It’s not when you stumble upon an unidentified flying [spoiler], or the part where George Washington falls off a [spoiler], or even when Desmond finds out that he’s really the son of [spoiler] (joking!). No, my most memorable experience in Assassin’s Creed III so far: when I finally, finally beat the computer at Nine Men’s Morris (not joking).
Oh Nine Men’s Morris, how you wracked my brain and kept me up through the wee hours last night, trying to eek out a single victory, which is probably why I’m writing about you and too addle-brained to tackle something serious, like whether John McAfee “desperately” needs a toothbrush.
Nine Men’s Morris is a strategy game — actually a game-within-a-game here. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve even played it. I hadn’t until Assassin’s Creed III, where it’s one of three strategy mini-games you encounter ranging around your frontier/homestead, doing do-gooder deeds for the locals (who in turn bolster your convoy-based economy by producing goods you can sell). The other two old-schools strategy games are Bowls and Fanorona. Bowls, a fairly straightforward ball-tossing game that’s a little like Horseshoes (only with a movable stake), I beat the second time I tried. Fanorona, a vaguely Checkers-like board game, took some doing, but I eventually stumbled into a win.
But Nine Men’s Morris (or just “Morris,” in ACIII parlance — there’s apparently a “Six Men’s” version in the game, too) took real think-five-moves-ahead strategizing to win. I must have thrown at least 1,000 quid into a black hole of figuring-out-how-to-play before I scored my first (and only) achievement-unlocking victory against the computer. All the while, my portly Ben Franklin-looking opponent in tri-corner hat would tap his fingers impatiently if I dawdled, or wave his hand across the board, as if to say “Anytime, fool.”
One thing that got me, early on, was an “almost” victory where the computer appeared to cheat to win. If, like me, your first time with Nine Men’s Morris was ACIII, you know exactly what I’m talking about — the point at which the computer just starts hopping all over the board, willy-nilly.
This is where actually taking the time to read the rules helps.
Both sides start with nine pieces (the “men”), either all white or black, and have to place them on a board with 24 intersecting positions. Those 24 positions are laid out as three squares with nine points a piece (centers and corners), stacked one inside another.
The goal is to get three pieces in a row, called a “mill,” at which point you’re allowed to remove one of the opponent’s pieces — your pick of any on the board. After taking turns placing all the pieces, both sides move one piece per turn to an adjacent, available point. To win, you either have to reduce your opponent’s piece count to two, or trap all her/his pieces with your own, preventing any legal moves.
But there’s an optional rule I skipped over in my haste, and one that ACIII deploys in force: When a player is down to just three pieces, he/she can move those last three pieces anywhere on the board, something apparently referred to not as “baldfaced cheating,” but euphemistically as “flying.” It’s a little like a Limit Break in Final Fantasy VII, only without the flashy choreography, and the timer never runs out.
I was so focused on getting three-in-a-row or trapping the computer, that I’d whittle him down to those final three, then quickly lose ground (I was up eight pieces to his three at one point) until, in a climactic three-on-three showdown, he’d either trap or trick me into giving him three in a row.
Winning, then, seems to be more about knocking the computer down to four pieces, then not taking any more and simply trapping the remaining ones, which is how I finally won my first and only game. I’m not kidding when I say it’s my single most satisfying moment in ACIII, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment — I’ve been enjoying ACIII overall plenty. There’s just something about these older, simpler, symmetrical board games that makes me wish they’d stuffed a whole casino’s worth into a building somewhere (having it sync with the historical setting is pretty cool, too). I’d detour to play stuff like this all day long.
By the way, it’s a little unsettling losing to the computer dozens of times and only winning once. You only need that single victory to nab the achievement, of course — asking more would no doubt have prompted howls of frustration (search for people going for that single win in ACIII and you’ll turn up plenty of howling anyway). We have online scoreboards crammed with chronicles of our video game victories, but it’d be sobering indeed if games reported how many times we’ve collectively been losing, playing against these brutally efficient artificial opponents.