I've been fascinated by this game ever since I stumbled across Tom Vasel's excellent video review. I'd played the occasional game of 'Western' chess many years ago, but I always found it too deep and serious and not at all entertaining, and it is certainly not a game that I would consider playing with my family. However this variant of Shogi (Japanese chess) was far more appealing, as it seemed to contain a nice degree of strategy but hidden inside a light theme of animal teams.
The more I looked into this game, the more I wanted to own a copy, and so an obsession was formed. I read the English rules, I checked other reviews on serious Shogi web sites, and eventually I discovered that I could buy it direct from Japan for a bargain price, and so just one week after placing the order a brand new copy arrived at my door!
I played two games this evening, the first against my wife (the lovely and endlessly understanding Mrs E) and the second against my youngest son, who is affectionately known as Oik #2.
Setting up the game was really easy, you just place the eight chunky wooden tiles in the following formation on the colourful but tiny 3x4 board;
The rules are simple, although the concept of putting captured pieces back onto the board was new to me, so this is how I explained the rules to the Oik;
1. You win the game either by trapping your opponent's lion so it cannot move without being captured, or by getting your lion to the other end of the board.
2. Each animal can only move one square in the directions shown by the dots on its tile.
3. You can capture an animal by landing on it.
4. If you capture an animal, it becomes part of your team. You can then choose to put it back onto the board in any empty space when it's your turn, and it will work for you.
5. If your chick gets to the other end of the board, then you can turn it into a hen by flipping it over. The hen can move in more directions.
The game against Mrs E was tough; she played a mean game and there was a lot of capturing and trapping. We found the balance of game could be totally changed just by placing a captured piece back on the board, and this was great because it was then difficult to predict how the game was going to turn out, and at no time did either of us think we were in a 'no win' situation, which kept the game interesting right to the end. Result, a win to me.
The game against Oik #2 was terrific. He understood the rules very quickly and was soon playing well, and I only had to help him spot all the possible moves he could make. I was impressed by how quickly he started looking two or three moves ahead, and was soon weighing up the 'best' move. In fact, I was so preoccupied by his grasp of the game, I didn't realise my lion was trapped until it was too late! Result, a win to the Oik!
So what do I think? This is a really quick game (5-10 minutes) that encourages 'just one more go'. Its visual appeal and simple rules make it attractive to kids and adults alike, yet it has subtle complexity and a surprising number of permutations on such a small board.