Banqi (AKA Ban Chi, pronounced BAHN-CHEE) is a two player game of strategy and luck.
This page is about Banqi as played by me and my friends. The Wikipedia Banqi article has a lot of additional information (variants, strategies/tactics, differing translations for piece names, etc.), but it is not an ideal resource for learning to play.
How to Play Banqi
You will need a set of Xiangqi (AKA Chinese Chess) pieces with identical backs (so they cannot be recognized when face down), and a 4×8 grid (half a Xiangqi board).
Turn all the pieces face down and scramble them, then place one piece inside each square on the 4×8 board.
The first player (often the more experienced player, since being first has the slight disadvantage of being immediately under attack) turns a piece face up. The color of that piece determines both players’ colors. If the first piece is red, the first player plays red. If it is black, the first player plays black.
After the first move, the second player must also turn up a piece (because there are no other legal moves at that point). Turning up a piece is always legal unless there are no more face-down pieces on the board.
Before moving and capturing pieces, it is important to understand rank. With a couple exceptions (pawns and cannons, explained shortly), the pieces are ranked with each piece able to capture equal or lesser pieces. My custom board includes the pieces ordered by rank from left to right (king is highest, cannon lowest).
As mentioned, pawns are an exception to the rank rule: they can capture the king, but the king cannot capture pawns. This is significant, since there are five pawns and only one king. The king can capture any piece but a pawn, and pawns can only capture the king or other pawns. This makes the king more vulnerable than the guards (the next lower pieces), and therefore arguably less valuable.
Cannons are the other exception to the rank rule: they can capture any piece including the king, and can be taken by any piece except a pawn.
You may move a face-up piece of your color to any empty orthogonally adjoining square. Diagonal moves are not allowed.
With the exception of the cannon, a piece captures by moving onto a piece it can capture. The captured piece is then removed from the board and replaced by the capturing piece. You may only capture your opponent’s face-up pieces.
Although it moves normally (orthogonally one space at a time), the cannon captures by jumping over a single piece (of either color, or even face-down) and landing on its victim. The jumped piece may be surrounded on either or both sides by empty squares. This is the only way cannons can capture.
The game is over when a player cannot make a legal move (i.e. cannot move, capture, or turn up a piece). In that instance, the other player wins. A player may also choose to resign, or both players may mutually agree to a draw.
If the game reaches a point where progress is not being made (i.e. both players are repeating the same moves), they must agree to a draw, break the cycle, or continue playing until one of the players dies. I recommend one of the first two options unless your opponent is in remarkably poor health. Breaking the cycle usually requires one of the players to make a sacrifice (presumably for the opportunity to win rather than draw). If neither player is comfortable making that sacrifice, a draw may be prudent.
The Wikipedia article on Banqi covers strategy pretty well. For me, discovery and discussion of strategy is a fun part of playing the game. Among the people with whom I play Banqi, kibitzing is usually normal and accepted as a way for everyone to become better at the game. In particularly interesting/well-matched games, players sometimes request that spectators keep their thoughts to themselves.
Buying a Set
I like to play on my custom board, but any 4×8 grid is adequate. My board is more decorative than a folded Xiangqi board, and also has a table of the pieces to simplify the learning/teaching process.
I update the board from time to time. This is where I officially publish the latest version. Feel free to print this board for your own personal use. (I recommend downloading the full-size image for printing.)