On Trax


On Trax
The New Zealand Trax Association Newsletter. Issue: 1

How I Discovered Trax

David Smith
A year or so after I had "invented" Trax, I was walking in a riverbed with my family. Suddenly my daughter bent down and picked up a square shaped flat stone. Scratched across each face were, you've guessed it, straights on the one side and curves on the other!

"Why Dad," remarked Nicky, "here's an ancient Trax tile that could have been lying here for thousands of years. How disappointing."

Not so of course in this case. But Nicky could have been 100% right. There is no reason why crude Trax tiles could not have been made with stones or pieces of wood in pre-historic times and used to play Trax exactly as it is being played today. Even chess had to wait until organised armies were introduced to real life battlefields before that simulated battle was able to be played as a game. That is why I like to say that I "discovered" Trax (to the best of my knowledge that is) rather than invented, designed or devised it as is more usual.

How that came about is almost the story of my life. At just 14 years of age, I first sent a game of mine to Waddingtons in England. It was originally named Call A Doctor, later Medico, and like many other games, it was never published.

That initial burst of enthusiasm for inventing games, quite common in teenage boys from my experience, probably lasted for about ten years. Married life, my career in accountancy and business and family responsibilities postponed my return to designing games for about 25 years.

By 1970, I began to get the bug again and had enough spare time to indulge my quest for the perfect game. Between 1970 and 1980, I had five games published. The third of these was not really original being a card game version of the tile game Mah Jong. That taught me how to source playing cards which in turn led me to look for my first original card game. That game became Tablo which went nowhere but is a very good family game just the same.

Then came the bridge in the search for what turned out to be Trax. Still working with playing cards, I devised a card game version of chess which, not surprisingly, I called Chess Cards. That game was a chess variant which reproduced the pieces as a black and a white set of square playing cards with common backs and each chess piece on the front of one such card in each set. Each player shuffled their set of cards, sight unseen and either drew one new card from the deck or moved one card already in play. The pieces moved as in chess but, and here is the significant aspect, they were played onto "any flat surface" and not onto a board as in regular chess. Furthermore you could not move a piece so as to isolate it from the other cards. There were a few minor rules and Chess Cards turned out to be an interesting game in its own right. In fact, in his book just published (Encyclopedia of Chess Variants), David Pritchard of London describes Chess Cards as one of the two best of the nearly 1500 items in the whole encyclopedia!

Some months after Chess Cards had been published, during the last week in November 1980 to be precise, I began to consider how I could use the boardless format of Chess Cards in a more original manner.

Firstly I came up with every combination of faces incorporating two lines per colour per face. There were 28 in all, too many I reasoned from the standpoint of manufactured cost. So I then tried one line per colour per face. There were just two of these. Not enough I at first thought to produce a viable game. But I made up a set of these tiles in more or less equal numbers i.e. half curves, half straights.

What to do next? How about playing a tile each in turn until one player was first to form a loop with their colour? Too easy to defend by turning the tracks outwards I felt. How about trying to join opposite sides of the formation? Too easy to defend by turning them inwards. How about either or? Just right. How many straights tiles and curves tiles per set? Why not use straights on one side and curves on the other and play them either side up? Two tiles in one so to speak. How many of these per set? 100 perhaps, allowing the game to be played to 10 x 10 limits? Again a bit costly to manufacture. Why not an 8 by 8 limit as in chess, draughts, reversi, etc, reducing the number of tiles per set to the more reasonable 64?

In one day, the game was almost discovered. But a problem kept presenting itself. Three edged spaces entered by one colour. These became dead or unplayable spaces that were being used to destroy each player's loop and line attacks.

I suspended the process to make a business trip to Auckland. During that trip, I visited my sister in Pukekohe. The following morning, on a bus between Pukekohe and Auckland, an obvious solution to my Trax problem entered my head. So long as each player joined up any two edged spaces entered by the same colour, there would be no chance of a third edge rendering that space unplayable.

Back at my hotel, I cancelled plans to visit clients that day and spent the time testing the new rule and writing it. The testing part was easy. The writing part took most of the day.

Back in Christchurch, the game was test played with my sons Jeremy and Tim and found to be just right.

The name came almost immediately, a much used brand name for many products I subsequently discovered (but no other game to my knowledge). Summer holidays were spent trying to "bust" the game, a trade term for a flawed game. I could not do so that summer, nor has an army of players been able to do so since.

Early in 1981, the first cardboard tile sets were published and, soon afterwards, my first strategy book called How To Play Better Trax. In that book, a variation is proposed called Marathon Trax in which the 8x8 limits are suspended, lines must reach outermost edges at least 8 rows apart and more than one set of tiles may be needed. Thus was Supertrax devised as a natural extension of the basic game.

After 2 million years, Trax had finally been discovered!
TRAX is the common law mark of David Smith and is used to identify his tile game and equipment. Rules of TRAX copyright 1981, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1998 and 2017 David Smith, Christchurch, NZ.
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