This is a cute variant on chess that I bought in Japan as a souvenir for a friend. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything but a cute example of Japanese children’s game design, but it actually proved really interesting. The game layout and images of the pieces can be seen here: it’s obviously just a cute little chess game. The rules are similar to chess but with simpler moves and an additional way of winning. The board is a 3×4 matrix, with sky at the top and forest at the bottom. These regions constitute the players’ “areas”, which are similar to the back row of a chess board.

The pieces
Each side has only four pieces:

  • The lion, essentially the king in chess, that can move one square in any direction, making it as powerful as the queen on this board.
  • The Elephant, essentially a bishop, that can move one square diagonally
  • The Giraffe, essentially a rook, that can move one square horizontally or vertically
  • The Chick, essentially a pawn, that starts in the middle of the second row and can move forward one space. If it reaches the enemy area the chick becomes a chicken (which in play my friend called a “magic chicken” ) that can move sideways or forward diagonally, and backwards one step
  • The objective
    Winning is possible by catching your opponent’s lion or by advancing your lion into your opponent’s area. Catching the lion is called “catch” and winning by advance is a “try.”

    Replacable pieces
    The main change from the standard rules of chess is the ability to return captured pieces to the board. After you catch your enemy’s piece you put it next to your side of the board and can then place it on the board instead of moving an existing piece. You have to place them in the order you caught them, and you can put them in any empty square. It wasn’t clear from the explanation but the rules stated that the chick has to advance into the opponent’s area to become magical, so we figured that means you can’t enchant a chick by placing it in your opponent’s area.

    Differences from chess
    Replacable pieces on a board this size makes for an interesting variation on chess. You can see from the diagram that the chicks start off facing each other and able to take each other. This is of no benefit to the person who starts because both players end up with a chick in hand, but one player has his lion in the middle of the board. The lion is strong, not weak, so this is a good position to start.

    This is the other main difference from standard chess. Because no piece can take from range the lion is the strongest piece on the board, and moving it out early is good. Also, the ability to win by a try makes aggressive use of the lion a good tactic. In fact, over 10 or 12 games I got the impression that this game encourages aggressive play.

    Another difference from chess is the use of diversionary tactics, especially using captured pieces. For example, if you threaten the king with a newly-placed elephant from one side of the board, the king will have to take it. This gives your king a free run up the board on the other side. I don’t think these tactics are used as much in standard chess.

    Three special rules
    This game is a training game for child chess players (the website is on the women’s chess society homepage), and as such intended to introduce children to chess culture. So it introduces three special rules for all players:

  • Always say “please be good to me” (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) before you play and “thank you” at the end
  • Never let anyone help you: play under your own effort
  • Never say “again”: in mistakes are the foundation of learning, so try to accept your errors and play without taking moves back
  • Each game takes only 5 to 10 minutes, so it’s a pretty quick learning curve compared to chess and it’s cute and fun to play. I recommend giving it a go. It also has me wondering what other variations on chess might be possible. For example, if you doubled or tripled the board size could you play chess like a modern war-game, with great sprawling battles, and wargame-style tactics? I’ve not really seen variations of chess based on changing the board size and distribution of pieces, but it appears to offer opportunities to use the basic rules of chess to play a very different style of game. An interesting idea…