The ultimate backgammon board

Above are 4 backgammon boards: Traditional, Round, App, Ultimate.
The traditional board is very old. This is the story of the other 3.


The game of backgammon is a round game - the player moves pieces around the board. In 1975, I designed a better board for the game of backgammon - it was round. Years later, I combined the round board from 1975 and a traditional rectangular board to better fit the parameters of the iPad screen. I realized the rectangular home table was quite pleasing. The 2012 hybrid board still has all of the advantages of the 1975 full round board:
• The board shape is a more appropriate fit for the game.
• A dice well is reserved for dice - no throwing dice in the same area as the playing pieces.
• The bar is back at the beginning, where a piece can restart its journey.
• There is a dedicated trough for the doubling cube, allowing it to slide to each player's side.

Backgammon is a centuries old game yet most people are familiar with it mainly because manufacturers included it on the back of checker boards (it was the same proportion and also used the same two sets of differently colored playing pieces). Backgammon had a resurgence of popularity in the 1970s. Clubs had backgammon tables set up, there were tournaments, and people played at parties. The game is simple to learn and can be quite addictive. I learned to play backgammon during college and we played a lot. Even after moving to Dallas in 1974, I played with friends whenever I could.

But, I had noticed these problems inherent in the design of a traditional backgammon board:
     1. If the dice land on any of the playing pieces, both dice must be rerolled.
     2. The bar, where 'captured' pieces are put, is out in the middle of the board.
     3. A player must move the pieces from one side of the board to the other. The diagrams above show the curved movement. It is a round game played on a square board.

Fall 1975: Outside my apartment, I sat down at a round cable-spool table (above left), an idea clicked and I realized the simple concept - a round game should be played on a round board. I set to sketching and exploring. Adapting the rectangular board to the circle solved the problem of jumping from one side of the playing area to the other.

I left some room between the starting pip and the ending pip - this allowed some room to put the captured pieces - the 'bar' - and space to stack pieces as they were taken off at the end of the game.

While sketching and building prototypes, I realized there was still the problem of number 1 above: if the dice land on any of the playing pieces, both dice must be rerolled. To address that, I included a depressed area out in the middle (above right). This would be reserved just for rolling the dice. This solved the problem of pieces and dice in the same area and the sides of this depression provided a surface to bounce the dice off of while rolling. Now all 3 weaknesses/problems inherent in the existing board had been addressed.

Prototypes
In 1975, I bought round particle board at Homer's/Handy Dan's (forerunner to Lowe's Depot) and some laminate veneer in two shades of wood grain for the alternating colors of the pips (the wedge shapes familiar to the square board). I measured the degrees and cut the laminate; glued them to the wood with contact cement; and cut a hole in the center of the board in my dad's garage workshop. I lined this inner circular depression with green felt - the green associated with Vegas gaming tables. That color seemed to fit (people often bet on backgammon). I used this model to play games with friends. We were the test subjects. It worked. It took about 2 games to get used to the new layout. But the learning curve was short due to the intuitive nature of the board - the instructions state to go around the board. The pips were somewhat familiar and the green felted pit begged for dice. After testing this prototype by playing numerous games with a variety of people, I made a second model with improvements: raised lips around the circumference to help keep the playing pieces on the board and to raise the height of the side walls of the dice well and recessed troughs for the doubling cube and the storage of the pieces.


November 1975: The first model on the left and in the above photo shot outside my apartment in Dallas. On the right and below is a later prototype model with raised lips and recessed sections for the doubling cube and for the pieces.


My model of the third version. The Pressman produced board.

Seeking a patent
I thought the idea had merit and the prototypes had proved to be successful. There were now three options for the next step of production:
     1. Do nothing - just play on my custom board and enjoy the game.
     2. Seek legal protection and manufacture, distribute, and promote the round board myself.
     3. Seek legal protection and sell the rights to the patent to a manufacturer.
As a problem solving designer, I wasn't satisfied with option 1 - I might later regret not pursuing marketing the board. Option number 2 would earn me the most money but it would require a great deal of time and money invested - for molds, manufacturing, warehousing, etc. Option 3 was the most feasible. I met with a patent attorney, Ken Glaser, who began the process of legal protection. He conducted a patent search at the US Patent and Trademark Office in Washington DC. He discovered some products using a round game board. We couldn't patent that but we could patent the particular design of this board. So, on January 28, 1976, he filed for a US Design Patent on a round backgammon board. The patent was issued on November 8, 1977.


The Backgammon logo

The dominant element of the new board was its round shape. That drives this logo. I selected and manipulated a typeface that was quite skinny in its letter widths and in its letterstrokes. That allowed the letter O to stand out. Inside that O I rendered a shadow to convey the depth of the dice well. Inside this well are two dice to help immediately place the identity to the game of backgammon (a dice game). The actual and implied horizontal line running along the top (thru the crossbars of the G and As) respected the mass of the shadow inside the O and drew the viewer's eye to that O. Below: The logo applied to the bag that holds the pieces, dice, and dice cups.


Finding a manufacturer
While waiting for the patent to be issued I looked into selling the patent rights. I got a list of toy and game manufacturers that sold backgammon boards. I prepared a brief prospectus letter and sent it to 4 companies - Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Sybarite, and Pressman. Two wrote back stating that they no longer accepted new toy or game concepts from outside their own Research & Development departments (ownership litigation and such). Pressman Toy Company didn't say no - they didn't really say yes, either. I was planning to be in New York City to see the premiere of a play by my college roommate, Tom White. I figured I'd call.


Trip to New York City
Just before leaving for New York, I called and talked to Mrs. Pressman. She didn't want to make an appointment. I didn't give up - I told her that I only needed 5 minutes to show her the prototype model and she could decide if it had merit for the Pressman Toy Company. We made an appointment.
I found their office - in the Toy Center on Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, at Madison Square. This was a complex of two large buildings where most toy and game companies had offices and/or showrooms. Most toys bought in America were wholesaled through the Toy Center in New York City. I waited patiently for my introduction to Mrs. Pressman. She was cordial but began commenting that I would not likely have anything that they might be interested in. I ignored her and brought out the model and set up the playing pieces on her desk. She was quiet for a minute and then said, "Hmm, this might just work. I want my son to see this." She summoned her son, the President of Pressman. He, too, was intrigued. They each knew enough about backgammon to see the advantages to the round board. I did not have to say much. I was sort of intimidated by meeting the head honchos and pleased at their reaction. I just let them guide the meeting and the next step. Mr. Pressman wanted me to show it to their design and engineering people. I later took the train out to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to the Pressman design office, factory, and warehouse. The design staff got pretty excited - they started talking about how it could best be manufactured. That meeting included me; Ron Gurin, VP Purchasing; Sam Costello, VP Manufacturing; and Jim Pressman, Executive Vice President.

The Toy Center, 200 Fifth & Broadway at 23rd Street (now a condo conversion).

The Pressman factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1970s. The empty factory in 2010.

Oswald Jacoby

Mrs. Pressman wanted me to also show the round board to Mr. Oswald Jacoby. Jacoby was a champion bridge player and an authority on the game of backgammon. In 1970, he wrote The Backgammon Book and in 1972 he was crowned World Backgammon Champion. He had been retained by the Pressman Company as a consultant to their line of backgammon games. Conveniently, he also lived in Dallas. I called him when I got back home and we set up an appointment at the Dallas Country Club in Highland Park. I set up the board and we played a couple of games. He was slightly hesitant at first but after playing he saw the merits of the uniquely shaped board and dice well. He reported to Mrs. Pressman that the round backgammon would be worth their time and money to produce. This was a big step for me as Mrs. Pressman was dependent on Jacoby's 'blessing'. All agreed we should now pursue preparing a formal contract to transfer ownership of the patent to the Pressman Toy Company. Oswald Jacoby died in 1984 at his Dallas home.

Signing a contract
Seeing as how I knew nothing about this and didn't really want to learn, I hired a business consultant, Jim Devlin. He had been recommended to me by Tom White. I met with Jim and his assistant, Anita Rufus, and showed them the board. I explained where we were in the process and how I needed his help. He prepared a plan and began a draft of a contract. I called Mrs. Pressman and we made an appointment to discuss the contract. Jim Devlin and I flew to New York City. I had borrowed money from my dad to pay for these initial expenses. Jim always flew first class. He also charged a hefty fee for the day. We arrived at LaGuardia airport and took a cab to the Pressman office. The meeting went well. I hardly said a word. Devlin did all the talking - heck, that's what I was paying him for. The Pressmans agreed to everything I had asked for - my name as the designer on the package box and in promotional materials, Pressman would pay for all my trips to New York City during production, and they would give me control over design decisions - that is, Pressman could not alter my design without my approval. I would receive a percentage of the wholesale sales. I had already discovered that the percentage amount was standard practice in the toy and game industry. We left the meeting feeling very good. To celebrate we walked to a bar at the Gramercy Hotel at Gramercy Park and had a scotch. Then Devlin went back to the airport for the flight home and I walked alone, beaming, to my room at the Y.

The license agreement


The production model
During the next few months we discussed production and marketing issues. They hired a model maker who made a beautiful model out of different types of wood. From this, they would make a mold - the actual board would be made of a dense plastic foam that would hold the wood grain accurately. They sent me pictures of their model and some advertising concepts. Once, Mrs. Pressman called to get my permission to make a slight change to the board. I suggested that I would need to see for myself what the change would entail - that may have just been a cheap ploy to get them to pay for me to go back to New York.

At the factory: the hand-crafted wood model to be used as the mold, August, 1976.

Left: Test samples of the materials and stain colors. Right: During the American Toy Fair, Febuary, 1977

The produced Backgammon in the Round





A thumbnail sketch and rough sketch of the instructions that fit inside the dice well.

The printed instructions that came with the marketed board.

Toy Markets
I returned to NYC in Febuary, 1977, for the the American Toy Fair during which they would introduce "Backgammon in the Round". I hung out in the showroom to talk to buyers and answer any questions they might have. There was some interest but the main skepticism was that the board needed to be explained - that the rules were identical, that the game fit a round board, and that it was actually easier to play. Backgammon was such a familiar game that they felt I was messing with a classic. Well, I was, but I felt I had made the traditional classic game even better. I also later participated in the Pressman showroom at the Toy Market in Dallas, the next largest toy market after New York.

All the pieces and the box. The Box front. "The first improvement in backgammon in years."

Displays in the Pressman showroom. Febuary 1977

The season brochure catalog. Also in this brochure were ads for Tri-Ominos, Petropolis, and other standard backgammon boards.

Promotions

• The board was featured in Toy and Hobby World, a national trade magazine, March 1977.
• The Dallas Morning News ran a feature story on the new board.
• I was interviewed by Lloyd Gite for All Things Considered, on the PBS Network national evening news program, April 20, 1977.


Proposed advertisements

Article photo in the Dallas paper. Sketches for ad campaign (and below).


The portable model
Several people (myself included) felt the 24" model was primarily for home use and that there could be a market for a portable or travel model. I explored a variety of ways to fold the board but the recessed dice well made it tough for the board to fold on itself (see sketches in the letter above). I concluded that it would be better to put the board inside a separate carrying case. I made two prototype models out of layers of corrugated cardboard. The first model would be made of wood or finished to look like wood and come in a briefcase style case. A later model mimicked the look popularized by Star Wars that opened in 1977. This board would have a metallic look with bright colored playing pieces.


A letter I wrote to Pressman detailing some concerns and thoughts for a portable model. May 7, 1977


Above: Sketches for different models. August 17, 1978
Below: models for 3 versions of portable boards.




Unsolicited accolades from users
I ran across your posting of your invention, and its toyland demise; or should I say abandonment! I think the whole idea is cool.
Brilliant concept by the way :-)
I found your website after researching your round backgammon board. I found 2 on ebay. They were beautiful, and sadly enough I didn't get them. I didn't realize it was a chance in a lifetime. WOW. So I'm writing to you to see if there is any chance in the world that you might have one available!? Your website is amazing.
My Mom just sent me the history regarding "Backgammon in the Round" that you designed. I'm so glad you put this information on the web. My Mom bought a set in 76/77 which we all played. Then when my brother & I went into the Air Force in 77/78, she sent us each one. My Mom & I still have our sets, & she periodically asks, "Do you still have your Backgammon in the Round"? It's become a status symbol of sorts. Thank you so much for designing such a fun board. Our family has many happy memories because of it.
I think it should have caught on - I didn't need the board explained, it made perfect sense immediately.
I was sitting around the other day, reminiscing about the late 70's and the backgammon parties we all used to have. I was always in demand because I had the "round board", and the "round board" was the coolest (which kinda made me the coolest, because I owned one). It was the best design ever. There were no barriers to hurdle. Simply slide the pieces around. Made the game easier to learn for all the newcomers. I can't believe it didn't catch on. It made so much sense. I'd sure like to find one of those boards somewhere (mine got lost in a move some place). I've seen some cheap imitations, but haven't found the real deal. Your design is the best out there.

Competition and patent infringement

A couple of companies swiped the idea and marketed variations of the round backgammon board. Above: a board by True Image in 1983, was very similar so I had my patent attorney pursue litigation. After a few weeks of lawyers writing letters to each other and billing us each time, I called the owner of the other company and told him that I just wanted to market a better board. I offered to work with him so we could stop paying our lawyers their fees. He agreed. We never did get together, though; the backgammon fad was dying at about that time. Sales had fallen flat. Another, below, was a glass board with plastic pieces to form the bar and troughs. This board was a clear rip-off of my board, but it didn't do too well in the market - I didn't pursue patent infringement.


Two 4-player boards: Quatro, from England and Passim, 1991. Below: a leather version. Bottom: round Monopoly, 2011.



An even earlier version

While researching the ultimate board in 2013, I came across this board for sale on ebay - Circle Gammon. The copy on the instruction sheet states, "Circle Gammon is similar to Backgammon but has the great added advantage that three or four may play together. However, unlike Backgammon, the play of which has been confined largely to Clubs, Circle Gammon is easy to understand and play." It was copyrighted in 1940 and made by Parker Brothers (one of the companies I wrote about my round board). I was surprised that I, my patent attorney, or anyone else that saw my prototype was not aware of this board. I have theories why we didn't know about it:
• The board did not sell well and did not make much of a media impact in the 1940s (and then came WWII).
• The patent protection expired long ago (in the 1950s).
• It recently surfaced on ebay so it is only now accessible through internet searches.

Epilog

• Pressman dropped Backgammon in the Round from their line (above: Games magazine, Nov/Dec 1978).
• Mrs. Pressman called to see if I wanted to buy the model and the mold. I didn't, but now wish I had the nice wood model they had made (I later contacted Pressman to get that model but it seems to be lost).
• The Pressman Toy Corporation and Jim Watson severed their partnership on May 10, 1979.
• The patent term expired about 1992.
I never did make much money, but I have no regrets. It was a great experience - I learned a lot, I got to make several trips to New York City, and I designed a nationally marketed product.
Today, I have no boards available - I wish I did as there have been quite a few inquiries from people who want to buy a round board.

An iPad app for round backgammon
It had been 37 years since I first created that round backgammon board. Even though the game is not as popular as it was in the 1970s, the round board still made so much sense. In June of 2012, I was enjoying dinner with Taylor and Karen at Tavern on Jane - a historic naberhood restaurant and bar on Jane Street at the very north edge of Greenwich Village. Taylor casually reminded me that I needed to develop an app for the round backgammon board. That nudge put the project on a front burner and I explored the idea upon returning to Oklahoma.
I was trying to adapt a round board to fit within the rectangular format of an iPad screen. The game was still a round game, but I now explored a compromise - leaving the home tables in a rectangle and the other half of the board in a circle - to convey the motion of moving around the board. The curve intuitively fits the game play. The resulting C or horseshoe shape is reminiscent of a stadium or arena bowl. A home board is now in front of each player. I drew the preliminary sketches (below) while at a freethinker conference in Tulsa. I always take work to do when attending conferences, meetings, or lectures. I sit off to the side where I won't bother others and sketch away.
When I got home, I reviewed many existing backgammon apps. Here are a few:


Sketches



App layouts on the iPad


Set-up and instruction diagram
Animations
• Pieces moving into starting position on the board.
• Rolling the dice: tap to shake and roll, bouncing off of dice well.
• Doubling cube: tap to raise value, slide to side if accepted.
• Moving pieces: slide end piece to destination (not accept if miscount). Mimic board play. Offset stack pieces if no room.
• Captured piece: moves to bar.
• Piece on bar: tap/slide to destination (not accept if miscount).
• Bearing off: slide to trough.
• Game winner: Congratulations, New Game?

Buttons
• Settings
• Board diagram
• New Game (Are you sure?)
• Pause game/Resume
• Forfeit game
• Undo move

Settings
• # of players: _1 or _2 or online
• Player color: _Light _Dark
• Who goes first: _Light _Dark
• Level of difficulty: _Easy _Medium _Advanced
• Doubling cube: _On _Off (hide graphic)
• Sound: _On _Off
• Hints: _On _Off (options hilited)
• Match length: _3 _5 _7
• Board layout motif: _Silver _Green
• How to play, rules: Link to web
• The full story of round backgammon

Message screens
• No more possible moves, skip play
• Forfeit game - Are you sure?

Some other layout options


The ultimate backgammon board
While developing the app for round backgammon, I realized the rectangular home table was quite pleasing.

This board combined the round board from 1975 and a traditional rectangular board to result in a half-round board - the ultimate backgammon board.



The ultimate backgammon board has all of the advantages of the round board:
• Shape that better fits the game
• A dice well reserved for dice
• The bar back at the beginning
• Dedicated trough for the doubling cube.
And the advantage of the app board:
• Straight home tables

A model of the ultimate backgammon board



The checkerboard model
A flat model that can be mounted on the back of checker boards. No depth for the dice well, bit all other features are intact.


Sketch of a logo for the ultimate backgammon board


Side-by-side comparisons


Dates
CONCEPTION
Inspiration: August 30, 1975
Designed/sketched: September/October, 1975
Built wood prototype: November 5-12, 1975
Played games with friends: November/December, 1975
Met with box manufacturer: December 5, 1975
Met with Patent Attorney: December 9, 1975
Met with Small Business Administration: December 12, 1975
Registered name: December 18, 1975
Logo design and production: 1976
Filed patent: January 28, 1976
PRODUCTION
Mailed letters to Parker Bros, Milton-Bradley, Pressman Toy, Sybarite: Febuary 22, 1976
Showed prototype to Pressmans: March 5, 1976
Met with Oswald Jacoby: March 11, 1976
Met with Jim Devlin, Consultant, March 20, 1976
Met with Pressmans, Jacoby, Devlin: discussed licensing contract, April 6, 1976
Met with Gurin, Costello, Pressman: Pressman factory, New Jersey, April 7, 1976
Delivered licensing contract to Pressmans: April 12, 1976
Contract signed - Patent rights sold to Pressman Toy Company: April 26, 1976
Reviewed production model, decided on name Backgammon in the Round: August 17, 1976
American Toy Fair, NYC: Febuary 16, 17, 21, 1977
Dallas Toy Show: March 20-24, 1977
Patent issued: November 8, 1977
Dissolved relationship with Pressman Toy: Febuary 7, 1978
ULTIMATE BOARD
Discussion of app option: NYC, June 1, 2012
Sketched app: June 23, 2012
Developed app: June 28-July 6, 2012
Sketched/developed board: July 6-7, 2012
Designed revised logo: July, 2012
Refined design of the board, made model: November 2-10, 2013

www.jamesrobertwatson.com/backgammon.html