Chaturanga - Four Player Chess With Dice!

Chaturanga (or Shaturanga) starting position
Chaturanga (or Shaturanga) starting position | Source
Chaturanga midgame
Chaturanga midgame | Source

Chess is an ancient game... at least that is what popular the wisdom holds.

However did you know that Chess very probably evolved from Ludo-like Pachisi (still the national game of India) and that, like Ludo, it used to be a four-player game involving dice?

If you ever found Chess a bit too cerebral and not really an ideal family game which should involve at least some luck and player politics, you might give the good old Chaturanga a try. (or Chaturaji or Shaturanga as it is also known.)

Be warned though! In ancient India the game became so popular and was played for such inordinate sums of money (yes, it was actually a gambling game) that at least one Maharajah had to prohibit it at the pain of death!

A Disclaimer:

I know that there are some pretty temperamental chess and board game hobbyists and historians out there, and the great debate on the origin of Chess is still far from settled. Please feel free to take this article with a large lump of salt since I chose to make some assumptions in order to create a clearer and more entertaining reading experience. The game rules are my own concoction compiled from various sources (and some slight inventions of my own) in order to present a playable game which is appealing to today's audience. For a bit more in-depth list of various Chaturanga variants and versions of its history I'll direct you to my soon-to-follow hub dealing exactly with those.

What is Chaturanga?

Chaturanga is an ancient Indian four player game of luck and skill. Unlike Chess, with which it is closely related, it depicts a wider conflict involving warfare as well as political conflict between many warring kingdoms. While Chess is a game of direct battle with no element of luck involved, Chaturanga is a much more lively game, much closer to what we would consider a modern "family game."

Some historians see Chaturanga and Chess as games belonging to different periods in Indian history, reflecting the political situation of those times. While India was ruled by a single great king or emperor, 2-player Chess (or Shatranj) was more popular. On the other hand, while the land was ruled by various autonomous princes or in the throes of a civil war, Chaturanga more realistically simulated the "games of kings" since it readily supports the shifting alliances, the betrayals and sheer randomness of such times. A modern equivalent would be to compare Chess to the Cold War with two huge opponents fighting for world dominance. Chaturanga is closer to what we have now - many nations wheeling and dealing for a better place under the sun.

Ashtapada Board
Ashtapada Board

Chaturanga Board

Chaturanga is traditionally played on an Ashtapada board which is an 8x8 board similar to the one used in Chess but with some special markings. Have no fear, it is perfectly possible to play Chaturanga on your ordinary Chess board and your game won't suffer because of it.

It is interesting to note that it is exactly the use of Ashtapada board that is the basis of belief that Chaturanga is the first historical version of the game we now know as Chess. Ashtapada is an ancient four player racing game of India similar to Pachisi and it seems that some enterprising amateur game designer of 5th century AD India created a whole new game genre using an existing popular board design. Sadly, unlike Richard Garfield or Klaus Teuber, the ingenious Indian's name is lost to history.

Chaturanga Starting Positions
Chaturanga Starting Positions
Chaturanga Piece Movement
Chaturanga Piece Movement

Movement Dice

Six-sided die movement:

1, 2 - Rajah or Pawn
3 - Ship
4 - Horse
5 - Elephant
6 - No unit may be moved with this dice.

Four-sided die movement:

1 - Ship
2 - Horse
3 - Elephant
4 - Rajah or Pawn

Chaturanga Basic Rules

Chaturanga is primarily a four-player game although it may also be played by two or three players. It is very well suited for team play 2 vs 2 although it is usually played as a free-for-all. There are certain variant rules to the game concerning temporal alliances but they tend to materialize spontaneously through play, human nature being what it is.

Each player plays the role of a Rajah, an ancient Indian king. The goal of the game is to become the Maharajah or the "great king" by subduing your opponents. This is done through a clever combination of politics and warfare using simple yet clever mechanics involving dice throwing and smart positional play.

Each player's army consists of the following pieces closely resembling those used in Chess, both in form and function.

The Rajah moves exactly like the king in Chess, one square in any direction either orthogonally or diagonally.

The Elephant moves like the rook in Chess. He can move any number of unoccupied squares in any orthogonal direction (forward, backward, left or right)

The Horse moves exactly like the knight in modern Chess. That is one square orthogonally and one square diagonally with the ability to jump over any pieces.

The Ship is superficially equivalent to the bishop but it moves in a different way. It can move only 2 squares in any of the diagonal directions but it can jump over other pieces while doing so.

The Pawns are the exact equivalent of Chess pawns. They can move one square orthogonally forward unless they are making a capture when they must move diagonally.

While the pieces' movements closely resemble those of Chess, the choice of which piece you can move is one of Chaturanga's most original mechanics.

In Chaturanga each player's turn begins with a roll of two dice. The numbers rolled determine which units may be moved during the players' turn. You can choose whether to move one piece, both pieces or no pieces at all during your turn. If you roll the same number on both dice you can even make a double move with the same piece.

The game was originally played with elongated 6-sided dice giving four possible outcomes. 4-sided dice left over from your D&D game are a perfect replacement. However, if you don't have any d4s handy, you can superglue two or more ordinary six-sided dice and create a working d4. Just take care that numbers point in the same direction! If you don't want to bother, feel free to try it out with ordinary 6-sided dice. The game is perfectly playable this way although the element of luck is somewhat increased.

Concourse of Shipping and possible ship postions
Concourse of Shipping and possible ship postions

Taking Opponents' Pieces and Promotions

In a free-for-all game you can take any other player's piece by simply moving into its square, exactly like in Chess. However, the ships have another way of taking opponents and that is by "concourse of shipping." If your ship enters the square bordered by three other ships you take them all. While this rarely happens, it is a very powerful move that can change the direction of the game.

Pawns are promoted when they reach an opponents original "horse" or "elephant" squares where they transform into the corresponding piece. Note that this can happen only if you already lost the piece the pawn is being promoted to. If this is not the case, the pawn can wait until the piece he is to be promoted into is lost. At that moment the promotion happens automatically.

When a Rajah is captured a special situation occurs. The capturer can now control the opponents pieces as though they were his own but the Rajah-less player can still fight back and attempt to ransom his Rajah!

An important rule to note is that under no circumstances, regardless of the "political situation" on board, it is possible for a piece to take another piece of the same color.

Chaturanga Winning, Politics and Ransoms

Chaturanga is a game of rare endgame complexity which, understandably, made it less than popular with classical-minded Victorians who were the first westerners to encounter it.

Unlike Chess, Chaturanga allows the player to remain on board even after his Rajah is lost. The game ends when a player captures two of his enemies' Rajah pieces. There are historical variants to this rule but their description would surpass the scope of this article. I'll mention and explain them in the follow up article.

In a four player game when another player's Rajah is captured his army enters the state of mutiny and civil war. The capturing player now shares the control of the army with the original owner. He is free to move his opponent's pieces as if they were his own! However, he still can throw only two dice during his turn, as if he were in control of his original army only. If the red player has green player's Rajah captured he can now choose to move either red or green pieces with each throw of the dice.

The player who lost his Rajah may still roll the dice and move his original armies when his turn comes. He can even attack the pieces held by his occupier, but he cannot attack pieces of his own color. This way with a bit of skill and luck, even a player who lost his Rajah may still regain the full control of his armies.

If a player without his Rajah manages to capture his capturer's own Rajah, the exchange of prisoners may take place if players agree to do so. Now both players regain full control of their armies and the Rajahs are placed at their original positions. If there is another piece seated at that position at that moment, it is immidiately executed and replaced by the returning vengeful Rajah.

Krishna and Radha playing on an Ashtapada Board
Krishna and Radha playing on an Ashtapada Board

In Conclusion

In recent times ancient board games somewhat lost in popularity. They are being increasingly replaced by modern board game designs which emphasize strong themes, simplicity of rules and are played by more than two players. Ancient games are often seen as very cerebral, even boring abstract exercises in intellect requiring massive commitment in order to be played well.

However, there are many relatively unknown and almost forgotten ancient games which are much more suited for our hectic age than what you'd come to expect from a selection of "classical board games" which formed more than a hundred years ago. The mental space of Victorians was very different from our own and this reflects on the games they found universally appealing. The times are always-a-changing and there are periods in history when stronger-themed, more family-oriented games involving a bit of luck and politics were more appropriate for the spirit of the times, just like ours. Chaturanga is one of those games.

Enjoy your game!


A Little Bit Of History

"Presenting myself as a Brahmana, Kanka by name, skilled in dice and fond of play, I shall become a courtier of that high-souled king. And moving upon chess-boards beautiful pawns made of ivory, of blue and yellow and red and white hue, by throws of black and red dice. I shall entertain the king with his courtiers and friends."
The Great Indian Epic of Mahabharata, 8th century BC

"Let the king publish corporally, at discretion, both the gamester and the keeper of the gambling house, whether they play with inanimate objects such as dice, or chaturanga, or with living creatures as in the blood sports of cock and ram fighting."
The Ninth Book of the Laws of Manu, 1st century BC

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