The 8 Best Ancient Chinese Board Games

Board and Card games have a long history in China. From Chinese emperors to commoners, games were a part of education, culture, entertainment, and even military strategy. The earliest Chinese board games were first played over two thousand years ago. Modern games often come from much older ancestors. 

It is a fact that the playing card originated in China, while the country is also considered one of the primary starting points in the evolution of Modern Chess. Tile-based games using dominoes rose in prominence through the gambling of traders, while games like Weiqi are unique to the country alone. It is only in China that the board game is among the prominent activities of the aristocracy, and Weiqi is still the most insidiously complex game faced by modern mathematical analysis.

Two unique game mechanics or devices appear in Chinese games that do not generally appear in other parts of the world. While modern chess spaces likely developed from “The Royal Game of Ur” and “Senet”, the Chinese preferred to play their strategy games on the intersecting lines of their boards. While other countries might use discs and eventually cards that evolved from China, the country was and is far more fond of games that use elaborately designed tiles.

1. Xiangqi, or “Chinese Chess”

Xiangqi (“Elephant Game”) is an early Chinese board game precursor to modern chess. Like chess, the aim is to kill the “king” while protecting your own. However, unlike our current game, the board has distinct areas where pieces move with different rules. Xiangqi is still played today and is popular in Chinese communities worldwide. 

Like many Chinese board games, pieces sit on intersections of lines instead of squares, and the board is made of nine by ten lines (with some added lines in the “palace” area). While early games likely only had two types of pieces (soldiers and kings), modern Xiangqi has seven distinct roles, each with its own rules.  

Xiangqi developed from an even older game called “Liubo”. Liubo used dice and was considered less strategic, so new rules slowly developed and became known as “GeWu” or “Saizhang” during the Han Dynasty. In one famous Chinese story from around 200 BC, Emperor Wu Yi of Shang created a golden idol and played Liubo against priests representing it to prove he was greater than god. The priests, scared of the mad emperor, would, of course, let him win.

By the Tang dynasty, Xiangqi was a popular game among emperors and the educated. A famous story from the Cen Shun of Xuan Qui Lu tells of a dream had by a native of Yu Nan. A war between the Golden Elephant Kingdom and the Tian Na Kingdom was won in only a single day because of a clever maneuver described using the language and pieces of Xiangqi. The man, upon waking, played a game in which he won using the same method.

Xiangqi is still a popular game, with the world championship held every two years. Munich, Vancouver, and Manila all hosted the event during the last decade.

2. Weiqi, or “Go”

Weiqi, a board game using black and white discs on a board with 361 places, is considered the most challenging board game in the world to master. Better known in the English-speaking world as “Go”, the game is one of China’s most important exports.

The Zuo Zhuan, an ancient history written in the fourth century BC, records the first written mention of Go, but it is likely the game existed for many centuries before. An important part of Chinese culture, Go is one of the “four essential arts” of a Chinese gentleman, which also include calligraphy, painting, and playing the guqin.

Weiqin (or “The Surrounding Game”) is deceptively simple. It only has two rules. The first (the rule of liberty) is that each disc must have at least one open point or be a part of a group of discs with such a point. If it does not have “liberty”, it must be removed from the board.

The second (the ko rule) is that the board should never look like it has at an earlier point in the game. Using these two rules, players each take turns to put down a single disc on the board, applying the rules and then ending their turn. The score at the end is determined by the area of empty board your pieces have been able to ”surround”. Whoever has enclosed the most space on the board wins.

The strategy behind top Go players is far more complex than that of Chess or other board games. Because of the simplicity of the rules but the complexity of strategy, it is popularly used in mathematical game theory, military strategy, and in testing machine learning. In game theory terms, Go can be said to be a zero-sum, perfect-information, partisan, deterministic strategy game. This means there is one winner, no randomness, and the “better” player will always win.

Google’s DeepMind project is working on a Wieiqi-playing AI called “AlphaGo”. While chess computers have been able to beat grandmasters for decades, it was only in 2017 that AlphaGo could dominate the world’s top players.  

3. Mahjong

While modern Mahjong was only developed in the 1800s, precursors to the game have existed since the first millennium CE. Ya Pei was a card game in which cards were used similarly to the overlapping tiles, while Dominoes was a popular game in China from the twelfth century. Despite not having the prestige of Go, Mahjong has been called “China’s National Pasttime”.

Despite being developed from Ya Pei, the Sung Dynasty game that used the same designs, Mahjong only came into its own as a game during the late nineteenth century. Players were mainly found along the Yangtze River Delta, but the game spread quickly into the cities. With immigration to Europe and America becoming more common, the game quickly followed the Chinese people around the world. By 1920, you could find a match in every Chinese community around the globe.

Mahjong is similar in play to the European card game of Gin Rummy. Instead of cards, players use some of the 144 tiles that make up a set. This set is broken into three suits, two honors, and eight “bonus” tiles (which add to your eventual score but are not used in play). A “winning hand” has fourteen tiles that contain four “melds” and two identical pieces remaining. Winning a hand then adds to your overall score.

Mahjong is a popular gambling game with elements of both luck and skill. In these circumstances, some players sometimes score similar to Bridge, with the player winning the “pot”, while others play with individual bets on each hand. There are also other variations of Mahjong, including American and Hong Kong standards.

Mahjong tiles are also used in a form of Solitaire – a single-player game that layers the tiles like a pyramid or “turtle”. Players must pair tiles that are free to be moved, exposing the tiles that are partially or fully beneath them. Mahjong Solitaire has a solve rate of over 97%, compared to Klondike (the most popular card solitaire game), which is only solvable around 40% of the time.   

4. Pai Gow

Pai Gow is a form of poker using domino tiles, whose name roughly translates to “make nine”. Using a set of thirty-two tiles, players get four tiles with which to create two hands. You win the bet if both your hands beat the other player’s hands.

The original Pai Gow was one of the first use of Chinese dominoes, and written examples of the game date back to 1112 CE when Emperor Huizong of Song was offered a particularly beautiful set of tiles. The tiles, also called “pupai”, were reflective of Chinese mythology and used in various games. Early examples of Pupai were also marked with characters on their reverse side, so they may be used as pieces in Xiangqi.  

To “win” a hand in Pai Gow, the two dominos are added together, and their value is the last digit in the answer. For example, if you have a seven and a five, your value is two, not twelve. This means that, generally, the highest value you can have is “nine”, although there are exceptions to this in the modern game. In this way, some players like to compare Pai Gow to the card game Baccarat rather than the forms of poker we see today.

However, a better way to beat an opponent is not to add the values but to have pairs of the same value. For example, a tile worth only one becomes the most powerful pairing with another worth one. These are known as the Gee Joon tiles. 

The pairings of tiles in Pai Gow have cultural and religious meanings and tell the creation story. Gee Joon tiles represent the supreme creator, while the fourth-ranked Yun is the created man. Ranked pairings reflect the heavens and earth, man’s clothes, and even his children. 

Pai Gow is a popular gambling game today, with almost every casino in the world offering tables. 

5. Tien Gow

Tien Gow is another game that sometimes uses the same Chinese dominoes as Pai Gow. In other variations, Tien Gow is played with a pair of Chinese dice, suggesting that it may have existed before dominoes existed. The first historians looking into card games and their origin in china believed that Tien Gow, or “Heavens and Nines”, was around before the Song dynasty.

Tien Gow is a complex game. While throwing “heaven or nines” is an automatic win and throwing the lowest “ranks” an automatic loss, there are 13 other ranks, all of which can be created in multiple ways. As Pai Gow is a streamlined version of Tien Gow, its rise in popularity has seen this particular game fall by the wayside.

6. Dou Shou Qi, or “Jungle”

No one knows how old or young Dou Shou Qi is. However, most modern historians believe it was adapted from Xiangqi to make the game more accessible and appealing to uneducated children. 

Played on a nine-by-seven board, Jungle involves two players controlling eight pieces of different “animals”. Higher ranked “animals” may eat the lower ranks, while areas of the board include traps and rivers to avoid. Two dens (like immovable King pieces) exist, and the player who can manipulate any of their pieces into their “den” wins. Otherwise, a player who can “eat” all the animals of the other player also wins. 

There are complexities to the game that make it as engaging for adults as for children. Only the low-ranked “rat” can enter the “river” squares, and it can even kill the highest-ranking “elephant” in the right circumstances. An animal that enters a trap is automatically liable to be killed by any other creature. Lions and Tigers can also jump over the river.

“Jungle” was introduced to English players in the 1950s, and variations of the game still appear on shelves today. How long children have played this strategy game is unknown, but the use of animals and unique board layout has made it famous worldwide.

7. Sanguoqi, or “The Game of the Three Kingdoms”

Sanquoqi is unique in that it is a game designed for three players rather than two or four. Based heavily on Xiangqi, it is believed to have been developed as a symbol of the warring “Three Kingdoms” period of ancient Chinese history. 

Sanguoqi is played on a hexagonal board, and each player receives eighteen pieces – the sixteen traditional Xiangqi pieces and two “cannons”. Most moves are the same as traditional Chinese chess, but the board separates the three “kingdoms” with a “river” that a player can only cross at a central point.

The three players (red, blue, and green) vie against each other, and when the first player’s general is captured, the rest of their pieces belong to the player who made the move. For this reason, attempting to ally with one player may often lead to your own downfall.

The game of Sanquoqi is often described or mentioned in books about Chinese board games since the 1800s. While some mentioned the rules being found in texts from the Song dynasty, these texts have since been lost. While a unique variation of Xiangqi, it has never gained traction for board game lovers.  

8. Tiaoqi, or “Chinese Checkers”

Tiaoqi is not an ancient board game. Despite often being advertised as being played by the emperors, Chinese Checkers is of German origin and was only developed in 1892. A simpler variation of the American game, Halma, Chinese Checkers can be played with two to six players on a star-shaped board. Using “jumping moves”, the aim is to get your pieces to the other side of the board before any other player, and there is no “capturing” involved. 

The name “Chinese Checkers” is purely a marketing stunt. When bringing the german game, “Stern-Halma”, to America, brothers Bill and Jack Pressman wanted to add a sense of mystique to their game. It was 1928, Mahjong was a popular new game in the United States, and “orientalism” was all the rage in other arts and entertainment. 

While the Pressman brothers never considered patenting the name, Milton Bradley did so in 1941. Since then, the most popular versions of this game have been sold as “Chinese Checkers”, and its American-European origin has been forgotten.

Conclusion

The history of Chinese board games is long and illustrious. Weiqi was an essential part of every gentleman’s education, while Xiangqi’s strategy was often used as a metaphor for the great historical battles of the times.

Gambling played a significant role in the entertainment of troops and commoners alike, and games like Pai Gow are now a part of every major Casino.

Still, the term “ancient” is complicated in Chinese gaming. Some games have unknown histories, while some games labeled as Chinese have nothing to do with the country at all.

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