Analyzing Drinking Games

Like Mew2King, I take games very seriously. While this usually applies to the video variety, it inevitable carries over to drinking games as well. Drinking and drinking games have always been a particular interest of mine. Not because I’m an alcoholic (although I do occasionally enjoy a good binge drink) but because drinking has such interesting effects on people’s behavior and personality.

One of the things I frequently think about while drinking is the design behind the games. I ponder over what makes drinking games I’ve played before fun and exciting. In addition, I note down when situations become boring or inconvenient and think of how I would improve them. This includes not just the game mechanics itself, but the logistics and setup that is often unique to drinking games.

Easy learning curve

Most people are generally stupid and have a difficult time learning new games. This tends to be magnified even further when drinking. Therefore, the rules of any drinking game should be easy to explain. Any physical actions should be simple to perform and players should not require extensive practice to complete the basic goals. Drinking Magic the Gathering might be a great idea, but good luck trying to teach a drunk person the “stack”.

Accommodating a flexible number of players

Drinking is a social event and typically happens around a large group of people. It’s important that the number of participants in any game is flexible. Nobody wants to be left out and forced to “wait” till the next round. Beer Pong is a game that suffers immensely from this problem. The game typically allows for a max of only four players, and anyone who has been to a crappy frat party can tell you how long the waiting list typically is.

Allow players to enter and exit with no break in action

One of the absolute truths of drinking is that everything you consume eventually has to come out. Whether that be through one end or another, people will constantly be getting up to go to the bathroom. Drunk players are also easily distracted, whether it be by the cute guy or girl that just walked into the room or some friends coming to talk. A player that needs to step out for any reason should never stop the game. You’ll see this happen in a variety of games where all the players of the game are required to progress.

Losers should be punished more

The loser(s) of the game should drink more than the winner. While some people may not consider drinking more as “losing”, the truth of the matter is that drinking games exist to force someone to drink. Without that factor, you might as well just sit around and drink casually. Flip Cup is the most egregious violator of this rule, as the losers inherently drink less than the winners.

Standardized penalty

The amount you drink must be a pre-defined constant. This means no “sips”, “seconds”, “drinks” or “gulps”. A cup should be filled with a quantity of liquid, and that cup must be finished completely before the game continues. The point of a drinking game is to force drinking when one would rather not. If you give players control over how much they can drink, you always end up with 10 second drinks consuming absolutely no alcohol.

Luck and Skill

A game should require some sort of skill, whether it be mental sharpness, a quick reaction, or good hand eye coordination. However, there must also be a high level of luck involved so that newer players have a chance of defeating veterans. Nobody wants to play drinking chess. Beer Pong is a fantastic example of a good luck vs skill balance. The game takes an incredible amount of skill to play well. I can attest to that, since I used to practice shooting ping pong balls at a single cup of water in my basement. However, the weight and size of a ping pong ball make it very difficult to shoot consistently. I’ve read online that there are professional players with insanely high shot percentages, but even the most skilled players I have ever met (I knew someone who won the CMU Inter-fraternity Beer Pong League) wouldn’t shoot higher than 25%.

Opportunity for low chance but high impact actions

With a lot of luck comes a lot of opportunities for incredible “one in a million” plays. Nothing is more exciting in a Beer Pong match than coming back from a large deficit in redemption. These are things that happen rarely but are statistically likely to occur after enough play. Human memory tends to focus on the single, exceptional moment, while conveniently forgetting the mundane hour leading up to it. By adding very impactful but difficult mechanics to a drinking game, it makes the game feel more exciting than it really is.

Creating a sense of rivalry and competition

Games should allow one player to target another and also allow players to team up against one person. This creates drama and tension that completely random drinking lacks. Teams and temporary alliances creates camaraderie between players, resulting in more interaction.

No night ending penalties

While forcing the loser to chug an enormous amount can be amusing, it is generally better to have multiple small losses that slowly add up. Alcohol is best taken in manageable amounts, consistently throughout a night. Games like Kings, which accumulate alcohol in a central cup over the course of a game, typically end with the loser stepping out of the game, passing out, or worse. You want everyone to eventually become drunk, but it should happen at the end of the night once the game is over, not in the middle.

The Pinnacle of Design

I lived for a few years with players from the CMU Rugby Team, and there is only one useful thing I can pull from that experience. They played a variation of Quarters where players sit around a table with 2 shot glasses, a central glass of alcohol, a refilling pitcher, and some quarters. 2 players attempt to bounce a quarter off the table into the glass, and when successful, pass the shot glass to their left. If a shot glass is passed to you while you still have a glass, the glasses are stacked and you have 1 chance to make this double shot. If you do, the double stack is passed to your left for the next player to make. As soon as you miss the double shot, the player to your left takes the top glass and continues shooting. You must then drink the central cup, refill it, and then continue shooting. If you manage to bounce the quarter into the shot glass on your first shot, you can pass it to anyone not already holding a shot glass.

Why is this game so well designed? Outside of some hardware requirements (a table, 2 shot glasses, and quarters) it satisfies every single positive aspect I listed above. The game can accommodate any number of players from 4 up to 10+ by simply adding a 3rd or 4th shot glass into the rotation. Individual players can leave and re-enter the game at any point and the rotation continues like normal. The game has a standardize central cup as a penalty, and players can fill it as much or as little as they want, allowing for extremely tense moments when a full cup is at stake. The game is very skill based, but luck still players a heavy part in the bounce. The double stack shot provides constant chances for a “low chance, high impact” moment for everyone to cheer at. Passing the glass to anyone if you make it on your first shot allows you to target specific players.

I’ve played a very wide range of drinking games and I’ve found that this variation of Quarters provides the highest combination of entertainment, competitiveness, drama, and fun. Try it out some time if you’ve never experienced it, and I’m certain you’ll agree with me. And on another note, I have my Quarters table ready anytime someone wants to come play. Yes, I went to Ikea and bounced quarters on every one of their tables until I found the optimal one to buy.


  1. Shawn

    July 10, 2012

    Quarters is fun. The only problem is there is a lot of sitting down. My other issue is that it can escalate very quickly for specific people leading to the dangerous levels of alcohol per minute metric.

  2. Joe Ellison

    August 8, 2012

    Thanks for sharing different types of drinking games! They are always to do with friends and people you’ve just met at house party. Now I have a lot of types of choose from.

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