Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Closer Look at Backgammon for the Atari 2600

Hey!  Remember this feature?!  It's been a while, but the Closer Look is back and we're blowing the doors off with the most explosive, action-packed game in thirty-plus years.  That's right, Backgammon, and not just Backgammon, but Backgammon on the gaming platform that made Backgammon cool: the Atari 2600.  What's that you say?  Backgammon isn't cool?  Why the hell not?  This is a game that is at least 5000 years old.  5000 years!!  Any game that can start out somewhere in ancient Persia and survive to be translated to the dawn of the video game era and information age is cool by default.

Seriously.  I think Backgammon gets a raw deal because it looks like a stodgy old game for dusty old folks who have nothing better to do than wait for death.  In reality, the game is deceptively simple, easy to learn, and lots of fun to play.  My first exposure to Backgammon honestly was Backgammon for the VCS.  I took one look at the box art and the accompanying screen shot and said, "no thank you, that looks like dry white toast."  And I never gave the game further thought until one night in my mid-twenties as the wife and I were browsing a yard sale and we came across this really nifty Backgammon set that closes up into a handy briefcase.  The set was cool and while we did not realize it at the time, Aimee was a budding hipster, so we decided to spend the $5 or whatever it was and take that baby home.  Of course, neither of us knew diddy-squat about Backgammon, so we resorted to the internet.  About 30 minutes later, we were enjoying round after round of Backgammon and eating pizza out on our deck.  We were the model of cool.

Well, maybe not, but we were having fun, fun 5000 years in the making.  As all things do, Aimee's interest in the game waned after some time, and I was left with a Backgammon itch that was not getting scratched.  I wasn't about to join some kind of local, underground Backgammon club.  You know what they say about those...  So instead, I turned to my oldest and most trusted ally, the VCS. Backgammon has been bouncing around in my collection for years unloved, only plugged in to test that it worked; a trend that was about to end!

(If you are not already familiar with the workings of Backgammon you may want to skip ahead to the "Learning Backgammon" section toward the end of the feature.  If you have no interest in Backgammon at all and are still reading this, you can always go here.)

You younger folk out there may be asking, "why in the hell would anyone in their right mind make a video game of something like Backgammon?"  Good question, until you realize the historical context of the game in question.  The Atari 2600 was the vanguard of the home video game console (yes yes Colecovision, Intellivision, and Vectrex enthusiasts, I see you.  And yes, I see you too, one Aquarius fan);  it was helping to define the future of video games.  So how do you do that?  You look at what came before: board games. Thus your first challenge is to see if you can translate already popular board games to your fancy new video computer system.  This is why you have so many games like Checkers, Chess, Bridge, and Casino.  No video games were popular at the time (faddish, yes, but culturally popular, no), but lots of board and card games were.  So if you want to draw a crowd, you take things they already like and show how much cooler they would be on your new fangled device.

Backgammon for the VCS was just such an effort.  While some classic board games are most likely beyond the scope of what the 2600 is capable of (no Risk or Monopoly), Backgammon features a simple rule set and symmetrical game board, perfect fodder for 6502 programming. The game mechanics in Backgammon are perfectly executed in this version of the game.  Rules aren't bent to get around programming limitations, and the AI isn't dumbed down so much, or thinks so hard, that the game is boring (see Video Chess where late in the game it can take hours for the AI to make its move...).  Backgammon does include the Doubling Cube which was added to the game in the early 20th century to literally raise the stakes.  As the outcome of a game was based on chance as much as skill, the doubling cube kept things interesting by allowing players to gamble on the likelihood of the outcome, in effect gambling that the player with the most favorable position would win.  (The instruction manual goes into full detail about the doubling cube, I'll not recover that ground here)  The inclusion of the doubling cube is interesting in Backgammon since for a single player game it is virtually meaningless.  You can set whatever stakes you like, if the AI loses it will not pay you a red cent.  For two player games, though it has the same appeal as it would in real life.  So I guess in that way it succeeds.

Backgammon also includes a variation developed by the US armed forces called "Acey Ducey." In this variation all pieces start on the bar and must work their way onto the board via dice roll.  Unlike the traditional rules, pieces on the board may move even if pieces remain on the bar.  Furthermore a roll of "1" and "2" (hence the name of the variation) allows players to move according to the dice roll, then pick the best doublet for their situation and execute that as well, and then roll again.  Insane, I know.  Acey Ducey is an interesting variation and can provide a different method of play should the basic game grow stale.  However, I must warn you, a roll of Acey Ducey can be a real game breaker!

"You hippies heard him right!"
The only real drawback in the VCS version of Backgammon is the "randomization" of the dice roll.  Because of the limitations of 6502 randomization and the fact that you have a 1:6 chance of rolling a doublet in real life, the programmer was faced with making doublets either extremely unlikely or much more common.  He chose the latter (yeah, I said "he" and the odds are on my side that in 1978 the programmer was dude, sorry women's libbers!!!) and the result was an overabundance of doublets during game play.  This can be great when you get back-to-back-to-back doublets of "5" or "6."  It can be infuriating when the AI rolls the same.  I suppose that makes the game somehow fair since the chances of benefiting or suffering as a consequence are even, but when you are trying to bear off and the AI gets doublet "6" twice, it strongly encourages the controller throw. Luckily, there is a workaround.  You don't have to let the computer roll the dice.  Backgammon features the option to "dial in" your own values on the dice.  On its face this looks like a brutal cheat.  Always dial in doublet "6" for your self and low values for the AI and you win every time!  But after about one game that is about as much fun as it sounds.  What this option actually allows you to do is use real dice to roll the moves and then dial them into the game program.  If the high probability of rolling a doublet is making you nuts, this is a great way to keep the fun going.  Of course, it makes me question that if I am going so far as to roll dice independent of the game, why not just play Backgammon in its original form?  Why mess with this video game version?  It would be akin to playing video game monopoly, but someone still has to be the banker.  A minor gripe, but certainly a legitimate one. I guess there are a few people out there for whom this is the only version of Backgammon they own...
(this section owes big thanks to programming maverick "Nukey Shay" over on the Atariage Forums, thanks Nukey, you are mother's milk!)

Look, you people already know I ain't right.  So it should come as no surprise that I have a strong affection for Backgammon.  The real shame is that I was too much of a kid to realize what a cool game I could have had back in the 80's.  I was too busy trying to get Pitfall Harry across the croc heads and keeping Q*bert away from Coily to realize that a great strategy game was languishing away on a shelf somewhere.  The good news is, I can sit here today and discover a great game in my collection that I never knew existed.  I can play it for hours on end and not have to worry about finding a partner to play Backgammon with.  It is always nice to find an unlikely winner buried in your collection of classic games.  I did it last year with Karate Kid, and here I am again finding great games in the least likely of places!

If this has inspired you to elevate your culture and seek out Backgammon as a recreational activity or a bizarre way to gamble (get help), I have included below a section that covers the basics of how to play the game.  Enjoy!

Learning Backgammon

Backgammon is easy to learn, but challenging to succeed at.  At its heart it is a strategy game (or "war game" as they were once called).  The basic idea of the game is to move your pieces from one side of the game board to the other.  You accomplish this by moving your pieces across the open spaces of the board called "points."  Movement is determined by the roll of two dice.  Once the dice are rolled, a player may move two pieces, each move corresponding to a number on each die.  You may also move a single piece twice, one for each number on each die, but only if there are an open number of points available. (more in a minute).  During your turn you may move your piece to any "open" point.  An "open" point is one that is either unoccupied, occupied by your other pieces, or occupied by one of your opponent's pieces (points occupied by only one piece, yours or your opponent's is called a "blot.").  Any point occupied by two or more opponent's pieces is considered "closed."  You may move past closed points, but you cannot stop on them.  Hence, if you are moving a single piece using both die values, you may not stop on a closed point and then resume on the remainder of the value on the second die (to wit: you cannot move the total of both dice at once in a single move).

The board starts with this arrangement of pieces.  Red moves along the red arrow, white along white.

Blots are any points occupied by one piece.  They are "open" but occupied.
As you move your pieces across the board your opponent attempts to do the same.  This is where the strategy comes in.  By closing points you can effectively block or limit your opponent's movements.  The more points you close, the less open points are available for your opponent to land on.  If there are no open points to move to, you resign the remainder of your turn.  With a little luck and smart strategy you can control your opponent's movements.  The ultimate realizations of this are called "prime" and "shutout."  A "prime" is anytime you close six consecutive points.  This creates a barrier your opponent cannot cross, until you open a point. A prime in your home area is called a "shutout" for reasons we shall soon see.

In addition to blockading points, you also possess some offensive capabilities.  If you land on a blot that is occupied by an opponent's piece, that piece is considered "hit" and is moved to the bar.  The bar is the lateral strip that separates the upper and lower game boards. (see below) A piece that is placed on the bar can only return to play by entering on the opposing side of the board at an open point.  Once a piece is placed on the bar, you may not move any other of your pieces until that piece re-enters play.  To re-enter play, you must roll a number that corresponds to an open point in your opponents home area.  You may also re-enter on a blot occupied by your opponent's piece, effectively removing his piece to the bar at the same time.
The white piece could also re-enter on the "1" point had a "1" been rolled.
This is why a prime in your home area is so important.  A shutout effectively prevents your opponent from re-entering pieces from the bar until you break the shutout.  By effecting a shutout or even a prime, you dictate the flow of play.  These are difficult positions to create and maintain, but they are strategic gold!
Play progresses in this fashion until one player moves all of his pieces to their home area.  Once a player has all of his pieces in his home area the process of "bearing off" begins.  Bearing off can only be done if all of your pieces are in the home area.  If a piece is removed to the bar by your opponent, bearing off stops until that piece returns to the home area.  "Bearing off" involves moving your pieces off the board by rolling the exact amount required to remove the piece.  For instance if a piece sits on the 4 point and you roll a 4, that piece may bear off.  If you roll a 3, you may move the piece three points, but that is not enough to bear off.  You may not bear off if you roll a 6, unless there are no other pieces that can move that distance.  You may bear off a piece on the 5 point as it is the next eligible piece to bear off.  You may not bear off the 4 unless there are no pieces on a point higher than it.  Play continues until one player has born off all of their pieces.

With all pieces borne off, you can claim Victory!!

There's winning and then there is winning BIG!
The point of the game is to bear off all of your pieces.  Doing so before your opponent is the only condition for victory, however you don't have to be satisfied with just a win.  If you can bear off all of your pieces before your opponent bears off a single piece, this win is called a Gammon.  For those who are particularly skillful, a Backgammon is possible, although highly unlikely.  A Backgammon is completed when you bear off while your opponent still has pieces on the bar or in your home area.  Backgammon is extremely rare unless one player is significantly better than their opponent.  But, hey it is always worth a try!
Although unlikely, a gammon against the red player is possible here. 

While it might look imposing with its strange spiky board and myriad of pieces scattered hither and yon, Backgammon is actually very easy to learn and play.  If you've been with me this long, I hope that you will be encouraged to give it a try. Whether in board game form or on your trusty VCS, there is is a lot of fun to be had with a game that has truly stood the test of time.

Final Look
Don't overlook Backgammon, for the VCS or otherwise.  There is a reason it has stuck around for 5000 years: its a fun game that requires good strategy and a little luck.   I hope I have been able to convert you over to the Backgammon side of the force, and if so, I'd love to hear your story!


  1. Hi,
    Thanks for the review! I learned to play backgammon on the vcs! Nukey Shay even did a hack for me that make the computer pieces move faster. I like the set-up option and set the board to play Nackgammon, where two of each players pieces are relocated to the opposing 23 point! I picked up an eight player version of backgammon on E-Bay awhile back, I'll have to post a pick of it. One last thing, Craig Nelson was the programmer for this game, and it was the only one he did for Atari, but he went on to greater fame, he started the Starpath, the company that built the SuperCharger for the 2600! Rob

  2. Rob,

    Thanks for all of the extra info! 8 player Backgammon you say? Crazy Madness!
    From Backgammon to Starpath, that is quite a move! I wonder why we never got a Backgammon deluxe for the SuperCharger?