This year I got into shogi. It started when my friend Aevee recommended an anime to me called 3gatsu no lion or March Comes in Like a Lion, I think because it’s about a sad boy. And, surprise, I liked it very much. Like author Chica Umino’s previous work Honey & Clover, which was about students at a prestigious art school, 3gatsu explores a group of people who practice a craft, in this case the game of shogi, or “Japanese chess,” and how what they do affects their life and their relationships.

A dilemma of the main character, Rei Kiriyama, is that he’s very good at the game from a young age; in fact he’s so talented he wrecks a family, and the fallout from that is the source behind much of the series’ drama and its character arcs. Rei’s ability to win allows him to live, but it also isolates him from others. People who aren’t high-level shogi players have no idea what he goes through, and other professional shogi players who might have the capacity to understand are often too preoccupied with seeing him as an opponent to defeat, or worse, as a threat to their own standing in the field.

It’s a good story even if you know nothing about shogi, but there are certain moments that turn on specific moves or board configurations, so I became curious to understand these better. I thought learning it would be pretty straightforward; I knew shogi was in the “chess family” of games that originally came from India. So I imagined it would be the same game, more or less, with some superficial differences in pieces’ names or movement patterns. At first it seems that way: there’s a “king,” a “bishop,” “knights,” “pawns,” and so on. The goal of the game, putting the opponent’s king in a situation that can’t be escaped, remains the same.

The truth is, I wasn’t prepared for how dissimilar shogi is, even though it has lots of comparable elements. More than any variations in specific rules, there’s what feels like a fundamentally different philosophy undergirding it. What I remember of chess from childhood is that the pieces are individuals who coordinate together to implement a strategy. But in our low-level games, it wasn’t uncommon to see a knight or a queen charge off and do their own thing, powerfully controlling a large section of the board. In shogi, the pieces have very little power on their own like that. Even the most powerful pieces are components of a system that must move in lock-step together in order to achieve anything.

As a specific example, both games’ knight-style piece moves in an L-shaped pattern and jumps over other pieces. But the chess knight can move in both 2-and-1 and 1-and-2 configurations, backward as well as forward. Shogi’s analogue, by contrast, can only ever move forward in the 2-and-1 pattern, giving it just two possible movement squares at any given time. This makes it a far more limited instrument with very specific applications. In chess, the knight is often seen as an early-game piece, an upstart who’s good to get out onto the field. Shogi’s knight is not useful at all when it charges ahead. It has to be used in conjunction with other pieces in the right context for it to make a difference.

Shogi’s “lance” is another example of this kind of game design. It sits on the columns at the edges of the board and isn’t allowed to retreat or move to the side. Ever. At first, this seems like a bizarrely limited, terrible piece. Who designed it like this? And again, it turns out that the lance does make sense, but it has to be understood as part of a complete system with the other pieces. The lance is relegated to the flanks, but it controls the flanks very well. It has an important role.

It’s tempting to go from here into the weeds of “Western versus Japanese game design philosophy.” It’s funny, I really do feel like the differences between chess and shogi remind me of playing Western video games versus Japanese ones. Or maybe you could even draw some tortured conclusion about different cultures, structures and conceptions of society, and so on. But I don’t want to get into that.

Another fun thing about shogi is the upgrade system. In chess, pawns that reach the back row can be converted into more powerful pieces. (Surely anyone who played chess in childhood remembers that long, boring, multiple-turn march of a pawn up the board while the opposing side couldn’t do anything about it.) In shogi, pieces that reach the third row from the top can be promoted into a different piece. Some of them become powered-up versions of themselves, like the rook and bishop, who gain the ability to move one square in any direction in addition to their original movement; it makes them much more dangerous. Other pieces like the knight and the lance that could only ever move forward become pieces that are able to move backward or to the side, which keeps them potentially useful after the initial charge is over. Because of all the upgrades, the endgame can sometimes feel like the climactic battle at the end of a sentai show, when everyone’s transformed into their “true” form.

The biggest difference of shogi, however, and the design decision that truly makes it fascinating to me, is the capture-and-return mechanic. When you capture an enemy piece, you can use a turn to put that piece back on the board as one of your own pieces, anywhere. There are a couple exceptions, but still, think about that for a second. If your opponent loses a powerful piece to you, the very next turn you can put it back on the board as your piece, right in the middle of a weak point in their formation, way up in their territory, and wreak utter havoc.

My first thought upon trying to get my head around this mechanic was, how the heck is this balanced? It seems like one of those reinforcing feedback loops that’s impossible to recover from. And it is, if you play without the mechanic in mind. But this is where the intricate structure of shogi formations is key. In chess, all that matters is what faces the enemy. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in back; it’s not exposed. In shogi, the formation has to be good all the way through because an opponent’s captured piece can interrupt things more or less at any time, anywhere. So this is why shogi pieces are built to interlock with each other. It’s taking me a long time to get that about the game, that pieces like the “silver general” and “gold general” have movement and attack patterns that complement each other, and that’s how I should be using them: as a team.

The capture and return mechanic explodes the potential state space of the game by several dimensions, and it’s the reason shogi is thought to be the most complex of the major chess family games. On another level, the mechanic makes the inherent drama of chess moves, like a queen sacrifice, impossible. These folks aren’t gallantly giving up their lives for the king— they go over to the other side! Shogi pieces are not the picture of undying loyalty that chess pieces are. One of the characters in 3gatsu writes a shogi book for children that portrays the pieces as cats, and, besides being cute and extremely goofy, it does seem appropriate to their outlook on life.

Anyway, I’m still terrible at shogi. My greatest accomplishment so far has been beating the AI in an entry-level shogi app (seriously, it’s called “Shogi Entry”) on my iPhone, set to difficulty level 10 out of 100. It doesn’t even take any time to think or run the battery down.

1 Comment