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Dots and Boxes: How to Play & Rules – 11 Main Things to Consider

In the game of Dots and Boxes, both players are looking to win. Yet, the question arises, how familiar are you with the rules of the game and what are the main things you need to consider while playing?

First, you need to understand that the game of Dots and Boxes involves players connecting dots pre-drawn on a grid until a box is formed. The player who draws the line that closes a box wins that box, and at the end of the game, the player with the highest number of boxes wins.

This article explains the main things you need to consider when playing Dots and Boxes.

1. You Need to Set Up the Game

Prior to the start of the game, the players need to set up the game board by forming a grid. To form this grid, equally spaced dots are to be drawn on a clean sheet of paper. The grid can be 2 by 2, 3 by 3, 4 by 4, or any size.

2. You Need to Learn the Game Rules

To play this game, players draw lines, either vertical or horizontal, joining adjacent dots. A square is completed when the fourth side of a 1 by 1 box is drawn. Once you complete a square, you claim it. 

The square wins you a point, and you record it by marking the square either with your initials, the first letter of your name, or any predetermined symbol. Whoever wins a point gets the chance to make another move.

Also, the game ends when there are no more lines to draw. The player with the highest points in the round wins.

At first, Dots and Boxes may seem fairly easy. This game is, however, more complex than it looks. There are levels of play and several moves. So, to win, what extra things do you need to consider?

3. Learn to Make Moves

You’ve made a move when you connect two dots with a line, either vertically or horizontally. If a move allows you to claim two boxes, such moves are known as double-crossing moves.

4. Making a Turn

If you complete a square, you have to make another move. This is called retaining a turn. By retaining turns, you can make as many moves as possible so long as, in every move you make, you complete at least one square; until the last move, after which your opponent makes the next move.

5. Chain and Loops

Chains and loops are groups of boxes that are linked such that any move you play allows you to keep playing until all the boxes are completed. 

A chain is any group of boxes that starts in one place and ends in another place. When there are three or more boxes in a group, it is called a long chain. A group of four or more boxes that starts and ends in the same place is known as a loop.

6. A Non-Chain

If you complete a single or double box in isolation, that box is a non-chain.

If you’re getting all the long chains, this makes you the leader. If you are not, you’re the follower. As a leader, you’d try to avoid having too many non-chains as it will add up to your opponent’s score and bring them closer to winning. As a follower, by default, the last non-chain is yours. Try to make as many non-chain as possible. 

There are different levels of gameplay depending on your skill set and level of experience.

7. Novice Level of Play

If you are a novice, it is good to start with a small grid to get the hang of it; a 2×2 grid (9 dots), for example.

Your rule of play is to avoid drawing the third line early in the game. If you do that, you’d be giving away a square. That is like setting yourself up to lose. Simply put, do not draw a third line when there are adjacent dots you can still connect. Keep connecting these dots until you just have to draw the third line.

At this point, you may have created a chain or a loop. At this level, creating chains or loops is the main strategy in this game. But you have to be careful. This is because you may win a chain and, by so, open a much longer chain. Thus, giving away the win to your opponent.

This means you have to create the longest chain possible. The longer the chain, the more your chances of winning. Being able to create a chain shows that you understand the basic tactic of winning. This takes you to the next level.

8. Double-dealing

To win Dots and Boxes, you may need to sacrifice smaller chains to get longer ones. This is called double-dealing or the double-cross strategy. To double-cross your opponent, you may need to play an all-but-two or an all-but-four move. First, you need to get your opponent to open the next chain or loop for you.

If your opponent opens a long chain, your move is the all-but-two trick. Here you take all of the boxes offered, leaving the last two. With this move, you must claim every available chain to maximize your chances of winning at counting the chain principle.

If your opponent opens a loop, there are two moves you can play. One way is to take all of the boxes in the loop and keep playing first for the rest of the game. Or you can play the all-but-four trick. Here you take all the boxes in the loop except four. Doing this will force your opponent to play first for the rest of the game.

Mastery of these double-dealing strategies takes you one step further in the level of play

9. Control the Game

There’s more to winning the game than creating chains and loops. You have to get and retain control of the game. To do this, you need to create as many long chains (or loops) as possible. Then, double deal; force your opponent to open chains or loops for you. If you can get your opponent to do this, you have gotten control.

This means that any move your opponent makes allows you to claim new boxes. The next step is to retain that control. To do this, you may need to refuse to claim a square, politely, of course. Double deal, and your opponent will either open a new chain or loop for you to claim.

10. The Parity Rule

Double-crossing works in the most straightforward of cases but not all. When playing at the pro level, you need to move your way out of a double-cross. This is where the parity rule comes in.

On an odd grid such as 3×3, or 5×5, if you are player 1, you should strive to make the number of initial chains, including double-crossed moves. If you are player 2, you aim to make the number odd. On an even grid like a 4×4, the reverse is the case. 

Mastering double-dealing strategies is important because it helps you see when you’re being set up. So you can decline a loop or chain with a series of strong moves. This is called a hard-hearted handout. One way is to prevent the formation of new long chains.

Your opponent will be forced to resign and make a suicidal move. This is called taking a half-hearted handout. This move is fatal because any player who takes such a move, sacrifices their shot at the parity rule and subsequent long chains; and so is bound to lose.

For you to keep control at this level, you should not be the first to offer up squares in a long chain. Do not take a half-hearted handout. Try to avoid getting into such tricky situations where you have no choice but to resign and accept defeat.

11. Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to the aforementioned rules.

1. Odd grids

For a 3×3 grid, there are a total of 9 boxes. To win, you need to claim at least 5 of these boxes. In a 5×5 grid, the boxes are 25 in total. You need to claim at least 13 to win. In a 7×7 grid with 49 boxes, you need to claim at least 25 boxes to win the game.

2. Sacrifice squares with caution.

Or else, you’d give away too many boxes and lose. If you make a mistake, don’t resign in haste. You can, through a series of moves, turn that to your advantage. 

All Things Considered

Dots and Boxes is a seemingly simple game. But it is, in reality, a game of who gets and keeps control. At the beginner level, you should try to win as many squares as you can. But with increasing levels, you need to understand the different tactics and techniques used in playing the game.

  • Do not give away a box early in the game
  • Sacrifice a small chain to win a long one.
  • Do not forget the parity rule.
  • Avoid mistakes. If they occur, find ways to make them an advantage.

Once you know and understand these concepts, winning is only a matter of making dots into lines and boxes.