Eskgammon was invented by Eskimo sometimes around 2011.
Yes, that pretty much coincides with the time online poker had killed online backgammon for good and live tournaments started to take a hit. Truemoneygames and GammonEmpire were on their last breaths or down and so forth. Live tournaments had a fraction of people showing up (no more 64 people brackets, maybe only a few dozen showed up). The same people that had memorized twenty books and analyzed every match with a bot showed up. Old dogs didn’t bother to appear anymore as it’s impossible to win against “human bots” and much of the fun had disappeared. I’m not certain of the state of live tournaments at the moment, with people leaving poker maybe things are improving again?
At this point I was a member of the Finnish Backgammon association (and had been for 10 years). The chairman and I had seen the decline and tried some remedies, the most successful being the Swing tournament. That at least gave the casual players a run for their money and improved their tournament winning chances from None to Sometimes. Other than that chouette (preferably drunk) was about the only time you saw any real discussion about moves, well, discussions that made sense (depending on how many pints people have had).
So the real questions were apparent; How can you make play more fun again? How can you bring back the casual players on a weekly or even monthly basis?
Since added money or tournament styles would do little to raise interest something would be needed that removes bot influence and have people talk positions again. Without reinventing backgammon. A tall order. Since backgammon variants invariably end up in the same old primes and backgames a simple variant wouldn’t work, or would it? I had rejuvenated another non-backgammon game by adding a doubling cube to it and also made one game more casual friendly by adding some randomness at start using d10 dice… Hey presto!
Some testing with one of the dice switched from a d6 to a d10 dice worked wonders. I had absolutely no clue about hit percentages anymore and instead of learning 36 rolls by heart I now had to figure out 60. Even the starting moves were (often) way different, presumably. Has anyone else invented a good variant like this? No, really??? 3 dice, re-rolls but nothing this simple and elegant. The really amazing thing was, changing one dice did not break anything. All the original rules worked (at least if you are very specific and used to say “both players roll one d6 dice to determine who is moving first). Switch one of the dice, change the wording slightly. Done? Really?
It’s probably worth mentioning one of my hobbies is designing games, particularly board games, and I seem to have a natural tendency to get rules right (or almost right) the first time, which really helps. In the old days when rules were published on paper it was really costly if the rules did not work and you had to publish errata.
So if everything seemed to work… would it be fun? Would there be things I had not thought of (as I later discovered, oh yes, but in a good way)? Well, the only way to test is to play thousands of games.
In 2012 I went down to Cyprus with my family to visit Joy Zuke (head of International Backgammon Alliance) and Cengiz Dindar (Cyprus/Turkish leagues). I brought a few d10 (dice with 10 sides) from some role playing game and we sat down and played a bit. Not a huge success. But I could see the game actually worked. Once back in Finland I tried it with a few old friends and boom… we were hooked. And I mean hooked, a year later I (and others) only played Eskgammon when meeting up and normal backgammon only if other people insisted.
One note that might be interesting to backgammon aficionados, unless you are one of the top players in your country, Eskgammon is likely to improve your normal backgammon game. I’ll explain further once I get around to write a series of Eskgammon articles some day (think Walter Trice’s Boot Camp on GammonVillage ages ago). Several people have said their normal game now is much stronger and I concur, from personal experience. ELO doesn’t tell much but it gives an indication. If bots earlier gave me a 1850 ELO rating it’s more like 1950 these days. Sure, when I was playing daily my rating was going up and down between 1750-1950 but the 1950 required hard work, learning doubling markets and card counting, sorry, I mean head math.
But on with the normal story, time to shorten things a bit.
A few years later I returned to a Cyprus Open organized by Cengiz. One of the purposes of that visit was to show Eskgammon to some of the good players (some of the top German players were there at least). Common story, great players show interest, they are intelligent enough to get it fast enough, but why mess with a winning concept you’ve spent years perfecting…
Thing is, a casual player might play a few games and get hooked fast simply because he or she is having fun. A top player probably needs 5-10 games before he sees some of the situations that make Eskgammon so intriguing. Once your brain gets into the “what the hell just happened” it’s all downhill from there. Just when you managed to figure that one out, you hit the next “this wasn’t supposed to happen”. At some point it then sinks in, this really is different.
Later we organized some tournaments in Finland and in Estonia. The first two tournaments we also run some normal backgammon as people wanted to play it… later on, people usually didn’t care. Eskgammon is just way more fun. Especially in Swing tournaments or money games. Normal elimination tournaments have people waiting anyway far too much either for the next game or because they lost. The Swing just becomes the better choice after a while, for everyone.
In 2014/2015 I convinced Piranha (PiranhaZone) to make a few changes to his online software so that you could play Eskgammon online. Oh man, not having to wait for another live meeting for another match. Thank you Piranha! Although the site looks a bit dated by now it still works better than many of the online backgammon alternatives. Of course you can play backgammon there as well. Unfortunately he has implemented but not put Eskgammon money games online so you might see some weird 25 point matches going on basically just simulating money play. The only thing I need now is more time to play. Well, I wouldn’t mind more opponents either.
2016 was a pretty tough and busy year so not much happened (as far as additional promoting is concerned). Now, in 2017, we intend to do some pushing and perhaps spread the gospel further. It IS about time. Backgammon needs a restart and Eskgammon is the best way to achieve that.