chess set, and many of the others can be acquired for around $25-$30 for a decent set.
I'm really lucky with my current Wednesday group - one of the regulars grew up playing Changgi, so he already understands some of the strategy - and he's been a patient teacher, too, which is important when learning a new game. He's very good about pointing out my bad moves and why they are bad moves and letting me take them back. So far, I've beat him once, but it was in a game that had several take-backs. Some day, I'll get him with no take-backs. Just like he'll beat me at Shogi sometime ...