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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 21 Next

4. Backgammon

Cultural game

Type: Two-player highly competitive race game

Depth: High

Designed by: Unknown (lost to time)

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: A race game, like Parcheesi. Unlike Parcheesi there are only two players, there are lots of pieces to move instead of four, they are all in play from the start, blocking opponent movement is an important part of the game, and the game offers a diabolical betting system. The result is a game with much more strategy than may first appear.

Play Summary

At a glance backgammon appears to have nothing in common with Circle and Cross games like Parcheesi, but the basic play is similar. The two players take turns rolling pairs of dice to move pawns around a linear track. They can split up the dice and move two pieces separately, or move one piece twice.

Unlike Parcheesi, the players move around the board in opposite directions, by each other. Multiple pieces of one player may rest on a single space, and these pieces are immune to capture and block enemy movement onto (but not beyond) that spot. Doubles count as four dice of the same number, facilitating extra movement.

All pieces begin on the board at various positions already along the way, which helps to remedy Parcheesi's game-slowing, luck-dependent initial introduction of pieces. When a capture is made, called a blot in the game's lingo, the enemy piece is sent to a storage location called the bar, and on the next turn the penalized player must use one of his dice to return that checker to the board on his opponent's home area, on the space matching the die's number, so it can resume its movement around the board.

Blots tend to be inevitable eventually, though careful movement of checkers can greatly minimize them. Returns are mandatory when available. It is possible for a return to be blocked by enemy pieces that have made it home, and if both numbers are blocked no return is possible and the player loses his turn.

This is called dancing. With careful play and a bit of luck, the entire home area can be so blocked, guaranteeing a perpetual dance until the home area is sufficiently cleared. There is no immunity for returning pieces, which are open to attack like any others, but returning pieces can blot single checkers.

When pieces are brought to the home board, the six spots closest to their destination, they may be borne off by rolling a die matching its space. The winner is the player who first bears off all his checkers.

The warring aspects of luck and strategy make Backgammon a favorite game for betting, and most sets come with an infernal little device called a doubling cube. The cube is usually an ordinary die with the powers of 2 on its sides, up to 64. If in use, then before a player's turn, if he is reasonably confident of winning, he may place the cube on the table and set it to 2.

This raises the stakes for the game; any wagered amount is doubled, or if the game is worth points towards a match, those are doubled. The other player must either concede immediately, giving the win to the doubling player at original stakes, or agree to the increased stakes. The player accepting the double may later double it again if he thinks his chances are good. There are many other rules surrounding the doubling cube; it is a source of continued innovation in the rules to Backgammon.

What can we draw from this game?

It might not seem so at first, but the increase in number of pieces, blocking play, and counter movement directions makes Backgammon much more strategic than the Circle and Cross games. Careful placement of blocks, made while mindful of the limits of piece ranges, can force opposing checkers to moving separately, opening up opportunities for blots, or even preventing movement altogether, wasting turns.

Although luck plays an inescapable role, high-level play can make a player appear luckier. The idea is to place your checkers so that fewer possible numbers rolled will be useful to the opponent, and more are useful to yourself, thus requiring good luck from the enemy while hedging against bad luck for yourself.

The doubling aspect helps to hurry the game. In cases where a player is strongly favored to win, it is in his best interest to double, potentially ending the game immediately. This helps keep up the game's pace; when it becomes obvious one player will win, the incentive is to end immediately instead of drawing it out. There are a wide array of house and tournament rules regarding use of the cube. These make for interesting reading; the Wikipedia page on Backgammon lists some popular variations.

It is a trend in board game circles to avoid games with a luck component, or minimize its presence in designs, but Backgammon shows that luck can play a strong role in a highly strategic game. The presence of dice need not restrict the game to being an immediate examination of tactics. A consideration of the odds of the dice may add tremendous strategic depth to a game.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 21 Next

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