The Comeback Mechanism in Nine Men's Morris
Wednesday, 25th June 2014
You might think that nine men's morris, as a simple game, is standardised. This isn't the case, though. Even leaving aside other morris games (like three, five, six and twelve men's morris) there is some disagreement on some of the rules for nine men's morris. None have an effect on the flavour of the game, but they do affect subtleties of play.
One of the differences regards the end of the game, and is slightly controversial among players. Some rules say that, when you are reduced to three pieces, your moves are no longer restricted, and that in moving you can take one of your pieces and place it at any vacant space on the board. Some people have criticised this comeback mechanism.
There are pros and cons to the comeback mechanism. Without it, the outcome of the game is often certain long before the end of the game: for instance, if one player has formed a running mill and the other has no means to stop it. The ability to move pieces across the board when almost beaten may put a stop, albeit temporary, to a runaway victory. The player who is ahead will have to think carefully right up to the end of the game, in order to complete the win.
Against the comeback mechanism is the fact that it rarely affects the outcome of the game. A player who is reduced to three pieces while the opponent still retains most of theirs is going to lose the game; the flying pieces merely prolong the agony for a few turns.
Personally I don't mind the comeback mechanism. Even if it rarely affects the outcome of the game, it forces winner and loser to think right up until the end. Without it, most games would be abandoned part way through, as soon as someone manages to form a double mill. And that, to my mind, would be a detriment to nine men's morris - after all, who wants to start a game that you're unlikely to finish?