Where Next from Noughts and Crosses?
Saturday, 24th January 2015
Noughts & crosses, called tic-tac-toe in many parts of the world, has a bad reputation among boardgamers. The game lasts five turns, and with two players who've each played a small number of games before, the result will always be an unsatisfying draw. But this game isn't really for the likes of us, however much effort people put into manufacturing fine boards or writing computer programs to play it.
Noughts & crosses is an educational game. For a short time, it will teach children the arts of taking turns, following rules, and analysing the effects of their moves. Within a short time, a child will find out how to stop an opponent from winning, will realise that their opponent will always stop them from winning, and will work out that every game ends in a draw. At this point, noughts & crosses has served its purpose.
But what comes next? The leap from noughts & crosses to chess is a big one. Draughts could also be a bit of a challenge to a younger child who has only just mastered the intricacies of noughts & crosses. Some simpler game is needed to keep those strategic cogs turning. Thankfully, the selection of games slightly more complex and, in some cases, much more rewarding than noughts & crosses, is a large one.
Noughts & crosses is a member of the morris family of games, also known as merels or mill games. Another very simple version, played by mediaeval monks, is called "nine holes". If you've bought a manufactured noughts & crosses set then you can use it to play nine holes. The game starts like noughts & crosses, the main difference being that diagonal lines do not win. But players have only three pieces to place, and once this is done, a player's move will consist of lifting one of their pieces and placing it in any other empty space. This continues till one player has a row of three.
Other simple members of the morris family that work well are three men's morris, tsoro yematatu, and picaria. These, however, will need their own specialised boards. This isn't much of a problem, though, as the boards are easy to make and only six pieces (three per colour) are needed. Any of these can lead in incremental steps to bigger and more rewarding games like nine and twelve men's morris.
An alternative type of game which is still very simple is the game of blockade. These are games in which the winner is the last to move. The strategy is therefore to block your opponent in, while avoiding that fate for yourself. Perhaps the simplest of all board games is horseshoe from the Far East, known natively as pong hau qi in China, on-moul-kono in Korea, and do-guti in India. Players have two pieces each, and the board consists of only five playing spaces. Bigger variations on that theme exist: the modern Madelinette, and the native Maori game of mu torere, though the latter has an extra rule that adds to the complexity.
A third direction to follow after noughts & crosses is other row games, not necessarily members of the morris family. Four-in-a-row is known commercially as Connect 4 and is very popular. The only complexity is in the rule of placement, which gravity enforces without placing the burden on young players to remember it. The Chinese game of go-moku is also very good; it can be played as a pen-and-paper game making it a very familiar next step after noughts & crosses.
While noughts & crosses has its place, it can become frustrating to young players who, on discovering its secret, have nothing better to play. Hopefully the games in this post can provide some ideas about how to keep the budding gamer interested.