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Backgammon (Atari VCS, 1979)

Mezrabad

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Backgammon (Atari VCS, 1979) :)

 

Two games in a row from which I expected very little and yet found so much!

 

Backgammon on the Atari VCS is one of the best videogame versions of the 5,000 year old board game that I've seen to date. The APF version worked well enough, but typing in the moves via their keypad was painful. Atari's solution is so appropriate that I'm tempted to call it elegant. The paddles are the perfect controller for this game. Press the button to roll the dice, turn the paddle to select your pieces and where they land. The only improvement I'd like to have seen is maybe a noise to indicate you've rolled a piece over a point while you were moving it, as it may have made it easier to count as you move your piece. The way it is, silent and smooth, allowed my son to keep overshooting where he wanted to move because he'd lose count going over the bar or losing count. Obviously, more experience with the game eliminates such a problem but I could tell it was frustrating for him (and me) to keep hearing the "buzz" of an illegal move when we'd thought we'd counted correctly.

 

Other than that small complaint, I've got no complaints.

 

In addition to the elegantly functional interface, the screen is colorful and the red and white pieces are both easy to distinguish from the board and each other. I'm no Backgammon player, so I wasn't shocked when the AI beat me on the easy level, but it the AI did seem to have a consistent strategy, and wasn't just rolling and moving like the AI for the APF's Backgammon seemed to be.

 

Atari's version includes a "doubling cube" which is a way of making the game a little more interesting if there's a wager at stake. A doubling cube is like a dice, except it has a 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 on the sides. The player that "owns" the cube can choose to offer to double the wager, if they think they are going to win. If the other player disagrees with their opponent's assessment of the game, believing they have the advantage, then they can accept the doubling, and take ownership of the cube. However, if they decline, then they are admitting they will probably lose and the game ends, and the wager remains at multiple amount shown on the cube (i.e. 8 times the original wager). Wikipedia explains it so much better; go there if you still don't get it. The doubling cube is a nice feature and players of the board game will be glad to see it.

 

The orientation of the backgammon board was vertical. This is different from how most of the players of the board game would see the board, but I think it worked well for the same reason I'd prefer videogames of Chess and Checkers to be oriented horizontally instead of vertically. It comes down to offering both players and equal footing on the perspective from which they view their pieces. When one plays Chess, one is used to seeing their pieces closer to themselves, moving away towards the enemy, who approaches. In a videogame version of chess, putting a single player on the bottom of the screen-moving up, while the computer opponent's pieces start at the top and move down makes sense. However, add a second, flesh/blood player to the mix, and that player has to play the game "upside down". It would be fairer if player one could move pieces from left to right and the other player from right to left. Yes, it's different from how it is usually played, but both players have to deal with the difference.

 

In Atari's Backgammon, orienting the board vertically accomplishes the same thing. Player one is used to looking across the board at their opponent so a horizontally oriented board would work, but only for a single player game. In a two player game, orienting the board vertically forces both players to play the game "quarter-turned".

 

Yeah, I've probably thought way too much about this, but I really did like how they chose to present this game.

 

So, Happy Face for Backgammon! If you like the game of Backgammon, this is a good version to play with another person. I'm so not qualified to talk about the AI, but that seemed solid enough as well.

 

Next entry we'll look at Video Chess.



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The doubling cube is an interesting feature of Backgammon; I'm surprised more games don't use such a thing. Your description is, at best, unclear though.

 

I would say that a person whose opponent doubles him has the option of doubling the stakes for the current game, or of forfeiting the current stakes before the offered double. Accepting a double does not mean that you disagree with the opponent's perceived advantage. It means that you judge his advantage is not so overwhelming as to make you be better off by forfeiting than by playing at higher stakes. As a rough approximation, if you think you have a 25% chance of winning, you should accept a double.

 

It should be noted that while one stands to benefit from doubling his opponent almost any time he's ahead at all, doubling against a sound opponent is usually a one-shot deal. One should therefore save the opportunity until it will do the most good. This will usually be when one has about a 75% chance of winning. Below that, there's too much danger that one might end up losing. Unless you think you can score a gammon or backgammon, though, once the odds hit 75% there's no benefit to waiting any longer. No matter how lucky you are your expected value won't exceed the one point you'd get from a forfeit, but you run the risk that the game might turn around.

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Except for an occasional game with friends in my teenage years, I cut my backgammon teeth on a PD version for my Atari ST. Compared to the ST version the 2600 version is, not suprisingly, clunky. In fact, my first attempt to play the game was not successful. I don't mean I lost, I mean I couldn't get the darn thing to play.

 

When you mentioned that you were going to review Backgammon next I decided to give it a try myself. I never played the game on the 2600 before and I was interested in how it would play. So, I powereded up the Stella emulator and, without reading the manual, I started playing the game. I became very frustrated. I couldn't get the dice to work properly and I was able to move the pieces anywhere I wanted, regardless of the dice values. Finally, after getting completely frustrated, I broke down and read the manual (which I found on the AtariAge site). It turns out that Stella starts up with both difficulty switches set to the "B" position. On most games that's normally OK but not for Backgammon since those switch positions put the game in demo mode and allows you to manually set the dice values.

 

After getting the game to work I proceeded to play. I was expecting an easy game but I lost the first time. The computer opponent is brutal! If there is a remote possibility for the computer to "hit" one of my pieces, it won't hesitate to jump on it. I had to adjust my tactics accordingly and it wasn't until my third or fourth game before I was able to win. I give a big thumbs up for making the computer an excellent opponent.

 

Some of the features of the game I'm not so keen about. I would rather use the joystick instead of the paddle controllers. The joysticks would allow me to step through each move. With the paddle controllers I would often skip positions accidentally and it would often be difficult to make a move.

 

I would rather have the doubling cube as an option instead of a required feature of the game. I've never really understood or liked the doubling cube and it's an option I usually disabled on my Atari ST. As a result I found the doubling cube an annoying feature of the 2600 version of the game.

 

Nevertheless, I still liked Backgammon on the VCS. :)

 

Dang, it looks like just wrote a review of Backgammon. :) I didn't mean to do that; I just wanted to contrast my impressions with yours.

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The doubling cube is an interesting feature of Backgammon; I'm surprised more games don't use such a thing. Your description is, at best, unclear though.

 

LOL, I know, I know, and at worst, my description is downright confusing. :)

 

I would say that a person whose opponent doubles him has the option of doubling the stakes for the current game, or of forfeiting the current stakes before the offered double. Accepting a double does not mean that you disagree with the opponent's perceived advantage. It means that you judge his advantage is not so overwhelming as to make you be better off by forfeiting than by playing at higher stakes. As a rough approximation, if you think you have a 25% chance of winning, you should accept a double.

 

It should be noted that while one stands to benefit from doubling his opponent almost any time he's ahead at all, doubling against a sound opponent is usually a one-shot deal. One should therefore save the opportunity until it will do the most good. This will usually be when one has about a 75% chance of winning. Below that, there's too much danger that one might end up losing. Unless you think you can score a gammon or backgammon, though, once the odds hit 75% there's no benefit to waiting any longer. No matter how lucky you are your expected value won't exceed the one point you'd get from a forfeit, but you run the risk that the game might turn around.

 

I see what you're saying and I obviously hadn't thought of it that way. I suppose that since it's a game of dice there's all sorts of probability fun to be had. From what you say I guess the way to win is to position one's pieces so that they will most likely be able to take advantage of the most probable rolls. That sort of reasoning might lead one to be able to estimate their chances of winning based on their current position vs their opponent's and the probability that a roll of the dice will improve that position or not.

 

I'm not sure where I read it, but I recall the doubling cube being presented as a "bluff" device. What confused me about that, is that there are no variables hidden from one's opponent with which one could use as a bluff! I guess that's where knowledge of the game or of probability and the position of the pieces come into play. That extra element added by the doubling cube is very interesting, I'm surprised it wasn't introduced until the last century. I wonder why Backgammon doesn't seem to be as popular as Chess and Checkers. It's probably because of the dice.

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Dang, it looks like just wrote a review of Backgammon. :) I didn't mean to do that; I just wanted to contrast my impressions with yours.

 

:) How dare you! This is MY blog!!! (sob)

 

Actually, we agree pretty much on every point, though some of mine were unstated. Option to have or not to have the doubling cube would be a good feature. My problem with the paddle controllers were the same as yours, though I felt that once I'd gotten more familiar with the game and didn't need to "count" my points anymore, the ability to smoothly move the cursor to the correct place would become second nature. No, that hasn't happened yet. After having just nearly destroyed our joysticks while playing Football, I think Backgammon's paddles seemed more "civilized", though they required a finesse my son and I hadn't yet acquired.

 

The AI behaves the way you described, even on the "easy" game. Anytime I had to leave a blot, it seemed the AI would descend upon it and devour it everytime. I suppose having the ability to look at where the blot is relative to one's opponent's pieces and figuring out their chances of rolling a number that would let them land on it would be a big advantage.

 

I just noticed I forgot to mention the "demo" mode and completely forgot about the Acey-Duecy variation as well! Maybe in my "second draft" (whenever that happens) I'll rip out my poor doubling cube description and talk about demo mode and Acey-Duecy.

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I won't be playing Backgammon again on these early machines, so I'll skip this one. I'm curious though, about that doubling cube. I read the comments above and even took a peek at the Wikipedia page, and still didn't really get it. I mean, I understand the overall idea, but not enough to be able to play a game and use it properly.

 

Oh, and I totally agree with you on the board orientation remarks. In multiplayer it makes perfect sense that both players have the same perspective of the board.

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