Buzzworthiness: Cribbage

Usually, when I do a review, it’s of a relatively new game.  Today, however, I’m going to review an older game.  Very old, in fact – the game of Cribbage was invented way back in the 17th century by English poet Sir John Suckling.  Suckling took his inspiration for the game from the game of Noddy, a smaller game with no crib that almost no one plays anymore.  Over the years, Cribbage has endured, and from what I hear, is the official pastime on submarines.  That might explain why my grandfather was such a big fan – he was a Navy man (though not on submarines), and would often tell stories of games he played while in the service.

Cribbage is my absolute favorite game.  It is the only game I rate a 10 on BGG, and I intend for it to remain so.  So right off the bat, you know that this review is going to be me singing the game’s praises.  But I’m also going to do a little bit of a tutorial with the review, so I’m going to stray from my usual format.  I’ll give my overall thoughts at the end.

HOW TO PLAY

image by BGG user poppentje
image by BGG user poppentje

The game of Cribbage is played with a standard deck of 52 cards.  It’s most recognizable feature is the peg board that is usually used in the game, but it doesn’t have to be – the board keeps score, and you can just use a piece of paper if a board is not around.  Boards are made in a number of different styles, and will sometimes have enough tracks for 3 or 4 players, though it is traditionally played with just two.

The object of Cribbage is to be the first to score 121 points (or, in some variants, 61).  It is not uncommon for people to a match of several games in a row – best of five, best of seven, etc.  This method helps mitigate the luck factor.

Cribbage is played over a series of hands, usually between 8-10 (though longer and shorter games are not uncommon).  In each hand, one player will be the dealer, and the deal alternates between players for each hand.  The non-dealer is sometimes called the pone, so I’ll use that teminology. (You’ll find that Cribbage has several weird words like that.)  At the star of he game, both players cut the deck and reveal the bottom o their cut, with the low card determining the first deal (Ace is low in Cribbage, and King is high).

A hand of Cribbage consists of five distinct phases – the Deal, the Discard, the Cut, the Peg, and the Count.

THE DEAL: The dealer shuffles the deck and deals six cards to himself and the pone.  The rest of the deck is set to the side.

THE DISCARD: Each player must discard two of the six cards into what is known as “the crib.”  The crib is basically an extra hand for the dealer that he can’t touch, but will count later.  Strategically, this is a good opportunity for both players to get rid of some unnecessary cards, but the pone in particular must be careful about what he puts in the crib.  He doesn’t want to give out free points if he can help it.

When discarding, keep in mind that there are five different ways to score a hand when the count occurs at the end of the hand:

  • Fifteens – Any card combination that adds up to fifteen scores two points.  Let’s look at the card combination 6S-7C-7S-8D.  7 + 8 equals fifteen, and since there are two 7s, there are two ways to make 15, and thus you get four points.  It doesn’t matter how many cards there are – 2H-3H-4H-6H also adds up to 15 and scores two points, and AC-4C-4S-JD would score four (all face cards are valued at 10 for purposes of making fifteens).  4H-4D-4S-7S would score six (4H+4D+7S, 4H+4S+7S, 4D+4S+7S).
  • Pairs – Any two cards with the same value are considered to be a pair and score two points.  In the 6S-7C-7S-8D example, the two 7s score two points.  If you have three of a kind (as in the 4H-4D-4S-&s example), you score six points (4H+4D, 4D+4S, 4H+4S).  Remember, every combination scores.
  • Runs – Three cards in sequence score three points, regardless of suit (2H-3H-4H, 6S-7C-8D).  Four cards in a sequence would score four points, and so on.  It is possible to have what is known as a double run in your hand – this is two runs of three with one card different, as in the 6S-7C-7S-8D example.  There are two ways to make a run of three (6-7C-8, 6-7S-8), and this is known as a double run of three.  It scores eight points, which is shorthand for saying that it scores two runs of three and a pair.  There are no bonuses to score in this game.
  • Flush – If all cards in your hand are the same suit, you score a flush for four points.
  • Nobs – If you happen to have the Jack in your hand that matches the suit of the starter card, you score a point for Nobs.  What’s the starter card, you ask?  Read on.

THE CUT: Once both players have discarded to the crib, the pone cuts the deck of cards and the dealer flips over the top card.  This is the starter card, and is basically a fifth card for your hand that both players will use.  If the starter card is a Jack, it scores two points (called Nibs or His Heels).

THE PEG: In the pegging portion of the game, players take turns (beginning with the pone) playing one of their cards in front of them attempting to score points off of each other.  Each play increases the count and will score if it makes 15, a pair, or a run.  To illustrate, if Jake plays a 4, then I play a 4, the count is now 8 and I score two points for the pair.  If Jake then plays a 7, he has made 15 and he scores two points.

Pegging continues until one player’s only play would make the count go over 31 (for example, if Jake played a card that brought the count to 28 and all I had left were a 10 and a Jack).  At this time, I would have to say “Go,” which scores Jake a point.  However, he must play any possible cards from his hand first.  If anyone plays a card that brings the total to exactly 31, that player scores two points (they wouldn’t get the one point for the Go in this instance).  Play continues alternating with the count resetting to zero.  The last player to play a card in this phase gets one point.

THE COUNT: The last thing that happens is that you take turns counting your hands.  The order is important – the pone counts first, then the dealer’s hand is counted, and finally the crib.  Each hand will be worth the total of the points from 15s, pairs, runs, flushes, and Nobs, remembering to add the starter card. (*A note on flushes – in your hand, the starter card does not have to match the suit for it to be a four-point flush.  If it does match, then it’s five points.  In the crib, all five cards have to be the same suit for it to be a flush – if the starter card doesn’t match, there’s no flush.)

Once all three hands are counted, the deal passes to the pone, who becomes the new dealer.  Play continues until someone reaches 121.  Even if the opposing player could score enough to have a higher score, Cribbage is a race and the first player to cross that 121-point finish line is the winner.

If you are playing a match, a win counts as one game.  A skunk, where one player wins by more than 30 points, counts as two games.  A double skunk, where one player wins by more than 60 points (very rare), is worth four games.

THOUGHTS

As I said, Cribbage is my favorite game.  The biggest reason for this my family history with it – my grandfather and father used to play all the time, and I was thrilled when I finally got taught the game.  Ever since, it’s always been my favorite.  When I finally got into the hobby of gaming, Cribbage remained my favorite, and as I began thinking critically about it, I realized what a great game it truly was.  I’m not blinded by sentimentality (as I know I’m prone to do).  I think Cribbage is a critically important game in the development of gaming.

First of all, let’s talk about the board.  As I mentioned before, the board is Cribbage’s hallmark, and yet it’s not strictly necessary.  It’s just a means to keep score.  But I think it has an elegance that makes it unsurpassed as a method of keeping score, even in modern times. A lot of games have score tracks – some have it right on the main board, some have it on a separate board.  And usually you’re marking the score with a disc, cube, meeple, or something to that effect.  But what happens if someone bumps the table?  The score markers go fling and you don’t know where you were.  Or you’re advancing your score marker, and you miscount.  Where do you go back to?  Do you remember?

A cribbage board solves both of these issues very simply and elegantly.  The peg board keeps your score markers in place, and the introduction of a second marker helps you keep track of your score at all times.  Each player uses two pegs in Cribbage.  The front peg is your current score.   The back peg is where you were the previous time you scored.  Whenever you score a point, you move your back peg, giving you a reference point when you inevitably miscount those eight holes you’re advancing.  It’s genius, and I wish more modern games would do something like that.  I realize the peg board is impractical most of the time, but the second counter might be helpful.

Additionally, there’s no one standard design for a cribbage board, giving people lots of creativity in how they are designed.  Take a look at some of these images from the BGG gallery:

image by BGG user Erniepaul
image by BGG user Erniepaul
image by BGG user jtt765
image by BGG user jtt765
image by BGG user pronoblem
image by BGG user pronoblem
image by BGG user Pardu
image by BGG user Pardu
image by BGG user Samort7
image by BGG user Samort7
image by BGG user wookie1
image by BGG user wookie1

Now, on from the board.  A complaint I’ve heard about Cribbage is that it’s all about luck.  Statistically, a new player can win three games out of ten just because the cards are falling right.  I once lost six games in a row to someone I had taught the game to.  And this is a valid complaint.  However, I think it’s also missing the forest for the trees.  Cribbage is a very subtle game.  As you play more and more, you begin to pick up on some subtle tendencies in the game that can help you develop strategy.  One of the more obvious ones is the likelihood of getting a 10.  In a 52 card deck, there are four suits, each consisting of the same 13 cards.  This means that each individual value has a one in thirteen chance of coming out of the deck.  However, since face cards each have a value of ten, this means there is a four in thirteen chance that the card you draw will be a value of ten.  This leads to some different ways to play – never throw a five into your opponent’s crib, never bring the count to 21 when pegging, never lead pegging with a ten, and so on.  This realization leads to a more subtle strategy that it is very likely your opponent has a five in their hand.  There’s a one in thirteen chance of this when you run the number, but because of the predominance of tens, your opponent is more likely to be holding a five than any other single card.  So don’t lead with a ten in pegging either, or bring the count to 26.

There is a ton of strategy in the discard and pegging phases of the game.  The discard is actually a phase I tend to think of as a form of drafting – you’ve got six cards, you can keep four, and the others will be set aside for later/given to your opponent.  It’s the time when you want to think about maximizing your score, but you also need to think about minimizing your opponent’s score.  You never really want to break up a good hand to potentially give your opponent a potentially good one, but you have to think in terms of offense and defense sometimes – do I want to score as much as possible, or do I want to be keeping my opponent from scoring?  The pegging also offers these decisions as you want to try to read your opponent and maximize your score.  You can sometimes tell what they are likely to have in their hand by the first cards they lead – a lead of a seven may mean there’s an eight lurking in there, or maybe even a six or nine if they’re trying to get you to take the 15 so they can make a run of three.  One strategy you see a lot from newer players is to lead from a pair – if I play a six, then you pair it for two, and then I play a third six, I get six points.  This strategy is pretty good, but more experienced players tend to recognize it and stay out of the trap.

Overall, while I would say that luck plays a big role in the game, learning the odds and little tricks are what will win you matches rather than individual games.  It’s all about knowing the odds, and trying to read your opponent.  It’s also all about the charming little quirks of the game you’ll discover over time.  For example, there is no possible way to score 19 points with a hand of cards.  You can score 18, you can score 20, but you can’t score 19.  It’s a weird little quirk of the game that has become kind of an in-joke for Cribbage players, and you will often hear someone claim they scored 19 when they get a zero hand.  The perfect score, by the way, is 29 points – three fives in your hand and a Jack of the same suit as the starter card (which needs to be the fourth five).

VARIANTS

Before I wrap this post up, I wanted to bring up a few variants of Cribbage.

Solitaire – I read about this in a book called Play Winning Cribbage by DeLynn Colvert, which is a book I highly recommend for people looking to improve their game.  You deal yourself six cards and two to the crib.  You then discard two into the crib, flip the top card of the deck as your starter card, peg normally (albeit with no other cards played in between, although you could play randomly from the crib), then count your hand and crib.  The starter card becomes part of your next hand.  You’ll get six hands out of this, with four left over at the end of the sixth hand – some people use it as a free crib, but I always feel that I’m cheating if I do that.  If you score 121+ in six hands, you win.  It’s very difficult to accomplish, but possible.

Three- and four-player Cribbage – I mentioned that a lot of boards have three or four tracks to accommodate more players.  I hate the three- and four-player games.  Basically, the big difference is that everyone gets five cards and puts one in the crib (with a random one from the deck added in a three-player game).  What I dislike about this is that it takes away 90% of the strategy in the game.  You can’t seed the crib with some potentially good combinations of cards, or do anything defensively.  The crib becomes a lucky shot in the dark.  Pegging, too, loses its strategy as it becomes much more difficult to lay a trap with an extra person in between.  You can also play in teams with four players, which I recommend over the individual game, but I suggest you just stick with two-player Cribbage.

Lowball – My absolute favorite variant of the game is Lowball rules.  In this, the only thing that changes is that you do NOT want to be the first to 121.  It completely changes how the game is played as players are trying to get as few points as possible.  It takes a little longer, but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to not score points.

So there you have it.  If you’ve never played Cribbage, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.  All you need is a deck of cards and some way to keep score.  Maybe if you like it, you can have your own cribbage board.  Thanks for reading!

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3 comments

  1. I’m a hobby gamer who really enjoys cribbage as well. I want to mention one variant that you’ve left off your list (my favorite variant): Skip the Crip. This variant allows the dealer to decide whether he wants to forgo the crib entirely, meaning both players play with full hands of 6 cards. This adds a risk/reward element, as the dealer has to decide whether he thinks he can score more points with his (6 card) hand than he could with his (4 card) hand and the (4 card) crib, and also more points than his opponent can score with their (6 card) hand.

    P.S. As a new reader, I’m really enjoying your blog. Thanks!

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