How to Play Cribbage

We have an impressive collection of board games ranging from Pandemic Iberia to Escape from Colditz, from Memoir ’44 to Ticket to Ride. Some are favorites with the family, including Dominion, Zombicide: Black Plague and Lords of Waterdeep. But nothing has given us as many hours of enjoyment as a deck of cards, and the two games of choice are Gin Rummy and Cribbage.

Gin Rummy requires nothing other than a $1 deck of cards and is suitable for two or three people, so it’s the most accessible of the bunch, but I’ve been playing Cribbage — and teaching family members the game — for many, many years. In fact, years ago I actually organized a Silicon Valley-based Cribbage league. Way before VR!

As an old hand at the game, I thought it would be fun to explain the basics here so others can enjoy this colorful multi-phase game. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a game with lots of little incremental point scores, so unlike a game like Rummy, you really need a specialized scoring board to be able to track scores. Enter the Cribbage Board! Here’s my favorite of the many I own:

continuous track 2-play wooden cribbage board

It’s actually shaped more like a 2×4 because it’s deep enough that there’s a compartment big enough to store the pegs and a deck of cards. You can see it better in this angled shot:

wooden cribbage board, at angle with storage

As you can see in the first pic, each player is represented by a peg color and by convention scores are “leapfrogged” so the frontmost peg always shows the current score. You start at “start” and the first person to pass 120 points wins. If the second player hasn’t achieved 90 points, they’re “skunked” (look at the board, you’ll see “skunk” written at the 90 point mark). The above is known as a continuous board because it’s, well, continuous. Other boards have you circle more than once, go up and down a track, or other variations, but I’m a big fan of continuous boards since it’s so easy to see where you are relative to your opponent.

In a competitive setting you might be playing best of three or best of five, so the board has a spot where you can track wins/losses too, but we generally play a single game at a time so don’t use that feature. Then again, we’ve lost all but two pegs per anyway, so we couldn’t score it!

The game itself is made up of phases: the deal and discard, alternating play, then scoring. There’s also an extra hand for the dealer called “the crib” that’s comprised of discards from the players. Deal switches each hand: in a two player game, each player is dealt six cards, discards two and alternates deal. In a three player game (on a 3-track board) each player is dealt five, discards one and there’s a fourth card put into the crib from the deck. Four player? Yes, a 4-track board and each player discards one.

Once players discard, a random additional card from the deck is flipped up and counts as the fifth card in every hand during the scoring phase. At all times post deal and discard, each player will have four cards in their hand and there’ll be four cards in the crib.

While the strategy of the game revolves around the scoring phase, there are a lot of ways to score points during the play phase too.

Cribbage card points are based on runs (of 3 or more cards, suit doesn’t matter), sets (counted as combinations of pairs essentially) and flushes (4 card minimum of a single suit in the hand, all 5 cards in the crib). In addition, sets of cards that add up to 15 count for two points (all face cards are worth 10 points). Confused? Let’s look at a hand:

how many points is this cribbage hand worth

The four cards on the left are the player’s hand, and the ace of spades is the “starter”, the card that everyone’s sharing. We’re at phase three of the hand, counting.

Now, what adds up to 15? 2 + 3 + J does, so that’s two points. A + 2 + 3 is a run and those are scored as one-point-per-card, so that’s three points. That’s it, five points.

Let’s look at a couple of other, more interesting hands, with the same ace of spades as the starter:

two cribbage hands, ace up as starter plus cribbage board

On the left the three 7’s are worth six points (because it’s really three unique pairs). 7 + 7 + A = 15, too, so that hand also has 6 points for three fifteen sequences. That’s it, 12 points. A good hand! On the right, another good hand. I like to start by counting 15’s but there aren’t any! There is a flush, however: four of the five cards are spades. That’s worth 4 points. The runs are where the points are in this hand, however: 3 + 4 + 5 = 3 points. Twice for the two fours = 6 points. A pair of 4’s = 2 points so the total is also 12 points. Same point value, a very different way to get there. For this second hand, the A was an unlucky starter: if it had been the 2 of spades, we’d have had a lot more points!

With that in mind, let’s back up to the first phase, the discard. In this phase – in a 2 player gamer – you’re dealt six cards, don’t know what the starter card is, and have to figure out the most valuable four cards to keep. Adding to the strategy, if it’s your crib, the two cards you discard can gain you points in the last phase, but if it’s your opponent’s crib, you don’t want to give them points!

what should you discard? cribbage with board

Consider the two hands above. Let’s assume it’s the right player’s crib too. The left hand is 2 + 3 + 7 + 7 + 7 + 10. You might be tempted to keep the 2 + 3 + 10 for a fifteen combination, but the set of three 7’s is more valuable, six points versus just two points. If it were your crib, the 2 + 3 is a nice pair to drop in because the chance of a face card worth 10 coming up as the starter is pretty darn good, 16:52. But it’s not, so I’d discard the 2 and the 10, leaving me with, say, 3 + 7 + 7 + 7.

The right hand is also a bit tricky because again the 15 can lead you astray: 5 + J = 15! But as soon as you see a splayed run like 3 + 4 + 4 + 5, that’s what you keep, no questions asked.

Now we’d see that the crib would be 2 + 10 + 7 + J. Not much in the way of points there, but you’d have no way of knowing: the crib is the most random of all hands in cribbage, sometimes worth zero, sometimes worth a surprising number of points!

Once all players have discarded, the starter card is flipped up and the second phase of the game begins.

In this second phase, players alternate putting a card on the table and trying to score points off the sequence. The non-dealer always starts and smart players are always leery of the possibility that the other player can get to 15 so starting with a face card can be risky and starting with a 5 is verboten. Here the left player started with a 4, a very safe move. Right player dropped a 9. Sum total = 13. No points. Left player plays a king, sum total 23, no points.

Now it’s right player’s turn, and they know that you can’t exceed 31 points so neither the 8 or 10 can be played:

alternating cards phase, cribbage


Right player is forced to play the 2. Sum total = 25. No points. Left is then forced to play the ace. Sum total = 26. But now neither player can put a card down without exceeding 31 points so left player gets 1 point for last card and the sum is reset to zero. See how that works?

In another scenario, left player might put down a card, say the 7 of spades, then right player puts down the 8 of clubs. Sum total = 15, for 2 points. Or right puts down the 7 of diamonds. Sum total = 14, but it’s a pair, so that’s also 2 points.

Add this all up and the sequence of play is deal 6, discard down to 2. Alternate playing cards in phase two to score points. Pick up your cards again and score your hand in phase three. Dealer then finishes by showing and scoring their crib. Collect cards, hand deck to new dealer, shuffle, and deal again. The tyranny of the track:

cribbage board close up

While not the easiest game in the world to learn with its nuanced scoring, Cribbage is a really good mix of luck and strategy and with basic boards as cheap as $10, it’s an accessible and highly portable game that everyone can enjoy from 10-110. And maybe even beyond 110 if they have good eyesight.

I recommend you check it out and if you ever bump into me and have a deck of cards, challenge me to a game! I’m always, well, game for Cribbage!

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