eCribbage: An Online Home for Cribbage Lovers

Since today is turning into Cribbage Friday, we might as well make it a full trifecta and talk about the best site for Cribbage online:

After you try eCribbage, you won’t want to bother with any other site. This is the real deal: slick, professional, and loaded to the gills with features.

The programs and the site are the work of Damien Blond. This isn’t just any card-playing website. This is the work of someone who has focused on doing one game right. Even more impressive is Blond’s desire to create a real online community of card enthusiasts, where fans can find live opponents, communicate, and, compete.

As of this writing, the site has almost 22,000 registered users, and it’s not at all unusual find a hundred people competing in several dozen games. Leaderboards, messaging, teams, and tournament tracks all come together to create a little corner of the internet that Cribbage fans can call home.

The game software itself is first-rate, with two levels of AI opponent in addition to the live players. Graphics are clean and functional, with a simple interface and plenty of information on each game. The software even rates your play by calculating a Cribbage rating, derived from the CXR system used in Chess.

The only quibble I have with eCribbage is the peculiar use of sound effects, which are jarring. Since I turn off the sound to play cards, this doesn’t bother me, but it’s one of the few awkward spots on an otherwise professional site.

eCribbage offers the traditional game (2, 3, and 4 hands), King’s Cribbage, CrossCrib, Crib With Jokers, Lowball Cribbage, Back Up 10 Cribbage, Crash Cribbage, and Cross 5 Cribbage, plus the opportunity to play with manual scoring, muggings rules, and team play.

Basic gameplay is free, but a $34 Pro subscription offers additional features, such as custom avatars, advanced stats, and the ability to form leagues. It also helps keep the site afloat, so if you find yourself putting in some time there, you might want to pitch a little something in the kitty.

Whether you’re looking for a quick game against a computer opponent, or trying to find a live player, eCribbage is the only place you need to go.

Nobs, Heels, and Muggins: Why Cribbage is King

Sometimes you learn a new game and discover just what you’ve been missing all these years. If I had an opportunity to sit down with a card player and teach him any game I could, that game would be Cribbage.

Until a couple of months ago, my sole point of reference for Cribbage was “that game that Maj. Winchester played on M*A*S*H.” Sure, I knew about the famous board-and-peg scoring mechanic, and even had a couple of boards lying around, but I never just sat down to learn the game.

Between the Cribbage King App and David Parlett’s Penguin Book of Card Games, I was able to teach myself fairly quickly. I began playing several hands on the App every day, and gradually got the hang of its unique elements.

Cribbage is part card game, part race game. The function of the board is to track points for each hand. The first person to make it to 121, wins. The game was invented in the early 17th Century by Sir John Suckling, who not only had a great name, but was also one the Cavalier poets (a group that included Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick).

The point system can be intimidating at first, since it seems to have a lot of fussy details. In fact, it’s governed by a few easy-to-remember rules. Each player is dealt 5 cards (or 6 or 7, depending upon which version you choose to play). They immediately discard 2 cards to the “crib,” which is a second hand that will be scored by the dealer. (The role of dealer alternates each turn, with low card beginning the deal.)

The play is simple: people take turns laying cards, one at a time, face up on the table. Each card has a standard point value, Aces low. Points are awarded based on a few simple criteria. Pairs, triples, and runs peg 1 point per card. If someone places a card that brings the face total to 15, they peg 2 points. If they are the last person able to play a card without going over 31, they peg a point. If they bring the total to 31, they peg 2 points. Card placement then begins again until both hands are exhausted.

When placement is done, players score their hands. They peg points for combinations adding up to 15, pairs, and runs. The dealer also gets to score the “crib” as an extra hand. Thus, when you control the crib, you discard good cards worth points. When the opponent controls the crib, you discard junk (or what you hope will be junk).

I’m leaving out some of the finer points, along with the colorful British terminology. There are points for “His Heels” and “His Nobs,” rules for swiping other people’s points (called “muggins”), and other details that add color and depth. Check out the Pagat entry for the full rules.

Cribbage works on several levels, with interlocking strategies that are a delight to manipulate. As with any card game, you’re subject to the luck of the draw, but you can bend that luck in ways other games don’t allow. A bad draw doesn’t have to correlate to a bad hand. The choice of which cards to unload to the crib (as dealer or non-dealer), what order to lay down cards, and which points to attempt all factor into the strategy.

There really is nothing quite like it in the realm of card play. Despite its layered scoring system (which allows cards to score points more than once) and its unique terminology, it’s a fairly easy game to learn and teach. It also plays like gangbusters. People familiar with the rules and scoring system can knock through a full scoring track in about 15 to 20 minutes.

Don’t be put off if the rules seem a bit baroque. A little time spent with an App or web version of the game will get you up to speed quickly. You’ll soon start to see where points are made, and how to manage the crib to best thwart your opponent while rewarding yourself. Print out a simple cheat sheet of the scoring combos and keep it at hand as you learn. A good one can be found here.

Almost every discount store sells a cheap Cribbage board. Target and Walmart sell one by Cardinal that costs about $5, and stores the pegs in a cavity on the bottom. (It also comes with a deck of Cardinal cards, which are good for target practice.)

The eCribbage site is also an excellent way to play, and I plan to cover it in more depth.

It can be played by up to four people, but Cribbage is best as a two-handed game. Although it’s a quintessential English pub game, it doesn’t have a huge following in America.

Let’s try to remedy that.

App O’ the Mornin’: Cribbage King

I’m going to post a longer item on Cribbage later today, so I wanted today’s App O’ the Mornin’ to focus on my favorite Cribbage App.

Lately, Cribbage King has been the App that gets the heaviest workout on my iPod Touch. I tried a couple of other Cribbage games, and just wasn’t satisfied. Cribbage Lite/Premium has an unappealing design and poor scoring system, Cribbage Deluxe is ugly, and the Cribbage included with Card Shark simply isn’t full-featured enough.

Cribbage King, however, offers a terrific little package, with the main game for free and the registered version for $1. It looks great, and has a very fluid and intuitive touch control scheme. It shows you when points are scored and then pegs them on the animated board. In between each hand, it shows precisely where each point comes from.

Features in the registered version include three different difficulty levels, with three players each; options for up to four hands; and different kinds of scoring. This last feature is quite neat, since it allows you to manually enter your scores. This might just seem like a needless bit of extra work, but it actually has a tactical role in Cribbage play. If you fail to score some of your points, your opponent can claim these points under the “Muggins” rule. Cribbage King incorporates this rule, and the AI will use it every chance it gets.

I do find it bizarre that more options and variants are not included. You have 6-card Cribbage, and that’s it. I’d much rather play 5-card.

The Card Sharks compilation is a great App that should be on every card-lover’s smartphone, but there are some games that just require stand-alone versions. Cribbage is one of them, and Cribbage King is the stand-along version of choice.

Games Magazine for October 2010

The new issue of Games should be arriving within the week. Since it’s the October issue (yes, in August: it’s absurd) the cover puzzle has a Halloween theme.

There’s a feature about the 2010 U.S. Memory Championship, a classic puzzle from the late, great Martin Gardner, and the usual selection of reviews, features, news, and puzzles. I contributed a story about the mysterious success of Zynga and their awful games (Farmville, Mafia, etc), and added an extra page of electronic game reviews this month.

Buy it wherever better magazines are sold.