There's a whole lot of ways to enjoy a beautiful deck of custom cards, whether it is for card flourishing, card magic, or just as a collector. But one of my personal favourite ways to enjoy a nice custom deck is to use it for playing card games. There's a whole world of wonderful games you can play with a traditional deck, and if you're looking for ideas, head to my article that covers over 40 great card games. But of all the card games I've ever played (and that's a lot!), of my all-time favourites is Cribbage. This classic two-player card game is one of the best card games. Ever.
My own Cribbage storyPerhaps you're a little sceptical about my praise. Cribbage dates back to the early 1600s. I know. And it has some quirky rules. True. But hear me out here, and let me establish some credibility first. I'm a pretty hard-core gamer. I've been actively reviewing board games for over ten years, and in that time I've reviewed hundreds of games. Literally. I've played hundreds and hundreds of board games and card games. I've also got a special interest in games played with a traditional deck of playing cards, and as of a few years ago I had played virtually all the most popular ones that are played around the world. Except Cribbage.
For years Cribbage had remained elusive, because nobody in my circle knew how to play it, and could teach me. Some twenty years ago I'd tried learning it from the written rules a couple of times, but it just didn't seem to make sense and come together. I'll concede that Cribbage is a somewhat unusual game, and if you don't have someone to teach it firsthand, it can be a bit of beast to learn. So I gave up.
But then a few years ago, I gave it another shot. Technology has advanced rapidly over the last twenty years, so now I had the benefit of watching some youtube videos explaining the game. And I could download a free app which included a tutorial, and enforced the rules. Suddenly everything clicked, and now the game became a cinch. Before I realized it, I was hooked. I taught it to my wife. I taught it to my kids. And they were all hooked too. Over the last couple of years, it has quickly become one of my go-to games, and is easily one of my all-time favourite two player games. It's one of the first games my wife and I will reach for if we're looking for a relaxing game to play together.
This would not carry all that much weight if I was the only person this ever happened to. But I know from reading online game forums that my own experience is not an isolated one. I've come across quite a lot of experienced gamers who were introduced to Cribbage, and quickly fell in love with it, despite all the large number of modern games they already had on their shelf. So what is it about Cribbage that makes it so much fun to play, and if you've never heard of it or tried it before, why should you make the effort to learn it? In this article, I'll give you an overview about the game, tell you what is so great about it, and suggest some ways to make it easy to learn it.
What is Cribbage?The pedigree: Cribbage originated in England in the early 17th century, and is usually attributed to Sir John Suckling. It became popular in the English-speaking world, and continues to thrive even today. It has been given a place of honor by American sailors, and submarine crews especially have a long history with the game, and there are even special traditions connected with passing on a personal game board that goes back to a commander from the second World War. So Cribbage has a long and distinguished history, and is actively played by millions around the world today, so it occupies a high position among the all-time greats of traditional card games.
The play: The basic concept of the game revolves around building point-scoring card combinations, and the goal is to be the first player to reach 121 points on the score-board, which players keep track of with pegs. Games are played in a series of hands, in which players are dealt six cards, and they must set aside two of these six to a "crib" which will later score points for the dealer. You play cards in turns, and add their values together (court cards count as ten points) until you reach or near 31, and then this process is repeated. During this process you score points for combinations like cards that add to 15, pairs and triples, runs, and flushes.
The show: After the four cards in each player's hand have been played (sometimes called "The Play"), you move into the second phase of a hand (sometimes called "The Show"). Here you score points for any such similar combination that exists from the four cards in your hand, along with a "starter" card that is turned up randomly at the start of the hand. The dealer scores points from the crib in a similar fashion. After this you play a new hand, with the other player becoming the dealer.
The quirks: This is by no means a complete description of all the rules, since there are also additional elements such as bonus points awarded for "his nobs" and "his heels", which refer to Jacks in specific situations. I did say it was a little quirky. So don't rely on the above overview in order to try playing the game; it is just a brief overview to give you a rough sense of how the game works, without going into detail. You can find a more extensive description of all the rules here.
What is good about Cribbage?So what is good about the game of Cribbage, and why have people kept coming back to it across the years?
1. It has stood the test of time.
You might think that the only reason people are still playing Cribbage today, despite the fact that it's a game from the 1600s, is because they don't know any better, and they are just old-fashioned, and haven't had exposure to the great crop of modern games. Not so. I'd be the first to concede that we've witnessed a revolution in board games over the last quarter of a century, and today's modern games stand head and shoulders over most titles from the past. But Cribbage isn't just a holdout and relic from a previous era; it's still popular today simply because it is a good game in its own right. And despite some idiosyncrasies, it's genuinely a good game, even when measured by today's standards.
2. It uses a deck of standard playing cards.
To play Cribbage, you will need a special Cribbage board which is used for the scoring. But these are relatively inexpensive, and once you have one, it will last for a life-time of use. But the only main component you’ll be needing besides that is a standard deck of playing cards. Almost everyone has playing cards already, which means that you don’t have to splash out or spend big. And once your cards wear out or start looking old, you grab a new pack. This puts Cribbage within easy reach of almost everyone.
3. It is perfect for two players.
The majority of traditional card games cater to four players, or at least three and up. There certainly are some other very solid card games that can be enjoyed with two players, but the choices are far more limited than the options you have if you're playing a card game with more players. That makes Cribbage a very welcome addition to your repertoire, because it is a wonderful option to enjoy if you only have two at the table.
4. It doesn’t take forever to learn.
Some classic card games, like Bridge, can take a lifetime to master and enjoy, in light of the many conventions they involve, and the level of skill required. Even though it has some strategy and skill, Cribbage is not a chess-like game of that type. Sure, it has some quirky rules that you have to get past, and there are aspects of how the game works that can throw you initially. But it's not a difficult game to learn or play as such. You can teach someone how to play quite easily in a single sitting, and they'll be off and running quite quickly, and enjoying how the game works, and making decisions for themselves. In addition, a single game can be finished within 20 minutes, so it doesn’t require an enormous commitment of time to play.
5. It doesn’t take forever to play.
Not only is Cribbage a very accessible game to learn, but it is also very easy to get to the table for a quick game. It’s very portable, because all you need to carry with you is a Cribbage board and a deck of cards. If we go out to a restaurant or park, my wife normally keeps a travel board and a deck in her purse, so we can pull it out any time we want. There’s no complex setup required, because all we need to do is whip out the score board, shuffle up the deck, and we’re ready to go. Most games only take 15-30 minutes at most, so playing a game doesn’t require an investment of a full evening – although you certainly can play multiple games back-to-back if you want to.
6. It is good for children.
I've been amazed at how quickly older children take to Cribbage. Besides my own children, I've enjoyed introducing a number of my nephews and nieces to Cribbage, and it's surprising how quickly they catch up. They really enjoy finding the point scoring combinations, and this is also a valuable learning exercise for them. Being able to quickly put together pairs of numbers, calculate values, and spot combinations, is a useful skill, and they will get plenty of practice doing this in Cribbage. Over time they'll also learn how to use basic probability. In my experience, this kind of math in Cribbage isn't painful for children to do, but kids love the challenge, and find it very rewarding to spot combinations and score points. I wouldn't suggest it for young children, but for children who can comfortably do some basic addition and subtraction of numbers up to 30, this presents no problem.
7. It is good for seniors.
Many people from the older generation grew up with Cribbage. If you have an aged grandparent, there's a real chance that they know how to play Cribbage. Playing Cribbage with them can be a great way to spend some meaningful time together, doing something special and memorable. I've read many stories from gamers who have treasured memories of playing Cribbage with their grandfather or grandmother. It really is the perfect game for that purpose.
8. It has a novel and iconic board.
Cribbage boards have become iconic, and are immediately recognizable. The classic shape and style that is most common is enjoyable to use, because players usually have two pegs in operation, with one leapfrogging the other each time as you add points to your score. It's a good system to ensure you don't lose track of your place on the board, and it adds something enjoyable that is both tactile and visual. There are some lovely Cribbage boards that you can purchase, and somehow this seems to make the game more unique and special, and helps distinguish it from an ordinary card game. Some people have made custom boards out of wood, and these even become fairly heirlooms, enjoyed across generations.
9. It has novel terminology, including special rules for `skunking'.
Cribbage has some memorable terms that are an important part of its lore and charm. What other game can you think of that has special rules for skunking? I'm sure that there are some, but it's a terrific part of Cribbage. A win by over 30 points (i.e. where the opponent has a score of under 90) counts as a "skunk", and gives you two points for the win instead of just a single point. The beauty of this is that even if you are way out in front or way behind, there are minor objectives to aim for. If you're clearly losing, you still have an important goal: can you avoid the indignity of being skunked? And if you are clearly winning, can you turn this into an emphatic victory where you manage to skunk your opponent? Not only is the lingo humorous, but it has a positive and meaningful impact on the game-play.
10. It is perfect for enjoying a custom deck.
I already alluded to this in the introduction, but it's worth mentioning here as a separate point. This is a playing card site after all, and most of my readers will be fans of custom playing cards. Cribbage is ideal for you to pull out one of your favourite custom decks to use, precisely because it is a relaxing and casual game. With truly deep games like Bridge, you can't risk having any potential distraction arising from using a custom deck. There are many card games where you're too busy card-counting between turns, or planning your next play, that you don't have time to really admire the cards themselves. In contrast Cribbage isn't so serious a game that some novelty will ruin your game, and there's also moments of downtime where you can enjoy the artwork of your cards, especially on your opponent's turn.
What is great about Cribbage?So let’s concede that Cribbage is a good game. But what is it about this classic card game that pushes it beyond the boundaries of “good”, and turns it into something truly great?
1. It feels like a race.
The overall game feels like a giant race. It's all about who can get to 121 points first, you or your opponent. Race games have a long history in the game industry, and can evoke similar tension and excitement as a car race. First your opponent inches ahead on the score-track. Then you slowly come back and pull out a slim lead. Then your opponent catches up. Who will get to the end of the score-track first? This fun race feel is the underlying narrative of a game of Cribbage.
2. It has many mini-battles.
Within the overall narrative of a race, there are lots of miniature conflicts. Each hand is a separate battle, completely distinct from what has happened before. So each time the cards are dealt, you're starting with a fresh slate, and it's just you and your opponent in a head-to-head match-up. These miniature battles also means that there are many small victories and shifts in momentum, as players catch up or pull ahead.
3. It has a casual feel.
Like many hard-core gamers, I don't mind a deep, thoughtful, and brain-burning game from time to time. But there are times when I'm not looking for a game experience that is going to melt my mind, but one that is more of a relaxing activity, just to unwind, or to relax while spending time with my wife or with one of my children. Cribbage is perfect for that, because you don't have to plan seven moves ahead, like you might in a game of chess or some other abstract strategy game or heavy euro game. There are some strategic elements, especially when it comes to deciding what cards to put in the crib, but the actual game-play is mostly tactical from there. Between turns you can relax, and there isn't the kind of mind-numbing calculating and deep thinking that you'll find in deeper games.
4. It has meaningful decisions.
Despite the casual feel, there is considerable skill, and experienced players will consistently outperform novices. Good decision making is especially required when selecting cards for the crib, and having a good sense of probabilities is very important, as you assess the value of your hand and decide what two cards to discard. The order to play the cards in your hand can also be critical, and there are subtle elements where you have to outguess your opponent, avoid setting him up for potential point scoring combinations, or anticipate what cards he might have remaining in hand based on what he's already played. Many of these nuances will escape first-time players, and the game can seem to be a matter of all luck. But with experience you'll get a real sense of the depth of the game, which makes it more fun. Much of the strategy is unintuitive, and only becomes obvious the more you play.
5. It has the ideal mix of luck and skill.
The exact ratio of luck versus skill in a game of Cribbage remains the subject of debate, and can't be calculated precisely. But some expert players believe that the game is about one-third skill and two-thirds luck. Normally too much luck can cause frustration in a game, but that is not the case at all with Cribbage. It ensures that there is a relatively level playing field, even between experts and newbies, so that the game is interesting for them both, while the skill element will allow the stronger player to win more often than not in the long run. The mixture of luck and skill is perfect, so that Cribbage feels casual enough to enjoy as a relaxing game, and yet rewarding enough that it is far from being a pure exercise of randomness and luck.
6. It gives new players a chance of winning.
The beauty of Cribbage’s perfect blend of luck and skill is that everyone is in with a chance. A strong player can play perfectly, and still lose to a relative newbie who gets better cards. It has been suggested that you can expect to win about a third of your games, and lose a third of your games, based on the cards alone, while the remaining third will be determined by who is the better player. Between equally skilled players, luck will play a larger role in determining the winner, but skilled players will have a better win/loss record against non-skilled players. But it also means that you can expect to split a lot of your games, regardless of your ability, so it's an ideal game that offers a somewhat level playing field, while still rewarding skill.
7. It makes big come-backs possible.
It's rare that I feel totally out of the running in a game of Cribbage. Even if I'm far behind my opponent, I always feel I'm in with a chance, because there is that slim possibility that I'll get a couple of amazing hands, and accomplish a magnificent come-back. I've seen this happen multiple times, and it means that even if you're in an apparently losing position, there is no reason to give up, because you still have a hope of achieving a win. There is just enough luck in the game that you always feel like things can turn around.
8. It lets you play your opponent.
One of the most fun parts of cribbage is anticipating what your opponent has in hand. This isn't as impossible as it might first seem, because you can make an informed guess based on probability, taking into consideration the cards in your own hand, and especially the first card or two your opponent has played. If he's played a 6, does that mean he's also kept a 9, in order to get a 15? Or might he have a second 6, to get points for a double? Playing a 4 would be a bad play here, because your opponent can play a 5, which gives him points for a 15, as well as for a run of 3. It's very satisfying to consider these possibilities - especially when your informed guesswork pays off. You can even try to set traps for your opponent, hoping that they'll play something obvious, which lets you get something even more lucrative.
9. It has fascinating asymmetry.
When I first learned how to play Cribbage, I found it somewhat odd that one player gets bonus points from the crib each round, and the next round it is the other player that gets these bonus points. But over time I've come to really love and appreciate this element of imbalance or asymmetry. It means that every hand that is dealt, one player has the opportunity to get more points than the opponent. This makes the game feel like a real tug of war, and sometimes you'll find players going back and forth on the scoreboard. Especially in the concluding stages of the game, turn order can be critical. There's an important rule that the non-dealer scores his hand first, and if that's you and you get to 121 points first, you win, even if your opponent technically would have passed you easily with the help of points from his hand and from the crib. So the crib gives you more points, but it also puts you on the back foot because your opponent gets to score first, and sometimes this can cost you the game. This adds a real point of interest in the final phases of the game.
10. It never gets old.
There are good games, and there are great games. A good game shines for a while, but as its initial charm fades, its star can begin to fall, and the novelty can wear off. Sometimes you can even “burn out” its appeal completely if you play it too often. In contrast a great game never wears out its welcome. For some reason, Cribbage has a magical and magnetic quality that never gets old or feels tired. It’s hard to think of a situation where I would refuse to play Cribbage, and I’d almost always agree to play a game with someone. There’s something about it that just doesn’t wear out, giving it an enduring quality and appeal across time. I suppose this is why it is still such a popular game, despite the fact that it has been around for nearly 400 years. In the case of Cribbage, its age is not a sign of it being out-dated, but rather a testament to its enduring appeal.
How can you learn Cribbage?So what is the best way to learn how to play Cribbage? To begin with, don't try learning it the way that I did initially. Cribbage can be a challenging game to understand if you're brand new to the game. It's not super complicated, but it isn't like most other games. Trying to figure out the game-play simply by relying on written rules can be quite difficult. It didn't work for me, and in the end I just gave up.
Fortunately we live in a time where there are much better ways of learning the game courtesy of technology:
● Get someone to teach you. The ideal scenario for learning Cribbage is to have someone else teach you in person. Cribbage really isn't at all the ideal game for two brand new players to try figuring it out together just from the written rules, because you'll find yourself somewhat perplexed, and you're likely to conclude that it's just a game of pure luck. But if you know someone who already knows how to play the game, get them to teach you. They'll probably have fun playing with you, and only be too happy to find themselves another Cribbage opponent. I've taught the game myself to several people, including older children, and in person it's really not that difficult or complex to explain, and new players tend to catch on quite quickly when you walk them through the game, help them figure out what points their hands score, and explain why you played the cards that you did.
● Watch a tutorial video. Because Cribbage is such a popular game, there are tons of videos about the game over on youtube. So you'll find plenty of resources there that will teach you how to play. Ideally what you want is something that doesn't just teach you the rules in a cold and detached way, but walks you through parts of the game, and shows you the flow of play and the kinds of things you should be thinking about when making your decisions about what to put into the crib and what order to play your cards. When I first learned the game several years ago, I found a series of four videos by Henry Douglass incredibly useful (#1,#2,#3, #4). The production values are not exactly top-notch, but it's an excellent introduction to how the game works and what to think about - although it's probably a good idea to start with something shorter first, to give you an initial overall feel. I'm sure there are plenty of instructional videos out there that are just as good or even better.
● Download an app. Apps are a terrific way to learn card games because they enforce the rules, and do all the scoring for you. Especially for newbies, figuring out the possible point-scoring combinations is one of the initial hurdles you'll have to overcome, and an app will do all this hard work for you. Once you have some experience, you'll wonder why you found this so hard in the first place, so it's really not that difficult to master. But as far as the initial learning curve goes, it is something that you'll benefit from having some help with, and apps are perfect for that. Some apps also include in-built tutorials that walk you through different parts of the game. So an app can be a terrific way to play the game against a computer opponent, all the while becoming familiar with the different point combinations, and the overall flow of the game and its terminology.
● Play online. There are numerous sites where you can play online for free against a computer, like here. Similar to playing with an app, this will give you a good idea of how scoring works, since the AI will show you all the combinations of your cards and calculate points for you.
Final thoughtsThere is no doubt that Cribbage is an unusual game that has a few idiosyncrasies about it. But isn't that true of all of us? If you look hard enough at any of your family and friends, they all have some quirky elements to their personalities, but that doesn't prevent them from being loveable and endearing. Much the same is true of Cribbage. You just need to give it an opportunity, and get to know it first. In fact, Cribbage is much like that old man a few houses down from yours. At first you just give him a friendly wave once in a while, but when you actually take the trouble to stop for a chat one day, you'll find that he's actually a terrific fellow, and that a friendship with him can be quite rewarding.
Cribbage is a time-tested classic with the ideal mix of luck and strategy, to ensure that it remains a relaxing experience where everyone has a chance of winning, while at the same time rewarding you when you carefully judge the odds and assess possible combinations. Its popularity has waned somewhat, largely due to the advent of video games, and a generation of new and shiny games. Cribbage tournaments may not be as common as they once were, but this is a game that is still played and enjoyed by millions around the world.
So don't make the same mistake that I did, and dismiss Cribbage too quickly as a dusty game for old people who should know better. I'm glad I persisted in learning it with the help of some youtube videos and some free apps, and encourage you to consider doing the same. It was well worth it. It's now easily the most-played game for me and my wife, and we often take it with us to pull it out in restaurants or on park benches. Perhaps Cribbage will become your new friend.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.