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a young child gets ready for a round of Crokinole Photo courtesy of Ben Kuchera

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Make 2020 the year of Crokinole

A Canadian classic can become an American tradition

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My love affair with Crokinole has become an all-consuming passion during quarantine.

There are two groups of people when it comes to Crokinole: those who have never heard of the dexterity-based folk game, and those who are die-hard fans. The vast majority of folks begin their lives in one group, and then they play a round or two with a good friend or family member and instantly join the second group. It’s a painless conversion, I assure you.

Or, at least, as painless as a game this initially expensive can be. Your first board is going to cost at least $100, and likely more, but you get what you pay for. And then you learn the rules, and send your first shot zooming across the board, knocking away one of your opponent’s pieces and leaving the board open for a shot on the center — and you’re hooked. It’s easy to fall in love with Crokinole, and it tends to happen very quickly.

You might also just be Canadian, and you grew up with it and have known all along, but most of us aren’t so lucky. So what is Crokinole, or why is it the perfect game for our times?

The rules of Crokinole

Crokinole is often played among friends and family as a way to socialize, sometimes while drinking. It’s the perfect excuse to be with people, talk about what’s going on, and commiserate over the state of the world while trying to demolish the other player or team during play. Crokinole is a way to socialize as much as it’s a fun way to pass the time.

Crokinole boards are large, so you’re going to need a good amount of space to set up and play. I bought mine from Crokinole Canada, and was very happy with the quality of the board.

Most rounds are played with two people sitting across from each other, with each player having 12 discs to flick into the middle of the board. You can also play with two teams of two players each.

Players take turns flicking their discs toward the middle of the board. Only discs that stay completely within the 15-point inner ring are legal, and remain on the board. Your opponent then has to make sure they hit your piece for their own play to be considered legal. So their turn involves them trying to flick their disc at your piece in the middle, to knock your piece either out completely or at least into an area worth a lower point value, while keeping their own piece in the 15-point area of the board. Any pieces knocked into the small, sunken pit in the middle of the board are removed from play and kept to the side, as they are worth 20 points at the end of the game.

That’s all you need to remember. If the board is clear, you need to aim for the middle and keep your pieces there to score. If there are pieces from the opposing side on the board, you have to aim for, and hit, at least one of them for your own piece to stay on the board, earning points. If you miss, your shot is removed from the board, having scored no points. Any piece knocked off the playing area into the gutter is removed. The round ends when each player has shot all their discs, and then the game is scored.

There are a few other squishy parts here and there to pick up once you start playing — everyone seems to create their own house rules after buying a board — but those are the basics.

Scoring sounds a little complicated on paper, but it makes perfect sense once play begins in earnest. Only one player or team earns any points in a given round; the number of points earned equals the difference between the opponents’ scores, and those points are awarded to the player or team that came out ahead. So if we’re playing, and you put 60 points on the board but I earn 50 points, the final score is 10 points, and they go to your total.

Then the board is reset, and another round begins. This continues until one player or team reaches 100 points or the agreed-upon win condition. And that’s it! That’s the game. You now know how to play Crokinole.

A game for our time

But what you don’t know, not yet, is how thrilling it is to send a piece flying perfectly between two pegs to blast an opponent’s piece off the board. The shots that feel like you were aiming through a scope. The beautiful mayhem that happens when you fire a piece into the middle, and the players and spectators thrill at the brief moment of chaos as everything bounces off everything else, waiting to see who gained — or lost — the most points from the interaction.

There are those magical shots where everything goes right and you’re able to pull off the impossible, but those are far more rare than the tragedies in which everything goes wrong. I’ve played games where players just kept dinging pieces directly into the center pit, and I’ve played long stretches where the board was set up time and again because no one was able to end the round with any points on the board. I’ve had long debates about the “one-cheek rule,” which says that you absolutely can adjust your sitting position to get a better angle for your shot, as long as at least one of your butt cheeks is touching your chair at all times.

Does that sound like a joke? Sure. Are there games in which things may get very dicey for you if you defy the one-cheek rule in order to get the best shot? Absolutely, especially if the players involved have been drinking a little bit. Or a lot bit, as the case seems to be these days. Crokinole tends to begin as a light diversion, only for players to start taking it very seriously as the night progresses.

That shift is part of the magic of Crokinole, especially for families, couples, or friends stuck together in quarantine. The game can grow or shrink depending on how people want to play, and what they hope to get out of it. Crokinole can be something that happens in the background, something to draw the eye and distract the top part of your brain if you want to play some low-stakes games while chatting and hanging out. Or it can become a much more serious pursuit, leading to tense games played in near-silence where every point counts.

It can be as casual or hardcore as you’d like, and that malleability makes it the perfect family game. The rules and basic play are simple enough for even very small children to participate, but the skill ceiling is so high that you can spend years mastering the hardest shots and perfecting your accuracy.

There is also the ritualistic nature of the board itself, the large chunk of wood that feels more permanent and satisfying than just about any other gaming surface I’ve ever played on. Some folks add sand to help the pieces slide over the board, and doing so completely changes the feel of the game. Other people swear by varying levels of wax added to the wood or the pieces, to reduce friction.

You will find players with strong feelings about the materials used for the pegs in the middle of the board. It’s easy to become an expert player on your own sanded board with plastic pegs, only to once again feel like a beginner on a friend’s waxed board with metal pegs wrapped in rubber. And yes, I put the sand directly on the board. Which some people disagree with, but that’s fine! No two boards, or approaches to the game, are exactly alike, and there are no right or wrong answers about how to play, as long as everyone is in agreement.

It’s a game that evolves with time, as players get better and the board is treated with care and love. It takes up space, and time, and varying amounts of attention. It’s a silly dexterity game that you can play with your kids, or a serious test of skill that might lead to good-natured shouting matches with friends.

You can have the perfect shot lined up, and the perfect board with which to win the game, but you still have to execute. There is nowhere to hide, and no excuses that will be accepted. You either make each shot, or you don’t. Crokinole is life, boiled down to its primitive essence and pressed into a wooden board. It is to be lived one wooden disc at a time, just as Dominic Toretto would have wanted … had he grown up Canadian.

Crokinole isn’t a game as much as it’s a full, self-contained hobby requiring practice, ongoing care, skill, and luck. To play it is to love it, and to buy your own board and bring others into the fold is an investment in your own future. 2020 has been shitty in a lot of ways, but you can make it at least a little bit better by bringing Crokinole into your own home, and by doing so, bringing it into your heart.

You won’t regret it.

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