Tracing The Likely History Of King's Cup

King’s Cup has a harsher drinking game consequence than nearly any other drinking game. No matter what you call it — Kings, Circle of Death, Ring of Fire — even the idea of drinking a swirling, hodgepodge mixture of the differing alcohols assorted around the table is horrifying.

King’s Cup is as much a game of intellect as it is a game of quick reactions. All it takes is a deck of cards, a cup and a crew of people you are ready to get very, very familiar with. There are many regional and personal variations of the rules (as with many drinking games), but there are a few general guidelines that make King’s Cup the glorious death-bringer of a game that it is.

First, a deck of cards is fanned face down in a circle around an empty cup. Each person successively picks a card and completes the task or mini-game that the card represents, which can be anything from choosing someone to take a drink to starting a game of categories. When a king is drawn, the person who drew the card pours a quarter of whatever she is drinking into the middle cup. The game is over when someone draws the last king, and that person has to drink every last drop from the “King’s Cup”.

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Drinking history is hazy, and it’s hard to nail down exactly who invented the game. Especially a game like King’s Cup, which has a seemingly never-ending list of rules that can be added in or swapped out. Hell, the game even has a card for people to make up their own rule, leading to thousands of regional variations (seriously, there are multiple Reddit threads with more than 4,500 comments on the best rules people have made).

It is safe to say that King’s Cup is one of the most varied drinking games in the rules department. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to ballpark the origin, though.

The Suit of Coins from an Italian deck of cards. Photo via Wikipedia.
The Suit of Coins from an Italian deck of cards. Photo via Wikipedia.

Before there was King’s Cup, there were playing cards. Playing cards were invented in China around 1000 A.D., the Guardian reports, and then spread to Egypt. In Egypt, the cards were differentiated by goblets, gold coins, swords and polo sticks. When the game moved to Southern Europe, it switched to batons, swords, cups and coins (which is still used in Italy and Spain), and then to acorns, leaves, hearts and bells in Germany in the 1400s. When France took hold of playing card production, we got the closest resemblance of American playing cards today: a clover, pike (spade), heart, and paving tile (diamond).

From the Egyptian period on, according to the World of Playing Cards, a pack of cards contained four kings and 52 cards — similar to what we have today. There’s even a picture of one of the kings, which was called the “King of Cups.” Hmmm.

King’s Cup could technically have been played right then and there. That’s unlikely, however, as people in ancient times were too preoccupied with playing more dangerous games like Kottabos and Passatella. Fast forward a couple hundred years.

In 1867, the United States Playing Card Company was founded. There were playing card manufacturers stateside before then, but the USPCC was the first mass-produced and widespread product. Life was hard back then and drinking culture was different (not to mention that Prohibition thing in the 1920s ruined the whole concept behind drinking games). Regardless, the closest possible date to King’s Cup ubiquity in the United States was nearly 150 years ago.

With this in mind, King’s Cup (probably) originated in that 150-year window. More likely then not, it was, like beer pong, invented in the 1950s. G.I.s used to carrying their government-issued playing cards (some of which had secret maps) flooded into colleges in the 1950s, and everyone knows what happens when cards and college are combined — drinking.

How To Play King’s Cup

The rules need to be stated clearly for everyone beforehand, since everyone plays with a different set. The person who breaks the circle and the person, however, always takes a drink. Here is a general list of rules that you can modify as desired.

2, You: Pick a person to drink.

3, Me: Person who drew the card has to drink

4, Floor: Everyone has to touch the floor with their hand. Last person to do it drinks.

5, Guys: All guys drink.

6, Chicks: All women drink.

7, Heaven: Everyone at the table stops what they’re doing and puts their hands in the air. Last person to do it drinks.

8, Pick a Mate: The person who drew the card chooses a mate. Each time one person in the couple drinks, the other person must drink as well.

9, Bust a Rhyme: The person who drew the card says a word, then the next person has to say a word that rhymes and so on in a clockwise manner. If someone says the same word twice or can’t think of anything, drink.

10, Categories: The person who drew the card picks a category — beer companies, state capitals, exotic birds — and everyone has to say something in that category in a clockwise manner. Repeat or can’t think of anything? Drink.

Jack, Make a Rule: This is where things get complicated. Whoever draws a Jack can make up any rule he wants to. That rule has to be followed for the rest of the game, or until someone else makes a rule.

Queen, Question Master: The person who drew the Queen becomes the Question Master until someone else draws a Queen. That means that all sentences directed toward the Question Master must be phrased in a question format. If it’s not a question, the person has to drink.

King, Put it in the Cup: Pour a quarter-cup amount into the center cup.

Ace, Waterfall: Everyone starts chugging at once. When the person who drew the card stops, then the person immediately to the right can stop, but no one else. It goes on like this until the last person.

Alternate — If no cup is available, you can always play with a beer can. The rules are the same, but after each card is drawn it is put under the tab of the can and an alternate rule is made up for drawing a king (like a game of Never Have I Ever, for example). When the beer can cracks — and it will around two times per game — the person who put the final card under the tab has to chug the beer.