Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Xiangqi

By Dick Page 25 May 2017 4

It may be impossible to guess which game is the most popular in the world, but the Chinese variant of chess, Xianqi (roughly, Shiang-tchi), likely the most popular game in China, would have to be in the running.. Unlike Go (Weiqi), Xiangqi is as much a working-class game as a game for international tournaments. Walk around any community in China and you will see groups of men clustered around any given flat surface, playing Xiangqi on plastic folding mats with cheap stamped pieces. Despite its ubiquity in China (and Vietnam), Xiangqi has not made as much of a splash in the West as Go or even Shogi. If you can't find a Xiangqi club or another player near you, online play is of course going to be your best bet.

Where Shogi differs from Western chess primarily in the ability to promote and drop captured pieces. Xiangqi, on the other hand, demands the player learn some relatively unusual piece movements.

One of the biggest differences between Xiangqi and other forms of chess is the presence of 'terrain'. The board is divided in to by a river, and palaces occupy positions in the back rows of each side. The general and his advisers may not leave the palace - leaving the general with only nine possible positions on the board, and the two advisers with only five (!) since they can only move diagonally. The elephants can't cross the river and can only move two points diagonally, restricting them to only seven positions on the board. While terrain restricts most pieces, on the other hand, crossing the river gives the common soldier piece the additional ability to move sideways.

Action Online

Two other pieces have movements with no analogue in Western chess. The cannon moves any direction orthogonally, but can only capture by jumping over another piece. While the general is usually restricted to the palace, there is one case where he can leave. The two generals may not face each other across the board with no intervening pieces - if they do, the active player can perform the 'flying general' move, capturing the opponent's general immediately and winning the game.

This means that Xiangqi features a few extremely powerful long distance pieces, and a lot of highly limited short-range pieces. As a result, games are often more ‘regional’ than games of Western chess or Shogi, with areas contested with small groups of short range pieces supported by the chariots, and the generals’ abilities to limit each other’s movement becoming key.

Despite its ubiquity in China, Xiangqi is almost unknown in the West, so there are slim pickings for quality mobile play. If you're interested in learning to play Xiangqi, here are a couple apps to get you started. Like with Shogi and Go, you can start with offline AI engines, but the best way to improve is playing real people - so you’re going to want to join one of the popular servers. Additionally, you’ll want to try to solve some endgame problems, which both of these apps feature. Finally, both allow you to play with Chinese character pieces or pieces marked with Western chess symbols; while the chess symbols are easier when you are learning, you’ll probably want to learn the Chinese characters before you get serious about the game.

Action Chinese Chess (iOS and Android)

Action Puzzle

The server is also available to play from a web interface. Action Chinese Chess is definitely the most polished and complete Xiangqi app available on the US app store. It is available for free to try, with a premium purchase of $4.99 to remove ads. It has AI for practice, pass-and-play for when you want to play live with a friend, as well as online play. For beginners, pieces with Western symbols are available, and possible legal moves are displayed. Action Chinese Chess also allows you unlimited undoes, letting you take back poor moves and try a different strategy.

An additional variation of Xiangqi is also available to play from this app: blind chess (or ‘half chess’), in which pieces are randomly placed upside-down on half a xiangqi board, and players have to turn them over before they can see how they can move. This is considered a shorter and somewhat easier game, good for kids and beginners.

HOXChess (iOS and Android)

HOX

is a great open-source Xiangqi app. It's quite flexible, allowing you to play on many different remote servers, including the popular PlayXiangqi. It also allows you to choose from several AI engines for solo offline play. It's less polished than Action Chinese Chess, with more of a WYSIWYG interface, but it's totally free.

Let us know what you think of these apps, or feel free to recommend your own go-to ways of playing Xiangqi. We'd also love to take suggestions of what other Asian strategy games you'd like to see talked about in future entries. Let us know in the comments!

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