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.

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54 Comments »

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  1. Deadend says:

    EndWar.
    It may be a fairly lame RTS game, but when you were losing, you had the option to fire a nuke to turn the tide, except if you shot yours, the other side could use theirs. It gave the loser a chance to up the stakes for that match as they were losing.

  2. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    Great piece Keiron.

    I’ve got fond, distant memories of backgammon. Some Greek friends-of-the-family taught me to play when I was 6, for some reason I remember it as a very mature and sophisticated experience.

    It’s got a very soft-leather-armchair and cognac feel to it, god knows why.

  3. Wisq says:

    @Helm: I suspect that’s the random element at play. With Chess and Go, you’ve got deterministic outcomes based purely on skill and contemplation.

    Obviously, backgammon still involves skill, but more in terms of predicting outcomes and adjusting the stakes appropriately, even if it means recognising and giving up a slim hope of victory in order to avoid a crushing defeat — much like poker.

    Of course, recent televised tournaments aside, I think poker has traditionally received essentially the same kind of treatment as you say backgammon has.

    From my experience, the people I know who play Backgammon (relatively few) play single games in isolation as if it were chess. To me, that’s missing the point. It’s like playing a single hand of poker as if that were the entire game. Perhaps I would have been more interested in the game had I been taught the full scope, rather than just putting the long-term aside as “oh, that’s only if you’re playing for points”.

  4. W.Yutani says:

    Not sure it’s a straight steal but the SOL systen in Breath of fire V and a couple other Capcom games is pretty close. You can choose to sacrifice your current progress but keep your stats and items etc. as you get into trouble. You have to play through the same chunk of the game again, but hopefully a bit stronger. As it’s an rpg based more on survival and stamina, it does make it more intresting. Also through a couple of other game mechanics, the more you do this, the more of the game you see.

    Incidently, I think I’m thought more about game design and mechanics from this series of non electronic reviews than any other computer games reviews I’ve read. (so erm congratulations and stuff)