Acey Deucey is a variant of backgammon that has been played in the Sea Services since the early 1900s. It is a competitive game that combines luck and strategy, and after many hundreds of games, patterns emerge that have lessons for real-world strategy.
In wargaming parlance, Acey Deucey is an abstraction—the lowest tier in terms of realism. One characteristic of abstractions is that although the game might be simple, the complexity of interactions can be great. Chess, for example, has millions of possible combinations of moves.
Abstractions have internal tiers of competition. The first is based on the rules. In simple games, players can find winning combinations of moves or at least ones that force a draw. The second tier involves the intellectual and emotional interactions of the players. Who can lure the other into making wrong moves? Who can intimidate the other? In abstractions using dice or some other method of introducing chance, a third tier of probability is added. Acey Deucey involves all three tiers, and in this lies the potential for deriving some lessons on strategy.
In Acey Deucey, it is common to hold back at least one man from entering the board to prevent your opponent from having a safe haven in your home sector. The threat of that man might keep your opponent from placing single men in your sector as they could be killed and sent back to the start. Deterring your opponent from placing singles in your home sector reduces his scope of maneuver and hopefully creates dilemmas (having to place his men in vulnerable positions) if dice rolls are unfavorable.
But if you hold back only one man for defensive purposes, your opponent might choose not to honor that threat, knowing that using that one man would deplete your “strategic reserve.” Your opponent could take some chances, especially earlier in the game, if he thinks you will not be willing to commit that one man at that point. If, however, you keep two back, committing one does not exhaust the deterrent and thus is more effective.
This is an insight into the nature of defensive deterrence in the real world. If the enemy thinks you have sufficient military power not only to generate one pulse of power aimed at a rapid checkmate, but also to sustain the effort indefinitely, deterrence will be enhanced. A “one man” level of deterrence is strategically risky. The concept of “flexible deterrent options” that characterized U.S. military planning for decades was an example of a one-man deterrent.
Aggression vs. Caution
In Acey Deucey, movement to objective—your opponent’s home sector—is an inherent element of strategy. You must choose between an aggressive movement of men as quickly as possible or a more cautious approach using progressive jumps that create protected positions. This game structure reflects the U.S. situation in the Pacific in the interwar years.
There were two schools of strategic thought in the 1920s and early 1930s. The “thrusters” advocated gathering the U.S. fleet in Hawaii and sailing directly to relieve the Philippines. The “cautionaries” believed a more sequential approach through the Mandated Islands was necessary. Wargaming eventually revealed the wisdom of the cautionary approach, which was adopted. Security for the movement toward objective was paramount, as it will be again should the U.S. Navy have to face off against China.
In Acey Deucey, one must constantly choose between being aggressive and being cautious. The answer involves not only the situation on the playing board, but also the proclivity of the player, considering the probabilities. Here again, the game reflects the historical reality of World War II in the Pacific. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was a man of clear proclivities: unremitting aggression. Early in the war that aggressiveness paid off, but by the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese had pegged him and set a trap that used his aggressiveness against him. When Halsey took his powerful fleet and pursued a decoy group, Admiral Takeo Kurita snuck his battleships through the uncovered San Bernardino Strait.
Admiral Raymond Spruance, by contrast, was a bit of a chameleon. At Midway, he was aggressive in ordering a half-launched strike to proceed toward the somewhat fuzzy position reports of Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s carriers, resulting in a resounding victory. Then at the Battle of the Philippine Sea he was cautious, refusing to go dashing toward position reports of Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa’s fleet to instead maintain security of the Saipan beachhead.
Balancing aggression and caution is an important military command skill, and it can be practiced in Acey Deucey.
Relative attrition is a fundamental feature of warfare, but one side often is more able to absorb losses than the other. In many cases, however, the balance is on a knife edge.
In spring 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy was at its zenith in terms of its strength relative to the U.S. Navy. When code breaking revealed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had something big planned for Midway Island, Admiral Ernest King wanted to take the offensive sooner than later, but while U.S. shipbuilding was ramping up, at Midway he would have to make do with the ships then available. He did not want to exchange carriers with Yamamoto, as such losses would delay Nimitz’s ability to take the offensive that summer. He thus advised Nimitz not to risk his carriers and cruisers unless he could to inflict worse losses on the Japanese than he was likely to suffer. This led Nimitz to issue his famous calculated risk message to Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Spruance on the eve of the battle.
Acey Deucey can create a similar situation. If you have kept men back for deterrence purposes, but you have men in vulnerable positions in the opponent’s home sector, killing his men invites reciprocal killing of your own. Can you afford such an exchange? Depending on the situation on the rest of the board maybe, maybe not. It is also a matter of how risk averse or risk oriented you are. Naval battle frequently requires a decision on how much overall capability to risk. Acey Deucey, in the context of a simple game, offers a chance to experience that calculation.
In war, ruses can be used to lure the opponent into making a mistake, just as the Japanese did with Halsey at Leyte. Sometimes, however, the best you can do is to create dilemmas for the enemy, hoping he picks wrong. There are no rules for accomplishing this in the real world, but in Acey Deucey a little clever positioning of your men can produce dilemmas for the opponent.
Using one or two men as deterrents can limit your opponent’s options on any particular dice roll, and creating blocks—two or more protected positions in a row or close to each other—can have the same effect. Motivation matters: It is one thing to establish blocks to provide security for onward movement but quite another to establish them to bollix your opponent. This provides some insight on the matter of disruption.
Naval warfare generally is thought of as attrition based, but there also is a positional aspect: mining to block certain avenues, such as port entries or choke points. Minefields are mostly meant to bar movement, but they also can be used to channel movement in ways disadvantageous to the enemy. In Acey Deucey, the aggressive establishment of blocks in the sector adjacent to your opponent’s home sector can be disruptive because they can keep him from optimizing moves certain dice rolls would otherwise allow.
One can see this disruption in operation with the Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea. Among their other potential uses, they potentially block U.S. naval maneuver from that area unless and until they are dealt with. In peacetime, they absorb U.S. naval attention, thus disrupting optimum movement and operation of naval forces in the theater.
Acey Deucey can develop the intellectual habit of looking for ways to put the opponent on the horns of a dilemma.
Concentration of Force
To conduct an advance, one must have sufficient available resources. Trying to attack an opponent without effective superiority usually is a recipe for disaster. This principle applies in Acey Deucey. To advance with any kind of security, you have to have excess men beyond the two required to secure a position. If you must uncover a position to advance, you risk getting killed. Given that play involves the roll of two dice, it usually is smart to have extra men on two adjacent secure positions. That ups the odds that a dice roll will produce numbers that allow you to move two men to the same position and thus create a new secure base for onward movement. An adept player will look ahead at his “offensive” requirements and seek to have excess men in position at key points in the game, to take the offensive.
In Acey Deucey, a player must maintain a balance between offense and defense. Routine playing inculcates the mental habit of calculating that balance on the fly.
There likely are many other games—chess or the Chinese game of Go, for example—that offer benefits similar to Acey Deucey. However, playing one or two games does not do the trick. You must play game after game to internalize the lessons, which are subtle. Moreover, it requires a conscious recognition that such learning is available—and desirable. It also helps to have knowledge of military history, to take meaning from moving men around a board on the basis of dice rolls while your opponent does the same and attempts to interfere with your plans.
For us anchor clankers, Acey Deucey is a game that is healthful (unless it generates fistfights) and that we can call our own.
Acey Deucey Rules
A version of backgammon, Acey Deucey is more dependent on dice rolls, and its starting positions are different. Players start with all 15 of their men, which look like checkers, off the board. Using rolls of two dice, they attempt to get their men around to the opponent’s home sector and remove them before the opponent does the same thing.
Players roll both dice to move men the corresponding number of points. A player may use both rolls for one man, as long as both the intermediate and destination points are not occupied by two or more enemy men. A man may move to a vacant point or one with men of the same color. A man also may move to a point occupied by one enemy man and kick that man off the board. If two of a player’s men are on one position, they are immune from being “killed.” A killed man must be brought back on the board by a dice roll before a player can do anything else. Creating blocks of two men per position in the opponent’s home sector can keep the killed man from being brought back on, or at least reduce the chances that it will happen on a particular roll.
Rolling doubles allows a player to move a total of four times (e.g., rolling two fives results in four moves of five points). An acey deucey is a roll of a one and a two. The player rolling it takes those numbers and then any doubles of their choice, followed by another roll. If a player rolls three acey deuceys in a row, they lose.