The first thing to know about the world’s greatest family game is that “kub” is pronounced “cube,” as in “Jewish grandmothers love Rummicube,” except it’s spelled Rummikub. The second thing to know about the world’s greatest family game is that playing it with my father will test even the greatest family.
Rummikub is a mix between the card game Rummy and Mahjong. It’s made up of 104 tiles, each numbered from 1 to 13 in either blue, red, yellow, or black. (So, it’s like two decks of cards but with colors instead of suits.) There are also two jokers, which my family calls wild cards but are actually not cards at all because they are tiles. The rules around these wild not-cards are most certainly spelled out in the directions, but still, opinions vary. Each player starts with 14 tiles, and the goal of the game is to get rid of yours first, which you do by laying them down on the kitchen table in runs or threes-of-a-kind. You may reach across the kitchen table to break apart sequences other people have played and move around their tiles in order to make new sequences with your own tiles, but, warning: If you shift around a bunch of tiles in order to find a way to discard some of your own and then lose track of where the original tiles were to begin with and never actually find a way to play yours, you’ll get sweaty, your mind will go blank, and your close relatives will grow increasingly exasperated until they eventually scream, “Bill, put the board back!” (Bill is my father.) But don’t feel too bad. Pretending like you have a grand plan when actually you are so totally fucked because you can’t figure out where that black 2 is supposed to go is what this game is all about. When your turn is done, you say “pass.” If you take too long, everyone will start yelling, “Bill, PASS ALREADY.” “Come on, Bill, PASS.”
There are a few other things: If you can’t play a tile, you have to pick one from the pile of facedown tiles on the table, thereby adding to the total amount of tiles you need to get rid of. Also, you can’t actually start putting tiles down on the table until you have a sequence (or sequences) from your own hand that adds up to 30 points or more. This can mean sitting for a long time while everyone around you is playing tiles, and you are just picking new ones and grunting “pass” while your little plastic rack fills up with two or three dozen tiles. Don’t get discouraged. I have seen people win from that position. Plus, everyone feels bad for you.
So, that’s the game. But I fear this explanation of play does not illuminate why Rummikub is the greatest family game on earth (after Taboo). For me, it’s because as a child it felt like an adult game that I, a smart-enough kid, could master. My parents and my grandparents used to sit and play bridge for hours, but that was a game I could never crack. Rummikub, though, was a game that required a certain amount of skill, that my grandparents loved, and that I could actually participate in without needing an adult to help me. I don’t want to get too sappy about a manufactured product that’s available for sale at a list price of $17.99, but the sound of the clicking of the tiles reminds me of my Grandma Adeline as I play it with my kids and their cousins today.
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I don’t have any stats to back this up, but, anecdotally, it’s also a very Jewish game—invented by a Romanian Jew in the 1940s, with a big “Made in Israel” printed on the side of the narrow box I pulled out of the cabinet growing up. It’s always felt to me like my family’s game—a game that has some history, that was passed down, that was unique to our community, but pervasive enough so that both my shtetl grandmother and my fancy German Jewish one loved it. When other families were playing Yahtzee (which, you must admit, sounds a lot like Nazi), we were playing Rummikub.
This past weekend, my family of five, plus my parents, my aunt, her children, and their children, all gathered at my only living grandparent’s home for Thanksgiving. My grandmother is now 95. She’s still very with it—pissed off at Trump and tuned into Maddow—but her ability to get around is limited. She’s in a wheelchair, and I can see that it’s hard for her to engage with all of us when we’re having a big family conversation at the dinner table. Which is why it was so great when someone pulled out Rummikub. It started when one of my sons challenged my mom to play, saying he was going to “crush her.” We left behind the mess on the dining room table and moved to the kitchen. A couple of kids and a couple of adults sat down to play. My grandmother pulled up to the round table in her wheelchair, across from my dad—her son—and in between two great-grandchildren. I stepped away to take care of a few things, so I’m not sure who won. All I remember is hearing my mom yell, “Bill, we’re getting out the egg timer if you don’t hurry up!”