Sitting down to play a game of Shogi might be a bit daunting, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Japanese Kanji that’s written on each of the pieces. But don’t worry, if you’re familiar with the rules of chess or other similar games, Shogi is an easy adjustment.
Learning how to play Shogi proficiently can take a lifetime of practice, however getting a grasp of the basic rules can be easy. Shogi rules are very similar to chess, in that the main goal is to move your pieces up the board and checkmate the opponents King to win the game.
What is Shogi?
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, it can be helpful to learn the history of this ancient game. Shogi is considered one of the earliest Chess variants with some depictions as early as the 13th century in ancient Japan.
It’s widely believed that Shogi was a relative of the Indian Chaturanga, which was brought to China and Japan around the Nara Period. Since then the game has gone through a lot of adaptations and rule changes before becoming the game we see today.
A modern Shogi board is comprised of a 9×9 board and 40 flat wedged pieces with Japanese Kanji written on them. (20 per player). Most of these pieces function like chess pieces with a few exceptions and additional rules.
How is Shogi Different Than Chess?
There’s a number of differences between these games that make them play out differently. A few of the key differences in Shogi are:
- Captured pieces can be placed back onto the board under the control of whoever captured them
- In addition to standard pieces like the Rook and Bishop, there’s also a Silver Generals, Gold Generals and Lances.
- When a piece reached the top 3 rows, it gets promoted and gains new movement options.
Due to the fact that pieces re-enter the board and can be promoted, draws in Shogi are much less common and the winning player often completely overwhelms the opponent.
How To Play Shogi
Before learning the intricacies of Shogi, it’s important to understand the terminology.
- Ranks: Rows on the board.
- Files: Columns on the board.
- Promote: When a piece is promoted, it turns into a new piece with new movement options.
- Capture: When a piece is overtaken, it’s captured and placed in the capturing players reserves.
- Drop: Placing a captured piece back onto the board.
- Check: Like chess, Check is when an opponents King is in danger and the danger must be removed.
- Checkmate: A player’s King has no more safe movement options and they must concede the game.
Objective of Shogi
The goal of Shogi is to Checkmate your opponents king before they can do the same. This is done by surrounding the opponent’s King so that they have no safe moves left.
In Shogi each player has 20 pieces which are placed on their end of the board in specific positions. Most of these mimic standard chess pieces, with a few that only exist in Shogi. Additionally each piece can be promoted during the game and gain additional movement options. The most difficult part of understanding Shogi is probably getting to know how each piece and it’s promoted version move.
- King: Can move one space in any direction. Is the main piece that players must protect. This piece cannot promote.
- Rook: Can move any number of spaces vertically or horizontally. Promotes to Dragon King.
- Bishop: Can move any number of spaces diagonally. Promotes to Dragon Horse.
- Gold General: Moves like the King except it cannot move diagonally backwards, giving it 6 movement options. This piece cannot promote.
- Silver General: Can move one square diagonally or one square forward. Giving it 5 movement options. Promotes to Gold General.
- Knight: Moves two spaces forward and one space to the right or left in a single move. Unlike in chess, it cannot go backwards or sideways so it only has 2 movement options. Promotes to Gold General.
- Lance: Lance can move any number of spaces but only forwards. Promotes to Gold General.
- Pawn: Moves one space forward. Unlike Chess pawns, it overtakes pieces head-on instead of diagonally. Promotes to Gold General.
- Dragon King: The Rook promotes into a Dragon King. This piece can move any number of spaces horizontally or vertically. In addition it can also move one space diagonally, as if a combination of the King and the Rook.
- Dragon Horse: The Bishop promotes to a Dragon Horse. This piece can move any number of spaces diagonally. Additionally it can also move one space horizontally or vertically, as if a combination of the King and Bishop.
- Gold General: Most other pieces on the board promote into the promoted version of themselves, which has the same movement as a Gold General. This includes Pawns, Lances, Knights and Silver Generals.
Each players has identical starting positions on their own side, with each other their 20 unpromoted pieces on the board within the first 3 ranks.
In the closest rank to the player they place their King in the center file. Next to him are two gold generals, next to those are two silver generals, then two knights and finally two lances on the ends.
The next rank, second from the player, only two pieces are placed. The Bishop is on in front of the left knight and the Rook is in front of the right knight.
The third rank is all 9 pawns.
Taking your turn
Once players each have their pieces in the proper starting positions, it’s time for the first player to take their turn. The player who goes first is typically decided by flipping a piece known as the furigoma to determine who goes first.
On a players turn they have two possible actions; moving a piece or dropping a captured piece onto the board. On the first turn since nobody would have captured pieces yet, the player must move one of their existing pieces on the board.
If a player moves their piece onto an opponents piece, they capture that piece and put it in their reserve. On future turns instead of moving they may drop that piece onto the board (limited by special dropping rules).
When a player has some captured pieces in their reserve, they can drop them onto the board instead of taking a normal move. However there is some limitations on where pieces can be dropped.
- A piece dropped into the promotion zone does not instantly promote.
- A piece can not be dropped into instantly capturing a piece
- A pawn, lance or knight cannot be dropped onto the 9th rank (furthest from player)
- A knight cannot be dropped on the 8th rank
- A pawn may not be dropped onto the same file (column) as another pawn in their control
- A pawn may not be dropped in a way that gives a checkmate
Promoting is an important strategy in Shogi where a piece enters the final three ranks (the three rows furthest from the player). When this happen the pieces flip over to promote into pieces with additional movement options.
Much like in Chess, a check occurs when a King is in range of being hit and is forced to move to survive. checkmate occurs when a king is put in check, and subsequently doesn’t have any more movement options. This concedes the game.
Simple Shogi Strategy For Beginners
With the number of movement options on the pieces and the possibility of promotion, Shogi becomes a game of very deep strategy. So knowing some basic principals can help you gain the strategic edge on your opponent.
Understand the value of the pieces
The most powerful unpromoted pieces in Shogi are the Rook and Bishop. And unlike traditional Chess, each player only gets one of each of these pieces so they become even more valuable. Additionally, the promoted Rook and Bishop are the two pieces with the most movement options in the entire game, so getting them safely into the promotion zone will immediately put a lot of pressure on the opponent.
Avoid Needless Sacrifice
It can be tempting to see pawns as easy pieces to sacrifice, but be careful. Sacrificing a piece not only loses that piece, it also adds another piece to your opponents captured reserve giving them more options in future rounds.
Controlling the Board
The typical game of Shogi involves about twice as many moves as the typical game of Chess. This is because with the addition of extra pieces and the ability to drop them back into the game, the decisions can be much more complex. This results in a much longer mid-game.
Keeping control of the board is crucial. If you leave too many spots open, the opponent will have more opportunities to drop pieces and overtake the board. Ensuring there’s always pressure on the opponents pieces can make it hard for them to waste movement to get pieces back onto the board. Using check situations can be a good strategy to get some of your own reserve pieces dropped in.
Choose an Opening Strategy
Like any strategy game, it’s important to go in with a plan. There’s a number of viable opening strategies in shogi to open up the board and understanding a few can help give you the advantage. Choose if you want to be offensive or defensive in your opening moves and follow through with your plan. Offensive moves involve freeing up your stronger attacking pieces to put pressure on the opponent. Defensive moves involve slow moving structures of pieces that are hard to attack.
If you’re just learning how to play Shogi, all the different strategies can seem daunting. There’s always more to learn and players to learn from so read up on some professional players and their thought process as they play.