Now seems as a good a time as any for a confession. Before I got my grubby hands on Backgammon Blitz, I hadn’t played, or knew how to play the game in the slightest. Fortunately for me and my lacking faculties, Backgammon Blitz is a solid, if unspectacular take on this strange little game of board hopping checkers that, aside from a few unneeded wrinkles, should nevertheless prove to be an enticing prospect for both willing newbies and hardened ‘gammon veterans alike.
A modestly presented endeavor from the outset, it’s pretty clear that VooFoo Studios understands the boundaries of its ambition in simply providing a robustly playable, digital representation of an age old game enjoyed by many across the globe.
For the most part the developer is remarkably successful and largely restrained in its adaptation of the near 5,000 year old game. Certainly, initial impressions indicate an inclination to the conservative; a functional menu free of the sort of cloying aesthetics that other developers might have been tempted to cram in.
Get into a session of Backgammon proper and the reason for its evergreen appeal swiftly reveals itself as a compelling contest equally dependent on skill and deft strategy as much as it is on the whim of a chance; with sometimes the most meticulous of stratagems falling to ruin on account of a well-placed quartet of opposing six numbered dice rolls.
Satisfaction and smug victories often make frequent bedfellows with sore defeat and frustration on the easy setting. The AI presents a steadfast and aggressive challenge which necessitates the application of shrewd tactics and foresight to tip the scales in the player’s favour. Increase the difficulty and the AI foe quickly becomes a punishing entity, requiring the sort of mastery that isn’t quickly obtained without a good deal of social-life destroying play.
Like any game which incorporates such fickle fortune, pangs of unfairness soon give way to the realisation that the randomised dice rolls don’t discriminate. Sure enough, the AI opposition fare no better and find themselves undone in a similar capacity and with roughly equal frequency to your own dice-driven misfortunes.
Ultimately, playing against a CPU controlled opponent remains a poor foil to testing yourself against another player and thusly, the best experience you can have with Backgammon is with friends. Backgammon Blitz accommodates this with due aplomb owing to its local and online multiplayer modes.
Taking advantages of contemporary technology, the inclusion of asynchronous Cross Play between PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita proves to be a boon; allowing users of handheld and home console versions of the game to pit themselves against each other at their leisure.
Where a trick has been clearly missed is in the lack of cross-save functionality. The absence of this feature prevents any sort of continuation of play between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, meaning that whichever system you start a game of Backgammon on, is the system where you must also finish it. Omitting such a feature feels short-sighted, especially in light of the pick up and play dynamic that Backgammon naturally embraces.
Elsewhere, players unacquainted with Backgammon’s rule set will find it beneficial to make the game’s tutorial their first stop en route to their inaugural thrashing by the AI. A hand-holding exercise which outlines the basic conventions and aspects of the game, the tutorial does an acceptable job of showing the newly initiated the ropes, yet it is far from a perfect education in Blitz’s subtleties.
You see, the tutorial doesn’t quite fill in all the gaps with additional rules such as the ‘Jacoby’ and ‘Murphy’ rules, to name just two that players are able to toggle in the game settings, being left unexplained. Experienced players will ostensibly find little issue with this but newcomers will have to seek out the clarification of these nuances elsewhere – to Google!
In case where you’re wondering, the ‘Blitz’ part of the game’s moniker refers to the use of game-changing power ups which can only be used in a game mode which shares the same name. These power ups can be unlocked through the accrual of gold bullion and some of the more powerful ones take an absolute age of playing before you have stockpiled the necessary amount of gold to unlock them.
Each of these offer varying effects to the standard rule set but overall, while an entertaining alternative in the short-term to the vanilla game, the power-ups simply upset the carefully maintained balance of the game and protracted play soon reveals Blitz mode to be inferior to the regular version of the game.
Presentation-wise, Backgammon Blitz is an exercise in minimalism but rightly so, it’s clear cut menus and detailed recreation of the Backgammon board, the pieces and the local environment proving apt for the task at hand without ever seeming overwrought.
The small handful of different tabled environments are all easy enough on the eye and when taken in tandem with the smooth and jazzy beats of the game’s score, combines to create an experience which errs far closer to the functionally relaxing rather than the sensually staggering.
On the topic of taking well-loved board games into the digital realm, many developers must find it tempting to augment such well-worn formula with their own, possibly ill-advised additions. VooFoo Studios doesn’t go too overboard with the window dressing and this proves to be wise; after all the appeal of Backgammon lies predominantly in its nail-biting contests of emergent strategy and opportunity rather than balance breaking power-ups that the developer has included.
The fundamental truth remains though, if you like or don’t like Backgammon, then Backgammon Blitz will do precious little to sway your opinion on the matter. There is a reason why the passage of time hasn’t eroded the appeal of games like this and flaws aside, for those willing to learn and make that investment, much as this humble author did, the joy to be had in its contests of nuanced strategy remains reassuringly undimmed.