I recently connected with Thomas L. McDonald, Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine. He writes about games of all kinds at the State of Play blog, and was kind enough to answer a few questions.
JW: How did you learn to play? Who taught you?
TM: Over the past few years, I’ve been discovering (and rediscovering) classic card games. I’ve written about board and electronic games for my entire professional career, but I’d long ago stopped playing with standard cards. One day I sat down to teach my kids how to play rummy with a deck of Bicycle cards, and I realized they had no point of reference for them. They didn’t know the suits or the rankings. They didn’t understand that a Queen was higher than a King (most of the time), or that an Ace can sometimes be worth “1” and sometimes “11.” They were gamers through and through, and could pick up and play Magic: The Gathering, Catan, or any kind of video game, but a simple deck of 52 cards was like a foreign language.
That’s when I realized that classic card games were like an oral tradition. They had to be explained and passed down from generation to generation. They were a language that needed to be taught or lost. And there was so much to discover in them: things that I’d never even bothered to explore. I read through David Parlett’s absolutely essential A History of Card Games, and came away fascinated by the lore and culture of cards. Traditional card games are folk culture as much as story, song, dance, clothing, or art. They have very deep roots that are entwined with the character of a nation or region.
One game I’d never, ever played was cribbage. I’d had a board for years without even touching it. It always seemed kind of exotic because of the board. It’s part card game and part racing game, with a long history and a unique language. There’s really no other card game like it. It’s simultaneously exotic and familiar. There’s also this deep sense of connection to British pub culture that is irresistible.
The more I learned about it, the more I needed to learn it. So I taught myself how to play, starting with a simple rule set. Online sites and iPhone apps were also essential in getting me up to speed and correcting my mistakes. With electronic versions, you can knock through hundreds of games in a very sort time in order to get a sense of a new game, and that’s what I did. I didn’t get good at it, mind you; I just started to understand it.
JW: Why do you play it often, per your email? Who do you play it with? What keeps you coming back?
TM: I play a couple times a week, and more if I have a chance. I only have one “live” opponent right now, and that’s my 10-year-old daughter Meg. I taught her how to play, and apparently did it too dang well. She wins about ten games for every one I win. I’m serious. She’s always been a natural gamer; she was unbeatable at Old Maid from the time she was about 5. She has an unerring sense of when to play what. I don’t ever play to lose with her. I don’t slip and let her take a muggins just to help her out. I really try to win. Some people just have a card sense. She has it and I don’t. I also play many more sessions each week using an app.
JW: What’s the most memorable board you’ve ever seen?
TM: I’m not sure I could pin down one particular board, but because of my love of history I’m drawn to antique folk art boards. Sometimes online or at auction sites you come across boards that were carved in scrimshaw or driftwood by sailors in the 19th century. You know that men made these things from the materials at hand in order to pass the silent hours, and you feel a real connection to the people and the history. During long months at sea, that board would have been more than just a game–it would have been a concrete connection to a life they longed for. A nip down to the pub for a pint, a smoke, and a game of cribbage.
JW: Have you ever dealt or been dealt 29?
TM: I’ve never even seen one dealt, either live or in hundreds of electronic games. I think they’re like bigfoot sightings; I’m not even sure they exist.
JW: The game is over 400 years old, and nearly unchanged. Why do you think cribbage endures?
TM: Cribbage endures because it is wholly unique. There’s no other card game like it. It doesn’t fit into any neat categories. It’s a perfect blend of luck and skill. I also think the board has a great deal to do with its enduring popularity. Even if you’re not playing on a finely crafted board, there’s something undeniably appealing about pegging your points. You could just as easily write down your points, as you would in Bridge or any number of other games. Conversely, Bridge could just as easily adapt some kind of pegging system for scoring. That would just seem wrong somehow.
When I started blogging about card games, it was the history as much as the play that appealed to me, and Cribbage has such a rich history. Sure, strong gameplay—fast, fun, with sudden turns of fortune—is its primary appeal, but there’s something in the mechanics that makes it more than the sum of its parts. Cribbage’s appeal comes from the board as much as the cards. It’s also the greatest two-hander in the entire catalog of card games, no question.
JW: Thanks, Thomas, for your time. Good luck against Meg!