CrossCribb: a review

Boxed edition designed by Tony Nelson. Includes folding cardboard playing surface, playing cards, die, rules, scoring reference card, pencil and two score pads. Published 1996 by Maynard's. Retail price: $29.98

Computer edition written by Galen Marc Lanphier with Steve Barry. Requires Microsoft Windows 9x or later, and DirectX 8.0a or later. Shareware, available for download here. Registration: $10

There has long been a variant of cribbage in which cards are played into a 5-by-5 grid to form five rows and five columns of five-card cribbage hands. One player or team counts the rows, with the opposition counting the columns, the winner being the side with the highest total. A detailed description of this variant can be found here, where it is called table top cribbage. In 1996 Maynard's Game Company released CrossCribb, a commercial packaging of table top cribbage that adds a few twists to the traditional rules. Chief among these is the use of a crib, which genuinely enhances the complexity and subtlety of the game. In 2001 Maynard's brought out a computer edition of CrossCribb, which can be downloaded for free.

You begin a game of CrossCribb by dealing fourteen cards face down to each side. A single "starter" card is placed face up in the middle of the grid. Then each player in turn draws the top card of their pile and either plays it onto an available space in the grid or else discards it into the crib. If the latter option is chosen, the same player immediately draws her next card and repeats the process. A maximum of two cards can be discarded by each side before the grid is filled, whereupon any unplayed cards also go into the crib, thereby ensuring that both sides eventually contribute two crib cards apiece.

When the round is over, players total the value of their five hands (one side counting the rows, the other the columns). Normal cribbage scoring applies here, including four- and five-card flushes. The dealing side gets an extra two points if the starter was a J. His Nobs counts only if it is in the same row or column as the starter. The side with the greater total pegs the difference between the two. Next the dealing side counts the crib, using the starter as a fifth card. As in conventional cribbage, crib flushes count only if all five cards are of the same suit. You win by reaching 31 points before your opponent, a process that typically takes about four rounds.

Note that the rules accompanying the boxed edition of CrossCribb actually direct the dealing side to add the crib value to their hand total, rather than counting it separately. The procedure I described above was introduced with the computer edition. It restores board strategy to the game by making first count a potential issue in the endgame, and it adds spice by making it possible for both sides to score in the same round. For these reasons, I suggest you use count the crib separately whether playing digitally or over the board.

In addition to the two-player game, Maynard's describes several multiplayer versions of CrossCribb. Their three-player format works like captain and crew cribbage (one player takes on the other two). With four players you split into two teams, with each player receiving seven cards apiece. The five- and six- player versions are extensions of these two ideas, but tend to play less well since players must spend more time awaiting their turn. A good way to make CrossCribb more interesting with four or more players is to use the optional "20-20 rule" in which players can look at all of their dealt cards at once (instead of drawing them one at a time from a face-down pile). This puts more emphasis on planning, and gives players more to think about between turns. Note that teammates are not allowed to share cards or exchange information.

A few tips

The basic strategy and tactics of CrossCribb will be readily apparent to an experienced cribbage player. Obviously you seek to enhance the scoring potential of your own hands while diminishing that of your opponent's. If your side scores the rows (as in all the examples that follow), then try to form scoring combinations like runs, 15s and flushes in the rows, while blocking those kinds of combinations in the columns. Play a 5 in a row that has Qs and Ks, but play a 9 in a column with Qs and Ks. If your opponent started a column with 4-5-6-6, freeze it as soon as possible by dropping an A, 2 or 8 (or even a 7 or ten-card) into the last slot, even if it doesn't improve the row. Don't leave the column open for your opponent to complete a 24 hand!

Usually try to conserve your two discards until late in the round, especially if you're dealer. Since you're allowed to redraw immediately after discarding, this can give you an extra shot or two at drawing the 3 you need to go with that 2-2-4-4 row. It also lets you veto what might otherwise be a disastrous play, like having to drop a 7 into the only remaining column, which happens to contain your opponent's 8-8-9-9! Exceptions to this rule sometimes occur in the endgame. If you're playing defensively as dealer at a score like 27*-22, you might prefer to drop a 5 into your crib rather than put it into the grid and risk having it exploited by your opponent. Likewise, as pone with a large lead, you might want to drop a balking combination like 9-K to your opponent's crib as soon as you comfortably can.

In the following screen from the computer edition of CrossCribb, you are scoring the rows, while your opponent is scoring columns. You're dealing with the score 17*-9 (you own the red pegs on the "cribbage board" to the right of the play grid), and the starter was the 6. You've already tossed one card to your crib (the 7, though that's not displayed here). It's your turn, and you draw the A, which you can either play in one of the nine open grid positions or discard to your crib.

Since you're loathe to give up your last discard so early in the round, you decide to play your A into the grid. It can form a five-flush if placed in the top row, but that only adds one point to your total. Better to leave that row open and hope to get lucky there with a 5, 9, 10 or J. Playing the A in the second row combines it with the 4, but I prefer to build in the bottom row, where the resulting A 3 threatens to form both a run and a flush. Now the question is: which column to put it in? I recommend locking up the middle column, thereby preventing pone from doubling its value by adding a 6 or 9 (neither of which would help your A-3). That seems stronger than dropping the A in the first column, hoping you can then fill the remaining spot there before pone manages to add a 4, 5 or J.

An advanced defensive concept is duplication, in which you try to double-up your opponent's good ranks. Suppose you have a J to play into the following tableau:

6 4 J
9 4

Drop it into the center column to create a second 4-J for your opponent. Now he needs the same ranks to improve both hands.

Here you have the 4 to play:

K Q 5
3 9 7 Q Q
9 J J

You'll combine it with your 3 of course. The right play is to put it in the second column. If your opponent draws a 2, you can bet it'll go into the first column, so taunting his 9s with your 4 carries little risk. Duplicating opponent's 2s is more powerful than playing the 4 in the third column (which sets up a 4 or A for your opponent) or the fourth column (which sets up an A).


The boxed edition of CrossCribb comes with a 22 by 22-inch board that serves as a tidy place to lay out the grid. Accompanying it are a deck of cards, two score pads, a rules booklet, a pencil and a six-sided die (to support an optional rule that doubles the value of a randomly-selected row and column). You also get a playing card-sized aid listing the various cribbage scoring combinations. It's a nice touch — lend it to a friend who's learning to play cribbage. It would be better if Maynard's provided two of these, one for each team, and my copy got bent in transit after being packed loose with the other components, but it's still a nice touch. The board and score pads are attractive, featuring shades of green with the orange and red CrossCribb logo mixed in. Quality of the components is high, though a few typos crept into the rules booklet ("His Nobs" is misspelled "His Knobs" throughout). A minor annoyance is the box itself, about an inch deeper than necessary to hold its contents.

Unless you're a total klutz, you can easily play CrossCribb with nothing more than a deck of cards and something to keep score with. If you've got a few extra bucks, enjoy collecting games, or are looking for a nice gift for a cribbage nerd, then by all means pick up a copy of the boxed edition. Otherwise it might be hard to justify laying out $30 for an attractive playing surface and a few accessories.

Getting the computer edition is a no-brainer though. You can download it for free, and register it for a mere $10, which rids you of the nag screens, and unlocks support for recordkeeping and some optional rules. The screen shot shown above is taken from version 1.0.6 of the program. Note the small numerals around the right and lower edges of the grid. These show the current value of each row and column — a real timesaver for serious players!

Although registered copies support network play with other humans, you'll probably spend most of your time playing against the computer. Sadly, the bot is not a very strong player: in 25 games at the highest difficulty setting it beat me just once. Its principal problem is shortsightedness: it prefers to grab small, quick scores (like 15s and pairs) in preference to building more lucrative combinations that take longer to set up (like double runs).

Incidentally, if you put CrossCribb 1.0.6 on a Windows XP Professional system with multiple users, you may have problems accessing the program with a different username than the one that installed it. You won't see program shortcuts on your Start menu, and you may first need to go to a command prompt and type the following command (including the double quotes):

regsvr32 "C:\Program Files\CrossCribb\cards32.dll"

Bottom line

At this point, you may be wondering: will CrossCribb improve my regular cribbage skills? Honestly, it probably won't. The tactical imperative is to build strong hands one card at a time, while simultaneously blocking your opponent's combinations. There is no comparable theme in regular cribbage, so unless you need practice counting hands, you'll probably derive little ancillary benefit from playing CrossCribb.

However CrossCribb is fun to play. There are just enough differences from regular cribbage to make it both familiar and fresh. CrossCribb probably won't usurp your interest in two-player cribbage, but if you can get several players together, try it with the 20-20 rule for an experience of comparable interest to doubles cribbage. Or just download the computer edition and go one-on-one against the bot. Don't begrudge the $10 registration fee, a small price to pay to enjoy a new variation on your favorite pastime!

- September 2003

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