Chinese Chess is thought to be played by part of around one billion Chinese speakers around the world (and they can’t all be wrong!). Xiangqi—to give the game its Mandarin title—translates as Elephant Chess. It is actually a noble cousin of the modern Western game: both forms seem to have evolved from a common ancestor, presumably related to the legendary Indian game of Chaturanga.
Chinese chess has attracted its fair share of interest from computer programmers, and even top players are meeting their match. The good news is that there are excellent freeware options for the delight of all sorts of players.
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HOXChess is top recommended free Chinese chess and a well designed open source program supporting multi platforms including Windows, Linux and Mac OS. It even has a mobile version for iPhone/iPod Touch available for free download from App Store.
You can use the application to open a saved table, play against a computer engine, or play other people online for free via a variety of remote servers such as PlayXiangqi and Chesscape. The user interface is appealing and highly configurable with optional boards and chessmen designed to your liking.
HOXChess comes with a large selection of engines including Tsito developed by Noah Roberts, XQWLight by Morning Yellow, Folium by Wangmao Lin, MaxQi and a stronger engine HaQiKi D by H.G. Muller. Each of the engines is adjustable for difficulty levels ranging from 1 to 10.
Games can be opened or saved into text-based xml format but no import from other formats is supported so far. Neither are undo and redo moves available although forward and backward steps are handy for reviewing game.
Qianhong is a remarkably user-friendly program recommended for anyone new to the game. You can opt for alternative board designs (in scalable sizes to suit your screen) and select Western-style chessmen. A complete Help manual is included.
To familiarize yourself with the game, you may find it useful to watch the computer play itself. When you decide to join in, Qianhong can give you hints for your next move, or allow you to undo and redo moves in case you make a mistake. Opening and saving games in txt or icc file format are supported while opening-book and end-game resources are also available.
Qianhong installs with a relatively weak built-in engine, which you may find fun to play against if you’re just starting out. However, you can also install a selection of stronger third-party engines, provided as plug-ins.
A particularly versatile and popular one is ElephantEye, and this can be set to six levels of strength ranging from ‘Beginner’ to ‘Overwhelming’. If you get to beat ElephantEye at the fifth level, you’ll have reached Grand Master level.
After you've reached the Grand Master level, or otherwise you just want to hone your skills further, then WinBoard gives you a good chance to try out even stronger engines.
Besides playing against a chess engine, you can also use the program to match two engines with auto saving of match results. Instead of adjusting difficulty levels, WinBoard lets you set conventional chess clock or incremental clock to limit number of moves and amount of time for the game. Forward, backward and retract moves are supported. Other notable features include save and open games in pgn format, copy or paste game from clipboard, etc.
On the flip side, I found setting up Internet Chess Server for Xiangqi with the program was not as easy as that with HOXChess, while setting of some engines popped up an empty window when tested.
XieXie Freeware, a free version of XieXie Master, comes with rich features and a built-in engine strong enough for most players. You can choose a suitable level ranging from beginner to advanced, or select to play a handicapped or time limited game.
It has a nice user interface with three different board sizes, various sets of chessmen, and different board styles and colors. Other useful features include hints on best next move, undo/redo moves, load and save games, build own opening books, etc.
More advanced features, such as additional configuration of the chess engine, are only available in the paid version, but the free version is good enough for most average players.
HiddenLynx is a good alternative for practicing or playing Chinese Chess. The simple user interface highlights available moves when you place the mouse cursor over a piece—great for learning the game. And you can undo and redo your moves.
The program comes with a built-in engine with 5 levels of strength. It saves games automatically, so you can adjourn and return to the board whenever you want.
Unlike Qianhong, HiddenLynx does not let you install third-party engines or edit opening books. But the program is portable. After downloading, just unzip to any folder you choose, click the executable, and start a game.
Another free program Milo's Chinese Chess is worth a try for practicing and playing the game as well. The 3D vivid interface together with animated legal moves enriches your game experience with the program.
It has a built-in engine with 6 levels of strength. You can undo/redo moves, open and save games, play full-screen or windowed.
Other display features include setting board texture, mirror effect and slide pieces, etc.
If you're looking for more Chinese Chess engines, you might want to check out this list of Chinese Chess engines which are compliant with the UCCI protocol and free for download. From the list, these are the top five strongest engines (based on a test conducted by H.G. Muller):
- Cyclone (commercial software, last free version 0.55)
- Binghewusi (Soldiers Creek 54)
- Kou (Cloud As)
- Coffee Chinese Chess gives you a good browser-based experience in playing against a computer opponent without the need to install any software. You can just go straight to the site, choose your pieces and play the game right away.
- ChessWhiz, a web client which is open source and based on Adobe Flex, allows you to log in as Guest or enter your username, then join a table to observe the game or play Xiangqi with humans on the Internet.
- Chesscape, an online game running on Java, lets you register a free user ID with password, then log in either to practice game or select a table to start game among other members.
- Playok.com - Xiangqi is also another option to play Chinese Chess with humans online, just log in with your member ID (free registration), select a set of chessmen and play among other members.
Both Chinese chess and Western chess share some proximate game rules with Japanese chess (Shogi) after evolving from games of ancient Indian and Persian origin.
- You'll find Japanese chess freeware at Best Free Computer Shogi - Japanese Chess
- And there's plenty of great free software for Western chess at Best Free Computer Chess.
- Best Free Reversi Game
- Best Free Computer Go
- Best Free Computer Backgammon
- Best Free Computer Mahjong (Stub only)
Milo's Chinese Chess
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