7-in-1 Magnetic Family Game: Backgammon

By Kieron Gillen on June 15th, 2009 at 7:01 pm.

The joy of magnetic backgammon. It's magnetic.
Even before we work out how to play the bally thing, we know Backgammon is a good game.

There are a couple of reasons for that. Of the games we’re unfamiliar with – I played one game of Backgammon years ago, when the person who I played with never actually bothered explaining the rules to me, and the Lady hadn’t played it at all – it’s immediately clear that Backgammon is the most sophisticated. The rules’ implications, which I battle for ages to actually follow, have a degree of subtlety to them. This is a sophisticated game in a way which – say – Ludo isn’t.

I find myself thinking about the difference between complexity and depth – two issues which always haunt discussions about videogames. Particularly on the PC-side: we get obsessed with the two ideas, and have trouble telling them apart. The accusation of streamlining or – hnggh, can’t write it, anagram time – bumding wodn, hits everything which reduces complexity, whether or not it actually loses depth. We hit the argument which many people have had in these threads: Go versus Chess. Go is less complex but actually, mathematically speaking, deeper. I suspect if an equivalent of Go and an equivalent of Chess in design structure were presented to us as a PC-audience, we’d go for the Chess structure every time.

I’m immediately attracted to Backgammon because, to a degree, we fetishise complexity as PC gamers. It’s the urge which lead me, in my teenage years, to play increasingly complicated pen and paper role-playing game systems – the step which made other people go from D&D to AD&D because of that alluring A. I grew out of that when I grasped that Rolemaster’s book of tables for weapons – one table a weapon in a book containing about hundred of the fuckers- was actually a waste of bloody time, and that I’d much rather play the much simpler Feng Shui. Feng Shui being the RPG of Hollywood action, rather than of re-arranging the furniture. I would rather re-arrange the furniture than play Rolemaster again.

(The worst RPG session I ever played in my life was a Rolemaster one. It was when I was living in the States, and I found myself playing in a group which advertised for members. It had been going on for years. After seeing how they played, I kinda realised why. Myself and another member decided it was time to splinter when we’d spent a four hour session exploring a mansion house which, at the end of the four hours, we realised had nothing there. Mental. Rolemaster players are fucking mental.)

I digress. Point being, there’s a sort of social side-effect in more obviously adult games. They become a form of status. The games we play reflect the people we are. To like Chess and Backgammon says more than just a preference for a certain form of interaction – it speaks of your self-image. These are games as signifiers. They carry meaning as much as saying you like Ico or Planescape Torment in a comments thread, or loving Sleater Kinney or The Slits or… well, you get the point? I’d respect someone who said they played Backgammon more than if the same person said they played Chinese Chequers. And if they said Fucking Ludo, I’d probably drag them off to a concentration camp or something.

This is, of course, groundless prejudice. But I think, as much as you may know it’s wrong, it’s part of self-identifying as a gamer. I can judge you by your taste in games. Your taste in art reflects on you. Fucking horrible, I know.

The other reason why we know that Backgammon has to be a good game is because it’s got a dice which goes up to 64 on. Sixty-four. No game with a dice which has 64 written on it can be bad. I refuse to even entertain the thought.

Perhaps ironically given the last article’s slaughtering of it, Backgammon is basically hyper-Ludo. You roll dice and have to move your pieces that distance. The difference being that you have many more choices of pieces to move, and many more tactical implications when you move them. Multiple stacks can’t be taken. (It took us a while to make sense of the game, due to a printing choice in the rules which lead to a completely wrong idea of the direction you were meant to play around the board.)

Here I could segue into a discussion of the problems with tutorials, and how even a small error can lead you to play an entire game without realising something was missing – cross reference me playing FEAR 2 without realising melee-jump kicks were in it because it wasn’t stressed in the tutorial enough – but it’s a bit of a stretch.

Since it is a deep game, we bounced off the surface – enjoyably. We realised if we replayed, it’d work better, as we’d have a clue what we were doing. And we also realised that a problem with the game would have been resolved by a rule we weren’t playing. You see, much like Ludo and Chinese Chequers, Backgammon has a relatively slow end-game as you shuffle your pieces off the board. But unlike Ludo and Chinese chequers, Backgammon has a solution.

And even better, it involves the dice that goes up to 64. No solution which involves a dice which goes up to 64 can be a bad solution. I refuse to even entertain the thought.

The solution is this: Backgammon is integrated a larger structure. It’s not about winning a game, it’s about keeping score. You’re gambling, and coming ahead in the long run. At the start of every turn, you’re able to offer to double the stakes. Your opponent can either accept that doubling, or lose the game at the previous stake. This is what the dice keeps track of – from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 to 64. Further gambling is frowned upon.

When one side is pretty sure they are going to win, they can raise the stakes. The other person can either surrender – thus bringing the game to a close – or accept the raising of the stakes – thus making the game more exciting, because there’s more at stake. Either way, it gives the losing team a strategic decision when – as noted in earlier pieces – certain other games are notable for their reduction in choices as a player starts to lose.

It’s elegant. It’s beautiful. It involves a dice with 64 written on it. How can it transfer to games?

I can’t think of a game which does anything similar. If you can, do correct me, but as a neat solution from a popular game, I’m surprised no designer has tried to pilfer it. With many games having a meta-score system of player rankings, there’s certainly something which could be gambled with. Of course, that opens the door to all manner of quitting and similar, but the point remains.

I think the bigger problem with applying this idea is the part of videogames that aren’t just pure games. In Backgammon, the “graphics” component is relatively minimal. In, say, an RTS, the element of pleasure from actually seeing something happen on screen is far greater – and removing that graphical element removes the blood from the win. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but CONQUERING DEMANDS HOT BLOOD. Is there a way around that? Maybe. How about a game which, at the end, allows an agreeably brutal evisceration of the commander, as commanded by you – a kind of bloody version of the end of level ode-to-joy of Peggle?

Of course, I’m playing back-seat designer. That’s all you can do when there’s not an example of this idea to look at. I’m always interested in seeing mechanics which haven’t yet been looted by modern game development. Picking up from RPGs mentioned earlier, it always surprises me the number of mechanisms used in pen and paper games which have never been transferred into a computer game. We fall to either D&D-derived level stuff, or into some manner of naive “use of skill=skill growth” (a la Elder Scrolls). There’s more than that, and inspiration is inspiration. More people should take it. Generally speaking, the medium would be all the richer if designers would play with the doubling dice. It’s got a 64 on it and everything.

Yes, I have been totally using “dice” to describe a single die to annoy those sort of people. Get back to Rolemaster with you.

, .

54 Comments »

  1. Owen says:

    A free version of Backgammon came bundled with my 360. I’d never played it before, but like everyone (it would appear), I had heard of it.

    Absolutely wonderful game and full of cunning tactics. Although you really don’t want to be playing against anyone over 70 as they will OWN yo’ ass…

    Another great article too KG. Really enjoying the series, good stuff. More of this please :)

    Owen

  2. Ging says:

    “bumding wodn” – I read that as “bumming wodan”, it scares me to think what that actually means about me.

  3. brog says:

    Kieron, next time I find myself designing a videogame, I’ll try to squeeze in a backgammon doubling die. Just for you.

  4. Radiant says:

    To some extent that risk vs reward element of the doubling die has been transferred to games.
    Burnout for instance is [or was; I'm referencing burnout 1-2 here] based on risking driving potentially catastrophically for greater reward [boost].
    But that end game risk/reward gamble has never been used.
    Which for something like counterstrike where you are facing the bum end of a drawn out 4 vs 1 situation would fit really well. The majority offering the double to the lower numbered side.

  5. Radiant says:

    oh btw you can play backgammon on line for free at microsoft zone.
    Or at the nearest shisha parlour :)

  6. Bhazor says:

    What about where you buy upgrades for a character/car between levels/events? You could say the money is the equivalent of the score and it becomes a gamble of whether you can remain competitive without spending your filthy lucre.

    Perhaps a bit tentative and I don’t know any game that makes a point of showing your bank balance to the opponent but I still see some similarity.

  7. clive dunn says:

    I used to play backgammon a lot when i was in my twenties. Played for money on a Friday night with various freinds and guests. I guess it was like a poker meet or something. A lot of money would change hands; fuck that fucking doubling die!
    Played a game one evening against a bloke who had shagged my then girlfreind while i was on holiday.
    That was one tense game of backgammon.
    Needless to say, i won.

  8. Serondal says:

    This Risk versus Reward idea has been used heavily in games , just not by showing you a 64 sided dice :P Ever Quest for example heavily pushed the idea of risk Versus Reward. The more you risked your character (sicne your body dies and all your shat stays with it) the greater the reward you would reap. The more you put yourself out there on the line the more lewt you could earn.

    I think that is one of the lessons lost on WoW type games where the reward has nothing to do with risk as there is very little risk in WoW at all. UO was great about this to a lesser degree since you were risking yourself all the time just by leaving a town or your home “until carebare land came into play” but even just trying to tame a dragon or something could go horribly wrong and leave your burned corpse sitting right next to a deadly dragon just waiting for you to come back and get it. Or your punched to hell corpse laying next to an Ogre Lord because you got stuck on a rock and couldn’t get away before it hit you when you were trying to kite it with blade sprits . . . .

  9. Serondal says:

    @clive dunn – He shagged your girl friend while you were on holiday, you lost my friend, you lost big time.

  10. clive dunn says:

    The guy did me a favour though; i thanked him at the end of the game for exposing her as a low-life two-timer who i probably would of married and then suffered a much greater cuckolded indignity. So it’s win win really.

  11. Xercies says:

    Actually a lot of games still hasn’t really emulated D&D to this day.

    Anyway Backgammon I never really knew the rules to it, it always seemed complicated and I never really go around really playing it. We had a Backgammon and Chess game and we always went for the Chess i did suggest playing backgammon once but they always refused saying that they never knew the rules and weren’t prepared to try.

  12. Radiant says:

    @serondal that’s not really WoW’s reason to exist.
    All it wants you to do is spend time [and therefore your hard earned] in it’s world.
    It doesn’t make any sense for it to be punishing.
    But that’s not really Gillen’s point; his point [I believe] was more about ending a drawn out conclusion quicker but offering both sides something out of it.

  13. Radiant says:

    And also how fucking lovely backgammon is.

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah, I’m not talking about risk reward generally.

    KG

  15. Clovis says:

    It should be noted that in addition to the doubling die you get more points for crushing your opponent (gammon) or REALLY crushing your opponent (backgammon).

    I would have been SO disappointed if this article didn’t end up praising backgammon.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add that I’ve found myself shying away from complexity. I’m tired to doing massive number crunching to decide what order to build stuff, or what to research next. If Civilization or Galactic Civilizations were a boardgame, they would come with a “War and Peace” size manual. This complexity creates some of the fun, but gets oppressive after awhile.

    I’d rather have a set of basic rules that I can completely understand, and then have to use those rules to my advantage as I deal with random situations. Backgammon fits this model perfectly.

  16. Serondal says:

    @Clive Fair enough! I had a similar happening only it was 5 black guys and I was watching her baby while she went to “wall mart” for 3 hours and came back smelling like pot and hooch. So all in all I think you got off a lot better than me and I have to agree in both cases we won. I got away scott free without any STDs and would also probably have married her :P

    @Kieron Gillen = How about the space ship in Civ 2? The leading civ will obviously be able to finish the thing before the one that is behind but the one that is behind has the option of launching their space ship incomplete and beating the leading civ if they get lucky ? Huh huh? That’s pretty close mate :P Saves a lot of time slugging it out city for city as well.

  17. Mo says:

    I absolutely love Backgammon. I never really play it with the meta-game aspect, but it’s enjoyable either way.

    When I was younger, my Dad and I obsessively played Backgammon. So much so that I eventually ended up buy a rather fancy and expensive hand-carved wooden board.

    Many years later, I had my first programming internship in the city. I bought myself a PSP for the commute. Underwhelmed by the game selection, I cracked my PSP. SNES emulator galore, right? No, not really. I spent a weekend writing BackgammonPSP. :) My Dad and I rediscovered our love for backgammon on the commute for the rest of my internship.

    So yeah, I quite enjoy Backgammon. :)

  18. ...hmm... says:

    what was the anagram then? sorry im stupid and incapable of opening another tab with sternest meanings. :(

  19. Hypocee says:

    Rampart comes to mind – you get to behead your opponent at the end while they, for their part, can scream and roll their eyes. Presumably one could work from there if one wished? Honorable suicide -> guillotine -> drawn and gibbed? ‘And in a surprise upset M1st0rCr4|< advances to the semifinals with one gib and a dog-bumming!'

  20. Serondal says:

    The anagram is dumbing down. making an anagram of dumbing down is kind of an artistic statment in and of itself lol.

  21. Serondal says:

    Actually now that I look at it, the anagram isn’t dumbing down, so maybe that means something about me LOL

  22. Mischa says:

    Some versions of Spider Solitaire (but not the Vista version) allow you to leave a completed stack on the board, instead of removing it and giving you an empty space.
    Do you go for the easy win (well, easier), using the empty space, or for the ultimate win, with eight completed stacks, all still on the board?

  23. Jonas says:

    So that’s how raising the stakes works! Fancy that. Played a lot of backgammon, never used that rule, because I never understood it.

    Many boardgames could benefit from a fully interactive handholding tutorial, methinks :P

  24. Serondal says:

    I think it amazing how unwilling people are to play games these days without a tutorial to walk you through every little part of the game. In MY Day you just got the game, you were lucky if you even got a manual that was less than 100 pages long and NONE of it made any sense! Young whipper snappers :P

  25. scythide says:

    The doubling cube is not exclusive to backgammon. Any game that is played with a stake could use the cube. I’ve heard of it being used in golf.

    Another good rule in backgammon that you may not be familiar with is the Jacoby Rule. When playing for money, it states that you can’t win a gammon or a backgammon without the cube already having been turned. This prevents a lot of lopsided games where your opponent chooses not to double you in order to win the gammon, saves boredom.

  26. Meat Circus says:

    Of the seven, Backgammon is the only game in this set I could be said to love. Apart from CARDS, obviously.

  27. Serondal says:

    I like backgammon just cause they played it in Lost and I love Lost :P I never was able to figure out how to play Backgammon on computer games though I never figured out why I was aloud to move pieces and what the over all point of the game was. I’m interested in possibly learning it with my wife soon but I’d rather play go with her. Either way I’ve got 2 small kids, both games contain tiny ass pieces that could cause them to choke to death before my very eyes so I may wait until they are old enough to know better. My son however isn’t very bright in this regard and still shoves everything he can into his mouth first, even before looking at it to see what it is. I’ve gotten pretty good at suddenly snatching stuff from his hands without hurting him :P

  28. DK says:

    “Either way, it gives the losing team a strategic decision when – as noted in earlier pieces – certain other games are notable for their reduction in choices as a player starts to lose.”
    The dreaded slippery slope is something featured in many RTS – DoW 2 for instance, gives the loosing player more resources. So it does kind of give choices to the player that’s losing.

  29. Lars BR says:

    I’ve been playing backgammon pretty much daily for over a decade on http://dailygammon.com – lots and lots of tournaments all the time.

    It’s basically play by mail with a decent prediction of opponents moves, which works great.

  30. Kieron Gillen says:

    If I fucked up the anagram, it was deliberately on purpose definitely and probably means something clever.

    KG

  31. sam says:

    “Go is less complex but actually, mathematically speaking, deeper. I suspect if an equivalent of Go and an equivalent of Chess in design structure were presented to us as a PC-audience, we’d go for the Chess structure every time.”

    I’m not sure if there is a videogame analogue of Go, in the same way as a lot of people compare RTSs with Chess. Or if there is, then it’d be something like Simcity. I think Go is sort of the holy grail developers are aiming for (consciously or unconsciously) when they start using words like ‘emergent’ in their previews.

  32. BigJonno says:

    KG, what RPG mechanics did you have in mind?

  33. Serondal says:

    Come on now, my Civ 2 space ship refence is spot on is it not ?!?!? Maybe KG just never played Civ 2 :P

    Any how I wouldn’t know if you mesed up the anagram because I’m HORRIBLE at them. I think they’re just about the stupidest thing ever.

  34. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Games Workshop teaches all non-Brits, all around the world, to refer to a single die as a dice.

  35. Dave says:

    The only good thing about Rolemaster was that it spawned GemStone III. Having eight tables of ways in which your jawbone can be imploded is suddenly cool again, when it’s a computer that has to look them up.

  36. Tom Armitage says:

    So, the thing with the doubling cube is it hints not at risk-reward, but at strategy over tactics. Or rather: Backgammon is never understood from a single game, but rather, from an evening spent playing the damn game.

    And, specifically, an evening spent in the natural environment of backgammon: the pub.

    Because the thing is, you see that doubling cube differently after a few beers. And so this game becomes a big campaign of bravado and strategy, all about being up at the end of the night, and of course you’ll get the next round in because you think you can hold your beer better.

    See also cribbage, even darts; games designed to be played over an evening, with moderate drinking at the same time (as opposed to no drinking, or games built upon drinking vast quantities) have this strategic component that’s hard to match. It really comes into its own in the context. And because the best ones have been around a while, most pub games are surprisingly well refined.

    I am still terrible at backgammon, and really need to work on my endgame.

  37. Serondal says:

    Looks like the game was origonally created in order to challenge sages or what have you. Fitting that in very short time it went from being a game of Asian sages to being a drinking/gambling plauge that was out lawed at one time by the church :P A game ain’t cool unless the church hates it.

  38. Gravey says:

    I’ma get pedantic here…

    I think the better distinction is not one between complexity and depth (which, as KG points out, there is none), but between something being complicated and being complex. This is something I was taught in an Earth and ocean sciences class, of all places, but it was about complex systems which in videogame terms is called emergent gameplay. Of course this all relates to bumding wodn.

    In KG’s case, a game that demonstrates depth is complex, e.g. Go, or Chess. Simple rules interact in myriad ways to create complex gameplay–”easy to learn, hard to master”, that sort of thing. Go and Chess have few rules, but they combine to create an infinite number of games. A game like AD&D also demonstrates depth, but it’s complicated: countless niggly rules and exceptions and restrictions that make the game hard to master, sure, but also hard to learn.

    Complexity and complicatedness seem to get conflated, and a game that has been “streamlined”–to have become less complicated–is often regarded as having lost its complexity.

    Now take a game like Tic-Tac-Toe (er, Noughts-and-Crosses). This game is bumded wodn: it is shallow and simplistic. Its rules are simple, and it is not a complicated game, but nor is it a complex game: it takes a moment to figure out how to make every game of Tic-Tac-Toe ever played end in a draw. It’s just a poorly-designed game. But nobody would confuse Tic-Tac-Toe with Chess, certainly not after a round or two.

    A simple ruleset does not necessarily equal a shallow game, nor does a complicated ruleset make for a complex–i.e. deep–game. Unfortunately, as KG points out, perceived complexity (which may nor may actually be complicatedness) also comes with a value judgment, which just, well, complicates things.

  39. Serondal says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_of_the_Fading_Suns

    Emperor of the Fading Suns overly complex , not easy to learn, and I guess it is kinda deep? This is what KG was talking about when he referred to PC Gamers. We want something complicated, complex, hard to learn, something consolers would never play :P

  40. Digit says:

    I’ve actually been playing this with my wife the last few nights right before bed, as a sort of chillout from the PCs for our minds. ;) Awesome game, which can be pretty brutal. I managed to win last night by rolling a double 1, arguably the utter worst roll you could ask for. :D

  41. solipsistnation says:

    Rolemaster is for wimps. Real RPG nerds play Phoenix Command.

    Heck with one table per weapon– Phoenix Command has a whole book of tables for different angles and locations in which people can get shot. We played four or five hours and got through approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds of combatl.

  42. Chris Remo says:

    So I didn’t know until I read this piece that you could jump kick in FEAR 2, and I played through the entire thing.

    I’ve never actually played backgammon. When I was a kid my parents had a bizarre hidden casino table–it looked nice a normal nice wooden table, but you could flip over the top and turn it into roulette or backgammon and other things. My brother and I tried to figure out how to play backgammon and got nowhere, and I’ve never tried it again since.

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    Remo: Exactly!

    KG

  44. Lu-Tze says:

    The only parallel I can see the the concept of doubling (and redoubling) in contract bridge. Obviously not a modern videogame example, but it does have the same rough effect.

    In general the auction phase is reasonably unrivalled, you need a game that is designed to always be played more than once for it to sensibly occur. Videogames rarely seem to rely on the fact that you will always play more than the current game, largely because of the immature mentality of “well I can’t win now, screw it rage quit”.

    Lost Cities is another example (which is a more modern game that got subsequently converted to an XBL version) that has the fact you play more than one game to make up a whole set. Whilst it has no direct doubling/redoubling mechanic, the fact that your score carries to the next game makes a hella lot of difference though. Which means that if people have a bad first game they immediately quit the match (ok, not universally true, but it’s reasonably common).

    It reminds me of all the people you see in online poker who go all-in on the first hand everytime because they can only win from a position of starting with twice (or more usually 3 or 4 times) as many chips as everyone else. If they lose, they are out and just go join another starting game. If you measure their win rate, it’s probably about 1 in 5, but in terms of their ratio of time played whilst winning/time played whilst losing, then it pretty much inverts and they end up being the winner/leader for much longer periods than they are a loser (which really lasts just a few seconds).

  45. Rob says:

    I liked the chess analogy. To misquote Iain Banks, any game that can be played (in a strategic sense) ‘perfectly’ has to be flawed. The very best games incorporate a measure of luck, just as life does. Die-rolling – Dorian, referring to Games Workshop as a teacher does you no credit, dear boy – is an obvious example.

    Backgammon’s a very simple mathematical puzzle. Personally, I find it incredibly addictive. If you have the time and amenable friends, I recommend an afternoon of round robin backgammon. 3 games each, winner takes all. And some beers, of course. Good way to spend a Saturday in the sun.

  46. Rockeye says:

    It’s not quite the same as the doubling die, but I’ve played beat ‘em ups before where extremely powerful ‘desperation’ moves can only be pulled off when you have very low health. The losing player is therefore given the tools to swing the fight rapidly back in their favour, but because the moves are hard to pull off (and the opportunities for practice are limitied) they risk a swift demise by trying to use them.

  47. Pod says:

    Die is a disgusting word. Dice is clearly the best word to describe a single dice. (see!). It’s a bit like sheep.

  48. Zero says:

    I always find that people I know who play backgammon simply refuse on face to use the doubling cube. I actually read Paul Magriel’s treatise, Backgammon, and if you’ve read that, or played a freaking game of backgammon the right way, you know that the game basically is nothing without the doubling cube. It’s like playing draw poker without chips.

    It annoys me.

  49. Helm says:

    Keiron, you’ll be delighted to know that in countries where Backgammon is very common – like in my native Greece – it is considered an extremely lowbrow game, played by do-nothing layabouts at sunny cafes nationwide while drinking ice coffee and shouting the worst obscenities to each other when they happen to roll worse than usual.

    Of course all these people play extremely good Backgammon and they Would Destroy You Utterly if you were to challenge them and yes it requires a keen understanding of the gambling aspect and risk/reward to play properly (the person that isn’t good at it cannot see why he is worse than the one that is good at it and usually puts it to luck/unluck), but isn’t it interesting how it’s not at all the mark of a higher mind like playing Chess or Go is?

  50. dhex says:

    this was a great article. my favorite variation is acey deucey, where you go from strategy with a luck component to a strategic footrace with a huge luck component.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acey-deucey