So, every Thursday evening I meet up with friends to play games at Bobcat Tabletop, and every evening I bring with me my Backgammon board. Unfortunately, whenever I ask others if they want to play the game, or whenever someone is kind enough to humor me and learn the game, I usually receive a number of the same reoccurring responses. “Dude, the game doesn’t have any characters or a setting or anything. Lame.” “It’s a game for old people.” “It’s only for people who really like game mechanics.” “No. Just no.” I don’t get to crack open my game board as often as I would like.
In spite of that, I have a deep and unfaltering love for Backgammon. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, play essentially consists of rolling dice and moving your pieces along the perimeter of the board while safeguarding them from capture, taking your opponent’s pieces, impeding their progress, and, if you’re doing it right, yelling and swearing a lot as you do it. The game, having its original roots in Persia, has existed in various forms for thousands of years, and there’s a reason that it’s still being played today.
Most board games these days have decorative art and flavor text that gives it a theme and allows it to tell a story, and that’s fine. A game can be more fun when your game piece is actually a screaming woman who just dropped nine zombies with a lawnmower and a pair of molotov cocktails. For me, however, the absence of context is precisely what makes Backgammon so great. When a game has no characters and no personality on its own, it leaves a void that is filled by the personality of the players themselves. Backgammon is a game that allows for pure, unimpeded self-expression through play. While most games that I play feel like a big fight between me and the other players (and a nice fight is certainly good every now and then), Backgammon instead feels like a dance, a waltz of dice rolls. Or, at least, it’s what I imagine partner dancing to feel like, as it’s never been something I’ve been particularly good at.
That being said, because the game has bare mechanics and no thematic or narrative context to lean back upon, the quality of the game rests heavily upon the skill of the players. There’s no pretty art to gawk at or brilliant mechanics to admire – it’s just you and your partner alone on the dance floor. In my experience, most games have a modestly high base enjoyment level that is independent of the people playing which results from in-game resource acquisition and individual player growth – this is not the case with Backgammon. The base enjoyment level is fairly low. If your partner has an incompatible play style, the experience would only be pleasurable because the person sitting across from you is (hopefully) a generally nice person to spend time with, while the game itself adds nothing. When two players’ styles are compatible, however, the game comes alive in a way that few games I’ve played so far do. So, when I said that I love Backgammon, I wasn’t entirely honest, for it is not necessarily the game itself that I enjoy, but instead most of the people with whom I’ve played it.
And that’s really what Backgammon’s about. It’s not about telling a story, and while it may seem as though it’s all about robust game mechanics, it’s really not about those either. Backgammon is a game about the person with whom you’re playing, and that’s it. This is precisely what makes Backgammon the perfect game. For me, the people who play games are far more captivating than a game’s mechanics can ever be, and so a game that allows for pure player expression, a game that always feels personal, is a game that is always well worth playing.
Also, the game has a dice that goes all the way up to 64, and that’s totally sick.
(If you want to play Backgammon, or any other tabletop game for that matter, come to Bobcat Tabletop in Jefferson Hall Library, Thursdays from 5-9. It’s a good time.)
Alex usually writes about indie computer games for the Beta Fish column Radical Plaything, but felt strangely compelled to ramble about Backgammon this week instead. He also writes about computer games for his personal blog here.