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Sometimes, I'm sitting in a bar, hanging out with a friend or three, and we run out of things to talk about. I think "this would be a great time to play a game, but I don't have one on me." My local pub has a collection of games in the corner, but they consist of about half a chess set, half a scrabble set with a beat up board, and two thirds of a nice backgammon set.

What games are good for playing in a bar?

Some criteria that can help determine if a game will be appropriate:

  1. Not too many fiddly little components to get lost; or easily replaceable components if they do
  2. Somewhat resilient to spilled beer
  3. Everything is easy to see, as bars can sometimes be a bit dark
  4. Not too complex; after a couple of beers, remembering a lot of rules can be hard
  5. Easily portable, and fits on a small table, or the space between two people at the bar itself

Also, please let me know if you actually have played this game in a bar, and how it went. Some games might seem good for the venue, but turn out not to be.

(note: despite the beer-and-pretzels tag, I'm not interested in solely beer and pretzels games, though those are welcome; games that are a bit deeper can be fine for bars too)

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I'm not clear on what value the beer-and-pretzels tag adds here. What other questions would have this tag? –  lilserf Oct 21 '10 at 19:38
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@lilserf "Beer and pretzels" is a very common category of games, for games that are generally considered to be light fillers. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_and_pretzels_game The term might be used for games that you would play while drinking beer and eating pretzels, or it may be considered analogous, when compared to a heavier game, as beer and pretzels are to a full meal. It's light, and can fill time, but isn't really substantial. Do a Google search and you'll see that it's a common way of referring to a certain kind of game. google.com/search?q=beer+and+pretzels+game –  Brian Campbell Oct 21 '10 at 19:50
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Huh, that's not a term I've ever encountered apparently. –  lilserf Oct 21 '10 at 19:55
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34 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I think Perudo (Liar's Dice) would work great in a bar. You need 5 dice and a cup per person, the rules are easy but the game is hard, there's a lot of interaction, and playing dice and drinking traditionally go together very well.

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Pretty much the Perudo version (except for the Spot On rule, which incidentally sounds like a good idea): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perudo –  Michiel de Mare Oct 21 '10 at 23:00
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I'd highly recommend Zombie Dice, by Steve Jackson Games. It does have custom dice, which if you're not careful can go wandering, but if you've got a table, it's great. It's also good because games are so short, if someone else arrives, they're not stuck watching from the side for too long. Add a little alcohol and "Braaaaaaaains", and you're in for a great game.

SJ Games also make Cthulhu dice, but I've had less success with that: it takes some time to figure out what the symbols on the dice mean, especially if you're not familiar with the Call of Cthulhu rpgs.

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Darts, Pool, Shuffleboard and of course the classic: Get a beautiful woman to go home with you. I think that bringing dice or Banangrams to the bar might be mutually exclusive with the goal of the last game.

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If you wish to interest those around you and provoke interaction, Icehouse Zen is an excellent choice.

It's sufficiently open to new players mid-game that anyone can join in and is nice and easy to explain. We have ended up with several fellow drinkers joining us for a game, which is a lovely pub experience.

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Paper Football (Canadian-style): You get three downs to pitch a paper football from one side of a table to the other. Spectators can run a drinking pool; whenever the score includes your number, you must drink.

Zoom Schwartz Figliano: Use specific terms and actions to pass the game from player to player; foulers drink.

One Thousand Blank White Cards: A DIY nomic card game; use the back of business cards, or scraps of paper to play. Include drinking if you want.

Forum Games: For example, "my cookie"

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Bananagrams is an obvious choice. Each person plays scrabble on their own without a board. The goal is to use up all your tiles before the other people do. It's extremely portable, and very quick to play. There's also nothing that can get ruined from a spilled drink. Banangrams

Bananagrams

A less well-known choice is Spot It! It looks like a children's game, but it's an all ages game. Just a deck of circular cards. Also extremely portable in its protective tin. Each card has a variety of symbols on it. Every card in the deck has exactly one symbol matching with every other card in the deck. There are a variety of different games you can play with this deck of cards. Our favorite is the bomb mode, and we modified it to make our own mode, two-fisted bomb mode. You don't even need a table to play this game, you can play standing up. Play is also extremely fast. You can get an entire round in while waiting for the bartender to make your drink, depending on the mode you have selected.

Spot It!

Spot It!

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I heartily recommend Tichu if your're exactly four players.

Wikipedia:

Tichu is a multi-genre card game; primarily a shedding game that includes elements of Bridge, Asshole (the card game), and Poker played between two teams of two players each. Teams work to accumulate points; the first team to reach a predetermined score (usually 1,000 points) is the winner.

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Bongo is my bar favourite. It requires quick and clear thinking, so possible alcohol effects can make it rather weird.

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Once upon a time, after a couple drinks too much, can be fun.

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Zombie Dice

Zombie Dice is a light push-your-luck style dice game. There are several reasons I think it would work well for play in a bar.

  • It's simple - you can teach your friends in 30 seconds, and a few beers won't result in forgetting complex rules
  • It's self contained - you don't even need paper to keep score!
  • It's quick - you can get in several games even if you just popped in for one drink
  • It's durable - a little liquid won't hurt the dice
  • It's compact - you don't need a big table or a lot of bar space to play
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pass the pigs!! its compact, you just need the two pigs (they are the dice pretty much). throw the pigs on the table, and how they land is how you score. its very simple and can get really fun once you get into it. and with a group its much more fun.

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No Thanks! is a really fun game that would be great for playing in a bar. It's portable, simple, doesn't need lots of space, and plays very quickly (about 10-15 min per game). It's also surprisingly challenging. It has some tactical and psychological elements, as there's a degree of bluffing and risk calculation. It officially supports 3-5 players, but I've played it with 6 (just reduce the number of starting tokens) and it worked fine.

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Seven Pennies is a simple game of chance with a tiny dash of decision-making, and it enjoyed a brief stint of popularity in the NYC and Boston bar scenes. To play, all you need are seven coins and a flat surface.

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I have played Mao often in pub situations. A couple of decks of waterproof cards can go a long way, and my friends being who they are, they normally have a deck or two on them.

The game is flexible enough that it can be played even with the sort of incomplete decks that you tend to find at a pub. And it can be expanded to many players.

The unfortunate problem with this game is that you tend to need two or three people who know the basic rules already to bootstrap the game. Also, some people tend to find working the rules out frustrating enough to not have a good time.

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Spoof

If you're really short of materiel but can scrape together three coins per player, then Spoof might be an option.

It can also be useful in working out whose round it is...

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We used to play Pieces of Eight when we were drinking, but the rules get so complicated a few beers usually had us trying to buy more beer with the coins. http://www.atlas-games.com/piecesofeight/

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Treehouse

Treehouse and other Looney Labs pyramid games are excellent for playing in a bar evnironment, in fact the game Martian Coasters was created for with this in mind.

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500 if you have 4 players, its a card game with tricks.

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I like playing "Irish Dice" (for lack of a better name - I was introduced at an Irish pub).

The goal on three rolls of five dice is to get the lowest score - all sides have face value except 3s which are the wild/super side worth 0 points.

You can make it more interesting by putting a dollar on every round (though I wouldn't know anything about that from personal experience).

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Great bar games we play regularly: Icetowers (and other fast simple Icehouse games; the smaller pieces are easy to lose but also cheap to replace), Apples to Apples (the default party game choice), and Nanofictionary.

If you have a little table space, pretty-much-anything-by-Cheapass-Games, but especially Big Idea (one of the few card games that actually improves when you're slightly drunk), Give Me the Brain (and it's sequel Lord of the Fries), and Lightspeed. Button Men is golden; you can wear the game and you only need enough table to roll five dice. Gloom is also a favourite, if you're not too worried about stains on the cards (which would be appropriate, anyway...)

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Mia is a traditional bar or travel game. All you need is something to count points with, two dice and a opaque cup.

Daifugō is another suitable game. Nothing more than a deck of cards is required to play.

Scopa requires a 4 color 40 card deck and some way to count points.

Also many other traditional trick taking games are suitable for pubs or bars as they require little space to be played on.

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Dice games work well. We used to play Greed at the bar back in college.

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It might seem surprising, but playing chess in a bar or pub can work really well, with the right people. A particularly fun social variation that I used to play a lot we called "Exchange Chess". It's not a hugely skillful game, but it tends to be quick, loud, cooperative, and leads to lots of good-natured abuse!

You have two or three boards, adjacent to each other, with alternating colours. The players on each side form a team (so there are two teams). The rules are the same as normal chess, with the following additions:

  1. Whenever you take a piece, you pass the captured piece to your adjacent team-mate.
  2. When it's your go, you can choose to either make a normal move, or place one of your stash of received pieces on the board. There are a couple of restrictions; you may not place your opponent directly in check with a placed piece, and you may not place a pawn on the first, seventh or eighth ranks. It's fine to place a piece to block a check on your own king.
  3. If you get a pawn to the end of the board, you can 'queen' it. But if the pawn is captured, it is passed to the other player as a pawn, not a queen (or any other piece).
  4. You are allowed to communicate with your team members ("Hey, it would be great if I had a bishop available right now!"), but you're not allowed to delay your game to wait for an adjacent game (this is called "stalling"). This is a gentleman's agreement; there are no hard and fast rules for stalling. Expect to be yelled at if you delay.
  5. It's considered bad form to think for more than a few seconds for each move. Play should be fast and fluid.
  6. If an individual game ends, chalk up the result to the winning team, and reset the board (the other boards continue to play). If you don't have enough pieces, you must use what you've got. Extra pieces beyond those of a normal game setup are not placed, but are available for placement in subsequent turns.
  7. The winning team is the first to some number of points (5 works quite well). There tends to be a snowball effect where once one team gets the upper hand, things go rapidly downhill for the others. Having a fixed winning point, and then starting the series again with equal pieces helps keep things fun.

One of the cool things about this game is the bizarre situations that can arise. It's perfectly possible to have 4 white-squared bishops, for example. The other big advantage is that poor players have a much better chance against chess aficionados, especially if the teams are balanced, because there's a lot of unpredictability to the game. This gives the game a much wider appeal to beginners than standard chess (where, if you're a beginner, you almost always lose to even a moderately skilled amateur).

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If you've got a little bit of table space, Saboteur would work.

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There's a whole bunch of appropriate games listed in this article on low tech game systems.

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I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Phase 10. The cards are fairly easy to play, and you can play it with a couple friends. Decks are also very inexpensive so once they get really dirt, buy another one. Having played it enough at coffee shops to wear out one set of cards, I think it fits the bill

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If you have nothing but a pen and a napkin, the dots game could be something super simple to pass the time. And, it doesn't require a whole lot of brain power. :)

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Oh, man, I used to spend my freshman year science class in high school playing this with a friend instead of listening to the extremely boring lecturer. –  Brian Campbell Oct 21 '10 at 21:46
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An interesting variant, for when you're feeling too lazy to draw out a precise grid, is to just stick a bunch of dots in a random pattern on a piece of paper. Play as in dots and boxes, but instead of squares, any time you complete a triangle that does not contain another dot, you take it and take another turn. It works surprisingly well. –  Brian Campbell Oct 22 '10 at 3:06
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I don't know if I'd say it "doesn't require a lot of brain power" - my buddy and I used to get in some pretty intense battles of dots. It got especially nasty once we both realized (at the same time!) that, near the end, where you are fighting over large groups of boxes, you can give up 2 boxes of your current group to prevent your opponent from getting any boxes in any of the other large groups! –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 19 '11 at 4:32
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I've played Reiner Knizia's Dice Decathlon (PDF) in many strange places, but not in a bar. All you need is 8 dice, pen and paper for keeping score, and the rules.

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Seems like push your luck games would fit the atmosphere in a bar. The classic push your luck game is Sid Sackson's Can't Stop. I suspect if you had four dice, pencil, pen, and paper you could work out a way to play it.

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