Backgammon: Past, Present, and Future
by Osgood H. Oswald
This essay will compare and contrast the published versions of backgammon through the ages, will review its current iteration as a popular fantasy role-playing game, and will finally connect its past to its potential future via its use as a divination tool.
Past: A Brief History
Backgammon 1st Edition, also known as OBKGM (Original Backgammon) was released in Iran in 2021 BC. The original ruleset was relatively lightweight compared to later editions. The rules, board, dice, and pieces were all slightly different from what we play today, but the core mechanic of “racing game with sending pieces back to the beginning” remains unchanged.
One thing that is unique to this edition is the spiritual component of the game. Certain squares had certain meanings and landing on them predicted a player's future, or foretold an omen, or was understood to be a message from some deity or other supernatural figure.
The 2nd edition (BKGM 2e) was published in 1166 BC in Persia. It controversially dropped all support for the supernatural and removed all references to omens and deities. Its rules are a little different from what we play today, but it essentially the same game.
BKGM 3e, the first major update to the game during the modern era, didn't come out until the 1920s when a Mississippi riverboat captain with a serious gambling addiction named Fathomer Applesail introduced the doubling cube. This would be, to date, the game's last major innovation.
The cube was originally intended to merely enhance the gambling aspect of the game, but it ended up having unintended, far reaching strategic impacts.
Finally, in the 1960s, a supplement was published as version 3.5 containing additional optional rules involving the doubling cube. This is the current version of the game.
Present: A Review of BKGM 3.5e
Today, backgammon is a popular fantasy role-playing game in which you adopt the persona of a powerful wizard of the “backgammon” school of magic. You play by enchanting 15 checkers (your “men”), bending them to your will, and then racing them around the track to bring them home before your opponent can do the same.
The risk of the game is right there in the name. “Backgammon” is derived from the words “Back” and “Game.” It is a game in which you risk having your men bumped off the track and banished from the board to the ethereal state of limbo known as the “bar”. At that point, all further progress halts until you are able to successfully conjure your lost man from the bar and they are reborn and sent back to the beginning of the track where they must begin their journey anew.
It's ohana rules.
“Ohana means family. And family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
-Lilo and Stitch
The wizard you play is also adept at chronomancy. They are able to leverage an arcane device known as the Doubling Cube. It is a false gift that, if refused, immediately ends the current conflict and catapaults the players forward in time to the beginning of the next game. It is a subtle manipuation of time, but powerful in the hands of a skilled wizard.
Whereas Dungeons & Dragons is a wargame at heart with fantasy roleplay layered on top, Backgammon is at its core a racing game. As is the case with most roleplaying games, it is a game of skill and strategy, but also of chance and luck: randomness is injected into the game through the rolling of dice. In this case, two six-sided dice are rolled to determine how many spaces your men can move.
Future: Bringing The Sacred Back
Starting from the opening position of the 3.5e board, one must roll exactly 167 in order to bring all their men home, assuming perfect play.
The number one stands for unity and indivisibility. And as Frank Black tells us, the devil is six, and god is seven. So 167, the unity of god and the devil, means perfect balance and harmony, such as that which what is seen in the taoist yin-yang and the discordian hodge-podge.
Given a platform of perfect balance, the 3.5e board is an ideal candidate for reincorporating some of the mysticism of OBKGM.
The I-Ching provides a framework for doing so.
The eight trigrams map easily to the 24 points. There will be three runs of Heaven, Lake, Fire, Thunder, Wind, Water, Mountain, and Earth, starting from point 1 and continuing to point 24.
When you roll two dice, you will (usually) move two checkers. It will often be arbitrary which move corresponds to the first, or upper, trigram.
When feeling compelled to do so, you can look up the resulting hexagram. For example, at https://divination.com/iching/lookup/
The difficulty with this system is it requires a lookup. The benefit is that it allows all 64 hexagrams to be represented on a 24 point board. The difficulty of the lookup can be circumnavigated by simply deciding for yourself what, for example, “mountain over water” means to you.
A potential 4th Edition of backgammon should include content not seen since the publication of Original Backgammon. Namely, the portents and omens and other elements of divination. It is high time backgammon was weird and occult again.