Backgammon: A “Damned” Good Time

Backgammon: A “Damned” Good Time


Backgammon_PuffspielerI know it’s my first review since Toy Fair and you’re all dying to hear about something new and exciting, but I have to have some time to play the games!  So instead I’m doing a “throwback” review of my favorite old game – backgammon!   So why a review a game that predates modern civilization? Because I’m guessing far more than half of my readers have never played it (and it’s got some cool history!)

Like I said, backgammon is old.  Some estimate that it’s has been around close to 5000 years – at least in some form.  It has evolved over time, but by the early in the fourteenth century it looked much as it does today.  Check out this illustration from the Codex Manesse (at left, c. 1304).  The codex is a small illuminated manuscript of love poetry that was made in Zurich for the wealthy Manesse family and that looks identical to the backgammon sets of today!

Between the twelfth century and the sixteenth century views on backgammon changed a bit – in fact, the church even tried to ban the game a couple times.   (How many games can say that?!)  The last attempt was in the early sixteenth century right about the time Hieronymus Bosch completed his work, “The Garden of Earthy Delights. ” (at above, c. 1503)  If you look at the right panel of the triptych, it depicts hell (whereas the left panel is heaven and the center is Earth – click to enlarge).   This right panel is brimming with people who have succumbed to temptations – like backgammon — and are facing eternal damnation for it.  You can see the backgammon board in the lower left corner of the panel being held up by some crazy looking creature. (below at right, click to enlarge)  It is similarly used in “The Triumph of Death” By Pieter Bruegel the Elder (below left, click to enlarge).   The board is in the lower right corner of the painting and it looks like a jester is stepping over it to hide under a table from the legions of dead that have invaded.  So it hasn’t always been an easy road for backgammon, but yet the game survived.  Guess that says something aboutits playability!

Backgammon_Garden_insetIn much more modern times it came back into favor when Hugh Hefner started holding backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion in the late 1960s and 70s.  (It’s rumored that Lucille Ball was a huge fan!) And actually there is a book called Playboy’s Book of Backgammon with the forward written by Hugh Hefner and backgammon was featured in the magazine from time to time.

Backgammon_ThetriumphofdeathBut really, you don’t need a book to learn to play backgammon.  The game is simple, each player has fifteen “checkers” (also called “tokens,” “chips,” “pawns” and a ton of other things…) and the goal is to get all of their pieces back into their side of the board and then to remove them from the board.  To start, pieces are setup laid out in a specific form on the board and each player will be moving their checkers in a u-shape in the opposite direction of each other.  Using 2 dice, players roll and may move 1 or 2 checkers the numbers shown on the dice.  Rolling doubles gets you twice the amount shown on the dice!  You can’t land on a space occupied by 2 or more of your opponents checkers – but if there’s only one, you can land on them and move them to the “bar” which essentially means they are starting over from the section of the board furthest from their finish.   Once you successfully move all of your pieces into the area of the board closest to your finish, you can start to remove your pieces from the board.  This is called “bearing off” and it’s like the final race to the finish!

Games can be quick and fast – so unlike chess, there’s not a lot of mulling over your move.  There are also ways to bet and use a “doubling cube” to increase the dimensions of the game, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the game.  You also don’t need a fancy set to play.  If you have a set of checkers – or two colors of poker chips, you can draw your own board on a sheet of paper.  Sounds really low budget, but it’s how it was played during medieval times.  Players would have dice (made of bone) and stones and they’d draw a board in the dirt.  Guess you could call that the first “travel” version of the game!

Backgammon Stats:
From dirt cheap to very expensive
2 players
~5-15 minutes
Ages 8 and up

2 Comments

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  1. Brian Turtle

    Nice piece.
    I love Backgammon!
    In fact, I’ve been known to get together with some fellow players at a trade show or two for some high stakes tournaments.
    If you know the password and the secret knock, we’ll let you play too!

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