There are people—the type of people who use “summer” as a verb—who say horse racing is the sport of kings. The sport called Kings, meanwhile, has about as much in common with royalty as John Goodman in King Ralph.
It’s more of a game than a sport, really, but one built around the most molecular aspects of competition—quick thinking, risk-taking, self-preservation, picking up what others are putting down. It calls for some physical prowess, but not so much that you’re asked to stand. It demands a worthy, though not encyclopedic, knowledge of the world’s most important topics—like ‘90s television shows, cigarette brands and breakfast cereal mascots. And most vitally, it requires a willingness to revel in the alcohol-fueled misfortune of others, a boutique brand of schadenfreude accessible only by those who know how it feels to chug a mug filled with equal parts shitty beer, Smirnoff Ice, Steel Reserve and warm Franzia.
Unlike horse racing, Kings, aka King’s Cup (aka Circle of Death, aka Ring of Fire—for fans of nuance), did not earn its regal title filling the idle time of blue-bloods. It’s so named because a deck of cards—along with booze, a liquid-holding receptacle and as many coherent participants one can raise—is all you need to play. Still, much like the trod-upon serf who struggles under the crush of a tyrannical monarch, Kings often ends with a cold, expressionless white guy in a fly crown ruining your life.
And it can happen so fast. Truly one of the easiest drinking games to organize—a quick root through the junk drawer should it—it’s also equally easy to play. All you have to do is set up a cup, fan out the playing cards face down in an unbroken circle around it, equip yourself with a beer or cocktail and go. Each card corresponds to a different mini-game or drinking challenge, depending on who’s dictating the format, which tends to vary wildly. Based on who’s in charge, you could end up crushing a Coors Light tallboy, struggling to remember track names off Surfer Rosa or flailing your limbs around like a holy roller. There’s also the built-in ability to create new rules within the game, and it’s up to you to enforce them.
“I probably learned it from a dude with cargo pants, a fleece vest and a hemp necklace, who drove a truck and was really into how the colors of his glass bowl were changing over time.”
No matter where you’re playing, one sinister directive seems to hold fast across the board: Upon drawing a king, you’re required to pour a portion of whatever’s in your hand into that cup in the middle, regardless of what’s already been added. And whichever poor bastard draws the fourth and final king? That poor bastard is required to drink it.
As ubiquitous as the game is, attempting to trace the origins of Kings, or any drinking game for that matter, is frustrating. It’s a little like trying to pin a name on the first guy to spin a tall tale about Paul Bunyan—these diversions are downright folkloric in their spread, Johnny Appleseeded across each generation by a network of older siblings, cooler cousins and freshman-year roommates.
Personally speaking, my earliest memory of Kings is playing in college with my friend Kibby, who I’m pretty sure introduced me to it. She’s pretty sure that she was introduced to it by her older sister, who brought her along to a high school party. “I probably learned it from a dude with cargo pants, a fleece vest and a hemp necklace, who drove a truck and was really into how the colors of his glass bowl were changing over time,” Kibby recalls, which sounds as realistic as any Kings origin story I could ever muster.
Rowan Woodbine, a native of Caloundra on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, can’t quite remember where he picked up Kings, either, but it’s stuck with him so much that he’s turned it into a moneymaker. First coming into contact with the game as a teen, he and his friends fell in “instant love” with its fast pace and inclusive nature, and kept on playing as the years passed.
After one particularly spirited session, Woodbine and his friend Dan Forsythe began working on a proprietary Kings deck, with their favorite rules illustrated in lieu of suits and faces. They peddle their decks online for $12.99—throw in a bit extra if you want the official cup to go with it, demarcated with medieval classes, from peasant on up to supreme ruler. “It is a great way to start a night,” he says. “Everyone is involved, and [it] always has a good vibe to it.”
Using a custom-made deck instead of the customary playing cards will likely rankle purists, but it’s tricky to lobby in favor of tradition when there’s no standard to begin with. The rules of Kings vary from drunken fiefdom to drunken fiefdom, which I think has more to do with its persistent popularity than anything else. Royal rep notwithstanding, it’s the most democratic drinking game imaginable. And it’s a lot of damn fun, as long as that night-ending fourth king never comes.
How to Play
This particular set of rules, which I’ve generally used growing up between Baltimore and Philadelphia, is just one rundown in an ever-expanding universe of them. Adding in your own rules, no matter how sadistic and inappropriate, is expected and encouraged. One overarching directive to go along with the cup of death: Never break the circle by leaving a table-visible gap after you draw a card. If you do? Drink.
2: To you. Divvy out a mandatory drink to a player of your choosing.
3: To me. You must drink. It could be worse.
4: To the floor. Everyone puts a hand on the floor; the last person to do so must drink. Since floors are gross, the “Thumb Rule”—last person to place a thumb on the table must drink—is a welcome hygienic alternative.
5: To the sky. The last person to raise his or her hands toward the heavens like they’re riding a rollercoaster must drink.
6: To the left. The person to your left must drink.
7: To the right. The person to your right must drink.
8: Pick a mate. Select one competitor with whom to drink. He or she can’t stop drinking until you do.
9: Bust a rhyme. The card drawer starts with a declarative statement (“I live by the bay”), and subsequent players must follow it up with a rhyme (“My favorite YA adventure novel is The Cay”). This is quite possibly the most mortifying of all Kings rules, as some of your wastrel friends will interpret it as “pretend to be a rapper.”
10: Categories. Any player who pulls a 10 must select a category—sneaker companies, Nirvana songs, musical instruments, sports franchises named after birds—and everyone takes a turn offering an example. Hesitation? Erroneous reply? Drink.
Jack: Celebrities. This is my favorite. The player who draws a Jack names any notable, fictional or real celebrity(“Steve Martin”). The next person in line must follow with someone whose first name starts with the first letter of the just-named celeb’s last name (“Michael Jordan”). So that could go: Steve Martin → Michael Jordan → Jennifer Lawrence → Lisa Bonet → etc. A twist for the ambitious: An alliterative answer (Matthew Modine) reverses the order of participation, snapping the action back to the person who just went.
Queen: Questions. There are two ways to play this. You can rapid-fire ask anyone at the table a question, and if they don’t immediately respond with one of their own (directed to anyone) or fail to use the interrogative, they drink. (Solid source material for this: 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” any child under 10.) Or, you could opt for a session-long ruling, one that’ll earn anyone who asks you a question during gameplay a compulsory drink.
King: Look to the cup. Fill whatever vessel you’ve chosen to stick in the middle of the card circle about a quarter of the way up with the beverage you’re enjoying. If you draw the fourth and final king card, you’re drinking that whole thing. It can be pretty bad. The worst that Aussie Kings entrepreneur Woodbine’s ever seen: rum, beer and wine, along with a half-cooked sausage, potato chips and chili sauce. (He acknowledges that this particular session got “out of hand.”)
Ace: Make a rule. Anything you want, basically. There are thousands of preposterous examples listed online, but classics include “you can’t show your teeth while laughing,” “you can’t say anyone’s name” and “The Little Man” (remove the imaginary “little man” from the top of your drinks before you sip, replace him when you’re done). Violating or failure to adhere is enforceable by drinking. And no, you cannot make the rule “I don’t have to drink the cup if I draw the fourth king,” you coward.