The complete story of English pub games will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine.
Quite a few traditional pub games involve hurling potentially lethal objects through the air while consuming large quantities of alcohol. Take quoits, for instance. The first thing to remember is that quoits is not horseshoes, even though they look similar. Unlike darts, quoits actually does have a fairly ancient pedigree on English soil, dating at least to the Middle Ages. King Richard II banned it 1388 because the lower classes were playing it rather than working themselves death. Edward III and Henry V also banned the game, with a punishment of six days in prison for violators.
(One curious pattern in English gaming culture is the way certain games are banned from play by the laboring classes, while permitted for the upper classes. This happens over and over again, with almost every pub game banned some point, and many of the laws written to specifically exclude “gentlemen” from the ban.)
The earliest version of quoits involved simply throwing an object at a target on the ground, with victory going to the person nearest the target. The game really took off in the early 19th century with the growth of industrial labor, and the pubs began maintaining quoits greens and organized league play. In 1881, an amateur association created a semi-standard set of rules that was adopted by most of England. Naturally, these new rules were promptly ignored by the Scots and Welsh.
The basic “northern game” of quoits is played with a heavy, round steel disc, open at the center and weighing 5 ¼ pounds. Spikes (called “hobs”) are set 11 yards apart, with tips protruding three inches above a clay bed. A ringer scored two points, while the nearest quoit scored one point.
The Scots and Welsh stuck to their “long game,” which was played at a distance of 25 yards with quoits that could weight upwards of 15 pounds.
When thrown, these rings tend to imbed themselves in the clay, leading to unusual landing configurations and strange leaning positions requiring careful judging by officials. The game has more room for depth and strategy than horseshoes, in part because the flared circular shape allows for various kinds of hand holds with exotic names like The Frenchman, push pot, and face gater.
In Cornwell, people played a version of quoits called “kook,” with the objective being either to throw the ring father than the opponent, or closer to the target. In loggats, another regional variant, people threw smalls logs or bones at a stake planted in the ground, with the winner being whoever hit it or got closest. Henry VIII banned it, perhaps because he wasn’t yet finished with the bones. Hamlet mentions the game as he observes the gravedigger disinterring Yorick, asking, “Did the bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggats with them?”