Tuesday, 11 July 2017

a chinese board game

I grew up playing board games, starting with dice-based games such as ludo and snakes and ladders, and later, Monopoly. However, once I’d discovered strategy games such as chess and draughts (checkers), I stopped playing games where chance is a significant factor in the outcome. Even a game like backgammon, which does require a certain level of skill, is unsatisfactory because the outcome is ultimately determined by the roll of the dice.

By the time I came to Hong Kong in 1974, I’d become familiar with Chinese games such as wei chi and Chinese chess, but soon after my arrival a Chinese colleague showed me an apparently simple board game that I’d not encountered previously. It isn’t listed in Board & Table Games from Many Civilizations, a book that I’d bought several years earlier, and I’ve been unable to find any references to it on the internet, although I did find an illustration of the board with the pieces in their starting positions. However, this game was attributed to Korea, and the object of the game was different. Mind you, this kind of thing is not that unusual; after all, draughts is played on a chess board.

I mention this because I was browsing through some of my old notebooks a few days ago when I came across a detailed analysis of the game that I’d been shown in 1974, written at the time. The following photograph shows the first page of that analysis:

Like wei chi and Chinese chess, play takes place on the intersection of the lines rather than on the squares. The starting position is shown in the following diagram:

The rules are simple:
  • Black moves first.
  • Players take turns to move any one piece to the next intersection along any of the lines that emanate from that piece’s current location. Obviously, diagonal moves are not possible.
  • A player loses if they have no legal moves available (‘blockade’).
  • A player loses if they have only one piece left.
The last rule implies that there is a method for capturing one’s opponent’s pieces, and this procedure is explained with the aid of the following diagram:

In this scenario, if it is black to move, they can capture the white piece on C1 by moving B2–C2 or the white piece on D2 by moving C3–C2. However, if it is white to move, they can capture the black piece on B2 by moving C1–C2 or the black piece on C3 by moving D2–C2. Notice that in each case, capture is effected by lining up two of your pieces with one of your opponents. The fourth intersection in the line must be empty, and that blank point must be on an outside line. A player can move a single piece into alignment with two of their opponent’s without penalty.

Referring to the above diagram, there are four possible first moves for black (A2–B2, A3–B3, B1–B2, B4–B3). The first two are topologically identical, as are the last two, and playing either of the first two would result in the immediate loss of a piece (white plays C1–C2 in the first case, C4–C3 in the second). Effectively, therefore, black has only one opening move. However, the game quickly becomes more complex. I don’t plan to attempt a detailed analysis, although I believe that black should win with correct play by virtue of having first move.

If you’re interested in trying this game, just mark out the grid on an A4 sheet of paper—use a ruler if you must, although it shouldn’t be necessary. Almost anything of uniform appearance will suffice for use as pieces—we used bottle tops in the old days. And if anyone can tell me what this game is called, I’d appreciate their letting me know. My Chinese colleague called it simply ‘chess’, but I soon discovered that many Chinese call all board games ‘chess’.

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