Sunday, April 24, 2016

Strategy and Luck: A Game of Banqi in Tainan

As I approached a group of men surrounding a small table yesterday in Tainan, Taiwan, I wondered if I was seeing yet another outdoor game of xiangqi, otherwise known as Chinese chess. But the xiangqi board was rotated from its usual position by 90 degrees, only half the board was covered with xiangqi pieces, and some of the pieces were upside down. So instead of a photo of an outdoor game of xiangqi, here is a photo of an outdoor game of banqi:

men playing and watching a game of banqi outside in Tainan, Taiwan

As indicated in an unsourced but detailed Wikipedia entry, multiple versions of banqi, which also goes by several other names, exist, yet all, unlike xiangqi, involve a significant element of chance. A how-to-play guide on a blog by Woody Thrower, whose most recent post on the same blog is "Ubuntu 12.04 initramfs dependency nonsense", provides a brief look at the game and so does a fast-paced how-to-play video using alternative pieces by Joseph Larson, whose most recent post is "3D Printing with Ninjaflex". To my great joy, after finding these two guides and the two other posts, I finished watching the tail end of the video and discovered Thrower and Larson are indeed friends.

Presumably the men I saw in Tainan were playing the Taiwanese version of the game. Or perhaps like Thrower and Larson, they selected rules so the "balance of luck and strategy" better matched their tastes. Whatever rules they use, I wonder if they would agree with Larson that:
The combination of luck and strategy means that nobody really loses. If you lose you go 'eh, it was just bad luck'. But if you win you get to go 'aha, isn't my strategy incredible".

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