Buzzworthiness: Tic-Tac-Toe

Happy Reviewsday!  Let’s kick April off with a review of possibly the greatest game of all time…

image by BGG user JBMallus
image by BGG user JBMallus

Tic-Tac-Toe is a classic abstract game for two players.  The creator of the game is lost to the winds of time, but the game remains a staple of the pen-and-paper set.  It’s a model of simplicity – the game is played on a 3×3 grid of squares.  Play proceeds with one player placing an X in one of the nine squares.  The other player then places an O in one of the eight remaining squares.  Play alternates back and forth between the two until one player has claimed three squares in a straight line, or until all squares have been claimed with no winner declared (a draw).

COMPONENTS: Tic-Tac-Toe is an extremely versatile game.  It can be played on beautifully crafted boards, or on a piece of paper.  Players have even been known to draw grids in sand, and mechanically inclined types may construct a grid out of items like twigs or toothpicks or pencils.  Your mileage will vary depending on how much you like your goober.  I’m kind of partial to this one from Ralph Lauren – if only I had $595.

THEME: As an abstract game, there is no theme to Tic-Tac-Toe.  However, as I mentioned, the game is quite versatile, and the use of Xs and Os is not the only way to play.  Any two opposing forces can be used.  Angels vs. demons.  Yankees vs. Red Sox.  Beatles vs. Monkees.  Axis vs. Allies.  Humans vs. aliens.  A battle for the fate of the entire world can be fought just using a simple 9×9 grid.  Quite an amazing thing.

MECHANICS: The beauty of Tic-Tac-Toe is its simplicity.  It’s just placing pieces and trying to create a pattern of three in a line.  This leads to tense decisions, shrewd planning, and clever placement.  The mechanics are simple, but they lead to the strategic appeal of the game.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Tic-Tac-Toe is often criticized for a lack of strategy, but I think those critics have missed the point.  Tic-Tac-Toe is the original microgame, with its small size leading to an incredible amount of choices.  If you think about it, the first player has nine choices for the first placement, but the second player then has eight.  Already, there are 72 different combinations.  With the 7 remaining choices for the third move, there are now 504 possible board permutations.  If the game makes it to the ninth move, there are over 362,000 ways the game could have gone.  Pretty remarkable for nine squares, no?

I’ve done a lot of study into the strategy of Tic-Tac-Toe, and I thought I’d share some of my findings with you here.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, so go ahead and skip to Accessibility if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I’ve found that the ideal first move is in one of the corners.  This leaves your opponent with eight choices, and seven of them will lead to automatic wins if you follow my strategy plan.  Let’s say your opponent goes into another corner.  Your next move should be to go into another corner – if you go to a side space or the center, you will get into a blocking war and end in a draw.  In another corner, your opponent will be forced to block you in between yours.  This will then free you to make your third move set up two ways to win.  Your opponent will only be able to block one, and you will win on the fourth move.

Let’s back up.  You play in a corner and your opponent plays on the side.  Your next move should be to place in an adjacent corner (NOT the opposite corner – that will lead to a blocking war).  They’ll block, and you’ll be able to make your third move to give yourself that blessed two ways to win.

If your opponent counters your first move with a center placement, you will have a bigger kill to climb.  My suggestion is to try placing in the opposite corner.  If your opponent plays on the side, you’re most likely going to end up in another blocking war.  However, if he places in another corner, you’ll be able to block with your third move and set up that two ways to win scenario.

Beginning on the side or the center isn’t as much of a slam dunk, but you can still win.  I’ll leave you to figure out how.  Likewise, if you are the second player, it’s going to be much more difficult to win.  I’d suggest you always counter the first move with a placement in the center.  If they begin in the center, block on the corner.  Trust me.

ACCESSIBILITY: Tic-Tac-Toe is a game that anyone of any age can play.  All you have to know is what shape to use.  The subtle strategies of the game are perhaps not available to younger players, but it’s a game for all ages and skill levels.

REPLAYABILITY: I already said there are over 362,000 possibilities for a game to play out.  That’s a lot of replayability right there.

SCALABILITY: Unfortunately, Tic-Tac-Toe is only a two player game, so if you’re looking for a multiplayer experience, you’re out of luck.  However, the game is so quick that you could line up a tournament fairly easily.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? …No.  I almost kept it up, but I can’t do this with a straight face any longer.  Tic-Tac-Toe is terrible unless you are playing against a three-year-old.  Then the only joy is torturing them by always winning.  And since you would have to be a horrible monster to want to torture a three-year-old, just don’t play it.  Happy April Fool’s Day, and I’ll be back with something real later this week.  Thanks for reading!

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