To learn how to play Chinese chess you can watch Allen teach Mike in this video below!
Written by Mike Michelini
Playing Chinese Chess is a fun way to understand Chinese culture a bit as well as practice some new Chinese characters. My first time playing I was thinking about the old times in Chinese wars thousands of years ago, this game helps you visualize it. Let’s look into how this traditional Chinese game works.
Pieces of the game
Chinese chess, also known as 象棋 (xiàng qí) has some similar pieces as chess, you will have one board (or mat) to put the pieces on and 32 Player’s pieces (16 for each side). Here are the number of pieces for each side:
10 Soldiers (5 for each side) [Red and black characters don’t match]
4 Bombers (2 for each side)
4 Horses (2 for each side)
4 Chariots (2 for each side)
4 Elephants (2 for each side) [Red and black characters don’t match]
4 King’s soldier (2 defensive soldiers for each side)
*2 Kings (1 King for each side) [Red and Black characters don’t match]
How the Characters Move
So how do these pieces move along the board? Let’s go down the list.
Offense can move across the river, while the defensive pieces (covered below) cannot cross and must stay near the king to protect him.
- Soldiers – Similar to a pawn in chess, these are the “fodder” at the front lines of the army. 5 across closest to the river, they can only move forward or backward 1 space at a time. Once they cross the river though, they can move left and right as well as forward and backward.
- Bombers – I think of these as cannon brigade. They can kill anything in their line of sight (looking straight ahead) but the catch is that there needs to be a piece between them and their target. This piece in between the bomber and his target can be either your piece or your enemy’s piece. Please note the distance doesn’t matter, the bomber can move across the board.
- Horses – These are the same as a knight in chess. They can move in an ‘L’ shape, one forward and two left or right (or the inverse).
- Chariots – The most powerful piece in the game. In some ways like the queen in chess, except it can only move vertically or horizontally, it cannot cross the board diagonally. So the chariot can cross the whole board and kill its target, no questions asked. The difference with the chariot and the bomber is the bomber has to have a piece in between it and its target, where the chariot simply goes straight for the kill.
These pieces are stuck on your side of the board, and cannot pass the river. The elephant can move anywhere on your side of the board, but the king’s soldiers and the king cannot leave the castle.
- Elephants – These can make one extra space more than the horse (or knight), going in a two by two direction. So the elephant moves to forward (or backward) and two left (or right). But the big difference is this elephant cannot cross the river and needs to stay on your defense.
- King’s soldier – This soldier’s job is to stay in the castle and protect the king. He cannot leave the castle, but can move in any direction two spaces, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. I imagine in a real-life battle, these are the specially trained warriors with big shields and constantly circling the king when there is an attack.
- King – Same as chess, can only move in 1 space in any direction. But the difference with chess is he cannot leave his castle, which is a two by two box in the back center on your side of the board. If he dies, you lose the game. There isn’t a check or checkmate, it is simply the king is killed or not.
The Board (Battlefield)
The board is a square mat that is 8 boxes by 8 boxes. So each side has 4 boxes, and in the middle of the board is the river. The river is what separates the offensive pieces from the defensive pieces (we covered above) ensuring that you keep certain pieces on your side of the board.
The five soldiers are spread out evenly towards the front of your side of the board. Behind them are the two bombers, and then the back row has the king in the middle, with the king’s soldiers on his sides, then 2 elephants, 2 horses, and 2 chariots (on alternating sides).
Note the castle is in the back center of the board on each player’s side, this is where the king and king’s soldiers must remain for the entire game. Its a two by two square area and there are diagonal lines showing that those pieces can move diagonally within the castle.
Playing the Game
The game starts with red making the first move. Each side makes its own move, even if one side makes a kill or not, it keeps alternating. Each player has three minutes to make his or her move.
Winning the Game
To win the game, the first person to kill the opponent’s king wins. There is no check or checkmate like in chess, it is going straight for the kill.
Variations of Play
The classic way to play is where each player has 3 minutes each move but this can take a long time, especially as the pieces move and the board becomes so complex. It can take many hours to finish one match.
Therefore, there is a faster way to play, where there are 10 minutes total game length, and then the game is over.
I am excited to have learned the game of Chinese chess, and I hope you did too! I envision a living battle with knights, chariots, cannons, and even massive elephants protecting the castle!
We will continually update this post as we get other people’s variations of play and more clarifications on the rules. I am sure after all these years of Chinese history there have formed multiple formats of Chinese chess! This one I learned from one of our WrittenChinese.com’s team members – Allen, he learned this when he was a young boy and got quite good at it.