Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Win At Checkers

On one of her visits to all libraries of the known world Scrabblette found a book called Win At Checkers by Millard Hopper. I had Checkers rated a 5 which on my interpretation of the BGG rating system means "I might want to play this again some day". It's only a small book so I started reading. Mr Hopper writes very nicely and pretty soon I was hooked.

Checking the user comments for Checkers at BGG reveals many comments like "hate this game", "broken", "solvable". Broken and solvable aren't true, unlike ZERTZ which has a known strategy for first-player win on the standard board yet is rated 7.55 compared to 4.77 for Checkers. Don't get me wrong, I like ZERTZ, but I think Checkers is rated very unfairly. Consider that ZERTZ took the "must capture" rule from Checkers, and GIPF took the "if you can't move you lose" rule from Checkers. It's true, Checkers is a simple game, but GIPF is simpler and is rated 7.09. A lot of the user comments also mention that Chess is better. Maybe so, but Chess is a totally different sort of game that just happens to be played on the same board.

I think Checkers suffers very badly from the "bottom of the toy box" syndrome. People grew up with a copy of Checkers and they never really understood it and it got dumped in the bottom of the toy box. They may not have understood the "must capture" rule, or had arguments with their siblings about the rules and hence associate the game with family arguments and lost pieces and their annoying aunt forcing them to play with their whiny little sister. Monopoly suffers from the same bad associations and is similarly despised at BGG.

After reading Mr Hopper's book about how to lure your opponent into traps, I dragged out my checker board and started working through some of the longer explanations (there aren't many of them). Scrabblette challenged me to a game. Of course Scrabblette wasn't clear on the rules and hadn't just been reading a strategy book... then the kid came to visit and he hadn't been reading a strategy book either. The book doesn't actually help so much, though. I can recognise a position where I can force you into a trap but I have to wait for you to put yourself into such a position. I also know basic strategy such as "attack gaps in the defence" and "attack along the single corner line", but putting those ideas together into a good game is beyond me. Of the 3 computer opponents I've played on the easiest level I've only beaten one of them.

I changed my rating for Checkers to a 7. If I play more and start to understand it that might go up. For a game that is so closely related to some of the great modern abstracts, Checkers sure has a poor reputation.


Coldfoot said...

To each his own.

I wouldn't say checkers is broken, nor solvable, it just isn't fun.

Two player, perfect information games just don't interest most people. Checkers is further hampered by lack of choices.

Yes, I do like the GIPF series. GIPF is my favorite game of the series, but GIPF isn't about suckering your opponent into making a bad move, or waiting for a bad move. GIPF is about adapting to the changing face of the game more so than checkers.

In the early and middle stages of checkers each player only has as few as half dozen or possibly as many as a dozen possible moves each turn. Once off the board a piece is gone.

In GIPF some pieces leave the board for good, but some pieces can come back on. GIPF also has 2 paths to victory. In addition each player has many more options each round.

It is my opinion that checkers is too limiting to be fun for most people, even for cerebral people.

Friendless said...

I can't argue with "not fun" - that's your opinion, but personally I like perfect information games. I also like those like Alexandros / Ingenious / St Pete where there's very limited randomness or hidden information.

My experience with GIPF is that sadly at my level of skill it is about waiting for a bad move. I'd love to play enough so that my opponent and I both stop doing stupid things. Checkers has been the same, so far. I need to be one of those old men who sits in the park playing all day...

I can see where you're coming from. 8x8 Checkers has a problem that good players understand so much of the game space that they can recognise the opening and play to a draw, which is why they invented rules where the first 3 plays of the game are decided by random draw. That's a theoretical weakness compared to my level of ability :-).

Yehuda said...

I agree completely that Checkers is underrated. I especially want to try it on a bigger board.


Fellonmyhead said...

Ah, you mean Draughts, don't you?

The last time I played would have been a garden version at Burton Agnes Hall in Yorkshire around fourteen years ago. My Wife handed me my arse on a silver platter. She didn't/doesn't play many games, but now you've reminded me how good she was I might just be ready to throw down the gauntlet again.

Maybe my rating will rise from a 4? Maybe you wrote that article just to see how many of us would follow? Maybe it's going to be more of us than you think?

Friendless said...

Fellonmyhead (Anthony?), I have a theory that the games I grew up with as a kid can't all have been worse than the crappiest Euro ever invented. If you look at the last page of BGG rankings you'll see:

Tic Tac Toe
Snakes and Ladders
The Game of Life
Go Fish
Old Maid
Barrel of Monkeys
Mouse Trap
Pick Up Sticks

all of which I played as a kid. Wow, 13 out 37 games on that page! Did my parents deliberately seek out awful games to make me play? Unlikely. My suspicion is that people are biased against the games they played as kids. Now I still dislike some of those games, but I'm trying to reassess them so that my dislike is rational. Checkers is another game I rated low because I could never see the value of it, but I knew there was more to it than I could see so I made the effort to get to know it. I think if people rated Monopoly according to how good a game it is rather than according to their bad memories or their mistrust of Hasborg then it would be ranked about 1000 places higher. I'm just doing my bit to get the emotion out of the games ratings. I hope Checkers does well out of it, there's more value in that game than people currently recognise.