Analyzing Drinking Games

Like Mew2King, I take games very seriously. While this usually applies to video games, I carry it over very much to drinking games. Some people take drinking to be a relaxing, social activity with friends. When I drink, I want to play games and I play to win. I hate sitting around casually drinking, just like I hate sitting around playing the Wii. It’s the reason I’ve spent so much time reading video game strategies and analysis online, and why I spent multiple hours in the basement of my college house shooting a ping pong ball into a cup of water.

One of the things I frequently think about while drinking is the design behind the games. I’ve often considered the different aspects that make a game fun and exciting, and also examine what elements detract from the overall experience. This includes not only actual in-game factors, but also the logistics and setup behind it.

Easy learning curve

People are generally stupid and drunk people are generally more stupid. A lot of people are unable to recognize simple gaming elements and put together logical patterns. Therefore, the rules of any drinking game need to be simple and the actions relatively easy to do. Drinking Magic the gathering might be great, but trying to explain to someone how the stack works is not going to go over well.

Accommodating a flexible number of players

Drinking typically happens in a group of people, and 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. Games like Beer Pong suffer from this problem, as you are typically limited to 4 players, which is almost never enough.

Allow players to enter and exit with no break in action

One of the inevitable truths of drinking is that all that liquid has to go somewhere. The other inevitable truth of drinking is that drunk people can’t focus and are easily distracted. A players that needs to step out for any reason should never stop the game. This is another problem I have with Beer Pong, is that if a player leaves or gets distracted, you can not continue until they shoot.

Losers should be punished more

The losing team should drink more than the winning team. Flip cup is one of the most terrible games I’ve ever played because the winning team ends up drinking more than the losing team.

Standardized penalty

The amount you drink must be a pre-defined constant. This means no “sips” or “seconds” or “gulps”. A cup is filled with a quantity of liquid, and that cup must be finished completely. 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 inevitably will have someone lift their cup to drink for 10 seconds and the level of liquid remains the same before and after.

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, so the game is accessible to new players and is not utterly dominated by veterans. Nobody wants to play drinking chess (although drinking bug house could be pretty good). Beer pong actually one of the best games in this aspect, as even the best beer pong players I’ve met in my life could never get very high shooting percentage.

Opportunity for low chance but high impact actions

Drunk people are easily stimulated and the human brain tends to remember the exceptions to the norm. Having an action where players fail 90% of the time is good, because after the night is over, all people will talk about is that 10%. Things like redemption in beer pong fall perfectly into this category.

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, which can add additional excitement and competitiveness to normally tame people.

No night ending penalties

It is better to have multiple small losses than one large loss. Losers should end the night having drank more, but in a gradual and controlled way. Having super large punishments (like a King’s cup) just results in people passing out or vomiting.

So given this set of elements, what game is optimal?

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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