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Weiqi: The Surrounding Game

A basic guide to one of China's most popular games


Weiqi, probably better known to you as ‘Go!’ is a game which occupies a place in Chinese history and culture that seems not a great deal shabbier than Chinese chess or mahjong. Perhaps most famously, it was the board game of choice of the legendary Guan Yu while a physician was slicing his arrow wound open and scraping poison off the bone. Without anesthetic. All very impressive, but one wonders what his form would have been like.

In any case, the game itself is fairly simple. In terms of equipment, all you need is a gridded board (normally 9×9, 13×13 or 19×19), and weiqi pieces, which normally take the form of small thickened, rounded disks. As in chess, one side normally has black pieces, the other white. The rules, too, are pretty simple. But rather like chess, understanding the basics is merely a first step. Here they are, in any case, so you can start laying down the pieces if you fancy a try. Who knows, you might become fairly good at it. In a couple of decades. Maybe.

1. The basic aim of the game is to capture as large a territory as possible on the board. In terms of turns, the game is about as simple as it gets; each person alternates in putting down one piece at a time. Easy.

Now as the name 围棋 would suggest, such territorial acquisitions are made by using your pieces to surround, or 围, certain areas of the board. Perhaps the most exciting element lies in trying to surround and take areas occupied by your opponent’s pieces; a reduction in the number of their pieces of course results in them being able to occupy and surround less of the board’s surface, and nets you points into the bargain. Of course, part of the skill of the game involves trying to encircle your opponent’s pieces on the one hand while guarding your own areas from encirclement on the other.

2. Whether or not a piece is captured depends on its ‘liberties’, a liberty referring to a directly adjacent, unoccupied space. Diagonals, however, do not count. In the diagram below, for example, the black piece progresses from having all four of its liberties free at A to having only one at D. If, say, white were then to place a piece at position 1, the black piece would be captured and removed from the board, leaving an empty point of territory which would now belong to white.


By Scsc (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Now if Weiqi consisted solely of protracted battles over single positions, games would be duller (and possibly a lot longer) than they are. What gives Weiqi a bit more fizz are the captures of whole swathes of enemy pieces, be they in a clump or a strung-out chain. All that qualifies an area of pieces for capture is that every single piece within it should be directly adjacent to another (but not diagonally). If within such a group, every liberty of every piece were to be blocked off by the opponent’s pieces, that entire area would be captured in one fell swoop.

A good example of this would be the ‘ladder’, a situation where one player forces the other to start building a chain to try and break out of imminent envelopment and capture. In the ladder depicted below, for example, white needs only a piece on the black chain’s final liberty (the point below 8 and to the right of 9) to capture the entire chain of six pieces, but it is currently black’s turn. To block the capture, therefore, black can put down a piece at that very position  and continue the zigzag pattern which has developed. Throughout the process, white will always remain one move away from capturing the whole chain. However, unless by continuing this pattern, black can connect the ladder with another area of black, it will eventually meet the edge of the grid and be surrounded, captured and become white territory. If a player sees that he has no hope of breaking the ladder, a good idea would be to cut his losses and focus on another area of the board.


4. One cannot commit ‘suicide’ under usual circumstances. For example, if a player is all but surrounded, he cannot complete the capture of his pieces by filling up his last liberty. In the below situation, white cannot voluntarily give up the bottom right three points of territory to black by placing one of his own pieces at A, thus completing black’s encirclement of his own pieces. This is permitted, however, if one simultaneously removes both his and his opponent’s final liberty from a certain area. In such a situation, only the opponent’s pieces would be removed from play.


By Scsc (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

5. This last rule is absolutely essential if the game is not to descend into a tedious and unending slog. It stipulates that you may not play a move which returns the position on the grid to what it was after any of your previous moves. For example, in the below situation, white might place a piece down on the position marked with a red circle, thus capturing Black’s piece marked 1. Without the rule forbidding repeating positions, black could immediately place a piece down where piece 1 used to be, capture the piece white just placed and restore the situation on the board to exactly what it was two moves ago. Theoretically, the whole thing could begin again, and this could continue for as long as the players care to keep it up. The rule is therefore in place to prevent this kind of deadlock.



8. At the end of the game, scores are calculated, and there are two major ways of doing this. The first involves counting the amount of positions surrounded by a player’s pieces (not counting the positions occupied by his/her pieces), each of which is worth one point. This is then added to the total number of enemy pieces which have been captured by that player to give their final score.

The other method is rather simpler. It counts the amount of space surrounded by a player’s pieces and adds it to the total number of pieces he has on the board.

This isn’t of course a definitive guide; there are certain variations in the rules depending on whether you play the game in China, Japan or even the United States. What is given above is only one such set of rules.

Also, as mentioned before, there are complex strategies which I won’t even explain because you people wouldn’t understand them. I of course, definitely do.


Master Image courtesy of Flickr User: Kendrick. Used and edited under a Creative Commons licence.

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