Home Beer Pub games and the importance of play

Pub games and the importance of play

Americans could take a few cues from the diverse tavern games of Europe.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

Any bar worth its salt ought to have games to play.  Let’s be open-minded about which ones—snooker, Donkey Kong, cornhole, whatever—but I’d suggest that high prices, lack of comfort and lack of games are among the signs that your bar is taking itself too damn seriously and does not have your best interests at heart.

As Schiller said, more or less, we’re only fully human when we’re at play. We are safe in assuming that he wasn’t talking about shuffleboard—being mostly interested in the appreciation of beauty—but neither did he rule it out. There is something beautiful, after all, about the tricky momentum of the red or blue puck, sliding inexorably across that sand and gleaming wood…

What’s more beautiful is the way that play can break the tension in our bodies, our minds and our social circles. Too often we forget to play, even when dropping everything for a game of anything would neatly solve many problems at once. What to do? How to unwind? What to talk about? Hey, that person is attractive, how should I approach him/her? Games can sort out all that for you. Invite her to play pool, see how it goes.

But—and again, this is beautiful—games need not have a use. Maybe it’s better when they don’t. We have these short, busy lives, with our free time especially precious, and what do we do with it? Often we drink with a purpose, and talk with a purpose, to gossip or get something off our chests. Or, among fellow enthusiasts, we talk about the drink with a purpose. We forget the value of purposelessness, of engaging in something totally unimportant. Of just… play.

Kids know it, even when grown-ups forget. In fact—advice for new parents out there—games are the trick to successfully dragging your kids into the occasional pub. They are my secret weapon. In Limburg—at a sports-hall beer cafe called the Aftrap, or “Kickoff”—my 6-year-old son and I watched old Flemish folks play a bowling variant called curve. He was entranced. In Brussels, at a cafe called the Buvette Sint-Sebastiaan, we chose from a stack of board games and wound up playing Stratego for about three hours. That time flew. Games don’t need video screens.

Another recent example: In Franconia a few weeks ago, I marched my two poor tots more than a mile—so it started raining, naturally—on a hike through woods and field to a brewery pub called Kathi-Bräu. (Kathi’s lush dunkel held no interest for them.) We stepped out of the rain into a warm, busy tavern where we would need to share a table with strangers—more complaints—but we got a snack, busted out cards and played Crazy Eights. And their world was right again.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

Even animals play. You think you’re better than them?

So, maybe you run a pub, or you’re a regular in one where the owner will listen, or you’re looking to better outfit the clubhouse in your basement, or (like me) you like to mentally outfit your imaginary fantasy pub that you will probably never actually open. And you think: we need more games.

In that case, I have suggestions.

You know the common ones: arcade machines, pinball, pub quizzes, billiards, shuffleboard, air hockey, table football, darts, cards and board games.

The latter could include cribbage and backgammon, if you want to dig deep into the old-fashioned. I know the kids like retro these days, with their flat caps and waxed moustachios. Canada actually has a few pubs that specialize in board games; the Loft in Ottawa has more than 800 of them.

Or maybe you know a bar or brewpub that emphasizes “farmhouse” ales. Well, if they’re not letting you go out back of their “farmhouse” to play washers, horseshoes, wheelbarrow races, cornhole or cow patty bingo, I name them poseurs.

Other American classics, if space is not an issue: Skee-ball, batting cages and, what the hell, go-karts. And if we don’t include hotels with spacious atriums, then I know at least one bar with an indoor miniature golf course: the H Street Country Club in Washington, D.C. Not nearly as fancy as it sounds, a round costs $7, is for grown-ups only, and takes about 35 minutes to play.

But you know those games. I thought it would be more educational to note a few of Europe’s stranger and more interesting pub games. Americans have long drawn from the well of old European beer styles, but for the most part, we have neglected the games. Maybe we like our own well enough, or maybe it’s that supposed work ethic that restrains us from giving obscure games their due.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

Here are a few worth mentioning, and what you might drink while playing them.

Ring the bull: This is an English pub game, but Wikipedia (sometimes it’s true) says there is a Caribbean version called Bimini. (The only place I’ve seen it is in St. Louis, at the Civil Life brewpub.) It goes like this: There is a ring hanging on a string, and standing over yonder you try to swing it just so to land it on a hook—typically portrayed as the ring in a bull’s nose. It’s pretty stupid if you think about it. Don’t think about it. It’s addictive. [Kate adds that she and her brother used to play this quite competitively while the family waited for a table at lazy, family-friendly R.C. Otter’s restaurant on Captiva Island, Florida.] 

What to drink with it: beautifully boring brownish British bitter.

Grenouille: Sometimes known in English as “toad in the hole,” there are variations on this game throughout Christendom, including one called sapo in Latin America. The simplest version is basically an old table with a hole in the top. The “toads” are the coins you try to toss or bounce into that hole. For the French version you want a fairly elaborate wooden table with multiple holes on top and a few obstacles, including the requisite brass frog with his mouth wide open. Depending on which hole you hit, your coin slides down to a different compartment with a number on it—that’s the number of points you get.

What to drink with it: bière de garde.

Nagelspielen: Literally, “nail games” in German. It must be said that these are arguably most popular in Minnesota (the brand is Hammerschlagen), and that I’ve never actually seen one in Germany. In fact, the only one I’ve seen in person was in a German-themed pub in Panama. But I digress. The deal is, you have a hammer and a nail and a block of wood, and you take turns trying to whack your nail in there in one motion. If you bend your nail, you spend your next turn trying to whack it straight again. Hammers, nails and alcohol are involved, so consider drawing up release forms.

What to drink with it: pils.

Petanque, a.k.a. Boules: If you’ve never seen it before, it looks like bocce. If you’ve never seen bocce either, then imagine some old folks rolling balls at other balls on a nice firm patch of sand. To an American it looks pointless at first; there are no pins, and we like to knock stuff down. But this is a finesse game, so the alcohol curve applies (you know, how you get steadily better after a beer or two, then your skills rapidly curve downward). Thus its popularity endures in Belgium, where the Zandvlooi cafe southwest of Ghent is one place with dedicated petanque courts to go with a menu of 80-plus beers.

What to drink with it: strong Belgian ale of your choice.

Ferret-legging: This is a real thing, if not nearly as popular as we might like to imagine. Basically, some off-center people in Yorkshire put a ferret down their pants and see how long they can last before letting the poor creature out. They scratch and bite, and underpants are not allowed. The record is said to be five hours and 30 minutes. Before attempting, please check the animal welfare regulations in your state or locality.

What to drink with it: In “official” ferret-legging competitions, drinking is an unfair advantage and not permitted. Afterward, however, go for the strongest stuff available.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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