Number of Players: 2
Year of Publication: -3000
Creator(s): Mostly unknown, but Willem Cornelisz Duyster is responsible for the design of the modern board
This is the first in a series of posts, it was initially going to just be one, but I realized that I have far too much to say about each game to make it fair on anyone reading it to put it all together. So this post is just about Backgammon, enjoy.
The games I’m about to talk about in these posts probably don’t count as all that obscure, the names being fairly well-known as far as I’m aware. However, they are games that have fallen out of common play. Which seems like a real shame to us.
Recently we’ve learnt how to play Backgammon, and we think it’s a great game. Once you’ve played it a few times it’s very easy to remember the rules and to develop your strategies and it can be played in half an hour or so, making it one of the quickest board games I’ve ever come across!
We had a few teething troubles with this game as the copy of the game we own didn’t come with rules. So we went on a quest to Google and learnt the rules off the internet. The only problem with that was that, aside from the two dice each player roles to determine their move, there is a fifth die involved in Backgammon called the doubling die, and the internet rules didn’t explain what this was for.
Oxfam to the rescue!
I work a few days a week in an Oxfam charity shop, and on my break I went through the board games we had in the storeroom and found a copy of Backgammon to read the rules from. Initially this copy of the rules only told me a little about the doubling die, but was enough to solve our problem temporarily. I learnt that it wasn’t originally part of the game and has been introduced in the last century or so.
I thought this interesting so I’ve been doing some research into the history of the game. General consensus is that the game may be well over 5,000 years old, along with Chess and a game called Go, which we have yet to play, and is likely to have originated from Iraq, which was Mesopotamia at the time.
There are literature and artistic references to Backgammon (although not under that name) all over the world throughout all the ages. Chaucer references it in The Canterbury Tales as Shakespeare does in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It has always been a gambling game – Emperor Nero played for roughly the equivalent of $10,000 per game! – But there was only one stake made in the game, one amount was agreed at the beginning and it is that amount that the winner claimed at the end.
However, as you’ll see in the pictures below, due to a lack of expendable money in our lives we gamble with chocolate instead, you pay less for more “chips”, and you can eat them when you’re finished!
In 1920’s America Backgammon was going out of fashion, it was too hard to bet on and took too long to play without anything exciting happening for the players. It’s at this point in history that the doubling die first appears, this element gave the game the extra boost it needed to become a popular casino game again.
Interestingly, although it is fairly easy to track the history of Backgammon in America through strategy books that were written about it, it is nigh impossible to know when it crossed the Atlantic and came to the UK.
I also learnt that Backgammon can be played with the offloading space either to the players left or their right – there is no fixed direction of play. This gave a new dimension to the game as it can give a player an advantage to be able to play the game either way around. It will also prevent confusion for them in the event that they ever have to play the game in the opposite direction to the one they are used to. For this reason we’ve started playing half and half, setting the board up differently for half the time.
If anyone’s interested my next post in this chain will be about the game Fanorona, not to confuse you but there’ll be two posts about it, one from me about game play and history, and one from my brother about how he made his own board. His is likely to be much more interesting!
And if anyone’s at all curious, I found most of the things about the history of Backgammon written here on this page.