It is time for a geek revival of Backgammon. Think of it as D&D, but cheaper, with fewer moving parts, and easier to teach new players.

Are you, dear reader, looking for a new board game? How about one that:

  • Takes five minutes to learn
  • Has deep strategy that can fill many a book
  • Is fair to both veterans and newbies alike
  • Has a variety of different play styles to choose from
  • Has a long history behind it
  • Is so cheap, you can play all your life for free
  • Makes you look as sophisticated as James Bond while you’re playing it

It’s not really in the wrist, you know. But in real life, everybody has batter sense than to run obviously loaded dice like that.

Tabletop Simulator on Steam Includes Backgammon

Seeing Tabletop Simulator selling so popular on Steam lately renewed my interest in one of my favorite geek passions. Doubtless, the COVID-19 gremlin that killed most of the fun in the world has driven socially-distanced gamers out of the game stores and seeking another option. That option is either close private games at home with friends and family, or simulating your favorite board games online.

By the way, here’s a great introduction to Tabletop Simulator. Its appeal is mainly in the online customization community, because you can simulate about any game in this physics engine, and even make up many of your own. Indeed, the engine has no preconceived notions about game rules. Dice, cards, dominoes, and checkers are just objects to this environment, so you want to be sure you’re playing with people who are willing to play nice.

Getting back to Backgammon, I included a brief mini-rant in my Dicey Dungeons review about Backgammon, while venting my frustration at the stigma against luck elements in modern gaming culture. Man, for a culture that’s practically adopted the D20 as its calling card, y’all geeks need to loosen up and accept dice in some other game beside D&D!

Backgammon’s Glory Days

Out of all dice-based games, it’s been a shock seeing backgammon just straight die off, at least in US gaming culture. Vladimir Putin’s not too good for Backgammon though…

Putin_on_the_bar

Oh, what, did you think this game was obscure? A whole lot of celebrities are fans of Backgammon…

Chris_Rocks_a_Gammon

Chris Rock, and I bet he’s a real smart-ass about it too.

Pamela_Anderson_Backgammon_event

Pamela Anderson’s charity event tournament, in case you need proof that girls play board games.

Lucille_Ball_Backgammon_host

Lucille Ball, godmother of Star Trek, also hosted charity Backgammon tournaments.

Mick_Jagger_Backgammon

Anybody can play Backgammon, but only Mick Jagger can make playing in your pajamas look this cool.

Charlize_Theron_checker

Hey, look, it’s Charlize Theoron, straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road!

Leonardo_Dicaprio_on_board

We even have Leonardo DiCaprio on board.

Alright, that’s enough celebrity spotting. As I mentioned back there amid Dicey Dungeons musings, Backgammon used to be HUGE in the US in the mid-20th century. Wikipedia puts this down to a Russian socialite popularizing the game in the US, which started a fad and led to Hugh Hefner hosting Backgammon parties. Indeed, the Hef enjoyed the game all his life. Images of Playboy bunnies gathered around Backgammon boards kept the game in the cultured spotlight throughout the 1970s.

Playboy_Backgammon

Of course, Backgammon was popularized as a gambler’s game, even though you’d never see it on the floor in a Las Vegas casino. Sure, you can spice the game up with a wager if that’s your poison, but otherwise you can just play for “victory points” like any other game, facilitated by the doubling cube.

The Playboy and gambling image kept Backgammon paired with other adult pastimes throughout the back half of the 20th.

black_Russian_Backgammon

Southern-Comfort_Backgammon

Jameson_Backgammon

You have to admit, nothing is so anti-geek culture as this booze ‘n’ bunnies image. But there’s no reason we can’t take Backgammon back from the Boomers and into the game shop where it belongs.

Mario_Backgammon

See how easy that is?

Teach Yourself Backgammon

So simple, this tutorial is as good as any:

You see, the spikey bits are spaces to move to, which are called “points.” It’s a race game; just be the first to get all your checkers to the home goal. While your opponent and you move checkers along the same path, you get a chance to clobber each other, which is a set-back – but you don’t always want to hit in every situation! Backgammon is about four things:

  1. Being phenomenally good at figuring probability on the fly
  2. Skewering your opponent into nasty positions they can’t roll their way out of
  3. Psyching out your opponent with the doubling cube
  4. Being flabbergasted at how stupidly lucky your opponent’s rolls are

Here’s a tried-and-true resource on playing the opening rolls. Try to remember the best ones, but read through the analysis of each play, because it’s an education in itself. In fact, that whole site can count as your first strategy book.

To get a preview of what this game does to you, here’s somebody trying to explain strategy while losing most saltily:

The web at large is chock full of endless Backgammon resources, should you be so inclined to Google. The game’s been around since Mesopotamia circa 3KBC, which is also the location of the archaeological discovery of the oldest known set of dice. Needless to say, most of the web resources on Backgammon are from the Web 1.0 days.

Why should geeks love Backgammon? It’s a short enough game to play casually, yet its more intricate strategies are baroque in their elegance. At the same time, the luck factor evens the playing field between veteran and newb. Every now and then you get to pull off a risk that should have doomed you, yet you managed to just squirm out.

Backgammon AI

All players, when they first start playing against the AI, are beset by an insidious paranoia: The AI program must be cheating. No, they don’t cheat, as such, but computer AI is pretty damned good at calculating that probability math, so it feels like they’re cheating every time. If an AI program were cheating, it wouldn’t be doing so by rigging the rolls. Rather, the program might simply be able to look ahead at what rolls were coming up, since random number generators typically hatch up streams of numbers at once, then dole them out one at a time as dice rolls.

A neural network can be trained to develop backgammon strategy from scratch. In doing so, since the whole game derived from rolls of a pair of D6, it forms a probability tree in sixths and thirty-sixths, using the well-documented dice binomial tree distribution.

two-dice-binomial-distribution

Even this will feel like the AI was prescient when you play against it. You’re thinking “how could it KNOW it would roll a six and a four?” But it concluded several rolls which led to the same outcome sooner or later, of which one of them happened to be a six and a four.

Now me, I got very used to 2D6 probabilities when I was going through the programming phase of reverse-engineering every casino game. You can see relations between Craps and Backgammon, even down to the table layout.

With the deceptively subtle mechanics of luck and probability estimation, combined with the way Backgammon plays with your head a little, that’s actually one reason to to boost a much-needed renaissance for this game. It teaches you skepticism, and then it teaches you the problem with being too skeptical.

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.