Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Backgammon

By Dick Page 19 Oct 2017 0

You may be surprised to know that backgammon is actually one of the oldest games in the world, having descended from the "tables" game played five thousand years ago in Persia, older even than the Royal Game of Ur by a couple hundred years. The Persian version is still played in Iran, under the name Nard.


The game is a combination of tactics and luck. Dice are used to determine how the player is allowed to move their pieces, but they still have a lot of freedom in different strategic approaches. While individual games may go south due to luck, a skilled player will win more often than not over the long term, much like a skilled poker player. Backgammon has been of interest to AI programmers, and AIs that can beat the best players are available, and certain variations of the game have been solved by computers.

Basically, backgammon is a racing game, where players compete to remove their pieces from the board first. Moving in opposite directions, the players can interfere with their opponent's plans or attempt to move their own pieces as quickly and efficiently as possible. Pieces that are left alone are at risk of being captured, so players have to create stacks of pieces that are invulnerable. Once all the pieces are home, the player can roll to 'bear off' their checkers and win the game. Winning before the opponent can bear off any pieces is a 'gammon'. Winning while the opponent still has pieces in the player's home is a 'backgammon' and in both cases the score is multiplied.

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Because of the addictive combination of luck and strategy, backgammon is a popular game for gambling. The doubling cube, which was added by American players in New York city, is a die with the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 printed on different sides. A player can choose to double the stakes for the game, and their opponent must accept the double or resign (within certain variable rules). This makes the game riskier, but also adds a new element of strategy, since the player must not only determine the best move at any given time, but also determine their odds of winning from their current position.

Be careful with free-to-play backgammon games with IAP for gambling. Some players have suspected that the odds of bad rolls are increased for players that are known to be willing to spend money on the game (ie. "whales"). However, there are several well-respected backgammon apps for mobile with both online play and AI play.


One of the most popular backgammon apps is Backgammon NJ [iOS | Android], which is available with AI and online play. It's definitely one of the most graphically beautiful apps with a clean, retro aesthetic that leaves you feeling like you are playing on the deck of a cruise ship in the 60s. But more than that, Backgammon NJ has one of the best control systems of any of the backgammon apps. It shows you clearly where you can move without too many graphical flourishes and is flexible in accepting commands, letting you tap a piece or tap the die first and showing you possible next commands. The game uses it's own neural-network AI and random-number generator, and most players agree the computer opponent plays fair and plays smart.

If you are on Android, you can play real-time online matches for free against friends or random players using the free Backgammon NJ Online version. An in-app purchase unlocks the ability to play unlimited matches if you don't want to limit yourself to a few a day. There's no betting and therefore no chips to buy. It's just backgammon. If you have Android and you just want to give backgammon a try, this is perfect.


For more advanced players, a lot of people like XG Backgammon [iOS | Android], which has a very powerful AI that has defeated professional players. It's not as nice to look at as Backgammon NJ, with a weird mixture of photographic icons and textures that feel like they came default with Photoshop. It's also more confusing to control; you tap only once on the piece, using first one die, then the other. If you want to use the other die first, you have to tap on the dice to switch their order. It doesn't offer you a preview of where the piece will go, but it does have undo and it will warn you when you've made an error. There's no online play, so this is just for practice. The basic version is free and ad-supported.

Another option for online play is Backgammon Ace [iOS | Android], which uses a micro-transaction model that limits your play based on an in-game currency that you can wager on games. If the thrill of betting is your reason to play, Backgammon Ace is slickly made and has a very large population of players without too many of the IAP annoyances. It does have a slightly obnoxious flashy aesthetic with lots of special effects that feels like the game is trying to convince you you are having fun. But, for gamblers, this is the way to go.

Do you have a backgammon app you like to use? Do you want to suggest what classic game we cover next? Let us know in the comments!



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