As many of you might already know, I am someone who is fascinated by game systems. By that, I mean a set of pieces or materials that you can use to play many games, as opposed to a set of materials that is designed to exclusively play one game.
I think just about everyone in the world is familiar with game systems, seeing as how two of the most prevalent game systems out there are dominos and decks of cards. People who have never heard of Twilight Struggle and think Settlers of Catan is an obscure cult in New Zealand know what a deck of cards is.
Recently, I have started thinking about how a checkers set is a game system.
It’s certainly not a new idea to my mind. When I was young and not yet an obsessed gamer, I remember using checkers to play Fox and the Hounds with four red pieces and one black one (also called Fox and Geese and probably a whole bunch of other names) In fact, if I remember correctly Sid Sackson’s Gamut of Games has a whole section devoted to games you can play with a checkers set.
However, in the last year, I’ve played Lines of Actions, Focus, Aries and Archimedes, all of which require nothing but a checkers board to play. Heck, I’ve probably played even more than that. Those are just the ones off the top of my head. I’ve also come across a children’s book called 24 Games You Can Play on a Checkers Board. Mind you, a number of the games are variations on checkers or Fox and Geese but the point still remains:
A checkers set can be a remarkable flexible game system and you can play a number of games with one.
I’m certainly not the only person to have thought of this. There’s a rather good geek list right here of games you can play with a checkers set: http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/11169
I do have to note that the defining qualities of a checkers set are not just that you have an eight by eight board and red and black pieces. The pieces are also specifically designed to stack, which is a little detail that actually adds a lot of flexibility to the system.
However, as much as I hate to say this, I don’t see a checkers set joining my grab bag of go-to game systems, which includes the ever-present deck of cards, as well as a travel set of dominoes and my looney pyramid tool box.
Unfortunately, getting folks excited about a game that uses a checkers set just isn’t very easy. Yes, checkers and droughts may have a long and illustrious history and will probably continue to be played for the next thousand years. Even if we have a nuclear holocaust or a zombie apocalypse, survivors will still be able to scrape together a checkers set and play as the world ends around them.
That doesn’t change the fact that checkers just aren’t sexy. A deck of cards has the allure of gambling and the glamor of Las Vegas. Those cute little pyramids look like something out of a science fiction movie. Checkers, unfortunately, have a dusty, common-place feel of something that we’ve all seen so many times that we just don’t notice it anymore.
On top of that, just about every single game that you can play with a checkers set is 100% abstract. If you want a game that has any lick of theme or luck, a checkers set is not the game system that will satisfy your needs. I know that’s damning a house cat for not being a kangaroo but that doesn’t change the fact that you are going to have a limited audience for those games.
And trust me, I am completely guilty of this snooty behavior. Almost all of my exploration of using checkers as a system has either been completely academic (ie, reading rules) or on asynchronous play online. Yes, it is easier for me to play on a virtual checkers board. Even my face-to-face plays of Focus have been on a published edition of the game with neat little plastic dome pieces that come in bright colors.
That said, I am still impressed by what folks can do with a checkers set. They are almost as easy to get a hold of as a deck of cards so they do serve as a handy and convenient tool for game designers to tinker with. And, as games like Lines of Action and Focus show, sometimes the games that are developed using checkers as a game system are top notch.