Game Review: Pachisi
The Quick and Dirty:
Takes longer than it should, even for what it is, which ain’t much.
Pachisi and its variants are extremely ancient in origin, and versions have appeared in many cultures, so there is a good deal of variety in terms of specific mechanics, board shape, and so on. In the most commonly available commercial version, players are given a set of pawns in a single color, which they place in a matching corner of the board. A long track which snakes in and out of the center of the board, winding its way past the starting positions of the other colors before returning to the ‘home’ position. On their turns, players roll a pair of dice. Whenever a target number (usually a five) is rolled, the player may enter one of his pawns onto the track from his or her starting position. With subsequent rolls, players assign each die’s roll to one of their pawns (or both dice to a single pawn) and move them around the track the matching number. If a pawn lands on a space occupied by a pawn of another color, it sends that pawn back to its starting position, and it must begin the circular trek all over again. In some variants of Pachisi, only two pawns may occupy any one square, so a player can “protect” their pawns from being sent back by maneuvering them into pairs. In other editions, certain squares, marked by circles, are considered naturally “protected,” and no pawn may be captured there. In some editions of the game, other rules, such as a bonus movement points awarded for capturing opposing pawns, or for rolling doubles, are applied.
The only real decision to be made in Pachisi is which pawn to apply movement points towards, and this is usually fairly obvious. There is a clear benefit to keeping your pawns less than a single die-roll behind your opponent’s pawns, whenever possible, in order to maximize the chance of capturing opponents pieces. Correspondingly, it is often worthwhile to devote as many movement points as possible to pawns which are at risk of being captured, in hopes of moving them beyond the threat range of pursuing opponents. In the commercial version, the final section of each color’s track is labelled “home” in its entirety, and constituted protected space, so it is always worthwhile to move a piece into that zone and then to devote all remaining movement to getting the next piece in position, and so on. Specific strategies will vary with local rules, track layout, and so on.
As an ancient game in the public domain, there are a wide variety of sets available, with any degree of production values. One commonly available commercial edition, published by Hasbro, replaces the color-distinction with an animal theme, and pawns are replaced by brightly colored stylized plastic elephants, camels, and so on. The board is usually very colorful, often given an “Indian” flair with pictures of the Taj Mahal or other examples of Indian architecture, etc. As the national game of India, finely carved and detailed wooden sets, with inlaid boards, are available for purchase from many suppliers.
Pachisi is by no means the worst game in the world, but it’s not particularly engaging, either. There are few decisions to be made, and those which there are possess the same sense of statistical inevitability of gambling. For this very reason, however, the game has found a wide audience in those who favor a trance-like gaming experience, one which allows the players to carry on full conversations and over the temporary social ‘glue’ of the gameplay itself. The simple rules and straightforward, luck-driven strategy also lends itself to family gaming, since Pachisi can be played equally well by an adult and any four-year-old capable of counting as high as twenty.
Beware the demon of frustration, however. There’s nothing quite like getting within two spaces of one’s home track, only to be sent back ALL THE WAY TO THE BEGINNING by an opponent’s lucky dice roll. This (to my mind fatal) flaw is particularly important in relation to younger gamers, who may be easily (and justifiably) frustrated when a whim of chance ruins many minutes worth of dice rolling and calculation. It’s not quite as bad as Snakes and Ladders, but there’s definitely room here for house rules which could, say, halve that penalty.
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