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Subject: Learning Backgammon After Getting into the Board Gaming Hobby rss

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Ryan Tullis
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The Scenario of a New Hobby Board Gamer

We know the trend. Someone who hasn't touched a board game since their heavily home-ruled version of Monopoly discovers Catan or Carcassonne, and suddenly they're like a wide-eyed, zealot convert. We can see one of them outside the coffee shops, a copy of Goa in hand, a sly, pretentious smirk on their face. Someone asks what it is they're holding, "A board game," they say.

"Like Monopoly?" The poor peasant asks.

What follows is a cackle that shakes buildings. "AS IF!" And then the new board gamer hugs his copy of Goa to his chest and runs away squealing and laughing at the poor person who asked.

But the problem is that it doesn't end with Monopoly. Next time somebody mentions to the new board gamer that they attend a local backgammon club, the board gamer scoffs and throws cardboard chits at the poor player until he goes away.

A lot of times people look at backgammon as one of those games that non-hobbyists play, along with the other classic abstracts or family board games from our past: Chess, Checkers, Monopoly, Life, etc. Strange, too, its odd explosion of popularity in the 70's makes it this sort of game that older folks must just cling onto. Despite being one of the oldest board games in history, the design seems almost like a seventies design of abstracts, doesn't it, with its two, three, and five tall checker towers and alternating triangles instead of the squares we're all so used to?

So I want to make it clear I've been a hobby gamer for a good few years now. I just recently got into backgammon at my MFA residency. A peer, and friend, of mine introduced it to me while I was desperate for a board game to play after classes. What transpired was many a night in Oregon at a local pizza shop with a pint of beer and a backgammon board.

So let's review this, not as someone who has many childhood memories of backgammon (I don't), but as a hobby gamer getting into it for the first time, and if you should try it, too.




The Design

Backgammon is, at its very core, a racing game. You and your opponent are attempting to move your pieces around the board and escape. This harkens back to some of backgammon's possible ancestors such as Senet.

But if Backgammon were nothing more than a clean race, who'd want to play, right? Fortunately, backgammon offers so much more. If a piece finishes its movement on a space with only one opponent checker, that checker is then removed to the bar. Once that checker is on the bar, the player cannot move any other piece until it's back in play. Seems simple enough, right? However, if two or more of your opponent's pieces are on a single point, your piece cannot end its movement there, or re-enter the game on that square. This means I can capture your checker after filling up my home board with defensive posts, meaning that you cannot come out (or at least have a low chance of coming out).

Once all your pieces are in your home board (the six points on the bottom right of your viewpoint), you can start leading them off. The first player to get all of his pieces off the board win.



But what about luck?

But what about luck? The moment a player sees dice in a "classic" game, often their eyes glaze over, PTSD memories of Monopoly and Sorry flood their thoughts, and they pray to Agricola for release. I can't fully blame them. And on seeing the dice, and how they work, I was a bit skeptical, too. Who wouldn't be (although, truth be told, I really didn't mind Monopoly all that much)?

But the dice is what makes backgammon interesting. Without it'd be another abstract, and most likely an inferior one to the likes of Go and Shogi. Backgammon is an elegant mix of strategy and tactics. Behind in the race of the game? It's time to start focusing on keeping some checkers back and look for late-game hits. Really behind? A back game is a tough shot, but it's possible.

Even moreso, backgammon is a game of playing probabilities. You're setting yourself up so that you have more opportunities for good plays no matter what dice are given to you. That's an important detail. It's easy for a player to look at a dice roll and go, "Wow, it's just what you needed." But you set up what you needed beforehand. Maybe you got a 2-3 roll on your first turn, brought down some builders in the back so you have more dice opportunities to build a post to block your opponent. It's not a bad plan.

Now, of course, there are lucky rolls. Double sixes are still double sixes. Even in backgammon terms this is called a "joker roll," or a roll so good that it overcomes strategy. And sometimes, even if you have a good strategy, maybe that lined you up with a 70% chance of victory, and your opponent gets lucky and rolls that 30% and wins it.

Enter the doubling cube. The doubling cube is simple. When playing to a particular point score in a series of games (say 7 points where each game is worth 1 point), it doubles the point value of the game. Does your opponent really want to play out that 30% chance of victory if the game is worth double the points? Knowing when to play the doubling cube, and how, is a large part of the strategy. Understanding how it affects your series can make or break you.

Criticisms of the Game (Cons first)

I do have a few criticisms of backgammon. I wish there backgammon included more opportunities for a collision and offense. I think the game is at its most interesting when pieces are under pressure to be hit by the opponent. While most games do feature hits, there are still not very exciting racing games where your checkers will shoot past each other without so much as a wave. It's a shame, as these games tend to be dull and uninteresting. I like the risk of playing the dice.

Other backgammon players have recognized this, as well, creating variants that include more opportunities for higher-pressure games. That isn't to say that all backgammon games lack pressure... just a few.

Positives

While these were partially stated in my game design section, I want to note, again, that backgammon has a lovely mix of game strategy and tactic. Situational awareness is extremely important. Understanding how to set yourself up for a certain strategy later in the game is extremely valuable.

But best of all? The game is fun. The dice give you this feeling of, "If I could just get this roll... And I set it up as much as I could, and I only have a 1/3 chance of hitting it... but please let me hit i---I DID!" That's where luck feels good. And, sure, luck can turn against you at times in the same manner. And your best plans can be brought down by it at times. But know this: If you are a better player, you will win a series of games, because you will win majority of the time without a doubt. Personally, I find this refreshing to complete abstracts like Chess, where the weaker player will be horribly crushed over and over again without a chance. I think a new player having a shot at the odd winning game keeps them interested in learning. There's hope for them, and hope is what keeps a game alive and interesting.

Along with my second point: Agonizing decisions. Backgammon is full of them. What makes backgammon good isn't always getting those great rolls, but getting rolls that are going to hurt you, and you're trying to mitigate the damage as much as possible and minimize risk. I love decisions like that on occasion. Just like real life, you have good days and bad days, but it's how you manage both that'll see you through in the end.



Do I Recommend Backgammon to a Hobby Gamer?

Absolutely, and I want you to know why: Of the traditional or classic games, Backgammon still has a modern feeling design. That sounds crazy, right? But there are other classic games, too, that feel modern despite their age: Go, for example, is both fresh and ancient feeling. Of course, we're back to being trumped entirely by a superior player. In classic games, often it felt like your choices are pure luck or pure strategy games. Backgammon, despite its age, includes a good mix of both the way some modern designs do.

Want to learn more about the game? Check out www.bkgm.com for resources on tactics and just about everything else.

Oh, my verdict? I give backgammon, both considering its age and modern standards, an 8/10.





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Eddie Mittelstedt
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I just got the urge to play backgammon with my wife on the deck today drinking some homebrew beer...
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Ryan Tullis
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BugLaden wrote:
I just got the urge to play backgammon with my wife on the deck today drinking some homebrew beer...


I'd like to think this is how backgammon is meant to be enjoyed! In fact, my wife and I usually end up going to a bar and grill up the street once a week to play a board game, and for the past couple of months backgammon has been one of our go-to games. If there were a Geeklist of "Games that go well with a pint of beer," I'd put backgammon on the list for sure. laugh
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Matthew Saloff
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I was kind of in the same boat a few years ago, aka a heavy card/board gamer that then was later introduced to Backgammon. I actually saw some people playing it outside at a hookah bar and was pretty instantly intrigued. Now I think I play more Backgammon than probably any other game, especially during the week.

By the way, so jealous that you have a local backgammon club. I have been looking for one in my area for a while, but there's nothing. Lots of Bingo, Cribbage, and another one (Pinocle or Rummy or something?) clubs/parlors but no Backgammon ones. :(

GREAT game.

If someone said to me, "Okay, you're trapped on a deserted island for an indefinite amount of time (with a some other people of course) and can only bring one game, what would it be?" Backgammon would be my first choice.
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Ryan Tullis
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Mattr0polis wrote:
I was kind of in the same boat a few years ago, aka a heavy card/board gamer that then was later introduced to Backgammon. I actually saw some people playing it outside at a hookah bar and was pretty instantly intrigued. Now I think I play more Backgammon than probably any other game, especially during the week.

GREAT game.

If someone said to me, "Okay, you're trapped on a deserted island for an indefinite amount of time (with a some other people of course) and can only bring one game, what would it be?" Backgammon would be my first choice.


You're a One Piece AND Backgammon fan? Why must you live so far away? laugh

While I was being hypothetical in my backgammon club story, Dayton does have a club (although I haven't been yet). It's once a month and usually looks to be a round robin tournament. I've been studying up to go, actually. I don't want to embarrass myself completely.

Have you considered trying to start one? I imagine there are other backgammon players without a consistent place to go around your city, especially with its slight resurgence in popularity.

I'm glad to hear my story isn't unique. Backgammon really is an excellent game, even (and maybe especially) if you're approaching it from a modern board gamer's perspective. I made this review to help spread the word.

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Wolfram Troeder
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There is actually a reason that this game is still played after thousands of years. It has withstood the test of time. As have the other classics chess, checkers, pachisi, mancala, go,...
I wonder what games have not bested that test and went into oblivion, apart from the few we know of.
I wonder also what games will be played 3013? Will one of the games of the last hundred years make it thus far?

Do not underestimate the classics!
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Wolfram Troeder
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Alfonso el sabios’s Book of Games of the late 13th century:
The manuscript recounts the story of a King from India who wondered whether it was better to have skill or luck during life. He consulted his three wise men on the issue. Each wise man provided a different answer to the King.
One believed it was skill.
One believed it was luck.
And one believed it was both.
The King ordered them to go in search of proof for their beliefs.

Upon their return they each brought forth a game, which were created to represent life.
The first wise man presented the game of chess to prove knowledge is all that is needed. He showed by playing the game of chess someone with more skill could conquer another and so skill was thought to be better.

The second wise man presented dice. He showed a player’s lot in the game, therefore life, is determined by chance. Nothing else mattered.

The third presented tables. Tables was a game involving both knowledge and dice. He showed by playing the game, even if the rolls of dice are against him, a player can manage the obstacles if he also has knowledge. And vice versa.
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Ægir Æxx
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2004-2009 was basically Beers, Blunts and Backgammon while I lived in Denmark. Good times, great game.

Denmark style guaranteed to make you smile.
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Tryken wrote:
You're a One Piece AND Backgammon fan? Why must you live so far away? :laugh:


Heck yeah, man! One Piece is one of the greatest things EVER! Awesome to see another Straw Hatter around! Dayton is only about 4 hours away from me actually, but that's *just* far enough to be annoyingly far.

Yeah, I'll have to look and see what can be done about starting up a Backgammon club in the area.
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Mattr0polis wrote:

If someone said to me, "Okay, you're trapped on a deserted island for an indefinite amount of time (with a some other people of course) and can only bring one game, what would it be?" Backgammon would be my first choice.


I dunno about that. As much as I love backgammon, I feel that a set could be made pretty easily out of things that could be found on an island. Your best choice would be something with intricate production value! Seeing you'll be spending a lot of time on that island, might as well make your own set out of deadwood and fish bones!
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Matthew Saloff
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freechinanow wrote:
Mattr0polis wrote:

If someone said to me, "Okay, you're trapped on a deserted island for an indefinite amount of time (with a some other people of course) and can only bring one game, what would it be?" Backgammon would be my first choice.


I dunno about that. As much as I love backgammon, I feel that a set could be made pretty easily out of things that could be found on an island. Your best choice would be something with intricate production value! Seeing you'll be spending a lot of time on that island, might as well make your own set out of deadwood and fish bones! :D


Hah, good point! Though to be honest, most other games would be kind of a pain outside, in the wind and sand, so not sure what else I'd choose instead. Meanwhile, a nice Backgammon set provides it's own enclosed game board so the dice and pieces aren't going to fall off/blow away/etc. Heck, you can even sit down in the sand on the beach and play it safely. ^_^
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Yeah, backgammon is very robust against weather. I've got a "beachgammon" set that's made for use at the beach/outdoors; it has a roll-up rubber board and glass pieces.

For the desert island, I think I'd pick a different game and plan to make my own backgammon set out of indigenous debris, but I'd pick a game that had dice. Good fair dice would be the one part of my backgammon set I couldn't easily just make out of anything.
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Eddie Mittelstedt
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3 2-point matches with the missus tonight. Good times. Thank you.
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Great review. You hit the nail on the head.
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Ryan Tullis
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Yeah. I think backgammon sets are one of those things that could survive an island, especially if it's built well. I can't think of many that hold up in volatile environments for board games like bars, nature, etc. Hive definitely could, as well. But I prefer backgammon.
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When I was young (teens/ early 20's) I used to play extended periods of Blitz Chess, Backgammon, and Cribbage over friday and saturday evenings starting after dinner with a good supply of beer, lasting well into the early AM and sometimes through sunrise the next day. We would have mock 'championships' at Blitz Chess. Dissapointingly, my good friend and opponent died a couple years ago as the current reigning champion. It was one of the not so few times he wrestled the title away from me. We were always of comparable strength in chess and Backgammon.

He died happy, I think. As happy as one could be.

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Nice review

What I think backgammon manages to do is pull off the perfect balance between luck and skill to make a classic game.

From a beginner/outsider perspective the game seems ridiculous - hey its a roll and move mechanic so it must be lame and surely its all luck - BUT when you have played a few times you realise that a skilled player will wipe the floor with an unskilled player even with "bad" rolls.



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interesting. Do you think part of the appeal is that Backgammon has some mystique/exotic-ness about it?

Backgammon was always in my life - you would ALWAYS get a board in one of those cheap compendium of classic games but as a kid would never be that interested in playing. I got into it after seeing an excellent set for sale in a junk shop - there is some appeal on having a great looking and tactile set

Matthew - just take the plunge and set up a local backgammon group yourself use Meetup or Facebook - I actually managed to co-form one group (now defunt I think) in Geneva,Switzerland for English expats (though technically its NOT a language dependant game) - the main problem was finding somewhere to host...luckily we got a small bar which allowed us to play...as people felt a bit obliged to spend money on drinks. Its great that you can pretty much play the game anywhere with a nice self contained set
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Matthew Saloff
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skyblaze wrote:
Matthew - just take the plunge and set up a local backgammon group yourself use Meetup or Facebook - I actually managed to co-form one group (now defunt I think) in Geneva,Switzerland for English expats (though technically its NOT a language dependant game) - the main problem was finding somewhere to host...luckily we got a small bar which allowed us to play...as people felt a bit obliged to spend money on drinks. Its great that you can pretty much play the game anywhere with a nice self contained set


Yeah, it's a good idea. I really should look into something like this, thanks.
 
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Skyblaze - Funny you mention that. Actually, I do think backgammon boards have an aesthetically pleasing look to them, similar to abstracts like chess and go. There is a sort of an exciting feeling of solving an enigma that always got you as a kid and enjoying it (aka: What are these weird pyramid lines doing on the back of my chess board?). It's certainly a little exotic feeling, too, since you don't have the normal squares of a chess/checker board. The design feels sleek and unique when put into a collection of other abstracts.
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Just "discovered" Backgammon this weekend after finally playing a set I purchased at a yard sale for $2. As a former competitive chess player I tend to stay away from abstracts unless it is Chess, Go, or Blokus. Well, I can now add Backgammon to this group of excellent abstracts. I would not have thought a dice rolling abstract would be this good. I think the doubling cube is what really increases its competitive appeal. Anyway, I am now looking to invest in a nice set to go along with my chess and Go sets.
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luis uribe
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Thanks for the review; nicely done by the way. There's another aspect of the backgammon that most 'modern' gamers overlook. Table games were, back in the day, created not just for competition but as a social activity; actually primarily a social activity. Backgammon, like cribbage or dominoes, provides time to comment about the play and chat in a way chess does not.

Growing up in central Mexico where power for the town was turn-off at 1900 a few times a week and TV/radio was limited to a few channels, cards and board games were hugely important; as were books and story-telling. We played backgammon, chess, dominoes, canasta, rummy (pula) and read into the night by candle and kerosene (oil) lamp. I still have very fond memories of Mexican chocolate, the smell of candles and the rattle of the dice cups late at night.

Ultimately, the competition is secondary to the social bonds that games develop. And, backgammon with it's laid-back tempo, visceral appeal and just the right combination of probability and tactics to keep things interesting fits the bill just so.

One other item. There are some that scoff at games that have dice in play. A competitive chess in high school, college and grad-school I did also but found that using dice requires players take probability and hit/spread tables into account. Oh, some say, that's just another word for luck. As a finance analyst that works regularly with risk/return analysis, a commodities investor, a customer of insurance firms and at times a gambler, I can tell you that if it were just random luck, casinos, insurance companies, exchange houses and investment firms wouldn't be as profitable as they are.

Cheers,
Luis
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