Chaturaji – chess-like game for 4 players and with a dice

When you hear “chess”, you think about the intellectual duel of two people. Therefore you may be surprised by the fact, that one of the Chess ancestors is a game for 4 players and with an element of luck. The goal of the game was no to checkmate but to score points, however, this old game is still “chessy” . The name of this game is Chaturaji.

Chaturaji is considered the ancestor of Chaturanga, and therefore also the ancestor of the whole family of chess games. Not all experts agree with that. Chess historian Harold J. R. Murray didn’t believe that Chaturaji can be the ancestor of Chaturanga. The confusion around this matter is deepened by the fact that many people know Chaturaji under the name of Chaturanga. In my opinion, it’s good to use a name of Chaturaji for 4-player game with dice and the name of Chaturanga for 2-player, purely strategic board game.

Word Chaturaji means “four Rajas”. Even if this game is not a direct ancestor of chess, it’s very old for sure. It’s probably mentioned in Mahābhārata, one of two major Sanskrit epics. Some verses say about the game with pieces in four colors and a dice. The player becomes “a courtier of that high-souled king”. It’s not sure if these verses mention a chess-like game or a racing game like Pachisi. I think that mentioning a “king” and “courtiers” is a clear reference to Chaturaji.

More certain is the fact that Chaturaji was described by Abu Rajhan Muhammad al-Biruni, Iranian scholar, and polymath who died in 1048. We can safely assume that Chaturaji was known in his lifetime.

Some books say that Chaturaji was also known as Ashtāpada or Thayaam. It’s good to explain this. The word “ashtāpada” is used to describe the 64-square board that was used to play Chaturanga and Chaturaji (in fact Chessboard derives from Ashtāpada). Some game historians believe that the word “ashtāpada” also meant a race-game with a random element (similar to Pachisi), which was played on a 64-square game board. This theory was promoted by Murray, but he never presented any compelling evidence to prove it.

Thayaam is a racing game played on a 5×5 board. Contrary to what some books write, it has nothing to do with Chaturanga, Chaturaji or Chess.

Perhaps a long time ago in India, there were games with features of Pachisi and Chaturaji at the same time. I mean they could be race games with “chessy” pieces. Or maybe one type of board (Ashtāpada) was used for two types of games and this is a source of misunderstandings.

But let’s focus on Chaturaji. This game is definitely “chessy” and its old. Perhaps it is the ancestor of chess or maybe just relative of the ancestor. We do not know this, but we can enjoy the game and play it! Let’s move on to the description of rules.

Chaturaji – rules of the game

Chaturaji is a board game for 4 players. You can play individually or in teams (two against two). Each player has eight pieces with varied powers. Each move is preceded by a die roll and the result of the roll determines a piece to move. The goal of the game is to score points by killing opponents’ pieces.

Board and pieces

To play Chaturaji you need a 64-square board (8×8 squares) similar to chessboard but not chequered. Of course, you can use regular chessboard and that’s quite comfortable.

Board is shown in the picture below.

chaturanga-pelna-plansza

You also need 4 sets of pieces in 4 colors: black, yellow, green and red.

Each set includes:

  • 4 pawns chaturacji-pion ;
  • 1 raja (king) chaturacji-raja;
  • 1 elephant chaturacji-slon;
  • 1 horsechaturacji-kon;
  • 1 boat chaturacji-okret.

Dice is also needed for this game. Traditionally oblong (four-sided) dice were used. On 4 long long walls of the oblong dice, there were 2, 3, 4 or 5 pips. You can see some oblong dice on the photo below.

Prehistoric_Times_of_Bohemia,_Moravia_and_Slovakia_-_NM_Prague_30
Oblong dice from National Museum in Prague (photo by Kozuch, license: CC By-SA 3.0)

Fortunately, you can use ordinary (six-sided) dice. All you have to do is assume that the player who rolled 1 or 6 repeats his throw until he rolls 2, 3, 4 or 5.

Whats interesting in India players were allowed to throw the dice and catch them in the air. This way skillful player had some control over the outcome of the throw.

The Play

At the beginning of the game, pieces are set as shown in the picture below.

chaturacji-planszaipiony

Players take their turns clockwise (black – green – red – yellow). Each player rolls a die before making a move. The result of the throw determines a piece to move. The table below shows die values and corresponding pieces.

Die value Piece
2 boat
3 horse
4 elephant
5 rajah or pawn

If a player lost a piece shown by a roll, he passes.

Piece moves

Each piece has its own way of moving.

Raja (king) – moves one square in any direction (just like a king in chess). The image below illustrates possible moves of two kings.

chaturacji-ruch-raja

Elephant – moves any number of squares vertically or horizontally, but cannot leap over other pieces (just like a rook in chess). The image below illustrates possible moves of two elephants.

chaturacji-ruch-slon

Horse – moves to a square that is two squares away horizontally and one square vertically, or two squares vertically and one square horizontally, so the complete move looks like the letter L. As you can see, horse moves just like knight in chess and he can “jump over” all other pieces to its destination square.

chaturacji-ruch-skoczek

Boat – moves two squares diagonally in any direction. If the intervening square is occupied by opponent’s or friendly piece, boat jumps over this piece.

chaturacji-ruch-okret

Pawn – moves one square forward to the unoccupied square immediately in front of it (except when it captures). So it moves just like a pawn in chess. You have to remember that “forward” direction is different for each player. The image below shows example moves of four pawns of different colors.

chaturacji-ruch-pion

Attention chess players! In Chaturaji pawns always move one square forward. There’s no first double-step move as in chess.

A pawn captures just like in chess – moving one square diagonally forward. I’ll explain that below.

Captures

Just like in Chess, all pieces capture by moving to the square that the opponent’s piece occupies. In the situation shown below, a black elephant may capture red raja.

chaturacji-bicie

The captured piece is removed from a board.

Pawn is the only piece who moves differently when capturing. Normally it moves one square forward, but it can capture only one square diagonally forward. If any piece stands just in front of the pawn, the pawn may not move forward (it’s blocked).

In the picture below, we can see two black pawns. One of them (highlighted in red) may capture green elephant. The second one (highlighted in purple) is blocked by the boat.

chaturacji-bicie-pion

Boat triumph (Boats parade)

There is one special move in Chaturaji called “Boat triumph” or “Boat parade”. This situation occurs when all boats meet on a 2×2 square. Example of boat triumph is shown below. 

chaturacji-parada

A player who moves last to form a full “Boat triumph” captures all opponents’ boats. In the situation shown below red boat has a chance to form a “Boat triumph” by moving to a square highlighted in red.

chaturacji-parada-rob

“Boat triumph” is the only way for the boat to capture another boat. Due to the way of moving boats may not simply stand on the same squares.

Pawn promotion

In Chaturaji pawns can be promoted to stronger pieces.  If a pawn reaches the last line of the board, it can be exchanged for the piece that was standing just behind it at the beginning of the game. So the pawn standing in front of an elephant at the beginning of the game can be promoted only to an elephant.

Whats more the promotion is possible only if piece promoted to have been previously captured. So if a player has his elephant on the board and the pawn standing in front of reached the last line, this pawn can be promoted only after losing the elephant.

The goal of the game and scoring

The goal of the game is not to defeat the raja (king), as in other chess games. In Chaturaji the goal is to earn points for capturing opponents’ pieces. The table below shows the number of points rewarded for a captured piece.

Piece Points
pawn 1 point
boat 2 pts
horse 3 pts
elephant 4 pts
raja (king) 5 pts

Team play

Chaturaji can be a team game (two against two). Players forming a team sit on the opposite sides of the board. There are additional rules for team play.

  • A team gets 1 point if one partner enters his raja on a “throne square” of opponent’s raja. “Throne square” is a starting square of given rajah.
  • A team gets 2 points if one partner kills opponent’s raja on his “throne square”.
  • If a player enters his raja on “throne square” of his partner, he takes command of allied pieces.  In this situation partner just roll a dice on his turn, but “commander” decides a move to make and he can use his or his partner pieces. Playing with allied pieces gives more choices and thus is seen as an advantage.
  • If a raja of one of the partners is captured, the other player takes command of the allied pieces.
  • If one player commands allied pieces and two enemy rajahs were killed, we say this player “created the empire”. A team of this player is earned with:
    – 1 point for creating the empire,
    – 2 points, if player created the empire and killed the last standing enemy rajah,
    – 4 points, if last standing enemy rajah was killed on a throne square.
  • If a team lost one raja and then killed enemy raja, it may demand “rajah exchange”. If the second team agrees, two killed rajas are replaced on the board. They start again from the throne squares or from any squares if their thrones are occupied by other piece(s).  Raja exchange may be proposed only after killing a raja. If the proposition is rejected, there’s no exchange.
  • A player forming a boat triumph kills two enemy boats and takes command over partner’s boat.
  • If one player lost all his pieces, his partner plays alone to the end of the game.
  • If a player lost all pieces except a raja, he may end his game. No one will earn points for this raja.
  • If only rajas remain on the board, the game is considered a draw. It’s even called “honorable peace”
  • When playing in teams, the goal of the game may be different. You can agree that game is won by a team which forces are the last remaining on the board (number of points is unimportant).

Additional (alternative) rules – piece rank and two dice

While making research for this article I found mentions about two interesting rules. You may use them or not.

  • In some sets of rules, pieces are divided into two ranks: weak pieces (pawns and boats) and strong pieces (horses, elephants, and rajahs). Weak pieces may not capture strong ones, but strong pieces may capture weak and strong pieces.
  • Some sets of rules mention a game with two dice. Each player rolls two dice and performs two moves with the indicated pieces in one turn.

Purely strategic variant

Sooner or later someone will ask this question. Are dice really necessary? We can play Chaturaji just like we play Chess, without the element of luck. Why not?

Of course, you can play without a dice. As far as I know, the diceless variant was known in India since the 19th century. I don’t know if there is one set of rules for such purely strategic game. Personally, I think it’s good to adapt team play variant for playing without dice. And the goal of the game should be to kill both opponent kings, not to score points. You can agree that if one player loses his king, his pieces are “frozen” until the end of the game.

I stress that there are no one standard sets of rules for Chaturaji. When a game is really old, there are always many “alternative rules”. You should just try to find the best variant for yourself.

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