Most people remember Snakes and Ladders (or the alternative version, Chutes and Ladders) as one of their earliest board games, usually right after Candyland. I never played either as a child, but I’m unusual in more than that respect. My son finds Snakes and Ladders comforting, primarily because of its use of numbers on each square. He figured out early on that you can simply add the number you rolled to the space you’re on to get the number to which you go next, without having to count the spaces in between.
But the official rules for Snakes and Ladders lack any opportunity for applied skill, unless you can cultivate the ability to roll whatever number you want on the die. So to make things more interesting, my son developed a few new rules (as he is often wont to do).
Our edition of the game came bundled in a set of board games. One of those, Parcheesi, requires four pawns of each color. So my son asked if we could play Snakes and Ladders using four pawns each – for each roll, the player decides which of his pawns to move. That really changes things! Obviously, you avoid moving to a space occupied by a snake, but you also try to set up each pawn to be within six spaces of a major ladder — then let them sit there until you roll the right number.
Another not so obvious feature of this rule is that as your pawns reach 100, your options are reduced. Thus, it’s not in your best interest to always try to get the lead pawn home. In fact, even once a pawn reaches the 90’s, your choices for that pawn are significantly limited. When you have only one pawn left, you’re back to the old “victim of chance” rules of the original game.
But my son still found this version a bit too easy, so he invented another rule: if at the end of your move, your pawn is diagonal to one of your opponent’s pawns and there is an open space diagonally beyond that, you can jump it as in Checkers and remove it from the board. I thought that the captured piece should then have to start over, but he insisted that it should be gone for good. If you can capture all of your opponent’s pieces, then you win – without having to get your pawns to 100. However, there’s a catch – if you don’t take all four of your opponent’s pieces, he or she only has to get their remaining pawns to 100 in order to win. So if your opponent already has pawns at 100 and you capture the last one on the board, they win right away. Jumping your opponent may help you win quickly, or it may merely shorten your opponent’s distance from winning. Unlike in Checkers, you can choose whether or not to jump. Naturally, this rule increases the value of getting one pawn to 100 quickly.
But my son wasn’t finished yet. He wanted to make the game even more interesting. So, for whichever pawn you decide to move, after you compute the space on which it would land, swap the digits and go there instead – if you would land on 85, go to 58, for example. Then follow the rule (if any) at that space (ladder, snake, or optional jump). Naturally, multiples of eleven are unaffected by this rule. But for other numbers, it has the effect of sending you back and forth all over the board. If you’re at 89 and roll a 2, for example, you have to go all the way back to 19. The ideal space to hit is number 8 – which when swapped becomes 80, where stands a ladder right up to 100. But you can’t get to 8 on your first roll, and whatever space you do hit on your first roll will send you to a multiple of ten. So you subsequently either have to hit a snake or land on a multiple of ten to get back into range of 8. Naturally, if you end up exactly on 100 you don’t have to go anywhere else.
With all of these rules in play, determining your best move given the roll on the die can be quite challenging. The probabilities become difficult to compute in your head, and the game can last for a long, long time – until it abruptly ends.