An Introduction to Tiddlywinks

(by a British winker, 1991)

Tiddlywinks is a game for four players, playing in pairs on a felt mat measuring six feet by three. This is placed on a hard, flat surface and has a standard sized pot in the middle. You each have six winks, two large and four small, of one color (blue, green, red, or yellow). You play these with a larger disc, called a squidger. At the start of the game, put your winks at the corner of the mat opposite your partner’s. The colors are arranged alphabetically so blue always partners red against green and yellow. In a singles game (one person against another), each person plays both colors for a side.

To decide who is to start, each player squidges (flicks) one wink towards the pot. This procedure is known as the squidge-off. The winks are returned to the corners and play starts. There is a 25 minute time limit (20 for singles) from this point, so take note of the time. The player whose wink ended up nearest to the pot in the squidge-off starts, after which you take turns clockwise. Naturally you try to bring your winks in as near to the pot as possible, as this is where the action will be. Be especially careful on these long shots, as if you send one of your winks off the mat you lose your next shot. If, on the other hand, you pot a wink of your own color, you get an immediate additional shot. This can go on until you have no more playable winks.

So what’s the object of the game? Probably the only similarity to the children’s game is that you can win by potting all your winks. There are seven points at stake in each game, and these are awarded as follows: The color which comes first scores 4 points, second place gets 2, and third place 1. Notice the words “comes first” because there are two distinct ways of achieving this.

The simplest is to pot all six winks of one color before anyone else, or be the second or third to do so. This is certainly fun, and involves a reasonably high level of skill. However, for any game to have more than a basic appeal, it must contain elements of attack and defense, strategy and tactics. Tiddlywinks has all of these, as a result of one simple rule:

If at any stage, a wink is covered by another wink, no matter how slightly and even if the winks are not physically touching each other, it is said to be SQUOPPED, and cannot be played.

As the game developed in its early years, squopping was used largely as a last resort, a preventative measure to stop someone who may have already potted three or four winks. “Why don’t you just go for the pot right from the start?” is a question frequently asked. Imagine a player has five in the pot and the sixth squopped. He is out of the game until his partner can free his last wink. Worse, the opponents have twelve winks to the partner’s six, and two turns to his one. It’s usually a lost cause. So, the game becomes one of capture and recapture, pile control, building and destroying, until one side gains the upper hand, at which stage it may be in a strong enough position to pot all of one color SAFELY.

But if no color has potted out by the time limit, it is necessary to have a scoring system which allocates the seven game points according to the positional strengths of the four colors. At the end of the game, each potted wink counts three and each uncovered wink counts one. Squopped winks do not count, nor do winks that have never been played. Here is an examples: Blue has 3 potted winks and 2 free, total of 3 x 3 + 2 for 9 points. Green has no potted and 4 free, total 4. Red has 1 potted and none free, total 3. Yellow has 4 in the pot and 1 free, total 13. Yellow is first, getting 4 points, blue is second getting 2, and green is third, getting 1. Thus Green and Yellow win the game 5-2.

If colors are tied for one of the places they share the points for that place and the next lower (tie for second and third gets 1 1/2 points each, for example). Notice that it is possible to win without having potted any winks at all. However, if you do manage to pot all your six winks, you are said to have potted out. As a bonus, your side scores one extra point and your opponents score one less, so you can even win a game 7-0. How a game finishes will be explained later.

Now for a look at the basic shots, and how the game finishes. First potting: you should take a firm but relaxed grip on the squidger, fairly high up so as to keep your fingers clear of the shot. Then rest your squidger on the middle of the wink, at about a 45 degree angle with the top of the squidges angled away from the pot. Stroke the squidger away from the pot along the line joining the centers of wink and pot. Release the wink cleanly, and don’t apply too much downward pressure. Your squidger gives direction, let the springiness of the mat give the lift. For winks very close to the pot, hold the squidger almost vertically, press a little harder and play with more flick. Take the stance you find most comfortable for you. Most people find it easiest to pot toward themselves, or from the side. Don’t be discouraged at the start, once you get the basic feel you will improve rapidly.

To squop, place the squidger on the center of the wink, but this time angle the top of the squidger toward the cup, opposite to the way a potting shot would be performed. Gently draw it backwards, remembering to keep your fingers out of the way. It is easiest to judge direction if you yourself are in line with the shot. Play towards yourself or away from yourself as you feel most comfortable, but it is a good idea to practice both methods since sometimes only one will easily be available due to the position of the winks.

You gain a great advantage if you can, at the start, bring your winks in close to the pot. You can threaten to pot out, or else squop enemy winks as they arrive. The bring-in shot can be played either pot-style or squop-style. Pot-style is easier to start with; squop-style can be more accurate, but there is a greater chance of a roll off. Using two hands with squop-style gives better control.

If you go to a tournament, you will notice that very few players use standard squidgers. Squidgers are very much a matter of personal preference, but most people sandpaper them down so that they have more or less a sharp edge. A larger squidger is often used for bringing in, and small squidgers can help for delicate shots, or for shots close to the pot. To conform to the rules, squidgers must be round, between 25mm and 51mm in diameter, not thicker than 5mm at the edge, and must not damage the winks when used. You can carry as many squidgers as you like, but can obviously only use one at a time.

As the game develops, with several squops around the pot, you may want to play a wink of yours which is on one or more winks. For such a shot to be legal, (a) your squidger must play the upper surface of your unsquopped wink (that includes the top half of the edge); (b) only winks which are vertically below the wink you first touch can subsequently be hit by the squidger, and (c) the shot must be short and continuous from start to finish. This last clause means that, though you can rest your squidger on a pile at the start of a shot, you are comitted to a short and continuous action once any wink starts to move irreversibly; so don’t rest your squidger on an unstable pile. Do not worry too much about the technicalities here; common sense and experience help. Defining a legal shot is usually trickier than playing one. If you play an illegal shot, your opponents can either accept the result or replace the winks and ask you to play again (you don’t have to try the same shot again if you don’t want to).

Some examples of pile shots might help to make things clear. Suppose you have a squop somewhere near the pot. One possible shot is to send the enemy wink far away, leaving yours easy to pot. This shot is called a boondock and is played with a rather angled squidger, barely touching your top wink first (to make the shot legal), but shooting the lower wink rather forcefully to send it away. Concentrate on shooting the lower wink, you only barely graze your own top wink.

If you are nearly on top of a squop near an enemy wink, you may be able to Bristol both winks onto it. In this shot, the squidger is held vertically, but with its edge parallel to the direction of motion rather than perpendicular to it as in a regular squop shot. Rest the squidger gently on the top wink with the squidger edge pointing towards the target. Apply a little downward pressure and slide the squidger backwards – hopefully the pile should jump onto the enemy wink.

The Bristol works best if your wink is just overhanging the back edge of the bottom wink. If the top wink is nearer than the bottom one to the target, you can use the gromp shot instead. Here, you play the very edge of both winks in a single quick squop-style stroke. Neither this nor the Bristol is by any means easy, but practice helps.

In the course of a game, large piles of winks may develop. If you control a pile that contains more of your opponents’ winks than yours, your side should try to guard it by putting more winks nearby. If, however, there are more of your winks in it you should try and free them before the pile is defended. Squop onto a part of the pile where you cannot easily be squopped. If you survive, you can blow up the pile, in which you hit the pile hard enough to free your own winks. Try not to go off the table when doing this, as that would cause you to miss your next turn. Remember that you must not hit winks not overlapped or overhung by the wink you are playing. Also, you may only bring the squidger down from a height of one inch or less. If the pile is very well defended, you might decide to try a bomb shot instead, aiming to hit the pile from a distance.

A greater range of shots comes with experience (and experiment). For instance, in a pile of three, it is sometimes possible to free the bottom wink while keeping the middle one squopped. You can also pot the top or bottom wink of a squop. The best way to find out what can be done is to try it and see. You can also learn by watching other players in tournaments, to see what shots they play, and how.

If you and your partner manage to squop all the winks of both opponents (excluding any that are potted), then you have them squopped out. When this happens, your team has a number of free turns equal to the number of its winks in play which are neither squopping or squopped. Potted winks or winks that have not been brought in do not count here. You and your partner play the free turns in normal rotation and, when these turns are over, your team must free at least one enemy wink with its next shot. The opponents must be allowed to play before you squop them out again – this is true even if you free a wink early by mistake. You may, if you wish, free before you have to. If you do this, then free turns cease and the game carries on normally.

So how does the game end? If someone pots out at any stage, a special procedure is followed. The time limit is ignored; the game will now continue until all of the winks of one partnership have been potted. Before anything else happens, all squops are desquopped, all covering winks are moved to 2mm away from all other winks without altering their distance from the pot. Now you continue to play in the normal order, and just try to pot your own winks. Any squops which occur are immediately desquopped. The first color to pot out has won, and so gets 4 points; the second color in gets 2 and third gets 1. But, as mentioned earlier, potting out gets you a bonus point – this is transferred from the losing side to the winners. So if you pot out and your partner is the next one to finish, you win 7-0 rather then 6-1.

In most games, however, everyone is too involved in piles to pot out, and so the time limit expires. After this the game carries on for 5 more rounds, your final chance to consolidate or save the situation. Each round ends with the color who won the squidge-off. So if blue is playing as time runs out, and red won the squidge-off, red’s turn will end round zero. After this everyone gets five more turns, ending with the squidge-off winner. Going last can be a big advantage, as your opponents can’t reply to your last shot.

In rounds, with few turns left, it is espescially important to be aware of the tactical situation. Try to keep count of each color’s actual and potential score (for instance, take note of pottable winks). Know your own capabilities; try not to leave yourself relying on a string of difficult shots. In particular, pot early in rounds if you can afford the winks; the increase in your score puts pressure on your opponents and may divide their attention. In even games work out which of your side’s colors is more likely to take first place and try to keep it out of trouble. Use the other color to make life difficult for the opponents.

If one of your side’s colors is clearly ahead, try to promote your other color, but be careful not to lose first place in this attempt. In such situations, the pressure is on your opponents and, in an attempt to catch up, they may give you the chance of a 6-1 win. Remember the importance of first place; even if you only take first you will still win the game 4-3. But there are bound to be games when you are losing. Make a realistic assessment of your chances; it may be better to play for a solid 3 points than risk going for an unlikely win. (Obviously in a knockout tournament you may need the win. But most tournaments are round-robin format where total score at the end of the tournament is what counts.)

Tiddlywinks is one of the few games in which mind and hand play an equal part. You decide on your shot, and then you have to put the wink where you want it. You always have to ask yourself the question, can I do this shot? At the beginning, you are bound to get frustrated, as very few shots will seem to go right, but the main shots can be learned quite quickly. In practice games it is a good idea to stretch yourself a bit so that in a serious game you have some idea of how to play a difficult shot if you need it. Mostly, however, try to play within your capabilities. It is no use thinking out a dazzling sequence of shots if you miss the first. Practice the basics: bringing in from the baseline, potting, and squopping.

A good position is most easily reached by good strategy from the very start of the game. By bringing winks in close to the pot, you and your partner can try and establish an “exclusion zone”, an area within which any stray enemy winks will perish. If you control an area around the pot, you can threaten to pot out, and force your opponents to send winks in to stop you. They will be playing the longer, more difficult shots, and will be more likely to make mistakes and have their winks squopped, or at best outnumbered. This will give you a great advantage in position and tempo.

Try to bring all of your winks in early on. If an opponent offers you a tempting but uncertain squop, consider placing another wink near your own to support it. This will help to build up an area that is yours, and at the same time will make your opponents think twice before attacking your wink. It may also leave the enemy wink isolated and vulnerable. When bringing in, always aim for an exact spot. You may not hit it, but it is much better to have a definite aim. Mostly you will wish to support friendly winks, guard piles, or attack enemy positions; if nothing else, think of ways of blocking your opponents’ intentions. Sometimes you can bring in on the line of a pile they control and knock the top wink off. Avoid the lines of your side’s piles – you don’t want to destroy your own hard work.

Of course, your opponents will be thinking much the same way as you do, so you probably won’t have things all your own way. More often than not, the area around the pot will be congested, and each side will attempt squops to make sure the other side does not pot out. If the opponents do not present you with an easy squop, look for a place where one of their winks is isolated, or is perhaps balanced precariously on a pile. Look also for places where enemy winks are overworked; perhaps one wink is guarding two piles and you can attack both. Maybe you can threaten to free all your winks of one color so that a pot-out is possible. Keep the pressure on the opponents. In this, Tiddlywinks resembles other strategic games such as chess.

Don’t forget what is called color-order. Here are a couple of examples: if you have a blue and a red near a green and a yellow, then blue’s best shot is to squop the green. This stops the green from squopping the red, which may now have a shot at the yellow. If a blue squops a green and is subsequently knocked off, it has a chance to resquop the green before green gets a shot. But if green knocks a blue off a yellow, yellow gets to squop the blue. You might need a red guard to defend this squop in case the yellow comes free. Another color-order example is if there is a blue on yellow squop, with a free green and a free red nearby. It is blue’s turn. To prevent green taking red, blue can shoot the yellow onto the green, allowing red, who goes before yellow, to take the double. Alternatively, blue could hop off the yellow onto the green, again allowing red to take yellow. Of course, the opponents are not going to sit idly by and watch you do this. One common strategy to counteract color-order is for green to attack another red, giving red two things to do and forcing him to make a choice.

Keep assessing the state of the game as it proceeds. Are you winning? Is it even? Are you slightly behind? Is the situation desperate? Which of your colors has more free winks? All of these will affect your long-term planning. If you’re ahead, try not to leave squops and piles, espescially large piles, undefended. And remember color-order when placing your guards. Level games can often be quite slow moving, with both sides playing cautiously and hoping the other will make a mistake. Such games often come down to a potting race in rounds, so try and make sure you have enough pottable winks of one color to win. This may involve moving single squops together, accumulating several enemy winks under one of yours. Here again, plan ahead.

If you are slightly behind, try to work away at the edges of your opponents’ area, picking up the least well defended winks. If things are looking really bleak, it’s probably best to charge in, trying to go down in one big pile. As piles get larger, they become less stable. With luck you will at some stage get a chance to break the pile up. So throw everything at the biggest pile. Alternatively, if nearly all your winks are in one big unwieldy pile, it might just be worth it to pot your remaining winks. You thereby become squopped out, but your opponents may have to try a risky freeing shot from the main pile. Be very wary of using this tactic, as it often makes a bad position worse. It’s known as Plan 47, an apt name, since it’s really a last resort.

We have looked at long-term strategy up to now, but short-term considerations are also important. The game is full of variety (which is part of its charm) and hard-and-fast rules cannot be given. Here are a few guidelines:

  • When given an easy shot (such as a stray enemy wink landing next to yours), take it.
  • When in doubt, bring a wink into the area, it’s bound to come in useful later.
  • Uninvolved winks are more mobile than those on piles. So if you want to reduce your opponents’ options, squop uninvolved winks in preference to those on piles.
  • It is easier to squop onto a pile if you can slide up the back of it than from the other side. For knock-offs the reverse is true.
  • It is easier to pot or squop off the back of another wink than off the front.
  • The further on top of an opponent wink you are, the more mobile that pile is. But, should you want to squop or pot off later, then the less well on you are the better.
  • Try not to rely on your opponents missing a shot.
  • Don’t become so engrossed in the action as to miss the fact that one color has six winks free. If it’s you or your partner, and the six are in range, why not go for it? A good rule of thumb in these circumstances is to attempt the most difficult shot first. If it misses, or even if the second does, you’ve lost very little.
  • If an opponent sends his wink off the mat, your partnership has four turns before he can reply. This could mean two separate opportunities to approach and squop.
  • Try to keep your options open, you would rather not HAVE to do something.

The possibilities are almost infinite, from a sudden pot-out to a game with a 24-wink pile, with anything and everything in between. Even the best in the world can throw a game away with an inspired piece of recklessness. It’s that blend of technical skill and strategic sense, with a dash of outrageous luck thrown in, which makes Tiddlywinks such a compelling game.