Backgammon in the round
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 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.
There are some 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. It is a round game played on a square board.
The Inspiration table. The first prototype outside my apartment in Dallas.
After college, outside my apartment, I sat at a round table and my brain clicked and put everything together - a round game should be played on a round board. Here are some diagrams from traditional instructions showing the curved movement:
I set to sketching and exploring. Adapting the board to the circle solved the problem of jumping from one side of the playing area to the other. I simply put the square game on a round shape. I left some room between the starting pip and the ending pip. This allowed room to put the captured pieces - the 'bar' - and space to stack pieces as they were taken off at the end of the game.
Design concept and advantages
While sketching and building prototypes, I realized there was still the problem of number 1 above. To address that, I included a depressed area out in the middle. 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.
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.
The first model I made is on the left and in the above photo shot outside my apartment in Dallas. On the right is a later prototype model with raised lips and recessed sections for the doubling cube and for the pieces.
Seeking a patent
I thought it was a great idea and the prototypes had proved to be successful. There were now three main 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 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.
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. Three 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.
The Toy Center on 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.
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 lived in Dallas. I called him when I got back to Dallas 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. Jacoby died in 1984 at his Dallas home.
Test samples of the materials and stain colors. The new backgammon board.
A thumbnail sketch and rough sketch of the instructions that fit inside the dice well.
The printed instructions that came with the marketed board.
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 back to the airport for the flight home.
A letter I wrote to Pressman detailing some concerns and thoughts for a portable model.
Link to info about the Backgammon logo
All the pieces and the box. The Box front. Displays in the Pressman showroom.
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. I returned later for the the Toy market 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 participated in the Pressman showroom at the Toy Market in Dallas, the next largest toy market after New York.
The Dallas Morning News ran a feature story on the new board and I was interviewed for All Things Considered, a nationally aired program on National Public Radio.
Article in the Dallas paper. Sketches for ad campaign (and below).
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.
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. Top row: 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 me each time, I called 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, in the lower left, 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. The Quatro board, from England, was adapted for 4 players.
In 2011, this round Monopoly board was introduced.
A blurb announcing the demise of Backgammon-in-the-Round by Pressman Toy. Games magazine, Nov/Dec 1978
Pressman dropped Backgammon in the Round from their line. 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 have since contacted Pressman to get that model but it seems to be lost). The patent term has expired. 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 have some as there have been quite a few inquiries.
An iPad app for round backgammon
A shape adapted to better fit the parameters of the iPad screen that retains the advantages of the round board.
Link to pictures and the full story.
A revised improved board
While developing the app for round backgammon, I realized the rectangular home table was quite pleasing.
This 2012 board combined the round board from 1975 and a traditional rectangular board to result in a half-round board.
The 2012 hybrid board still 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.
It is similar to the app board but without the buttons. The dice well is larger since a human will be throwing the dice, not a digital animation program.
Below: a draft sketch for the 2012 version of the round backgammon logo:
Inspiration: August 30, 1975
Designed/sketched: September, 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
Filed patent: January 1976
Showed prototype to Pressmans: March 5, 1976
Met with Oswald Jacoby: March 11, 1976
Met with engineers, Pressman factory, New Jersey: April 1976
Patent rights sold to Pressman Toy Company: May 1976
Patent issued: November 8, 1977
Discussion of app option: NYC, June 1, 2012
Sketched app: June 23, 2012
Developed app: June 28-July 6, 2012
Sketched/developed hybrid board: July 6-7, 2012
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