I’ve been playing Cribbage for as long as I can remember. It may be the game I’ve played more than any other. My first memory is playing it on an old computer that my family owned, against a robot opponent. It would total up its score so quickly that I think my brain was rewired to be able to quickly look at four cards and tell you their Crib value.
Crib is also the game I play with my mom the most. When I’m home for a visit, it’s a guarantee we’ll get in a couple of games. We chat as we play, and it becomes less about the game then the connection we have over it.
Crib is played with a standard deck of cards and a peg board, that keeps track of your score.
It was first developed in the early 17th century, and has remained largely unchanged since then. It’s one of the most popular games among sailors and is even considered he official pastime of the US Pacific Fleet.
In Cribbage, you’re trying to score points over two different stages of a hand. In a two-player game, six cards are dealt out and each player discards two cards to an extra hand (or the crib). The Crib belongs to the dealer, so they may consider putting something good in there, whereas, if you were dealt to, you wanna get rid of the worst of your hand.
So what is good? Well, avid Crib players will quickly be able to tell you what combination of cards add up to 15. In a Crib hand you get points for making 15s, pairs, triples, runs, and flushes.
After discarding to the Crib, the non-dealer cuts the cards and a new fifth card is added to the communal pool. This is one of the most exciting moments of the round, because it can mean you gave away the absolute wrong cards, or it can totally justify your decision.
Next is the ‘play’. One at a time players will lay down cards, totalling their values, until they either reach 31, or neither person can play under 31. Then they rinse and repeat, until all four of their cards are played out. Throughout the play it’s possible to score points off your opponent for 15s pair, runs etc. The play is a real cat and mouse game. You have to try and figure what they may have kept in their hand. Seeing what they’ve already played can give you a clue, but often it just comes down to instinct.
After the play, it’s time for the show. Starting with the non-dealer, players reveal their hands and total up their score. The dealer then reveals the Frankenstein that is the Crib hand. Sometimes it works out very nicely, and other times it’s pure crap. There’s nothing worse than revealing zero points in your crib.
That’s basically it. The deal switches hands, and you repeat until someone hits 121 points, ending the game immediately.
Now, that is a very basic run down on the rules and history of Cribbage. I haven’t really explained what makes it such a great game. That takes a bit more nuance. What is all boils down to is the fact that every decision you make carries great importance. Few games, modern or classic, have been able to match that intensity in such a tight simple package.
One of the most important elements in the game is that peg board. In essence it does little more than keep track of your score. Each player has two pegs that mark their score. Each time they get points, they move the peg in behind, ahead on their track the number of spaces they scored, leapfrogging it ahead.
Because you’re playing to a set score, it’s easy to see how you’re progressing and if you’re going to have a chance to win at all. Early in the game, it’s not so bad to fall behind. You have the sense that you can still catch up. There is a critical turning point though when you really have to tighten your play. In certain situations early in the game, you might be happy to give up points for the potential for more points for yourself, but as the game progresses, if you’re behind, you have to play extremely carefully to not give opportunities to your opponent to score.
At 90 points there is a line with an ‘S’ on it. This is the Skunk Line, and losing a game behind this line comes with an extra level of shame.
As a two-player game, you really have to get into the head of your opponent, and predict what they’re going to do. Crib is constantly forcing you to make tough decisions between what cards to keep and which to give away and what order you lay down cards during the play.
I think with modern games we often get caught up in the drama of the theme of a game. Cribbage has no theme to it. It’s simply cards and a scoreboard, but somehow it manages to be more fun and more intense than so many other games around. Not only that, each game only takes about 20-30 minutes, allowing you to play a bunch of rounds.
Everybody has favourite classic games. The ones that got them into gaming and made them love all of the excitement that comes along with rolling dice, or flipping a card to see the results. Crib is that one for me. If you’ve played it, you know what I’m saying. And if you haven’t, give an old game a shot. There’s a reason some games stick around for centuries.