How to Play Backgammon (Rules, Game Set-Up, and Strategy)


Backgammon is one of the oldest games and dates back to the times of the Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that Backgammon is not modern it still stands the test of time and is an enjoyable two person game.

The basic premise of Backgammon is a race between two players.  The goal is to get all your pieces home before your opponent can reach the home position with their pieces.

How to Set-Up Backgammon

The set-up of Backgammon is key to the games overall progression.  Beginners may find the set-up to be a little confusing.

Here are a couple of things to remember to make Backgammon set-up easy.

  1. Remember that both side of the board are mirrored by opposite colors.
  2. Remember the number sequence 5-3-5-2
  3. Finally, remember that the “3” is displaced by 1.

Look at the photo below and you can better understand the set-up tips.

Each player has four stacks of pieces on the backgammon board.  You will also notice that each stack opposite each other has the same number of pieces and are opposite in color.  So this is what is meant by “mirrored by opposite colors.”

Starting from left to right you will notice that the number of pieces in each stack is 5, then 3, then 5, and finally 2.  This is why knowing the number sequence 5-3-2-5 is important to the set-up.

The last tip has to do with the placement of the stacks.  The Backgammon board is separated into four different parts and each of these parts contains 6 Pointer Locations.

The Pointer Locations are spot holders for the pieces as they try to get home.

Each of the stacks are all located on an end spot as it related to the separate parts of the board except for the stack containing three pieces.  The stack of three pieces is located one spot away from the end.  This is what is meant by “3” is displaced by 1.

Quickly remembering these tips will make Backgammon set-up as easy as 1 – 2 –  3.

How to Play Backgammon

After you get the set-up complete is time to start the game.

To start each player rolls one die at the same time.  The player with the highest number goes first.  The player will use the number on both the dice that he tossed as well as his opponents for his first turn.

If the players roll the same number they will just roll again until someone has a higher number.

Understanding How to Count the Dice

As players move their pieces throughout the board they use the “pips” on the dice to do so.  The trick is that the pips are not cumulative.

So for example, if you roll the dice and the numbers that turn up are 5 and 2 – THIS IS NOT A 7.  This is a “5” and a “2.”  This is one of the most difficult concepts for new players to grasp because a lot of dice games count the pips as one total number, not two different numbers.

Moving Your Backgammon Pieces

Let’s continue to use the previously stated dice roll example of a “5” and a “2.”  You can move one of your pieces 5 locations and another piece 2 more locations. 

You can also move one piece 7 locations if it can get there by way of 5 and 2 and you are not blocked by your opponent.

Blocked Spaces, Available Spaces, and Hitting Pieces

A space is considered to be available if there are no other pieces on that location. 

If one player has two or more pieces on any space then this space is no longer available to their opponent. 

So again using our example of a “5” and “2” dice roll, a player CANNOT move their piece to a location 7 spaces away if the two locations that are 2 and 5 spaces away are blocked.

EXPLANTION:  In order to get your piece to the location 7 spots away you will need to use the 5 spot and the 2 pot to do so.  You CANNOT move to the location 7 spaces away using the cumulative dice totals.

If your opponent only has one chip on a location then you can use that space to move your pieces.  When you do this you are hitting your opponent’s piece.  This piece is placed on the bar in the center of the board.

Any single chip on the Backgammon board is unprotected and at risk of getting hit back to the beginning.

Re-Entering a Piece Back to the Board

When a player has a piece is hit off the board they CANNOT move any of their other pieces until this is successfully put back into play.

This is simply done by rolling the dice and getting a number that corresponds to an open position.

BE AWARE that this becomes more complicated as the game progresses, because you are trying to re-enter the game at the quadrant that your opponent is storing pieces before the go home.

Taking Game Chips Home

Each player has a home quadrant on the Backgammon Board.  The home quadrant for each player is the quadrant right before the home location for the checkers.

All of the player’s pieces have to be in the home quadrant before any of the pieces can be taken to their final home position.

Backgammon Strategy

Keeping Pieces Protected

Backgammon is highly dependent upon the dice.  If you are getting great numbers and combinations and you opponent isn’t then simply keeping your pieces protected may be enough to win.  However, throughout a Backgammon game the dice rolls usually even out and this many not be enough.

Hitting All Your Opponent’s Pieces – Very Aggressive Strategy

It is not always possible to protect your pieces.  When you opponent has to leave one of their checkers unprotected then make every attempt to hit it back to the bar.  This strategy will force your opponent to restart with a lot of pieces making it more difficult for them to win.

Why this strategy is so aggressive is because when you hit you opponent’s pieces you will inevitably leave your pieces at risk too.  Obviously if you can avoid this then great – you will win.  If you cannot protect your pieces then chances are you will both be starting back at the beginning with multiple checkers.

ADVANCED TIP:  Try to hit an odd number of opponent pieces.  This makes it more difficult for your opponent to protect all of their pieces when they move back through the Backgammon board.

Blocks

In the process of getting your pieces to your home quadrant set up blocks along the way.  If you can trap 1 or 2 of your opponent’s pieces behind your blocks then you can impede their movement forward and improve your chances of winning.

NOTE:  In order for this strategy to have a big impact you will need to set up 3 – 4 blocks within a 6 position range.  By putting all of these blocks in this range you put the odds that your opponents will roll a number on the dice equal to a block location in your advantage.

Know Combinations, Take Calculated Risks, & Set-Up Combinations

This isn’t as much of a strategy as it is becoming familiar with the game.  From the start position there will always be dice rolls that can be combined to keep your pieces safe.  Learning these number combinations will be helpful.

These number combinations will become second nature the more you play.  For example 5 and 1, 3 and 1, & 4 and 2 are all combinations that can safely move your pieces as an opening move.

Another popular first move is when you roll a 5 and 6.  This allows you to safely move one of your pieces from your 2 piece position to your 5 piece position.  However, this does require you to leave on of your pieces unprotected.

This unprotected checker is in the position that is furthest away from your home quadrant.  So doing this is a calculated risk which is worth taking.  Leaving other pieces unprotected during the game is common. 

When you have leave your piece vulnerable consider your opponent’s ability to “Hit” you and if you can determine that it is less likely they will make the attack, then take the risk.

The next step in this process is setting up combinations.  This is done by moving two pieces onto one spot to protect your pieces and block your opponent. 

Setting these blocks up can be done by using the piece you left at risk on the previous move and then using that piece to either move into a block or moving another piece onto it to create a block with your next move.

Doubling

Doubling is a rule variation that can be used when both players agree to use it.

During the game a player on their turn can choose to “Double” the game by using the Doubling Die and placing it on the board displaying the number 2.  The other player then chooses whether or not they want to accept the double.

If the opponent chooses NOT TO accept the “Double” then the game is over and the player who doubled is awarded one win.

However, if the opponent ACCEPTS the “Double” then the game continues and the ultimate winner will be awarded two wins.

The Doubling Dice can escalate up to 64.  Any player can present their opponent with the first “Double”, but after that the Doubling has to be done by each player alternatively.

When the next Double is announced the Dice is turned to 4 and the game is now valued at 4 wins.

If the Double goes to 8 then that game would be worth 8 wins.

A Double at 16 is worth 16 wins.

Doubling at 32 will allow the winner to earn 32 wins.

Finally, if the Double gets to 64, then the victorious player is awarded 64 wins.

Other Two Person Games to Consider

Cribbage

If you like Backgammon then you would probably like Cribbage too.  Cribbage is my all-time favorite two-person game. 

The rules will take a little bit to learn, but there is more strategy with cribbage then there is with Backgammon which makes it more fun for those who like their games to be more competitive.

Chess

The ultimate two-person game that creates a high level of personal competition is chess.  This is great for super analytical game players who can afford an hour or two to see the game through to conclusion.

Believe It or Not (RISK)

Yes, RISK can be played with two-people.  There are a couple of variations that you will need to implement to make this possible, but when all of the game set-up is done correctly Two-Person RISK can be a lot of fun.

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