Backgammon is easy to learn, difficult to master, and very fun to play…but it has one fundamental flaw. No one can remember how to set up the pieces! There are, of course, people who play the game so often they could set up a backgammon board in their sleep, but most people find themselves having to look it up first. So, here are the complete rules of backgammon and what, I hope will be some helpful tips on remembering the setup.
Number of Players
A rectangular board containing 24 triangular “points” (12 per side), and a raised portion, or “bar” dividing the board across the center. Effectively, the board is split into quadrants with each player having an inner and outer “table” consisting of 6 points each.
30 round checker shaped pieces called “stones” or “men” (15 per player in two differing colors).
Okay, here it is. The main thing to remember is that your stones are divided roughly in half, with 7 of them starting on the opposite side of the board from you, and 8 starting on your own side.
Since the game is a race with both players moving in the opposite direction from one another, your “home” or place where you ultimately remove your stones from the board will either be on your right hand side or left hand side, depending on how both players decide to be oriented. Let’s assume for now that you are moving your stones counter clockwise, and “bearing off” to the right (your inner table).
On the opposite side from you:
- Your first 2 stones will be placed on your opponent’s first point (your opponent’s inner table in the upper right hand corner, directly across from your first point). In other words, as far from your “goal line” as they can possibly get.
- Your next 5 stones are placed on your opponent’s 12th point (your opponent’s outer table in the upper left hand corner…or the last triangle on the opposite side before your stones cross over to your outer table).
- Just remember when setting up, that the stones on the “away” side hug the edges of the board.
On your side:
- The next 3 stones go on your own 8th point (your outer table, 2 points to the left of the center bar).
- Your final 5 stones go on your own 6th point (your inner table, directly to the right of the bar).
- Just remember that the stones on your own side are close to the bar.
And of course, your opponent’s stones are set up to directly mirror your own.
Each player on their turn rolls two six sided dice. Each die is treated as an individual roll. This means that you may move two men once per turn (one per die), or one man twice per turn provided that man can move the number on both dice individually. For example, if you roll a 5 and a 6, your man cannot move 11 if both the 5th and 6th points in front of it are blocked (see “closing” below).
When a player rolls doubles, or a “doublet” (both dice show the same number), that player may move his or her stones 4 times the number shown on the dice. So, if you roll two 5’s, you may move four men 5 points each, 2 men 10 points each, or 1 man a total of 20 points! Keep in mind that each individual move of 5 points has to be legal.
A stone is vulnerable to capture when it sits alone on a point. This is called leaving a “blot.” Whenever an opposing stone lands on a blot, the blot is removed from the board and placed atop the center bar. The controller of the captured stone may make no other move until that stone has been brought back into play with a successful roll. A successful roll in this case constitutes a roll of 1-6 on one of the 2 dice that would allow the stone to re-enter the opponent’s inner table, where it will have to start its journey around the board all over again. If it is legal for the captured stone to re-enter the board using either number on the dice, the player may choose which point to bring it back in on. If every point in the opponent’s inner table is “closed,” the captured stone(s) is “shut out” and the player must continually pass the turn until a point opens up.
Whenever 2 or more stones of the same color occupy a single point, that point is “closed,” or “made.” This means the opposing player may not land on that point (opposing colors may never occupy the same point, and landing on a blot sends it to the bar). A player may, however, stack as many of his or her own stones on a single point as they choose. Closing a point does not block every point behind it…your opponent may still “jump” over the closed point.
To start, both players roll one of their two dice. The person with the higher roll wins the first play, and treats the two dice just rolled as their opening roll. That player moves their stones accordingly, and then signals the end of their turn by picking up their dice from the table. If a player has no legal moves after their roll, their turn is forfeited. If one of the two die rolls can be used but not the other, the player simply moves as much as they can, and forfeits the rest of the roll…although, they MUST use the higher of the two rolls if they can. A player may NOT deliberately refuse to move if they can…even if it is more advantageous for them to stay put.
To be the first player to “bear off,” or remove all of their stones from the board.
A player may begin “bearing off” only when all of their stones are inside their inner table. Once a stone has been removed from the board, it is gone for the rest of the game. To do this, a player rolls the dice as normal, and then removes stones resting on the corresponding points (for example, you roll a 1 and a 4. You may bear off 2 stones from the 4th and first points respectively…or, you may remove a single stone from the 5th point). If a die shows a number corresponding to an empty point, you simply move one of your men that number as you normally would, but if your stones are all closer to the finish than the roll of the dice, you may bear off the furthest stones (for example, you still have stones on your 4th point, but not the 5th or 6th. A roll of 5 or 6 on the dice will allow you to bear off stones on your 4th point.)
Usually the second most confusing element of backgammon (after the setup) is the doubling cube. Since backgammon is by nature a gambling game, the doubling cube was invented as a way to up the stakes mid-game. At the start of any players turn, they may announce they are doubling the stakes. The opposing player then has the option of either accepting the double, or forfeiting the game. The stakes may be doubled multiple times, but never twice in a row by the same player. The cube is used to keep track of just how much the stakes are currently worth (up to 64 times the original wager). In tournament play (with no gambling), games are played in a series of matches (best 2 out of 3, 3 out of 5, etc.), and the stakes are game wins instead of money. For example, if you are playing a best of 5 match and your opponent doubles the stakes, the winner of the current game will have 2 of the 3 wins necessary to win the match.
See “Acey Deucey,” “Chouette,” “Snake,” “Dutch Backgammon,” and “Russian Backgammon.”