Pub games

Games have always been an integral part of what makes a pub. They’re great fun and can make a visit to the pub all the more enjoyable.

Historically, Kings, Queens and Governments have tried to control the playing of pub games such as darts and dominoes. Under the reigns of Edward III and Edward VI, fines were introduced; then publicans were told they could lose their license if they allowed games to be played.

Thankfully though, games are still regularly played in pubs all over the UK to this day. Many to professional levels. Some of the most popular pub games include:

Backgammon (originally known as Nard and Tables) – possibly the oldest pub game, backgammon first came to England from the Middle East and became popular mainly due to the gambling aspect. Backgammon has survived laws aimed at banning it being played.

Billiards – a game that became associated with riotous and disorderly behaviour and was banned from licensed premises in 1757. A cue is used to strike balls across a cloth covered table. The name billiards is also sometimes used as an umbrella term to cover similar games such as pool and snooker.

Cribbage – a popular card game which is still played across the UK, despite gaining infamy when its creator Sir John Suckling made a fortune travelling all over England and cheating by playing with marked cards.

Darts – the game of darts has been around for some time but took a while to develop into the sport we love today. Several hundred years ago a version of the game known as ‘Puff and Dart’ was played where the dart was blown from a tube towards the target. In 1844, a player in a London pub forgot the primary rule –‘blow, don’t suck’ and swallowed the dart and died several days later in hospital. Darts as we know it today, is extremely popular with millions playing in teams across the country and many more watching professional darts on television.

Dominoes – still a very popular game played with a set of 120 pieces also known as tiles, stones, bones, doms or cards, embossed with different numbers of dots. Some suggest that the game came to England from China but there are also those who believe it originated in Italy or Spain. Dominoes came under attack in the past for being ‘childish’ and ‘boring’ and also from temperance campaigners who linked pub games to alcohol consumption.

Draughts – this board game also has its origins in the Middle East, and like Backgammon was probably introduced by returning Crusaders in the 11th Century.

Amusement machines – the popularity of amusement machines in pubs has to some extent replaced traditional pub games, although some favourites can be played electronically. Different types of machines include fruit machines and quiz machines and they remain a popular entertainment facility in pubs.

Poker – is one of the card games most widely played in pubs, either for money which is regulated by legislation, or just for fun. However, there are many other card games that are also popular – a pack of cards is something most landlords keep behind the bar.

Pub Quiz – there is little evidence of the traditional quiz being played in pubs before around 1970, but since then it has grown massively in popularity, becoming one of the most played games across the country and around the world.

Skittles – played in many forms across the country but became popular in pubs as ‘table skittles’. This version is for indoor use with nine small wooden skittles on a raised wooden base, and a ball attached to a chain which players swing to knock over the skittles.

More unusual games:

Some of these games are either no longer played or only played in a few places around the country:

Aunt Sally – a game still popular in Oxfordshire where players throw batons at a wooden skittle in the shape of a doll.

Dwile Flonking – involves two teams of twelve players, each taking turns to dance around the other whilst attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.

Quoits – a traditional game which involves the throwing of metal, rope or rubber rings over a set distance, usually to land over or near a spike (sometimes called a hob, mott or pin).

Rhubarb Thrashing – two blindfolded contestants stand in dustbins and do battle with rhubarb.

Ringing the bull – involves swinging a nose-ring, which is attached to a string, in an arc so as to hook it onto a pretend bull’s nose and hook. It must stay on the hook to count as a successful throw. There is a vibrant and thriving tradition of playing this game at what is reputedly the oldest pub in England, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem in Nottingham.

Shovel board/shove groat/slide thrift/push penny/ Shove Ha’penny – a game known by many names that originated in Tudor times and was played on long narrow tables up to nine feet long. Two players or teams compete against one another using coins or discs to push up the board. The name changed over time and it eventually ended up as Shove Ha’penny.

Further Reading