The history of drinking games

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Guillaume de Pyrenees knows a thing or two about traditional games. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), he’s spent years researching, teaching and playing them and is one of the directors of Dragon Con, a science fiction and fantasy convention held in Atlanta each year.

Meet him at a party and he’ll break the ice by asking you what your favourite game is. ‘Guillaume de Pyrenees’ is the name he takes in a costume party that the SCA will have been running for 50 years as of this year. But in his day job as an IT security contractor, currently working for the US Coast Guard, he goes by  the more prosaic Sam Wallace.

Games, Guillaume tells me (for we’ll stick with his nickname here), be they sport, card, dice or board, are found throughout every walk of life. “No matter where you go, it’s something that people share in common all over the world.” And games of the drinking variety epitomise this.

However, they have long suffered from an image crisis. Pictures of inebriated frats partaking in raucous sessions of beer pong or potentially disastrous games of ring of fire abound, doing little justice to a tradition many people are surprised to discover goes back millennia.

Today they are routinely banned from university/college campuses and if you hear about them in the media (which you often do), “it’s almost always going to be in conjunction with something having gone horribly, horribly wrong,” says Guillaume. But drinking games are far from a new-fangled phenomenon in the sole dominion of college students, and they’ve not always been regarded with as much disdain as they often are today. (That said, the 17th-century game of ‘bloody buttocks’ would have surely raised a few eyebrows in its day – more on that later.) Just as games are shared the world over, so too have they been shared across the annals of time and with roots in bygone empires, signifying the past importance of both games and drink.

Ancient Greece

Perhaps it was inevitable that these two traditions – gaming and drinking – should come together, and nowhere was the union more enthusiastically consecrated than in the Ancient Greek symposium.

The symposium has no modern-day equivalent, but most Athenian houses had one. It was an annexed, circular room, and housed within it were a number of upholstered podiums set against the walls where guests would lie prone. The floor was sloped to make cleaning much easier – and after a session in the symposium there was a lot of this to be done.

By far the most frequently documented game from the time was kottabos. Consider it a precursor of beer pong, only more potent and considerably more messy

Vice flowed freely within these walls, not least in the form of wine. “Somebody [usually the host] coordinated the provision of wine,” says Guillaume. “He decided how much it was to be watered down depending on the activities planned. If there was some sort of plan to be made or a serious discussion was conducted, the wine would be fairly watery. If it was a social, hey-have-a-good-time sort of gathering, then not so much.”

It was in these latter situations that drinking games commenced, and by far the most frequently documented one from the time was the game of kottabos. Consider it a precursor of beer pong, only more potent and considerably more messy. The most common variant had players attempt to topple a precariously balanced cup by filling it with wine. They had to do this by flinging wine from their own cups – most likely the dregs as the wine was unfiltered. Other methods involved sinking shallow bowls or plates floating in basins of water by the same means, or likewise toppling a metal disc from atop a bronze statuette designed for the game.

Needless to say kottabos demanded dexterity, as well as a certain degree of chance, but to the Ancient Greeks prowess in such matters had deeper implications, specifically in terms of sex. It’s undeniably animalistic but at the same time something of a universal truth; we’d call it sex appeal, and it still plays a part in social performances in general, especially within collegiate environments. The only difference is that the Ancient Greeks considered it less taboo than we do today.

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Ancient China

Where drinking games ultimately afforded Ancient Greeks an opportunity to assert their prowess in matters of love, the Ancient Chinese often approached the tradition with a more intellectual mindset.

That isn’t to say that drinking itself was carried out with less gusto, though – quite the contrary. In Ancient China, as in many cultures today, solitary drinking was ill-advised. Instead, drinking was approached with ‘renao’, a term which literally means ‘hot and noisy’. And fitting it was, for convivial gatherings in Ancient China, especially during the Tang dynasty, were just that.

As the archaeologist Ethan D. Aines writes of the culture in his article ‘Carousing with the Ancients’, “there are notable accounts of bacchanals to rival any Roman orgy.”

Nor is it to say that all drinking games in Ancient China were indeed intellectual. On the one hand, there were simple popular games (‘jiuling’) like dice, finger guessing and a variant of rock, paper, scissors called tiger, chicken, worm, board. Each could be readily adapted to incorporate alcohol, required little in the way of equipment, still less intellect, and more than fostered the aforementioned renao environment. Ironically, jiuling games were initially introduced to regulate drinking in social situations by providing guests with alternative activities, and ones which required degrees of etiquette.

On the other hand, there were more elegant games, too. One such example was an ancient variation of lawn darts, which, like kottabos, shared much in common with beer pong. Images of zodiacal animals were pinned to targets in a courtyard. If a player’s sign was hit, he would have to drink; if he missed, he’d have to take a drink. Rules were strict: one report even claims a player was killed for failing to comply, but this isn’t exactly hard to imagine considering the circumstances. “Play continued until no one could hold a bow,” says Guillaume. “I can’t think of a worse combination.”

Other elegant games involved the use of specially crafted woodblock cards and even bespoke wooden effigies as the (loosely translated) game ‘wobbly dolls’ demonstrates. Several of these dolls, dressed in stereotypical Western garb and with fair hair and blue eyes, would be set up in the centre of a room. Players stood in a circle around them; when a doll fell (the wooden floor presumably being uneven) the player to whom it was pointing had to take a drink of wine. A variant involved spinning one such doll in much the same fashion as one would a bottle today.

These games, however, were mere child’s play to the empire’s more elite classes. Literary jiuling was an erudite affair, affording players a good opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual ability in games that involved riddling, verse composition, joking, storytelling and so on. Wine was divvied out to those whose performances were thought to be lacking. It was also a markedly serious affair, with players expected to study at great length before games took place, or face dire consequences.

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Medieval Europe

As in Ancient Greece, the common theme in Ancient Chinese drinking games was the assertion of prowess: sexual in the case of the former and intellectual in the latter. When we come to medieval Europe, though, things take a more practical turn.

“In terms of justice,” says Guillaume, “drinking games worked out better than duelling. In settling a dispute when you have the two people in disagreement, sit them down, give them a gallon of beer, and if they get through that, then give them another. The first one to have to get up has to concede.” Particularly in central Europe, this alternative approach to duelling was commonplace, and it came in various guises. As Guillaume explains, “in one account there was a brewmaster and a knight who had a disagreement about who could in fact drink the most. They had to quaff a beer each, stand up and thread a needle on one foot, and then rinse and repeat.”

The practicalities don’t end there, though. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘everything but the oink’?” Guillaume asks. I tell him I have, and wonder where this is leading. “So if you have a pig and you live in an agrarian society, you use ‘everything but the oink’. For example, if you slaughter a sheep, you use every single part you possibly can, including the knucklebones. Knucklebones have a really limited set of uses, but I’ve seen them used in gaming in a number of cultures. And so if you have to have something to drink …”

The penny drops. The population in medieval Europe was heavily reliant on small beer for hydration, it being a more sanitary option than water. What Guillaume believes is that a desire to get the most out of that situation, to imbue a survival tactic with entertainment value, ultimately paved the way for the popularisation of drinking games in medieval Europe. If the medieval layperson had to drink beer from morning to evening, he or she might as well have had fun doing it.

Such entertainment afforded frugality of the ‘kicks-for-free’ kind, but also an escape from what was by and large a tough existence for the vast majority, and few games better encouraged a departure from the here and now than puzzle cups. These were vessels (sometimes conjoined) that sported numerous holes. The player was expected to figure out which holes he or she needed to cover in order to successfully drink from the vessel; cover the wrong holes and the player would suffer the forfeit of being drenched in small beer.

Drinking games hinging on fantasy and role-play also appeared, the best example of which was played during festivals. A queen was selected and given a makeshift crown uncannily similar, Guillaume says, to the redneck beer hat – that garish red plastic offering that holds a beer can on either side of the wearer’s head. It was in the queen’s power to select a king, which she did by wandering amongst the suitors. He who got the drink from a connecting straw won the right and its accompanied perks for the day.

Early modern Europe

By the end of the medieval period in Europe, drinking games had become commonplace. The intervening period between then and the start of the Industrial Revolution – what became known as the early modern period – saw the continuous establishment of tavern culture. Games didn’t just take place in such venues – they were expected. Dice games, finger games, drinking songs – what Guillaume refers to as “eternal” drinking games – were the mainstay. Puzzle jugs, too, survived well into this period, now often detailed with lines of verse to taunt the player.

Tavern players performed elective surgery, usually on their buttocks, in order to extract quantities of their own blood, which they proceeded to toast

But there were some games played during the period that thankfully didn’t become eternal. Take the Italian game of passatella, for example. Its most basic, primitive version had players sit down and begin consuming alcohol, pausing only to deliver verbal insults at one another. This they did with genuine drunken fervour, and games of passatella frequently led to fights. Knives were welcome, bringing a possibly fatal element to each game.

A more complex (but no less irresponsible) variation involved role-play. One player was assigned the role of padrone and another the role of sotto-padrone. All players would chip in for a round, from which the padrone would consume the first drink and the sotto-padrone the second. Thereafter, players desirous of a drink had to ask for the padrone’s permission via the sotto-padrone who would accept or decline using an explanation that would often be charged with insult. Needless to say, a particularly heady game of passatella could easily fall into fighting among the gamers involved. And, as per usual, knives were encouraged.

It gets worse. I promised to return to bloody buttocks, and for this we must turn to 17th-century, post-Civil War England. That there is minimal reference to this drinking game (if indeed it can be called such) suggests it wasn’t exactly widespread, and understandably so.

In a bid to assert their Royalist loyalties, tavern players often performed a form of elective surgery, usually on their buttocks, in order to extract quantities of blood, with which they could then proceed to toast to their health. Bloody buttocks is, it seems, among the wildest examples to exist of a drinking game fit for teetotallers.

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Fun, fun, fun

And so we come back to the modern day, in which drinking games, despite sporting a wealth of history and culture, are now largely confined to the college campus at the hands of those ‘irresponsible’ enough to play them.

Indeed, there’s much to be said about moderation when it comes to drinking in general, and excessive drinking is undeniably a common factor within most, if not all, drinking games. But it’s by no means the only one. It comes back to Guillaume’s conviction that gaming is something we share across cultures and times. “Sure, people want to explore their boundaries a little bit,” he says of modern drinking environments.

“But there’s always that common theme of it being a social get-together, and you have people do what they do in social get-togethers: they almost always lead to games.”

Drinking games have been around for as long as alcohol has. Guillaume believes it: “Just because there’s no information about drinking games from, say, the Ancient Egyptians, I would still wager – and good money in fact – that they had some forms of drinking games. After all, they had games and they certainly had alcohol.”

The study of drinking games – largely uncharted, it seems – can tell us a considerable amount about cultures gone by. Sexual norms, intellectual practices, practical considerations, base entertainment – it is an apparently universal tradition and it should be revered as such. But what the tradition of drinking games ultimately tells us is that at every point in history, we humans have frequently tended to approach the immortal act of drinking with a sense of fun – and we’d be fools not to raise a glass to the fact. Now, who’s for a game?