Backgammon is one of the world’s oldest two-player boardgames, with archaeologists discovering that early versions of the game existed as long ago as 3,000 BC.
Despite this, the rules of backgammon are a mystery to many, and that’s a real shame, because the game – in both its real-world and online forms – is hugely engaging and offers players plenty of reason to come back for more.
A brief history of backgammon
Excavations in what’s become known as The Burnt City, an ancient former settlement in modern-day Iran, have revealed that backgammon is approximately 5,000 years old. Two dice and 60 checkers were dug up at the site.
The ancient Romans played a boardgame – ludus duodecim scriptorium, or ‘game of 12 lines’ – that appears to be very similar to backgammon. Furthermore, tabula (meaning ‘table’ or ‘board) was mentioned in an epigram of Byzantine Emperor Zeno – ruler from AD 476 to 481 – and also shares many properties with backgammon as it’s played today.
In 16th century England, table games were prohibited under Elizabethan laws and church regulations. However, by the time the 18th century came around, backgammon was widely played among the clergy, with this popularity expanding to the wider population as the years went on.
Since that time, the game has also made the transition across the pond to the US. In New York, the most recent major addition to backgammon – the doubling cube – was made in the 1920s. This feature requires players to select the best move in any given position and estimate the likelihood of winning from that point.
The rules of the game
As many people will be aware, backgammon is played on a board between two people (or in the case of some forms of online backgammon, the player and an artificial opponent).
The board comprises 24 narrow triangles called points, alternating in colour and grouped into four different quadrants, with each containing six triangles. These quadrants are known as the player’s home board and outer board, with the latter of these located to the left of the ridge – or ‘bar’ – that runs down the centre of the board.
Each point is numbered for either player, starting in their home board. In this way, the outermost point – the 24th – is the opponent’s first point.
Both players have 15 checkers of their own colour; at the start of the game, two of these are positioned on each person’s 24 point, five on each 13 point, three on each eight point and five on each six point.
Using their own pair of dice and a cup to shake them in, each player attempts to win by moving all of their checkers into their home board and bear them off.
The game begins with the players rolling a single die to establish who gets to go first and the exact numbers to be played. Should both roll the same number, another roll is required until different digits appear and the game can proceed. Whoever throws the highest amount gets to move their counters according to the numbers that appear on both dice; after this, alternate turns are taken, with each player throwing two dice.
Checkers must always be moved forward to a lower-numbered point and must only end up on an open point – namely one that’s not occupied by two or more of the opponent’s checkers.
It’s also important to remember that the two numbers on the dice correspond to separate moves. That means if a two and three are rolled, for instance, one checker can be moved two points and the other three. Alternatively, one checker could be moved five spaces, but only if the intermediate point – two or three spaces from the starting position – is also vacant.
Rolling doubles allows the player to use the numbers shown on the dice twice (i.e. double sixes means they can actually use four sixes).
Finally, both numbers of a roll must be used if it’s possible to do so, or all four if a double is thrown. If either number can be played but not both at the same time, the larger one must be chosen.