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Fun family card games to help pass the time

As many of us are under stay at home orders, and schools are canceled (or on partial-day remote learning), it can be a challenge keeping the kids entertained without relying on electronic devices all the time. I thought I'd share three of our favorite card games, which are playable for anyone from kids of roughly middle school age up through adults.

Each can be played with as few as three people (the max varies by game), and all are relatively simple to learn but hard to master, and don't take a huge amount of time to play. The first two are packaged games (from the same company), while the third simply requires two decks of cards.

Five Crowns

Five Crowns is a rummy-style card game, where the objective is to score the fewest points possible. The first hand is three cards per player, with threes wild (plus jokers, which are always wild). Players need to build either straights or of-a-kind collections, consisting of at least three cards. Each turn, you can either draw one card from the discard pile, or from the top of the deck; at the end of you turn, you must discard (including when you go out). The objective is to go out by playing all the cards in your hand. So for the first hand, it's pretty simple.

Once one player goes out, the others put down what minimum three-card groupings they can, then have to add up the value of remaining cards, and that becomes their score for the round. The second round is four cards, and fours are wild; then five with fives wild, etc., all the way up to 13 cards with Kings being wild.

At the end of the 13-card round, the player with the lowest score wins—zero would be a perfect score, of course, but the lowest I've ever seen is in the twenties. This game is quite easy for the kids to learn, as it's pretty simple to describe straights ("cards in numerical order and all the same color") and collections ("all the same value on the card, color doesn't matter").

Finding Five Crowns right now is tough—it's sold out at the manufacturer and at Target. You can find it at Amazon, but deliveries are running into May or June, and it's about twice what it should cost. Your best bet might be to search the buy-it-now eBay listings, as there seem to be quite a few available at reasonable prices.

Quiddler

Quiddler is a card-based word game. There are 59 cards that contain either a single letter or a few special two-letter combos (CL, ER, IN, QU and TH), and each card has an associated point value.

In round one, each player gets three cards, and must form words that consist of at least two cards. Each turn, you can take the top card from the discard pile or from the deck. To go out, you have to play all the cards in your hand, and discard one. Once one player goes out, the other players get one more turn to either go out or make as many words as they can.

Round two is four cards, then five, etc. all the way up to 10 cards. Scoring is based on adding up all the points for words formed, and subtracting points for unused letters. At the end of the round with 10 cards, the winner is the one with the highest point total.

Adding to the challenge are bonuses in each round: One for playing the most words, and another for playing the single longest word. If there are ties (two players each play three words), then that bonus is not distributed.

This game is also really easy to learn, and you don't necessarily need a huge vocabulary to be good at it—for example, there are times where making three two-letter words is worth more than making one six-letter word, due to the bonus.

Quiddler is available now at Amazon, and probably other retailers.

Oh Hell! or Up and Down the River or 7 Up Down or…

This last game doesn't require anything more than two decks of playing cards, with the jokers removed. (It actually only requires one deck, but you'll want to keep the second deck shuffled and ready to go so you can quickly start the next round.) As you can tell by the section title, it's known by many names, and there are a near-infinite number of rule variations.

It's a very hard game to describe, even in a short form, but here's my attempt at describing our version of the game. We call ours 7 Up Down, because that's the maximum number of cards we distribute, regardless of the player count (other variations change the number of cards based on the number of players).

Round one starts with seven cards per person, the next round is six cards each, then five, all the way down to one. After the single-card hand, the card count increases again until you get back to seven cards; after that hand, the game ends.

In each round, the last card is turned up as the (in bridge parlance) trump suit—cards in this suit have more value than other cards. Gameplay within a round is simple: One player puts down a card, and then the other players play a card (in turn) in the matching suit if they have one. If they don't have a matching suit card, then they can play any suit, including the trump suit. The high card wins, adjusting for the trump suit. (So a five in the trump suit beats an Ace in any other suit.) Whoever had the high card then plays another single card from their hand, and this goes on until all the cards have been played.

What makes the game really fun is the bidding: After the deal, each player looks at their cards and the trump suit, and then has to bid on how many hands they will win that round. The total number of bids cannot equal the number of cards dealt, so the dealer sometimes has to bid higher or lower than they otherwise would (so the deal rotates, to make it fair to everyone).

At the end of the round, your score is calculated based on whether or not you hit your bid number. If you did, that's worth 10 points, plus (in our rules) five points for each bid. If you bid three and hit three, you'd get 25 (10 + 5 * 3) points. But if you miss your bid, then you lose five points for each bid you were off target: If you bid three and hit one (missed by two), you'd get -10 points. Similarly, if you bid two and hit five (missed by three), you'd lose 15 points. Bidding well is the key to the game, and it's not easy to master.

This is probably the most fun of the three games I've listed here, and my description isn't anywhere near enough to really get started with. Instead, check out this comprehensive collection of rules for Oh Hell!, including links to mobile apps for both playing and scoring the game.

Despite the dryness of the text describing this game, it really is fun to play—we've had groups of seven adults and kids play together for hours.

If you have any fave pass-the-time card (or other) games, please feel free to share in the comments.

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