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On Trax
The New Zealand Trax Association Newsletter. Issue: 13

GoldToken Newsletter Article #1

Donald Bailey
First published in the GoldToken Monthly Newsletter, July 2005. Reproduced here with permission.
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Greetings fellow Trax fans. I have been asked to provide a few insights into Trax, and Trax strategy.

One of the most common questions I am asked by players new to Trax is, "what should I be doing?" This is because Trax is unlike most other games you are likely to have played. The rules may be straight forward, but they don't actually tell you how to play.

The first thing to get used to is the forced play rule. Many people are at first confused by several tiles being played in a turn. In fact I have been asked on several occasions, "how did you get to play 2 turns?" Rest assured, you only get 1 turn, and for that turn you only get to choose (or more precisely, specify) 1 tile. The other tiles are forced, as a consequence of the tile that was played. Although the rules clearly describe how the forced tiles are played (you get no choice after you play the first tile) it usually takes at least 5 or 6 games to really come to terms with forced plays, and longer to really make use of them.

One of the first keys to playing Trax well is to think of all the tiles played in a turn as a unit, as a single more, rather than as a primary tile and forced tiles. The primary tile is just the tile you need to play to cause that whole unit to be played. While this may seem like semantics, it is important because until you reach that stage you will be restricted to playing a move in the current position only, and not begin to plan ahead. Having said that, there are a few tricks to help you visualise how the forced tiles work.

First of all, on Gold Token you can actually check your move (including forced plays) before you actually submit it. This feature can be useful, particularly while you are learning forced plays, or if you are lazy. However if you are going to play well, it is important to learn to predict what forced plays are going to be made.

Secondly, forced plays generally follow a pattern sometimes called the "ripple effect". A long string of forced plays can occur along an edge when the black and white paths alternate. This is described in more detail in an On Trax article so I will not go into any more detail here. In 2-sided hollows, forced plays are more complicated, and in 3-sided caves, even I have trouble visualising what happens all of the time.

So what is the importance of forced plays for Trax? Well without them Trax doesn't actually work as a game - it is too easy to create positions where tiles cannot be played (with 3 lines of the same colour entering a space). Forced plays are also the reason why a half loop is an attack - because a half loop can be closed in a single turn. Strategically though (or more technically, tactically) forced plays allow you to use your turn to do more than one thing at a time.

For example, in defending an attack, you do not necessarily have to play the primary tile to defend the attack. If forced plays allow, you can sometimes play the primary tile some distance from the attack, and allow the forced tiles to do the defending for you. With the primary tile you can work at extending your line, or make a counter-attack for yourself, or defend another threat your opponent has. In fact, one of the most common ways to win in Trax is to make 2 independent attacks in the same turn (using an L threat). If you are using your moves to do 2 or even 3 things at once, and your opponent is only doing 1 thing with their move, it doesn't take long for you to get an advantage.

Okay, that's forced plays, but I haven't really addressed the question of what should you be doing when you get your turn. Playing tiles randomly might work against someone who has never played before, but it won't win you any tournaments! The objective of the game is to make a loop or a line of your colour. So obviously the first thing to try is to make a loop since that is easier than a line. Unfortunately, as a strategy, this does not work very well. As soon as you make a loop attack (a half loop) your opponent can defend, and you are back to square one. All you have done is force your opponent to play in a particular place on the playing area (to defend your attack). Actually, most of the time you are worse off after your opponent defends.

To see why this is so, let us carefully consider what happens in making and defending an attack. I will work from the premise that being able to make a loop is a good thing, since that is what we are trying to do! You can consider the section of track before you attack to be a potential loop (that is why you considered making the attack). Such sections of track (they may consist of more than one tile!) are called corners and connectable pairs. They are good. When you make an attack you are using one of your corners, so your potential is reduced. You force your opponent to defend, and in many cases they can defend in such a way that you are unable to reform the attack later - you lose your corner. When they defend, often they can also do it in a way that increases their potential. So by making such an attack, you are actually weakening your own position, and forcing your opponent to strengthen their position. You lose potential, and they gain potential.

Therefore, counting corners (or potential attacks) is one way of estimating the value or strength of a position. The player with the most corners is usually in the better position. This is a little like counting pieces in checkers or a weighted count of pieces in chess. In Trax, it is the ability to attack that is important, not the actual attacking (unless of course, you can force a win!) There are a couple of reasons for this. First, threats (such as Ls, edges, and more complex multi-stage threats) consist of one or more corners placed in the right configuration. If you have lots of corners, this can restrict what your opponent can play because they may give you threats. Second, being able to attack is essential if you get into the unfortunate position where your opponent has multiple threats. Third, the presence of your corners may actually make some of your opponent's threats less useful, because if you can make a counter-attack at a critical stage while they are using a multiple stage threat, you can wrest the initiative off them and then defend the threat.

While corner counting is important, it is not the only consideration. Not all corners are equal; some corners are more valuable than others. An L threat only requires 2 corners, and some threats only require a single corner. If you only have 2 corners in an L threat, it doesn't matter if your opponent has a dozen - if it is your turn you can win. Corner counting therefore only provides a first estimation of strength of a position. Other, more complex factors are also important (maybe the topic for a future column!)

So in answer to the original question, "what should I be doing?" in the absence of anything obvious (such as closing off a loop for yourself, or defending your opponent's attack, or threat) you should look at increasing your potential relative to your opponent. This usually means creating corners or setting up potential attacks for yourself (not actually making the attacks), or destroying your opponent's corners. Often you can do both in a single turn. You need to be careful though that in so doing you do not actually create threats for your opponent, but that is another story...

Happy Traxing!
Donald Bailey

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