Mary Russell

backgammon board

A few years back, I discovered backgammon.

Now, of course I had heard of backgammon, and we even had a backgammon set growing up. Apparently it was one of my father's favorite games. That always makes me a little sad. I didn't know my father very well - he always felt distant, and I always felt isolated. He took my brothers fishing (I was squeamish) and went to their wrestling matches (I was a skinny little runt). If I had discovered and fell in love with backgammon before he died, I'd like to think that we'd have that, at least, to bond over.

Unfortunately I didn't really get into backgammon until after I had gotten into board games in general.  When I did, though - hoo boy. I liked a number of "classic" abstract games, but had never really gotten passionate about any of them. Draughts was too simple. I had no patience for Nine Men's Morris. Chess? I was just plain lousy at it. I really fell in love with cribbage once Mary introduced me to it, but being less than four hundred years old, it's practically a baby.

But backgammon? The oldest game in existence that's still being played? The game that introduced the emperors of Rome to the 2d6 (or IIdVI?) bell curve? Oh, backgammon was my game. I first became aware of the fact that backgammon was my game when I was sick one afternoon and spent it watching the then-seven years old world championship match between John O'Hagen, who was a sort of mentat, but for backgammon, and Dennis "The Ungammonable" Carlston, who has his own flipping nickname. Never mind that I'm terrible at it, maybe worse than I am at chess. It's just completely engrossing.

One of the things I like most about it is the doubling cube. Basically, you play several matches of backgammon in succession until one player or another has amassed a certain number of points. If you think your opponent's position is unwinnable, you can "double" the stakes. Your opponent must either accept this (which they might if they think they're going to pull off an upset) or resign. If they don't resign, the points are doubled. If they accept the doubling cube, they then have possession of it, and can double the stakes again later in the match - so, it'll be worth four times as many points, or eight, or sixteen, or thirty-two, or sixty-four. In practice, this doubling is only going to happen once or twice.

Here's the thing. If your opponent is definitely and totally going to lose, they're not going to accept the doubling cube. They'll resign, minimizing your gains so that they can try to catch up on the next match. So the trick is to use the doubling cube when you think you have an advantage and your opponent thinks his position is recoverable. Timing this right is tricky stuff, and that sort of tricky, delicate, contextual decision-making in games is guaranteed to elicit a Pavlovian response in me. I think other folks dig it too - at least I hope they do, because I keep trying to put those kind of "careful timing and trade-off" decisions into my games. The Grunwald Swords (and, to a lesser extent, Battles on the Ice) have mechanisms that play around with a similar kind of tension.

I was less successful trying to emulate this overtly in Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater (gasp, wheeze), 1775-1777. This is a game that often ends with one player conceding the game when their position became unwinnable. I was concerned that a player who had clearly and utterly lost the game in Turn 4 might insist on playing the game for another two hours, just out of spite. It's a silly thing to worry about, because if you're playing with someone who would do that, the solution is not to play with them again. But be that as it may, at the time, it was something I worried about, and I tried to insert a sort of "doubling cube" mechanism that would roughly mimic the way the cube is used in backgammon. Winning the game is worth X number of points, and your cornered opponent would either need to accept double the stakes or resign.

The problem is that while a game of backgammon can play out in about twenty minutes, a game of Supply Lines lasts about two or three hours, and I had a hard time imagining two people sitting at a table playing game after game as they attempted to rack up an agreed-upon number of points. Because of this, the "doubling cube" didn't really have any bite, and so out it went.

Maybe if I can come up with a shorter game, however...

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