Tic-tac-toe doesn’t have a lot of reps. Sure, it’s a brief, simple distraction from the monotony of existence, but once your 8-year-old self realizes that you can still force a draw, it loses its appeal. The problem with noughts and crosses is the lack of strategic depth: there is only one viable strategy, and this strategy is simple enough to be memorized and applied with almost no effort. So the noughts and crosses falls into the sad category of solved games. It would be more unpredictable to challenge someone to recite the alphabet backwards.
Many other games with oft-lamented design flaws have it worse. Monopoly – the great lady of vilified games – leaves any meaningful strategy at the door and entrusts its players to a five-hour demonstration of the evils of the unbridled real estate markets. Pick Candyland, Sorry !, and their ilk looks cheap. They’ve been through enough abuse already.
Yet even with his ignominy at the bottom of the Geek board game rankings, the tic-tac-toe can be redeemed with three simple tricks that turn it from a trivial exercise into a much deeper and more enjoyable game. Note that this new version is still a resolute game, but the winning strategy is more complicated than in the vanilla tic-tac-toe, and therefore more difficult to memorize and deploy. And, most importantly, your next opponent will not yet have practiced the strategies necessary to win.
Numerophile has a video in which mathematician Thane Plambeck discusses this variation on the noughts and crosses, in its one- and three-board versions. Plambeck wrote an article about the game you can find on arXiv.
The first twist of this new version of the noughts and crosses (available in the Apple Store under Notakto) is this both players play as X. Normally, of course, one player plays as X and the other as O, and they go head-to-head to make three in a row. If both players play as X and neither of the other rules change, the game is still a draw. Instead of a draw, the first player can still force a win.
To solve this problem, we adopt another rule change known as misery play, in which the way to win is to lose. It still doesn’t make the game much more interesting. Your third and final twist will correct this: play on several boards at the same time. If three X’s appear in a row, that board is dead. The game continues until there is only one board left. Whoever makes three in a row on the final board loses the game.
Even those tweaks on a game as simple as noughts and crosses should get you started. But watch Plambeck show off his work below, to get the full effect. “This game is difficult to master,” he says. It was about time, noughts and crosses.