Board Game Bonanza: Connect Four

by Edward Boice

Board Game Bonanza examines the rules and winning strategies of a different board game every article. The first column explores winning strategies and techniques for the simple classic Connect Four.

The board game seems like a quaint activity form the past. Today, leisure time can be occupied by playing electronic games with vivid graphics and adrenaline-spiking action, and idle moments anywhere can be turned into leisure time with the download of an app. So sitting down at a table to roll dice or flip cards hardly seems like fun. But in an age of  Call of Duty and Crossy Road the board game still has a lot to offer, particularly the chance to use one’s mind strategically and to socialize.

This column, Board Game Bonanza, will be a reminder of the board game’s continued value, and, I have to admit, an enthusiastic attempt to prevent board games from going the way of tops.  In each article, I will provide information on a particular game, provide a sense of game play, and give you some strategies that might be used to become the champion. Most of all, I hope to remind everyone that board games are not the entertainment world’s equivalent of cave paintings.

connect four
Connect Four. The checkers in the frame demonstrate the trapping technique

Your friends have come over for a day outside. Plans have been made, schedules manipulated, and you all are now finally together. Suddenly, an unpredicted thunderstorm appears. Forced inside, the group must decide on something to do. Connect Four is an optimum game for this situation: this adaptation of Tic-tac-toe has a quick playing time and simple rules, but the game is challenging and can turn a gathering of friends into a struggle for domination.

The game is an activity of aligning checkers—as the name suggests—in a row of four within a yellow frame of six rows and seven columns. One player gets the black checkers, the other red. Players alternate dropping the checkers edge downward into this frame. The checkers stack on one another as the game proceeds.

The game itself is easy. Players are responsible for filling up grid with their colored checkers. But winning is an entirely different matter. Connect Four requires players to see the whole grid—and think far beyond a particular move.

The game first appeared in the 18th century and was originally called The Captain’s Mistress. According to Tradgames.org, a legend circulates that Captain Cook, the British Sea Explorer, was the first to play this game. After the 18th century, the game seems to have disappeared like a sunken ship. It reappeared in 1974 when Hasbro patented the game and first produced Connect Four. Since then, knock-off versions of Connect Four have tried to take some of Hasbro’s profits, but the traditional game has always stood against them.

Connect Four is played much like Tic-tac-toe, but players must align four of their marks (the checkers) in a row–in a vertical row inside one of the slots that players drop their checkers into or in horizontal or diagonal rows across the slots.

Getting your checkers in a row is just part of the gameplay. You also have to think about stopping your opponent from completing a row.

For younger players, the challenge is recognizing that the opponent is about to win. For older players, the strategy is to set up traps for the opponent that force the opponent to make one of two moves: Either avoid the trap at all costs, placing checkers anywhere that will not trigger the trap, or place the checker in the trap, which ends the game.

In order to trap, you must set up three checkers is a row in any combination or direction. A spot should open next to or in the middle of the three checkers, being the place for the fourth checker. Make sure that the trap is not in a place where your opponent can stop it on his next turn, so place the fourth, winning slot two spaces or more above the current checkers level in the frame. As the board fills up with checkers, your opponent is hard pressed to find a spot that will not give away the win. The more traps set, the more your opponent is restricted.

At the same time, you must figure out how the opponent will set up traps against you. It requires constant forethought. Taking a spot the opponent will use to gain a four in a row trap is usually the way to prevent trapping. However, you must also be offensive at the same time and set your own traps up in order to win. Connect 4 requires balancing the need to be defensive, preventing your opponent from trapping, and offensive, setting up your own traps.

Though Connect Four is simple, the game’s simplicity offers lots of opportunity to think strategically, which requires, most of all, seeing and considering multiple moves at the same time. The game quickly becomes addictive, especially because the victor is able to release all the checkers in the grid into a clattering pile that punctuates the win.

You might turn to Connect Four while waiting for that summer shower to pass. But just as Captain Cook found an earlier version to be his mistress, you might find that Connect Four becomes your summer love.