Xiangqi (象棋 )(Shong Chee) is Chinese chess; the name isn’t a literal translation, but it’s in the same family of games, and bares many resemblances. There are a few competing theories as to how “chess-type” games spread throughout the world, though it’s generally agreed upon that they are all of Asian origin (the places vary) and have changed many times both when moving to different regions, and staying in those regions. These changes have both added and reduced complexity over the years, and while it’s easy to see that xiangqi is related to chess, the games are played very differently, have a quite distinct set of pieces, meaning different sets are required to play each.
Now this post isn’t going to be about how to play xiangqi or strategies, there are many good online and long form explanations of those two things. And I’m also no good at the game, just like chess, I’m mediocre at the game but I like playing it. This post will be about a problem I ran into while trying to play xiangqi that just seems weird to me.
I live in the US, and obviously xiangqi isn’t going to be as popular here as it is in China, or other surrounding countries even, regular chess isn’t even that popular here, and xiangqi is very popular in China. So most sets are more geared to Chinese player, or those who already know the game. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game used figures like chess, but instead the pieces are marked with Chinese characters, and the characters vary depending on the side (so they can be told apart with no paint from it either wearing off or never being applied). This obviously restricts the game to people who know what the Chinese characters mean, or want to take the time out of their day to learn both the meanings of some Chinese and how to play a possibly boring variant of what is wildly considered a very boring game (not my thoughts, but people find it boring). And while I am quite willing to spend my time learning parts of a new language to play a game, most of the people I know aren’t, and if I was going to get the game played I needed them to be willing to play it. So I set out looking for a set that had pictures, or stand up pieces, and this sent me on a journey.
Okay, that might be overstating things a little bit, if one is looking for “stereoscopic” pieces the sets are readily available. But they are a bit expensive and I feel like they don’t hold as much cultural ground, I like the idea of keeping the flat disk look of the traditional Chinese game. Also if one is looking for a fully westernized version of the game, where the player even plays inside the squares and not on the intersections, the Elephant Chess Club released fairly recently a set that has enough pieces the play both xiangqi and chess. But it turns out in the past this same company made the exact product I was looking for, a disk set of xiangqi with Chinese characters on one side and western-style pictures on the other. From the little information I can gather these sets were started in 1997 (that’s the copyright in the instruction book) and sold from then until a the early/mid 2000s, some stores might still have them even. After this the company produced a run of the internationalized version I mentioned before and seems to currently have that out of production as well, though I don’t know, they could make a new print run in the near future.
Beyond that set though I combed the internet and found no “internationalized” version of the game. This was very strange to me; xiangqi is possibly the most popular game in the world and here I am, only able to find sets that only have Chinese characters. It makes sense that the majority of these sets would have only these characters, but I would expect at least a few more to a least attempt to appeal to a western audience. So I spent more and more time looking, hoping I was just using the wrong search term and suddenly a huge list of the answer I was looking for would pop up. This didn’t happen. So during that time I contented myself with making my own Chinese chess set, it wasn’t very good, but I could play with it.
After a while I set up a list of what I was looking for, it had to be a set that a) was disk shaped, like a traditional set, b) had both traditional characters, and western pictures, c) was made of wood, or plastic to be suitably light and hard to break, and d) was portable enough to play the game at a café or the like, as I don’t have a car this means it should fit easily in a backpack. This list came about after finding several sets that should have fixed my problem, but I didn’t like for various reasons. The stereoscopic and dual internationalized sets I mentioned before just didn’t seem to capture the traditional feel. Sets that did were mostly just the Chinese character versions. And some were quite large, 1 ½” playing pieces might not seem big, but they are. I also found a nice set (that was too large but still) that had Chinese characters with just the western names written beneath them, which seemed good enough for me, but the set was made of stone, and lugging a stone set to a café or even risking dropping it at home was a bit much for me. I was trying to buy a set that would introduce me and my friends to a game that we would play. So I kept on looking.
There are quite a few sets that appeared throughout the 20th century as it turns out, some not internationalized but many were, but almost all of them poorly. Finding one of these sets online in good condition was still hard, and I didn’t like the quality on most of them, they just didn’t seem as substantial as the real thing. At this point I just was baffled. How had at least a few companies not made (or currently be making) sets that were identical to the traditional sets, but with the simple addition of a stamp on the other side? I had no idea why this wasn’t happening. Eventually I did find something though. I found one set currently in production, in Brazil, for sale from a company that doesn’t ship to the US, and since I don’t speak Portuguese I think getting the set would be hard. So I just waited on eBay, and settled for the Elephant Chess Club wooden versions, they aren’t bad, but they just aren’t exactly what I’m looking for. I also got a used version of the stereoscopic set, which is small enough that at the moment it might be my go-to set. I have magnetic and wooden traditional sets now as well.
So I might have gotten what I wanted, but I really haven’t. What I want doesn’t seem to exist (except maybe that Mitra Brazilian version) which makes no sense to me. I know I have weird desires with products sometimes (I spent forever trying to find the perfect pocket flashlight) and that things aren’t made for me, but this just seems so obvious, and it seems like enough of a market is out there to make this sort of thing profitable.
I just don’t understand it, and my search for xiangqi isn’t over yet, but I have the sets that are easily available to me, and they’ll work for some time. I hope in the future I can be able to obtain my perfect set, but for now I’ll enjoy what I have and keep looking over eBay. And I’ll encourage you to go out and take a look at xiangqi if you enjoy chess and chess variants; it is a fun an interesting game. Maybe if enough people are interested more “internationalized” and “training” versions will be produced, but even if they aren’t, taking the time to learn a little Chinese is fun, and the game can bring a lot of joy.
I play a lot of games, some light and some heavy, and for the most part I’m not particularly afraid to jump into something pretty complicated. My group jumped from Risk to Pandemic to Battlestar Galactica in a few sessions, and the Flames of War rulebook is huge (I still haven’t read it all, because I don’t need to learn about artillery and aircraft if I don’t have any).
But still, I don’t mind a simpler game now and then (or 75% of the time) and Dungeon! is quite a simple game. You move, find monsters, roll a die, and either run away or get treasure, then go back to the center. There is almost no skill used in the game, and no strategy beyond the gamble of being at higher levels (which give you better payout but are more likely to kill you), or lower levels (which are easy but don’t give you much. It can be played mindlessly). Turns require almost no thought, just hope.
And in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a bad game. Are there better games? Absolutely! But if you’re just sitting around talking, and want to do a little more than talk, it is absolutely the game to go for. Since it doesn’t require much thought, Dungeon! doesn’t impede the conversation. The most interruption it’ll cause is either when you tell someone it’s their turn, or when there is an “epic” battle going on (which the player will almost always lose). In some cases it even helps the conversation to progress: if you have someone who won’t stop talking, they likely will for at least a moment to take their turn, allowing someone else to get a word in while the other can still listen. It also livens up the evening (or any time) by adding in moment of excitement where the players can cheer for either a monster or another player to win a battle, and since most battles are determined by chance, there is very little the “better” gamers can do to make it more likely for them to win. Everyone’s even, and the stakes are very low, unlike in heavier games, where an aura of tenseness or ill-will can persist near the end of the game. Not that that usually lasts for long, or a grudge is held, but sometimes it’s good to just not have it.
There are plenty of other games that can fill this role: most dice or “filler-type” games will work just as well. The difference here is that Dungeon! takes a bit longer, which, depending on the scenario, can be good or bad. If you just want to play for fifteen or so minutes and then get to something else (usually a larger game) Dungeon! isn’t the one to go for. But if you have 45 minutes to kill before dinner (supper, lunch, brunch, tea, possibly breakfast) and the conversation, while still going, is a bit down, it works great for that. That doesn’t make it a great game, and just because it works for my group doesn’t mean it’ll work for yours. But I know if I want to have a conversation and play a game with multiple people, Dungeon! is the game I reach for, and I like it for that. It fills a niche I never thought needed to be filled before, and might not ever have intended to fill. So, well done, Dungeon! My shelf is a bit more well-rounded now.
So… I really like Pandemic. And they recently released and new version. I was interested to see it, but not too excited, as I really like the old version. I can now definitely say that I don’t like the new version. Not because there is any change in gameplay, or anything to make the actual playing of the game any less amazing.
The first problem comes with compatibility: there is none. The new version and new expansions are completely incompatible with the old version and the old version of the expansion. I can see no reason why this has to be. Especially since I quite like the older board as you will see shortly. It just alienates older fans and makes it so people who own the older game are less likely to get the new expansions. I have no idea why they would do this, especially since the old version was almost perfectly serviceable in terms of design.
However my main problem is in the look of the new version. It’s too dark. I’m not sure why everything has to be so dark these days, but it would seem Pandemic is following suit. The board looks more drab and black. It doesn’t look nearly as fun, it doesn’t even look like the world. The last board was perfectly playable and even inviting, this is dark and off-putting. The cards have been redesigned and now they’re harder to read and it’s harder to understand where they represent on the board. The character artwork is now more “realistic” but it too conveys that unnecessary darkness.
I’m not saying that an epidemic spreading around the globe is funny, but the game didn’t need to be darkened. The last set was pleasing to look at and made you excited to play. This almost looks like the map to a zombie game rather than Pandemic.
I just don’t see why it needs this. I’m not a fan of the darkness that invades everything these days. Why does everything have to be so dark, especially escapist things like board games? The cartoony artwork, pleasant green and blue board, and simple aesthetic made Pandemic more fun in my opinion. I realize that they can change anything they want to, but I don’t like their changes to the game, and I certainly won’t be getting the new version or any new expansions.