Shogi is a tabletop game from Japan that plays a bit like chess. Some of the pieces are different, many of the rules are foreign, but the strategy, tactics, and cerebral challenge are all there. Shotest Shogi is without a doubt a very Eastern strategy game that some Westerners may not find enjoyable. But for those willing to dedicate time, the wisdom of the Shogi masters has been made available for download via Xbox Live Arcade.
Each player starts the game with 20 pieces arranged across three rows on a large wooden checkerboard. The player with the black pieces starts, and the game ends only when one player is unable to move without losing his or her king (like in chess, this is called "checkmate"). You can use your knights, bishops, pawns, and other units to capture your opponent's units by correctly moving into his or her squares. Like in checkers, if you move one of your pieces into an opponent's starting row, you can flip the piece to give it added abilities. Flipped pieces are more dangerous due to expanded movement options, but sometimes move with very different paths than the starting side allows. Additionally, some pieces, after being removed from play, can be placed back into play nearly anywhere on the board, which may blow more than a few minds.
To help new players learn the rules, an expansive set of tutorials is provided. The basic set of tutorials does a great job of introducing you to the pieces, the board, and movement paths during play. Intermediate tutorials do a decent job of fleshing out the phases and strategies of gameplay. Finally, the advanced tutorials channel some of the great Shogi masters to help you learn the most sophisticated of strategies. Given that each of the tutorials builds on the previous one, unless you absorbed all of the previous content, you may not be able to understand or execute the complex tactics of advanced strategies. For the uninitiated, the tutorials are not only essential, but have also been localized to be a good introduction to the complexities of the gameplay. It's a shame that some of them are so dry and lack a way to move on or get help when you don't know what you should do in the sample scenarios presented.
Once you have finished the tutorials, you can tackle the Career mode, refine your game in Practice mode, or jump into a multiplayer match online or offline. The Career mode pits you against a host of adversaries with increasingly complex and sophisticated strategies. Despite the possibility of 16 offline opponents to best, neophytes will be hard-pressed to defeat even one. Shogi matches are not only exercises in tactics and strategic trade-offs, but also an endurance test of some seemingly interminable matches. Playing online offers little chance of connecting with anybody because most people have either passed on the game or given up looking. If you try to start a match, you'll be waiting for quite some time for an online opponent to show up. Sure, you can connect and play with somebody you know, but we found that invitations sent through Xbox Live didn't connect us to the match, and the game would either lock up or hang. Finally, if you do manage to find a random challenger, the population of competitive players is pretty well isolated to the nation of Japan.
Even after completing all of the tutorials and investing hours of play time, defeating any of the AI opponents is still a difficult prospect. At 800 Microsoft points, the price tag is cheaper than moving to Japan and training with a grand master, but the difficulty and absence of adversaries online make this a tough game to recommend to anybody but the most devout tabletop-strategy-game players who are willing to hone their talents through the game's excellent tools.