Traditional Board Games


A backgammon set from the American Civil War.
A backgammon set from the American Civil War.

There is a large family of games called tables, played on a board of twenty-four points arranged in two rows of twelve, each row split into two "tables" of six points. These date back at least to the Romans, who had a game of this type called "tabula". The games are usually played with fifteen pieces and either two or three dice. Backgammon is the most common of these in the English speaking world. The rules are as follows:

1. Beginning the game: backgammon is played on a board of 24 poitns by two players, each having fifteen pieces. There are two dice to control the movement of the pieces. The points are numbered, each player's point 1 being on his side of the board, at the edge closest to the nearest window or other light source, his point 24 being on the far side of the board, nearest the window. Each player starts with five pieces on his sixth point, three on his eighth point, five on his 13th point and two on his 24th point. Players each roll one die, the player who rolls highest taking the first move and using this roll as his first (i.e. he doesn't throw again before moving).

2. Moving the pieces: after rolling the dice, a player must move two pieces, one according to the number showing on each of the dice. Doubles are used twice, i.e. four moves must be made as if four dice showed the same number. Pieces move up the track, towards point 24, by the exact number of points shown. Both dice may be used to move a single piece, but the piece must in that case move twice, being able to land on both of the appropriate points. Pieces of the same colour may be piled up on a single spot without limit. If the player has a piece on the bar, then one of the dice must be used to re-enter that piece onto the appropriate point 1-6 before any other move is made.

3. Capturing enemies: a piece may land on a single enemy, sending the enemy to the "bar" which divides the board to be re-entered on its player's next turn. A piece cannot land on a point on which two or more enemy pieces are piled.

4. When all a player's pieces are on the last six points of the board, he may start to "bear off", moving by exact throws to a notional 25th point off the end of the board. If a throw is too high to move or bear off any piece, then it can be used to bear a piece off the furthest occupied point: e.g. if point 19 is empty, a 6 can be used to bear a piece off point 20 (or 21 if 20 is empty, and so on). A player wins when he is first to bear all his pieces off the board. When playing for stakes, he scores double if his opponent has not borne off any pieces, and triple if there are any opposing pieces still on his own side of the board.

These rules were developed from earlier tables games in the seventeenth century. In the twentieth century the idea of a "doubling cube" was added. This affects the game when played for stakes or points, and allows a player to challenge his opponent to double the stake if he is confident of victory; if the challenge is refused then he wins the game at that point.


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