Since as far back as 1495 – when Henry VII sent out his first decree relating to the regulation of British pubs which restricted the indoor games that pub patrons played that distracted them from archery – the British pub isn’t complete without a game or two inside it, be it in London or Inverness or anywhere in between. Nowadays hipsters may opt for Scrabble or Monopoly while they sip their craft IPAs, but playing games in pubs – or in the beer garden or village green just outside – is as traditional as crumpets and afternoon tea or Sunday roast.
Let’s take a look at some pub games of old and some of new – all pub staples in some point in history.
Skittles – the throwing of a ball to knock down nine pins in as few goes as possible – may not be a common game inside pubs now, but it dates back to the 3rd or 4th century as a German game played with a Kegel that would be used to knock the skittles over. In fact, the German for modern skittles is Kegelen. Skip forwards to 1810 and Joseph Strutt listed the categorical difference between skittles and a nine-pins – skittles allowed “tipping” whereby the player could aim at point blank range. Skittles does still gain traction, despite the obstructive nature of the game in the pub and the discrepancies between the many country variations in the rules. For example, the Worcester & District Skittles League (playing by Worcester rules) is still actively engaging people with the game, and Wii Bowling, included in Wii Sports – one of the launch titles of the hugely successful Nintendo Wii console from back in 2006 – comes close in a pinch.
Shove ha’penny involves two teams of players competing against one another on a grooved table-top board using coins. The coins – originally half pennies – are then placed against the edge of the board, slightly encroaching over the edge. Players take turns to shove the pennies with their palms to try to land the coin inside the lines or grooves to score 1 point. The game dates back to the 15th century and is a precursor to the popular American pastime of shuffleboard, originating in 1913. Although, all is not lost for modern day shove ha’penny fans as an app for Android, created by Thinkling can give a digital taste of the traditional pub games.
One mainstay from the selection of traditional pub games is the slot machine – or fruit machine know to those in the United Kingdom. The machine was developed in Brooklyn in 1891 and based on the game of poker containing fifty cards in five drums which were spun in order to give the player a poker hand. Each spin cost $0.05. The payout of a winning slots hand was often a drink or pack of cigarettes from the bar, and the 10 of Spades and Jack of Hearts were removed to decrease the patron’s odds. In 1899, the Liberty Bell was invented, replacing the cards with five symbols on three reels with cash pay-out. The game has advanced alongside technology ever since then and slots can be played online in many variations, using content from pop culture franchises, diverse themes that include mini-games, or even replicating the traditional feel of the Liberty Bell.
No English pub is complete without a dartboard and a wall next to it studded in holes. Darts originated in England sometime in the reign of Henry VII, when he ordered his archers to practice throwing in their spare time (and not to play skittles). Anne Boleyn reportedly gave Henry VIII an ornate set of darts in 1530 as he was an aficionado of the game. In 1896, after years of flailing around tossing spiked sticks around, Brian Gamlin devised the traditional dartboard. The random sequencing was reportedly to give a “no skill needed” factor to the game, but it also allowed players to test their skills and sobriety by playing “round the clock” to land on consecutive numbers. Most pubs worth their salt still have a dartboard and will usually have stories as to who the reigning champion is. But, should the urge to play darts be too strong, the game also exists as a browser game called Pub Darts 3D.
The traditional English pub has been recreated the world over – from rural Europe to Jamaica to central Dubai – and each replication is complete with a selection of games to play while you sup your pint. And if your local establishment doesn’t have the game available, the digital world is on hand to help you out. Why not turn the pub crawl into a pub games crawl and attempt to find a pub that houses each game?