Masters of Backgammon
Backgammon. It's an old game, older than chess according to some, and much easier to learn. There are two sides - one light, one dark - scattered across a board. Your aim is to get all your pieces home and off the board before your opponent does the same. By capturing his pieces, you can force him to send them back round the board and slow him down... but he'll be doing the same to you. Who will win?
I'm not going to get too heavily into the rules of Backgammon here - aside from anything else, I've only just learnt them myself. Chess I know how to play, but I've only ever been aware of Backgammon. This has proven an excellent opportunity to learn! However, I will say that it differs from chess in one very big way - there's an element of luck involved. Your strategy will depend upon the roll of the dice, so adaptation is a must if you want to win.
Masters of Backgammon does the neat trick of automating all the tedium of setting up and rolling dice. You take turns, either with the AI or a fellow human being, to roll the dice, move your counters and romp to victory. A default game is worth one point, though the "doubling cube" allows you or your opponent to propose a raise (to 2, then 4, then 8, etc). Declining the offer is an automatic forfeit. There are also several variations on the standard game if you prefer some different rules.
I'm limited to reviewing the iPhone version, but I have to admit that the graphics are good quality even here, making good use of the retina display (I can't vouch for the iPad version, which I'm sure is even better looking). The default "wooden" board can be replaced with any of about five other designs, though these require an in-app purchase (a little cheeky, I felt). Sound effects range from the rattle of dice and the click of tokens to a variety of musical stings (the "wah-wah-waaah" of a token being sent to the bar is faintly comical!). Tokens slide across the board for the only real animation (aside from the smoke on the title screen, a tableau that reminds me of a film I saw not too long ago involving several hobbits...) with the dice rolls simulated by rapidly flickering faces rather than any actual motion. But this is a picking at very minor matters - the gameplay is what counts.
And the gameplay is good. I've so far limited my efforts to Beginner and Intermediate modes, having developed from a complete beginner to a novice of growing confidence, but I've noticed a distinct improvement in the AI's game. I haven't dared challenge any other human players so far. The "doubling cube" is a curious idea and I'm not especially fond of it - I do, however, like the ability to score bonus points for a "gammon" (winning with your opponent unable to get any of their tokens off the board). That seems to be rewarding a good game. I gained particular satisfaction from doing so in my last game, after my opponent doubled... and I won the match in just one game.
Aside from the different game modes, there are some other settings to tweak, such as the number of points to win a match (an ordinary, undoubled game would fetch you one point, or two if you score a gammon). The default is three points - I'm happy to leave it at this, as I find it fills a 10-15 minute gap rather nicely. I've already mentioned the additional board designs if you want to pretty things up (for a price). But mostly, if you tire of the AI, there's always the option for human competition through Gamecentre, by bluetoothing with another device, or simply sharing one device between you and a friend.
There also seems to be a range of achievements - I've managed to win a number of them already, if the banners appearing on my victory screen are anything to go by - with rewards for things like getting five tokens out, or all fifteen, or winning an absolute victory. However, these achievements are not listed on Gamecentre and I cannot find them listed within Masters of Backgammon itself. Are these not yet ready?
I spotted a few minor slips in the game, though nothing serious - as far as the gameplay is concerned, my experience has been solid and professional. Minor things like the doubling cube starting a game displaying "64" (the maximum score!) rather than "1", though the score is definitely 1. There were some technical slip-ups in the help text, which could also be made a little more obvious on the title screen. I was also confused when, having successfully blocked my opponent from being able to move, the screen declared "Beginner: No Moves Available" (or, later, "Intermediate: ..."). Was this only possible because of the difficulty level? Do harder difficulties not have this limitation? It doesn't appear so.
Masters of Backgammon has proven to be a fun, instructive and somewhat addictive game, ideal for play when you have a few spare minutes. If you're new to backgammon, this could be a good way to learn. If you're already a player, this will allow you to play whenever you like without all the hassle of setting up the board - and could introduce you to a range of new online players.
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