In preparation for writing up some detailed articles about my favourite Shogi variants in the future, I spent a bunch of my insomniac hours making Shogi diagrams in Illustrator recently. I thought I might give these a trial run before the main event, so here’s a more off-the-cuff opinion piece of sorts, about the dominant ‘power pieces’ in Chess and Chess-like games.
UPDATE: I hadn’t realised my sources on the Tai Shogi pieces didn’t indicate that the power-pieces in fact have slightly different moves! This then led to the same error popping up in the Long-Nosed Goblin diagram for Dai Dai Shogi. I’ve now updated the diagrams and text to fix the error.
The Queen as a Power Piece
Abstract game designer Christian Freeling, whom I’ve praised extensively in this blog for his invention of Havannah and Starweb, two world-class strategic games, also invented numerous Chess variants over the years. Of particular interest is Grand Chess, an enlarged game on a 10×10 board which includes two additional pieces: the Marshall, which has the combined movement powers of a Rook and a Knight; and the Cardinal, which moves as a Bishop or a Knight. The larger board and larger armies make for a fine game full of strategic and tactical complexity, even more so than standard Chess.
Part of Christian Freeling’s motivation for Grand Chess was his desire to logically ‘complete’ the Chess lineup. He has spoken in the past about the Queen in Chess, the presence of which he calls ‘defendable but arbitrary’, and the lack of other powerful combination pieces:
There are two more combinations, the ‘marshall’ and the ‘cardinal’. They combine the powers of rook & knight and bishop & knight respectively. They should not have been excluded because of an arbitrary boardsize, but they were. Chess became a great game where it should have become an even greater game.
My new pet theory is that the exclusion of these other hybrid pieces has actually been a good thing for Chess — not in terms of rule elegance or logic, but in terms of the play experience, and the subsequent success of Chess games with communities of players. This is not to say that Grand Chess is bad by comparison — far from it, you should definitely give it a try. Though I do think there’s a reason Mad Queen Chess eventually just became standard Chess — the enormous power gap between the Queen and the other major and minor pieces gives the game additional tension, pace and urgency. The Queen is a power piece — a singular, dominant force that gives direction and narrative emphasis to Chess play.
Let’s look at an example of the impact of the Queen in high-level Chess — the famous ‘Gold Coin Game’ between Stefan Levitsky and Frank James Marshall in 1912. Marshall, playing Black, finds himself in this position, with his Queen threatened by capture via Levitsky’s Rook:
The next move allegedly ignited so much excitement from the spectators that they tossed gold coins all over the board. Marshall threw his Queen directly into danger with a surprising and deadly manoeuvre:
White resigned immediately. White can’t take the Queen — there’s no variation that works for Levitsky. To give some examples — if White takes with the pawn on h2:
Immediate checkmate! White is trapped by the Knight and the Rook. If White takes with the Queen:
Black immediately gives the same check with the Knight on e2, takes White’s Queen with check, and will take the Rook on the next move. White is down a full Rook and completely doomed. Finally, if White takes with the pawn on f2:
Forced mate. Black gives check with the Knight again, the King must go to h1 due to Black’s Rook, then that same Rook gives mate on f1. Any other try by White is equally hopeless.
So why is this move so famous? Of course it’s effective, dispatching White in one fell swoop and eliminating any attempts at a defence. The move is certainly hard to find, because long lateral moves are notoriously difficult for even strong players to spot. But we must admit that White was already in trouble here, and it’s not hard to find other, simpler moves that lead to a win as well.
I’d suggest that this move is famous, and by extension all the other notorious Queen sacrifices throughout Chess history, because the Queen is so much more powerful than any other piece that our innate desire is to protect it — the Queen can be a threat from almost anywhere on the board, so every fibre of our being tells us not to throw it away. The Queen is so important that incredible numbers of Chess problems, studies, and books focus on using it, capturing it, and protecting it. The Queen towers over the other pieces, so when someone seemingly goes against all good sense and throws her life away, it’s a thrilling moment. A great Knight sacrifice can be pretty, too, but it doesn’t have the same oomph of a daring Queen sac.
That oomph comes from the Queen’s status as a power piece — a piece that stands alone in each player’s army, capable of dictating the pace and rhythm of the game. Entire games, and indeed tournaments, can rest on the fate of the Queen.
At this point you might say “OK sure — the Queen is badass, I get it. But isn’t that just a quirk of Chess? Is it actually necessary for a great Chess-like game to have power pieces?” I’m willing to concede that a great Chess game may not need a power piece as a prerequisite for being great. But the more I thought about this, the more I noticed that every Chess-like game I play has a piece (sometimes two) vastly more powerful and influential than the others on the board.
Since I know the Shogi family very well, let’s take a look at some of Shogi’s power pieces (note that I won’t be looking at promoted pieces generally, since it would just take more time while making no real difference to the overall pattern). I’m not going to cover every major variant, but a representative slice of six of them — enough to demonstrate that the power piece is not just a fluke of Chess, but a feature common to many games in the King-capture family.
Power Pieces in Shogi
Modern Shogi is well-known for consisting mostly of short-range pieces. Since captured pieces come back to life all the time in Shogi, the game is less chaotic and more balanced thanks to having predominantly short-range pieces. However, Shogi still has the Rook and Bishop — two pieces vastly more powerful than everything else, pieces that can devastate your opponent on their own, or devastate you if you lose one or both of them.
In Chess-like games one way of quantifying piece strength is via exchange values. If we consider the value of a pawn to be 1 point, then we can calculate over many many games the approximate worth of other pieces in terms of pawns. In Chess, for example, Knights and Bishops are worth about 3 pawns, Rooks 5 pawns, and Queens 10 pawns. In modern Shogi we see a similar gap between the power pieces and the rest:
The next-strongest pieces behind the Rook and the Bishop are the Gold and Silver Generals, both worth vastly less. The difference in the mobility of the Rook and Bishop compared to the Generals is particularly striking — on a 9×9 board, with most other pieces being single-step movers or otherwise very constrained, being able to move unlimited distances is seriously powerful.
The Lion in Chu Shogi
Chu Shogi is modern Shogi’s larger ancestor, played on a 12×12 board with 46 pieces per player. Chu Shogi is an incredibly well-balanced game, and widely regarded by its fans (including me) as possibly the greatest Chess game ever invented. Chu Shogi is particularly famous for its incredible power piece, the Lion:
Chu Shogi’s Lion is a slice of pure game design genius. The Lion can move like a King twice in one turn, with all the options that implies — capturing an adjacent piece, then moving back to its starting point (indicated by the ‘!’ in the diagram above); moving any which way in the 5×5 square area around itself, and so on. The Lion can also jump two squares in any direction (indicated by the stars in the diagram). It’s agile, powerful, and adaptable beyond any other piece on the board. The nearest competitor to the Lion is the Queen, which moves exactly like the Queen in Chess (but was invented 300 years earlier); despite the Queen’s massive mobility, it simply can’t compete with the incredible flexibility and brutality of the Lion.
Logically we might think the Lion unbalances the game, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the Lion is so enjoyable and challenging to use that the wise inventors of Chu Shogi included special Lion-trading rules, specifically to ensure that players don’t simply trade Lions on even terms early on to simplify the game. The Lion in a sense defines the game — Chu Shogi probably would have faded away like so many other Chess variants, were it not for the Lion.
I want to take a moment here to mention Chu Shogi’s big brother, Dai Shogi. Dai Shogi actually came before Chu Shogi, and includes all the same pieces plus eight more single-step-movers on a 15×15 board (65 pieces per player). Dai Shogi is often cited as Chu’s slower, less exciting predecessor — I personally disagree with this characterisation, for reasons I’ll get into in a future post, but I believe part of the reason for this is the significantly decreased influence of the Lion on the larger board. The Lion is still powerful in Dai, but it no longer drives the game — in fact Dai Shogi does not use any special rules to protect the Lion from exchanges, because of its less central role. This fits as well with my power-piece theory; without the pace and energy of the Lion taking centre stage, Dai Shogi can feel slower, more methodical, and less thrilling than its younger sibling.
Tenjiku Shogi’s Explosive Demons
As we step up to even larger Shogi games, we find that Japan’s ancient game designers were never short of ideas for new power pieces. On larger boards individual pieces have less influence in general, so to construct power pieces on that scale you have to really get crazy with it. Fortunately they were up to the challenge. Tenjiku Shogi is a massive game played on a 16×16 board with 78 pieces per player, and yet again we have a clear standout power piece even on this massive field of battle:
Yes, you are reading that correctly — the Fire Demon in Tenjiku Shogi is worth 83 pawns. The Fire Demon is also one of the most powerful Chess pieces ever invented. This beast can move as far as it likes in six directions, or step any which way in a 7×7 square around itself — and whichever way it moves, once it stops every enemy piece adjacent to it is removed from the board. If the opponent moves a piece next to the Fire Demon on their turn, that piece gets burned away too.
So instead of Tenjiku Shogi being a bigger, slower version of Chu, the Fire Demon turns it into a sort of supercharged extended edition. Pieces die violently and in large numbers, and games can be over in surprisingly short amounts of time. Note that the next two most powerful pieces in the game, the Great General and Vice General, are also staggeringly strong, able to jump over any number of friendly or opposing pieces in order to perform a capture. Even with that significant power these pieces still are only half as strong as the mighty Fire Demon. Like the Lion and the Chess Queen, the Fire Demon is in a class by itself.
Dai Dai Shogi’s Hook Movers
Dai Dai Shogi — literally translated that means ‘Big Big Shogi’ — is an extremely sizeable game, played on a 17×17 board with 96 pieces per player. Once again the sheer enormity of the board didn’t deter our intrepid designers from producing yet another power piece:
Our friend the Lion is back, but this time as only the third-most powerful piece on the board. Towering above him are the hook-moving pieces; these monsters can move as far as they like in one direction as a Rook or Bishop, then turn 90 degrees and do it again, all in one turn (although they may only capture once). In the case of the Hook Mover — worth a ridiculous 114 pawns — that means on an empty board it can reach any square in a single move. That single piece is considered to be worth more than five Lions.
R. Wayne Schmittberger in a 1981 issue of Shogi Magazine had this to say about the power of the Long-Nosed Goblins and Hook Movers in Dai Dai Shogi:
The dominant piece in the middle game is the Long-Nosed Goblin, and in the endgame the supremely powerful Hook Mover, which not only attacks every square on an empty board but gives double-check by itself!! This makes interposition against it impossible in many cases. Generally a game will end quickly if a player is able to get the deadly combination of a Hook Mover and a Furious Fiend near the enemy King, where they will simply run amok and eventually combine for an elegant tsume [mate].
This power piece isn’t just a random addition, it’s carefully integrated into the fabric of the game. Dai Dai Shogi is notable for having a very asymmetric initial position; there are 64 different types of pieces in each player’s 96-piece starting army. The Hook-Mover and the Long-Nosed Goblin are tucked snugly away in the back ranks, waiting to be unleashed when the board is open and starting to empty of other pieces — precisely when they’re at their deadliest. As R. Wayne Schmittberger says, the middle- and endgame of Dai Dai Shogi is heavily influenced by these pieces, and the tactical complexities they introduce alongside the huge menagerie of different pieces gives the game a unique flavour. Thanks to this tactical and strategic richness, Dai Dai Shogi stands out even in the crazy world of Shogi variants.
Hook Movers in Maka Dai Dai Shogi
Next up is Maka Dai Dai Shogi, one of my favourite Shogi variants. Maka Dai Dai is an immense game, played on a 19×19 board with 96 pieces per player, and is notable for its strange pieces named after mythical spirits, and for the fact that the King promotes into the near-omnipotent Emperor that can jump instantly to anywhere on the board. Even on this larger board, the Hook Mover still works perfectly as a power piece:
Once again the Hook Mover towers over the rest, worth more than double its nearest competitor. The Buddhist Spirit, which moves as both a Lion and a Queen and has special rules that make it essentially immortal, still pales in comparison. In fairness, one could say in this case that the ultimate power piece in Maka Dai Dai Shogi is the Emperor, which is so unbelievably strong that the entire game changes completely when a King promotes. But the Emperor doesn’t always appear, while the Hook Mover is always lurking, ready to cause trouble — so in that sense I consider the Hook Mover the real power piece here, because it always will impact on the game.
Tai Shogi: on the biggest boards, mobility is King
Our last stop on the Large Shogi Express is Tai Shogi, a monstrosity of a game played on a 25×25 board with 177 pieces per player. Here once again the Hook Movers reign supreme, and in practice are even more powerful with the extra room to manoeuvre on such a gargantuan board:
In Tai Shogi all the strongest pieces are hook-movers of some description, but the double-Rook Hook Mover still rules the roost, and it’s not a close competition. On this massive board rich with weak targets, the Hook Mover’s value jumps up to a preposterous 232 pawns, well over twice the value of its double-Bishop brethren.
Note that the Capricorn and Long-Nosed Goblin have slightly different piece values; the Long-Nosed Goblin is able to move one square orthogonally, as well as having the double-Bishop move, so it is slightly more powerful. This option to spend a turn to switch diagonals means the Goblin can actually reach every square on the board, instead of half the squares. However, spending a whole turn on this when you have 177 pieces to move is rather costly, so this does not create a huge difference in piece value. Also, the Capricorn promotes to Gold General, whereas the Long-Nosed Goblin does not promote; since the Capricorn’s promotion is actually a demotion, this means it has to be used more cautiously. That being said, before demotion the Capricorn remains a deadly threat and incredibly mobile.
R. Wayne Schmittberger, noted Shogi variant expert, underlines the importance of the hook-moving pieces in all these titanically large games:
Tai Shogi is the ultimate marathon game in the Chess family. In terms of the number of pieces and playing time, Tai Shogi is to Dai Dai Shogi what Dai Dai Shogi is to Chu Shogi. A serious game will require several long playing sessions to complete and will usually require more than 1,000 moves per player. Like Dai Dai and Maka Dai Dai, Tai has hook-moving pieces that dominate the board in much the same way that a Lion does in Chu Shogi.
Tori Shogi’s Menagerie
Now to allay any fears that only huge and ridiculous Chess-type games fit my theory, let’s take a moment to look at Shogi’s elegant little sibling, Tori Shogi:
Tori Shogi is a diminutive game, particularly in comparison to the others we just looked at — the board is only 7×7, and each player starts with a mere 16 pieces. Yet even here we see a similar dynamic — only one piece, the Eagle (a promoted Falcon), has unlimited movement range of any kind. As a result, the Falcon’s value is nearly double that of its ancestor. Granted, in this case the Eagle isn’t present from the start, but the action in Tori Shogi is frenetic enough and the Eagle powerful enough that it often has a strong influence on the game.
Stepping away from Shogi for a moment, we can see that the same properties appear in other popular Chess games too — like Xiangqi and Janggi (Chinese and Korean Chess, respectively), where the Chariot is about twice as strong as its nearest competitor (the Cannon):
Xiangqi is frequently cited as the most popular traditional board game in the world, and Janggi has a robust professional scene in Korea and a growing international player base, so once again we see that power-piece Chess games tend to attract a robust following. Incidentally, both these games are very different from Chess and Shogi, and well worth your time — I’ll be discussing them in detail in future posts.
I admit that my knowledge of Chess variants is by no means encyclopaedic, but I argue that the prevalence of power pieces in notable Chess variants suggests that the seemingly unbalanced starting setup of many games in this family is actually an asset, not a weakness. The Chess variants that have survived the centuries and retain a following today seem to share a predilection for the power piece.
I can certainly understand that having a single dominant piece type might strike a game designer’s mind as distasteful, but from the perspective of the player, power pieces give these games an exciting dynamic. In the case of the large Shogi games, they stay playable and interesting largely because of these power pieces — without them, these games would drag on forever, and with so many slow-moving targets plodding around there’d be far fewer thrills in any particular capture or sneaky tactical sequence. But a nuclear Fire Demon sacrifice destroying eight pieces in one go? Yes, please!
So, in contrast to Christian’s view, I’d say that Chess and its many cousins has achieved cultural-icon status partially because the starting position is illogical and lopsided in its distribution of power amongst the pieces. The ubiquity and popularity of the power piece across the games profiled here suggests that this dynamic appeals to players across the centuries and across cultures, and that it translates equally well to large and small boards and starting arrays.
Before I leave you, I want to showcase another famous Queen sacrifice in Chess. This example comes from an endgame study. Chess endgame studies are carefully composed endgame problems where one side must win or draw, and a properly-composed study must have one, and only one, correct solution.
This particular problem was composed by Leopold Mitrofanov at an endgame study competition in 1967. The problem opens with Black pushed into a corner, but armed with two Knights and a Bishop, and threatening to promote a pawn any second:
White can win here, presumably via one of those pawns on the right side of the board. However, those pawns are less advanced than Black’s, so the first question for White is: how to delay that dangerous pawn? First, White can push back the opposing King by pushing the b-pawn, then offer a Rook sacrifice:
Black must take the Rook to get his pawn through, which gives White a chance to sneak in an advance of the g-pawn. Both sides end up promoting their pawns to Queen shortly thereafter, and Black retreats the Bishop to protect the King:
Now things get a bit heated. First, White pushes the a-pawn, cramping Black’s King, and Black retaliates with a Knight check. White takes the Knight, but then Black’s Queen jumps into the action and takes White’s h-pawn:
This looks really bad for White! Black’s King is protected in the corner, the White Queen is off in the other corner, and Black’s Queen now has free reign to chase down White’s King. There’s nowhere for the King to go.
Luckily there’s another option other than a King move:
Outrageous. White plants the Queen directly in front of Black’s Queen, blocking the check — but then Black can take it for free, and White’s in check again! What’s the point?
The point is to deflect the Black Queen. Black must take the Queen, and in so doing takes his own Queen off a key diagonal. Now when White retreats his King to a6, Black can’t immediately give check:
Suddenly, Black is in terrible trouble! His Knight is out of play on the bottom of the board, and the Queen has the White King trapped but can’t do anything with it. White, despite having only a few pawns left, has the upper hand. Black captures the a-pawn with his Bishop, hoping to whittle down the advancing horde, then sacrifices his own Queen to draw the King away from the defence of the pawns:
Unfortunately these desperate tactics lead nowhere. Black’s Knight is useless, and his King can’t capture both pawns at once, so one promotes to Queen:
It’s over! White has a Queen and Black is completely out of options. White can easily drive Black’s King into the corner and force mate in a couple of moves.
Mitrofanov’s ingenious study has all the hallmarks of a classic — a clever solution, a glorious and counterintuitive Queen sacrifice, and a Rook sacrifice too. No wonder it’s been called ‘the study of the millenium’. For me, it’s another example of the powerful psychological impact of the Queen sacrifice; the winning move 7. Qg5!! strikes us as so absurd that the solution seems even more creative and beautiful.