Dōbutsu Shōgi (どうぶつしょうぎ, "animal chess") is a cute game that is super easy to learn, but not that easy to master. It is played on a 3x4 board with both sides having 4 pieces (A lion 🦁, a giraffe 🦒, an elephant 🐘 and a chick 🐣, which promotes to a chicken 🐔). The game was essentially invented by Madoka Kitao as a shogi variant to for kids. The movement of pieces are indicated by the dots on the pieces itself. Captured pieces can be dropped like in Crazyhouse Chess and the game ends with either checkmate or a Lion reaching the final rank (Campmate). If you are not familiar with the rules of the game or simply looking for a place to play, make sure to check Pychess.org.
Recently, I have organized a Dobutsu Tournament in which I have participated as well. Playing so many Dobutsu games in the tournament inevitably brought me some experience and impressions about the game, which I want to share in this article.
So if you are looking for inspiration or a study material about Dobutsu to step up your game, this might be the place for you. Assuming that you’ve made yourself familiar with the game and ideally even played a couple of games, in this series of articles I’ll try to cover a range of topics from basic mating patterns, strategies and openings to more advanced tips with complex examples. The structure of the articles is planned to be a step-by-step guide. At the end of the last article, you will also find a selection of example games against Fairy-Stockfish Level 8 along with puzzles to solve.
Let’s get right into it!
On the nature of the game
Before we get into more concrete stuff, I'd like to share some of my general observations about the nature of the game to have some deeper insight to build things on.
One of the first impressions I've got about the game was that even though the board is pocket-sized and pieces look innocent and cute, Dobutsu games can escalate and get wild very quickly with lots of plot-twists. Tables can turn from any position anytime, making Fairy-Stockfish evals like “White is winning, -4, +2, #7,#-12” almost irrelevant for a practical game between two human beings. Anything can happen, at any time. At least, I've played and have witnessed enough games that turned from mate in one to getting mated in one, which led me to conclude: “in Dobutsu, it's not over until it's over”. Bottom line is, these cute little animals are capable of creating more drama than you can imagine :)
What exactly makes the game so wild, fast progressing and prone to sudden plot-twists? It can be argued that it is a result of a combination of several factors:
i) small size of the board means constant close combat, which ensures that there is always some action going on in the game.
ii) “reincarnation” of the pieces due to drop rule, makes it hard to evaluate positions and to judge the value of material. Piece exchanges, calculation of concrete lines increase in complexity, which turns the process of decision making about all these transformations almost into a game of alchemy.
iii) on top of these: limited board-size makes zugzwangs into an important strategic part of the game. Some facts to consider: In the starting position, out of 12 squares, only 4 of them are unoccupied and there are only 4 legal moves for the first player.
Dobutsu Shogi is a very concrete game. Some aspects of the game such as fast-changing trajectory of the game with the possibility to blunder at any time, limited movement area and legal moves, each piece moving only one square at a time, Zugzwangs and King oppositions being as one of the quintessential strategic concepts of the game etc. remind me of pawn endgames in chess, where precise calculation is required and every tempo counts. In many cases in pawn endgames the side who has to move is at a disadvantage. Think of a case of King Opposition: Whoever is in turn, has to move aside or backwards and let the enemy King in or you lack moves so that you have to push pawns, basically giving them for free. In Dobutsu, this occurs often in the form of losing material due to lack of space for your pieces, so you have to move them into squares where they can be captured for free or get exchanged with a less valuable piece (trading your giraffe with a chick). Just in pawn endgames, saving tempo for later or having a room for shuffling is very handy. (for example imagine White pawns are on g5,h2 and Black pawns are on g6,h7, means white has saved tempo for the h2 pawn, as white can play h3 when necessary and only then h4)
In standard chess, once you have a solid opening repertoire, reaching middlegame becomes usually natural and a take-for-granted thing, because you can switch to auto-pilot and play your opening, which you have played tousand times.
In Dobutsu Shogi, however the consequence of zugzwangs and the disadvantage of being in turn to move goes beyond material or opposition loss: The game is solved and the result is: Second player wins! One can ask “Doesn’t this make Dobutsu a dead game, why should we play it then?” and it is a very legit question.
On the other hand one should also keep in mind that there are 1,567,925,964 reachable positions in the game. In other words, memorizing and understanding all moves to play a perfect game every time would be beyond the skill of most people. One might memorize the main solution given by engine, which indicates that the initial position is mate in 43 for Gote (second player) with perfect play from both sides. However the main thing is the ability to refute all suboptimal lines and possible incorrect replies from opponents. All these deviations from the main solution (which is mate in 43) leads to exponential growth of the tree of moves very quickly that it almost becomes impossible to memorize. Practically this means the game is still perfectly enjoyable for us humans.
So let's start enjoying the game with one of the most fun parts of it: Checkmates!