Howard is a Chinese Checkers enthusiast who wants to help others appreciate some of the finer points of this classic game.
Chinese Checkers is a fun strategy game that's easy to learn. I'll assume that you already know how to play. If you're not familiar with the rules, they're easy to find.
This article will look at some winning strategies and tactics to improve your play.
Chinese Checkers Strategy
Let's start with some general principles of good play. These strategies will lead to stronger moves more often than not.
1. Favor Jumping Over Stepping
I'll refer to moving to an adjacent circle as a step. A single jump moves you two spots, while a step moves only one.
On a single turn, this might not make a huge difference, but over the course of a few moves it does.
Take the example of moving two marbles from your top row to the corresponding row on the opposite side of the board. With single steps, it takes 20 moves. With jumps and the two necessary single steps to start and then readjust your aim, it takes 12 moves.
If the board position is right, it's possible to jump a marble from your home base directly into your target base on a single move. Clearly, jumping is the most efficient way to cover distance. Use single steps as setup moves or when that's all you can do.
2. Keep Your Pieces Close
Isolated pieces tend to move slower. When your pieces are close, it's easier to create options for jumping.
Not only can you position a piece to jump your own marbles, but you can use them to connect with your opponents' marbles.
A related principle is to avoid leaving pieces behind. Many a game has been lost by ignoring a lagging piece too long. From one of your back three pieces to the opposite base there are 13-14 spaces. If you need a lot of single steps to cover this distance, you'll lose all the ground you gained earlier.
3. Focus on Offense
One thing that definitely doesn't work is playing defensively. There are simply too many options on the board for your opponent. This is especially noticeable in games with three players or more.
I've tried making defense my first priority, always with disappointing results. It usually leads to my opponent making an easy adjustment and advancing regardless. Meanwhile, I've moved my pieces into a suboptimal position and I'm going nowhere.
Your efforts are better spent developing your pieces while looking for the longest jumping sequences.
It's possible to win while ignoring defense entirely. I don't recommend going to this extreme, but the fact that it can work tells us something about the dynamics of the game. Aggressive play is rewarded.
Chinese Checkers Tactics
So, how do we apply these strategies to our play? Let's get more specific.
4. Use an Effective Opening
A strong opening aligns with all the above strategies, allowing us to set up jumps, stay close and get the offense going.
There are only 14 possible opening moves, and when we combine the ones that mirror each other, there are only 7. This makes it fairly easy to compare their effectiveness.
Strong players almost always open by moving one of the front end marbles inward. This is the consensus pick for the opening move that allows you to get going the quickest.
The second most popular opening is moving one of the front end marbles outward. This also presents many opportunities, but is generally not considered as strong.
There are other lesser seen openings that create interesting opportunities as well. Two of them can be seen in the picture below, in the white and red forces.
5. Build Bridges, Ladders or Chains
Here's another one that encompasses all the above strategies. When the marbles are arranged so that two or more consecutive jumps can be made, we have a bridge, ladder or chain.
Building the network you need to advance your pieces quickly is the most obvious thing to do. Still, we often find ourselves making single steps or single jumps, moving along at a snail's pace.
It's important to make moves that build a bridge for your back pieces. It's amazing what opportunities can present themselves when you do this. Often, your own bridge will connect with an opponent's bridge and the effect is amplified.
Let's look at some of the patterns that will come up in a game.
Three connected marbles can be efficiently moved if they're kept together. The following short video shows how to do this.
A trio can be moved like this until they link up with other pieces.
Four pieces in the right configuration, commonly called a snake, can be moved very quickly. The following short video demonstrates this pattern.
Bridges, Ladders or Chains
Trios and snakes are variations of bridges, but they also occur when the pieces aren't touching.
In the picture below, you can see several bridges have developed after only four moves. Note that not all the possible jumps are shown, only the longest sequences.
Green has used the favored opening mentioned above, moving a front side marble inward.
White and red have used lesser seen openings, with white jumping a second row side marble inward and red outward. It's clear these create some interesting lines as well.
Remember, this is only four moves in. As the game progresses, the options for jumping and setting up jumping sequences can really multiply. Finding these opportunities is a big part of winning.
6. Block When It's Advantageous
Blocking doesn't harmonize with any of the above strategies, which is why we'll do it sparingly. While a focus on blocking is a losing strategy, judicious blocking can be helpful.
If your opponent makes a long jump, look at the route the piece took. How many other pieces can your opponent advance through that path? Are you able to use the same path? Weigh the cost and reward of a block.
If your opponent can maneuver more marbles through the path than you can, it might be worth blocking it. Conversely, if it seems like you can make equal use of this bridge, or better, then go on offense.
Even if the bridge is valuable to your opponent and isn't for you, don't automatically try to block. Look at how effective that would be. Your opponent will often be able to make an adjustment and use a different path. This is especially relevant in games with more than two players. There are too many marbles on the board that you have no control over. Your time might be better spent on your own advancement.
I tend to look for blocks, or at least to remove jumping opportunities, later in the game. When my opponents have one or two pieces farther behind, I try to make it hard on them. At this stage, I can usually do this without impeding my own progress.
The 10 Move Triangle
The 10 move triangle is a popular Chinese Checkers exercise. The challenge is to move all 10 of your marbles out of your home base in only 10 moves, forming an inverted triangle. The way to do this is demonstrated in the following short video.
This is not a very effective opening for actual game play, so what is the value of it?
It's useful in that it shows how to accomplish a specific goal in the most efficient way. Similarly, the goal of the game is to move all 10 of your marbles to the other side in the most efficient way. Familiarizing yourself with the setups and patterns used in the 10 move triangle will help you to see them in games when the marbles are in other positions.
Solitaire Chinese Checkers
There isn't a lot of fun in a one-player game but it can be good for:
- developing efficient opening sequences,
- seeing what an ideal bridge looks like, and
- practicing efficient ways to feed your pieces into the target base.
What is the shortest possible solo game? 27 moves, a solution found by Octave Levenspiel. Researcher George Bell confirmed that this is the fewest possible moves.
Look at the Whole Board
Now that you're aware of more things, the most general strategy is to consider the whole board.
It's easy to get too focused on whatever piece you think should be moved next. Looking at all your possible moves could uncover something better.
Looking at your opponents' positions and identifying their most effective next moves could also change your view.
A Summary of Tips
- Experiment with openings until you find one you really like.
- Build bridges for your back pieces.
- Pieces next to each other or one space away are better than widely spaced pieces.
- Favor offense over defense.
- Get familiar with the common patterns that arise in games.
- Block when it hinders your opponent without slowing your progress too much.
- Don't forget about backwards moves; sometimes a bridge starts by going the wrong way before propelling you forward!
Above all, enjoy playing this fun and simple but challenging game.