I acquired another (two-player) variant that's pretty popular … but as a kid's game. I'd been holding out for a decent set with good components, but that doesn't seem to be happening, so I got the cheap, kids-oriented version instead.
The pieces are cheap, HOLLOW plastic with no backs and have the piece values stickered manually to the front. (An extra sheet of stickers is provided, shown in photo.)
The game plays like regular Junqi except that it involves land, sea, and air.
Second update. These cards are going to be an even bigger problem. It's definitely a Great Man deck, but … it's from Zhangxiang apparently.
This gives me a sense of foreboding.
See, Zhangxiang is one of the seats of Chu culture. If it's Chinese, ancient, decadent, and REALLY REALLY WEIRD it's probably Chu in origin. The Kingdom of Chu was just a weird place. (I live in another seat of Chu culture, just to be clear.)
And Zhangxiang is the Chu the rest of the Chu looked up to.
First update. These previously posted cards are a Gelao People's speciality from Wuchuan Gelao and Miao Autonomous County (务川仡佬族苗族自治县). The highly stylized writing is from this region and nobody outside of it is going to be able to read those cards.
The game primarily played with it is called 大贰 (lit. "Big Two") since the banker's digit 2 is the most important card. It is a highly complex and unusual game of a form I've never seen before. I'm decoding the rules; it's really hard.
"Weird-Ass Chinese Playing Cards" supplemental. I got two new decks.
The first one is another set of number cards. Top rank are the low-valued plain numerals while the bottom are the high-valued banking numerals. (It took me quite a bit to figure which were which…)
The second one is a weird variant of the "Great Man" deck with calligraphy that's so far removed from anything I've ever seen I'm not even sure of the order just yet.
I'm not sure of either's origin yet, but am digging.
Placing all the sets together into one toot here for comparison, you can see the spectrum of variance used in making DIY games.
It's all recognizably the same DNA, but as you dive deeper into the world of gamers designing things for their own amusement you get more and more gonzo insanity.
Which I love. That last game variant is a killer that retains a lot of the flavour of Junqi while making it a game uniquely its own.
The rules for that six-player game, however, are straight-up minor revisions of the four-player game. That's not enough for some of the crazier DIY crowd. Like this one.
This one is an entirely different game, almost, using hexagonal grids, adding features like terrain capture and resource mining, and, in perfect DIY form, is made of an ink-jet printed vinyl board, some cheap silicone washers, and a cheap, commercial Junqi and Siguojunqi set. (I told you you'd see that set again!)
So we've got two-player and four-player situations covered. But what happens if you have other numbers of possible players? Don't worry! DIY gaming culture is ready and waiting for you!
As always seems to be the case, one vendor makes a fairly conservative variant of Junqi for 2, 3, 4, or 6 players as depicted here. The board aside (which is flimsy plastic–they have a vinyl one now that I will be buying), production is very professional and high-quality as you can see in the pieces.
Junqi is barely old enough to have status as a "traditional" game. It is, nonetheless, considered such here in China, and indeed it's old enough to have a variant that's also considered traditional: 四国军棋 (Siguojunqi/Four Country Army Chess).
The one depicted here is also a set I own, but on the cheapest of the cheap side. I selected this for two reasons:
1. It shows lower-end Junqi sets.
2. I couldn't find my nicer set.
You will see this set later on in a different context, however.
So no, today's game is Junqi. It's considered an "intermediate" game between Doushouqi (primarily a child's game) and Xiangqi (considered a "serious" game). It's also considered a leisure game even for adults.
Quality of sets, like with Xiangqi ranges from the ultra cheap to stupidly expensive. The picture here is my set, in the "middling to expensive" scale, complete with an electronic referee. (Rules variants exist with and without a referee, but we prefer the former.)
L'Attaque itself turning into the game Stratego sometime in the 1940s, but also into 斗兽棋 (Doushouqi/Animal Fight Chess) in China in … well, that's unclear. It's also unclear which was Doushouqi's ancestor.
It's clear, however, is that all of these games share common DNA. Two players. Similar boards. Ranked pieces.
Differences are minor and include the need for a referee in the Japanese game and the open pieces in Doushouqi.
But these are not the actual topics of today's deep dive.
This is another deep dive, this time into the game 陆战棋 (Luzhanqi/Land Battle Chess) or, as I've always heard it called, 军棋 (Junqi/Army Chess). It is a two-player board game with a murky history. I'll try to unravel some of that history.
In 1908 the game L'Attaque was first published in France. It was, however, very clearly based on the Japanese 軍人将棋 (Military Chess) published in 1895.
Among the changes made include, naturally, the images, but also the disposal of the referee position.
When playing tabletop games, I like to tinker with the sacred and the profane at a conceptual level. Nothing makes a place seem more alien than to twist or even outright flip the sacred and the profane.
Consider this lovely jade brooch, for example. It's probably very jarring once you notice the thing you won't unsee afterwards: there's a huge bug in the middle of it.
Oh, and it's also festooned with swastikas. Symbols of hate in the west. Symbols of good fortune outside of it.
All that being said, my favourite of all of them remains the basic, generic, traditional, 2-player game. It's why this specific board is almost always with me, in a pocket, purse, or backpack.
All of the variants I own and have tried have their charms. I wouldn't turn down playing any of them. But in the end I always come back to the two-player game.
What all these variants thus far have in common is that they're modern. The oldest of them is the 3-player/4-side game that's under 70 years old. The rest were made in first decade of the 2000s.
There are older multi-player variants that are in my shopping cart ready for when I have the mad money to spare. The first is the "Game of the Three Friends" (17th century), a 3-player variant, while the other is the "Game of the Seven Kingdoms" (13th century), a 7-player variant.
This 4-player variant is a more raving, gonzo version … and I love it! It suffers from some of the flaws of the previous version, but makes up for it by:
1. Having a set of pieces in the middle that anybody can play on their turn.
2. Giving "terrain" at each corner to let flanking work.
3. De-nerfs the horses by giving them powerful chain movement and attack features. (Horses are SCARY now!)
The resulting game is not Xiangqi, but Xiangqi flavoured … and loads of fun!
So what's a group of four going to do, though? Play a 4-player variant naturally!
This is a fairly straightforward four-player. It suffers from two big problems:
1. The huge area in the middle nerfs horses and soldiers both. (A special rule that lets soldiers move all non-diagonal directions 1 or 2 spaces only partially fixes things.)
2. The cannon is badly nerfed by a rule that says the cannon can't attack across two rivers.
It's a decent game, sure, but weak as a Xiangqi.
Honourable mention, however, goes to this variant.
There are 4 colours, but only 3 players. The (very powerful!) yellow pieces are neutral at first. A race to the three black dots around the yellow general triggers alliance-building.
Red, for example, could force green to ally with yellow, putting itself automatically in alliance with black. A two-way battle between alliances plays out before single kingdoms battle.
Some Xiangqi flavour is lost, but other good stuff is gained.
This, however, is my favourite 3-player variant. It does some space-time warping, complete with wormholes, to give a very satisfactory game that still feels like Xiangqi (right down to managing to keep the double-cannon pin down the middle intact across two players!).
The only real oddity is that the shared corners of each kingdom shove the soldiers in a space at the edge. There's also a bit of a minor singularity right at the very centre.
The main issue in Xiangqi is that it's for two players. A lot of variants focus on how to change this.
This is a typical (so DIY it hurts!) example of such a variant. To support three players instead of two, change the shape of the board from a collection of squares (with a row forming the "river" across the middle) into a collection of triangles (with the river being a bit crooked and forking).
This variant loses some important things that give Xiangqi its unique flavour, though.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Xiangqi to Chinese culture. It is played by everybody from 3 to 90. It is played by everybody from construction workers to high academics.
It comes in a bewildering set of sizes and shapes and qualities and sets can be purchased for as little as $1 to absurdly expensive "gold Phoebe" sets with flip-over Weiqi (Go) board and tea set for $3500 or more. (Both depicted below, again not my photos.)