SdJ Re-Reviews #2: Rummikub

Rummikub: A SdJ Winner Goes Mass Market

  • Designer:                 Ephraim Hertzano
  • Publisher:                Multiple
  • Players:                   2 – 4
  • Ages:                        8 and Up
  • Time:                        60 Minutes
  • Times Played:         >50

Rummikub box Ephraim Hertzano and his wife, Hanna, loved the card game rummy, but playing cards were outlawed when they lived in Romania in the 1930s and 40s.  Hertzano, a toothbrush manufacturer, dreamed up a legal way to play the game he loved, replacing cards with elongated plastic tiles that would sit in wooden racks.  But as Ephraim knew from his line of work, plastics were rare and expensive in Romania.

Hertazno soon discovered a solution: recycling plastic from airplane canopies.  Ephraim made the first Rummikub set by hand.  The game was popular with friends of the family, and word began to spread.  Soon store owners started requesting copies of the game to sell. The Hertzanos emigrated to Israel in either the late 1940s or early 1950s, and they introduced the game to their new homeland.  Ephraim still made the sets by hand, cutting and painting the tiles in a workshop in his back yard.  He made a few sets each week, and he sold a few dozen sets in his first year in Israel, often on a door-to-door or consignment basis.  To market the sets, the Hertzanos reportedly invited store owners to come play the game in their home.

Production continued to grow, and the game became a pastime in Israel.  But Ephraim had bigger dreams, visions of exporting the game on a mass scale.  He soon began trying to sell the game to Americans in Israel.  U.S. late night comedian Don Rickles visited the country, and at some point during the visit, his wife purchased a copy of the game.  (The Hertzano family told me they have “no idea” where in Israel Mrs. Rickles purchased the game.)  The Rickles family became obsessed, and Don discussed the game on television.  The Hertzanos became flooded with requests for Rummikub.

The rest is history.  Rummikub became the bestselling game in the United States in 1977, and it was introduced to Germany that year.  The jury awarded Rummikub the SdJ in 1980, describing the game as a combination of rummy, mahjong, and dominoes.

Though Ephraim passed away in 1987, the company he founded – Lemada Light Industries Ltd – continues to produce Rummikub today.  The Hertzano children are heavily involved in the company.  More than four million games are produced annually by more than 120 employees at a factory in Israel.  Rummikub has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies, almost as many copies as the rest of the SdJ winners combined.

The Gameplay

A Rummikub set contains 104 numbered tiles and two jokers.The numbered tiles come in four colors (typically red, orange, blue, and black), with two sets of each color ranging from one to thirteen.  Several variations of the game exist, but the explanation below is for the most common variant, the “Sabra” version. Each player draws a tile, and the player receiving the highest tile starts.  Every player then receives thirteen additional tiles, for a total initial hand of fourteen.

To enter the game, a player must make an “initial meld” by laying tiles totaling 50 points or more onto the table (30 points in newer editions).  Jokers take the value of the number they replace.  Tiles can only be placed in one of two forms: a “run” of three or more sequential numbers all of the same color, or a “group” of three or more tiles of the same number but different colors.  A player may not use other players’ tiles to make their initial meld.  If a player is unable to make an initial meld, he or she draws a tile.

Rummikub in action

Once a player is in the game, on each subsequent turn he or she must either (1) place one or more tiles from his or her rack, or (2) draw a tile into his or her rack.  The player may manipulate any and all runs and sets on the table in order to get tiles onto the table.  For example, a player could add a tile to the end of a run, split a single run into multiple runs, substitute a joker, split runs into groups, or split groups into runs.  At the end of each turn, all sets on the table must be valid runs or groups, or the table is returned to its initial form and the player draws a penalty of one to three tiles (depending on the variant).

The Sabra variant calls for a two-minute time limit on turns. The first player to rid their hand of tiles wins, although some variants use multiple games combined with a scoring mechanism.

Does it stand the test of time?

Rummikub is a classic, the sort of game that is a favorite of grandparents everywhere, and it is easy to see why.  The game can be learned quickly, with a typical rules explanation taking less than two minutes, yet there are elements of strategy and depth.  Rearranging the entire table to get two or three challenging tiles into play is an immensely satisfying – if occasionally brain burning – experience.

The game can be tense, especially as players’ hands dwindle in size. The component quality is solid, and it is easy to see how the use of tiles – as opposed to cards – has contributed to the game’s success.  Rummikub can actually be played with two decks of standard playing cards, but the tiles take up less space, are easier to manipulate on the table, and are more convenient to manage in hand.

Despite these joys, I rarely pull Rummikub off the shelf.  The game has obvious appeal to fans of traditional card games, but in my opinion, the appeal to board gamers is minimal.  Player interaction is low, randomness can be high (especially in the two player game), and the game goes a bit long for what it is.  Despite the simplicity of the rules, Rummikub can be a brain burner.  Most of all, I hate the “initial meld” requirement: by random chance, I’ve found myself simply drawing a tile on each of my turns for half the length of the game, while other players gleefully arrange and rearrange the table.

The game necessarily invites “analysis paralysis.”  This can be fixed by using a timer (a two-minute time limit is suggested in the Sabra variant), but even then, there can be significant time between turns, especially in a four-player game.  While I suppose the down time ought to be be used for planning, such an effort can be futile, as you never know how other players will rearrange the runs and groups.

Despite these criticisms, Rummikub has a permanent spot in my collection. I have fond memories of playing the game with my grandparents.  I might have outgrown Rummikub, but it still occasionally gets played.  I’m by no means adverse to playing it: it just isn’t the sort of game I’ll pull of the shelf that often.

Would Rummikub win the SdJ today?  I highly doubt it.  Recent SdJ juries put a premium on originality, and Rummikub wasn’t that original when it won the award in 1980.  Though the SdJ jury said it isn’t just another rummy variant, it really is just basically a re-imagining of the card game rummy using mahjong tiles or dominoes.  Additionally, I suspect recent SdJ juries would dislike the “initial meld” requirement every bit as much as I do.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson – There are some family members who like Rummikub, so it comes out at Christmas. Thankfully, another SdJ winner, Qwirkle, seems to have replaced it as the game of choice at family gatherings. (The real Christmas present would be if I never had to play it again.)  

Joe Huber (1 play) – I’m not sure why Chris is bothered by the initial meld; it’s common to many rummy-influenced games, such as Canasta.  Rummikub is one of the many games I missed growing up, only to try later.  And – it’s a fine game.  Some more traditional games really strike home with me; that’s actually what happened with Canasta.  With Rummikub, I found a game I’d be willing to play – but it’s been 17 years since my one play, and I haven’t happened upon it again.  

Jeff Myers – I’ve played Rummikub maybe a dozen times over the years, mostly with my kids. I don’t mind the initial meld, although I can see how an terrible initial draw might be frustrating. My biggest problem with the game was with the manipulation of existing sets and runs. Sometimes my kids would have a plan that didn’t exactly work out and it was difficult to return everything back to the original placement. I do enjoy playing Rummikub, but it rarely hits the table anymore.  

Larry – I used to play Rummikub with my wife quite regularly.  It’s a reasonable game, but not one I’d choose to play.  For one thing, if you’re playing optimally, you’ll place as few tiles as you possibly can, to give your opponent the minimal amount to work with.  But that can lead to a frustrating game.  Casual players will probably have more fun with this than serious ones, since they’ll play in a more open fashion.  There’s also a big luck of the draw aspect, complicated by the huge power of the jokers.  I didn’t mind playing this with my wife, but I preferred most of the other games we played.  

I’m glad Chris wrote up the history of the game.  That’s interesting stuff and I never realized the game went back that far.  As for his contention that the game probably wouldn’t be considered for an SdJ if it came out today, I agree.  1980 was a simpler time for gaming in Germany (and the rest of the world) and it’s hard to imagine a game like this being that popular in the world of today.  I’m not surprised Rummikub continues to get played, but I don’t see it as SdJ material.  

Joe Huber – Larry, if Qwirkle can win in 2011, why couldn’t Rummikub still win, if it were a new release?  I like Qwirkle better, personally, but I see them as being similarly traditional games.  

Patrick Brennan – Rummy. With tiles. I like the idea that you can twist existing melds on the table in different ways to wrangle new numbers out of your hand and into the new melds. But it’s still Rummy … not that exciting. It can be a decent spouse / family type game for passing the time, but it feels that if everyone’s doing the meld wrangling passably then it generally devolves to who draws the lucky tile at the end to get their last tile out and win the round. And we only ever play one round, as there are other better games out there, so that defines our winner.  

Dale Yu – I’m with the Aussie here – it’s just Rummy with a different set of tiles.  Being Chinese, we’re more apt to pull out our Mahjongg set if we’re going to go the tile route.  I had not come across this until about 2008.  Valerie loved Rummikub, and she introduced me to it while we were taking breaks from developing Dominion.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.
  • Neutral.  Chris W., Joe H., Jeff M., Larry, Eric, Patrick B, Dale Y
  • Not for me. Mark Jackson
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3 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #2: Rummikub

  1. mischip says:

    Enjoying these SdJ re-reviews. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Larry Rice says:

    Played this one quite a bit with family growing up as a kid. Dad loved this game along with Upwords. :-) I don’t play often anymore since my dad passed away, but I always enjoyed the wrestling through the tiles on display to try and place my last few pieces in creative ways.

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