Animal shogi: A roaring success overseas

Animal shogi: A roaring success overseas
A game of Shogi

The 26-year-old Polish man sitting in front of a minature shogi board bowed to the Japanese primary schooler across from him. "Mairi mashita," said Wojciech Jedynak, meaning "I concede."

Jedynak was unexpectedly defeated by the young boy at a dobutsu shogi (animal shogi) tournament on Aug. 17 in Tokyo. Named "Let's Catch the Lion!" in English, dobutsu shogi uses game pieces bearing the images of four animals instead of kanji characters.

It has recently seized the interest of children and young people around the world, with yokai monster and robot variations also emerging in Europe.

The four animals are a lion, chick, giraffe and elephant. The board has only three columns and four rows.

To win a game in dobutsu shogi, players check the opponent's lion piece, which is equivalent to the "osho" (king) in ordinary shogi. The chicks move like "fu" (pawns), and they grow to be chickens to acquire more freedom of movement when they move deep into opponents' territory.

The rules in dobutsu shogi are simplified from the original game: Players can place two chicks on the same column, for example, although players of ordinary shogi cannot put two pawns on the same column. There is also a unique rule for winning in dobutsu shogi called "try," in which players win the game when their lion reaches deep into an opponents' territory.

These rules were devised by Madoka Kitao, a professional shogi player in the women's second dan, and the pieces were designed by former female professional shogi player Maiko Fujita. Dobutsu shogi was first released in 2008.

Gentosha Education Inc. began selling a set with pieces and a board that bears three columns and four rows in September 2009. Since then, 470,000 sets had been sold as of early September this year. A set with a five-column, six-row board and a set with a nine-column, nine-row board have also gone on the market, selling a total of 63,000 sets.

Kitao showed me shogi-related books published overseas, including a comic book in French titled "Kings of Shogi," which is a translation of a Japanese manga named "Shion no O." Some people overseas decided to play shogi after reading comic books or watching anime featuring shogi.

Kitao has been promoting dobutsu shogi worldwide by participating in board game events in Europe, the United States, China, Taiwan and elsewhere. Some people start with dobutsu shogi and then shift to play ordinary shogi, according to Kitao.

Common elements of these two routes to shogi are "visual appeal and illustrations," Kitao said.

In France, a set with pieces that bear the images of yokai imaginary creatures has gone on sale. In Poland, a robot-themed set reportedly sold a total of more than 9,000 sets in 2012 and 2013.

"When I learned about dobutsu shogi at an event in my home country, I thought it was a great opportunity to learn the basic rules of shogi without struggling to learn kanji characters," said Adrien Levacic, an 18-year-old Frenchman who is learning shogi while studying physics at Nagoya University.

Speaking about "Yokai no Mori" (Forest of yokai monsters), a French version of dobutsu shogi, Levacic said, "The images of yokai creatures have a more Japanese flavor than the animals, so French people like them more.

"I prefer shogi to chess because shogi tends to have more dynamic developments during games. For example, players can use opponents' pieces that they captured."

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