How to Play Rummikub

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This comprehensive guide will teach you the Rummikub rules and how to play the game.

Rummikub is a modern classic. This abstract strategy game enjoys worldwide popularity, even winning the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 1980.

If you’ve ever wondered how to play Rummikub, you’ve come to the right place. This article will teach you all you need to know about how to play Rummikub. You’ll also find a brief history of the game, as well as some rule variations and answers to frequently asked questions.

Ready to get going? Let’s dive in.

A Brief History of Rummikub

It seems like Rummikub has been around forever, but it’s a relatively new game. Rummikub (pronounced like “rummy cube”) was invented by Ephraim Hertzano in the early 1930s. He hand-made the first sets with his family in the backyard of his home in Israel. Rummikub combines elements of rummy, dominoes, mah-jongg, and chess.

Hertzano began selling the sets door-to-door and on a consignment basis at small local shops. As the game gained popularity, the family began licensing it to other countries. Rummikub eventually became Israel’s top export game. In the 1970s, it was brought to the U.S., where it became a best-selling game.

Rummikub is similar to several central European card games and variations of Rummy. These include games such as Machiavelli and Vatikan, which are played with two decks of playing cards. In Turkey, Rummikub is known as Okey.

In 1978, Hertzano published the Official Rummikub Book, which described three different versions of the game: American, Sabra, and International. Modern Rummikub sets only include the Sabra version rules.

How to Play Rummikub

Rummikub is an abstract strategy tile game designed for 2-4 players. There is an XP version that allows up to six players, if you have a larger group. It’s suited for adults, teens, and kids as young as seven. Each box set comes with 104 Rummikub tiles, two joker tiles, 4 racks, and rack holders.

Each game of Rummikub takes around 60 minutes, although it varies from game to game.

Object of the Game

The object of the game is to be the first player to play all the tiles from your rack by forming them into sets (groups or runs), just like in the card game Rummy.

Set up: All the Tiles on the Table

Shuffle all the tiles and place them into a bag or spread them out face down across the table. A player’s rack is set up to face them. Each player draws one tile, and the player with the highest number starts the game.

The remaining tiles form the pool. The drawn tiles are returned to the pool (i.e., the remaining tiles) and then mixed. Again, the tiles remain face down on the table. Players randomly collect 14 tiles and arrange them on their racks. Play proceeds clockwise during the game.

Terms to Know

Before jumping into the nitty gritty of how to play Rummikub, it helps to understand a few basic terms. Many of these terms are common to the familiar card game, Rummy.

A meld is a set of matching tiles. Melds are used in a variety of card games, as well.

A group is made from three or four same-value tiles in different colors. For instance, you might have a red 2, blue 2, black 2, and yellow 2. Colors may not repeat in a group, so they’re limited to four tiles.

A run is composed of three or more tiles of consecutive numbers in the same color. For example, you might four blue tiles, numbered 8-11.

The pool refers to all the tiles left on the table after players have drawn their first 14 tiles. Players will draw a tile from the pool during game play.

The river is a row of tiles discarded during a draw. They must be kept in order of discard. There are special rules that guide when and how players can take and play tiles from the river.

Game Play

Rummikub lasts more than one round. Each round is made up of multiple games. The number of players determines the number of games in a round. For example, with four players, a round is made up of four games, while for three players a round is made up of three games, etc. Players can also make their own house rules to determine the number of rounds.

When a player plays the last tile on his/her rack, a game ends. Players then start over again until they have played the number of games/rounds they agreed to play. Each tile is worth its face value, the number shown on the tile. The joker tiles function as a wild, assuming the value of the tile it is replacing.

For the first player’s move, they must play one or more sets with a value of at least 30 points. This first move is called an “initial meld.” If a player cannot make an initial meld, they must draw one tile from the tiles on the table and add it to their rack. Game play then proceeds to the next player.

Once a player has made their initial meld, they can play one or more tiles from their rack, adding to groups or runs. This must be done on a separate turn from the initial meld. Players are not allowed to make their initial meld and play on groups and runs during the same turn.

Players also must make their initial meld with tiles on their tile rack. They may not use tiles on the table for the initial meld. If the player doesn’t play any tiles, they must take a tile randomly from the pool and add it to their tile rack. After they draw a tile, their turn is over, and play proceeds clockwise.

Players may play tiles by adding to sets already in play. Runs are only limited by the extremes of the tile values. Groups are limited to four since colors cannot repeat within a group.

For any turn when a player cannot add onto another set or play a set from their tile rack, that player picks a tile from the pool and ends their turn. Players cannot lay down a tile they just drew but must wait until the next turn to play this tile.

Play continues until one player empties their player’s rack and calls, “Rummikub!” At that point, the game ends, and players tally their points.

If there are no more tiles remaining in the pool, but no player has emptied their tile rack, play continues until no more plays can be made, at which point the game ends.

Winning Rummikub

Rummikub is played over many different rounds. Many times the number is dictated by how many players are in the game. A four-player game would last four rounds, where as a three-player game would require three rounds. When that many predetermined rounds have been played, everyone tallies up their combined total from all the rounds. The player with the highest score is the winner.

Scoring Rules

Once a player has cleared their rack at the end and called “Rummikub,” the other players add up the values of all their tiles left in their racks. This total is a negative score. If losing players have joker tiles in their possession, each one carries a penalty value of 30 points each.

The winner of the round receives a positive score equal to the total of all the losers’ points. So there’s a big incentive to win the round! After each round ends, players total their minus and plus scores to produce a total score. The player with the highest score at the end of the game wins.

In the case that all the tiles are used before any player empties their rack, the player with the highest number of played tiles is the winner. That is to say, the player with the fewest tiles remaining in their rack at the end of the round. Scoring then continues as normal.

If one player never had the required points to make a meld and the game is over, their points are added to the score of each of the other players. The person with the fewest points is the winner.

Watch as a representative from Triple S Games explains the basic Rummikub rules:

Game Strategy

Rummikub is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Like many abstract games, there are multiple paths to victory and many possible plays. In the early stages of the game, you may choose to hold back some tiles until other players open up the table and provide more opportunities to play your tiles.

Fourth Tile

Sometimes it can be advantageous to hold back the fourth tile of a group or run and only lay three. This way, you can lay at least one tile on the next turn instead of having to take a tile from the pool.

Keeping a joker is another useful strategy. It allows you to play on all runs and groups. But there is a catch. You risk being caught with the joker if another player goes “Rummikub,” setting you back a penalty value of 30 points. Ouch.

To win Rummikub, you have to balance timing and pay attention to what other players are playing, so you can take advantage of the runs and groups on the table.

Manipulating Tiles

Manipulation is one of the most exciting parts of Rummikub. Players try to table the greatest amount of tiles by rearranging or adding to sets which are already on the table. Sets can be manipulated in many ways, as long as at the end of each round only legitimate sets remain and no loose tiles are left over. Keep reading to learn more about all the ways you can manipulate tiles.

Building on Sets

A player may build onto a set in a number of ways, as long as there are only legitimate sets on the table and there are no loose tiles left at the end of the turn.

Shifting a Run

Players may add the appropriate tile to either end of a run and remove a tile from the other end to use it elsewhere. For example, let’s say you have a run of a blue 4, 5, and 6. You may add the blue 7 to the run and remove the 4 to play it elsewhere. You must play the 4 on that turn.

Splitting a Run

Players may split long runs and add tiles in the middle. For example, in a run of a red 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, you can split that run into two and add a red 5 to make two runs of 3, 4, 5 and 5, 6, 7.

Substituting in a Group

Players may replace any of the tiles in a group of three tiles with a tile of the fourth color and the same value. For instance, if a player has a group of 7 in red, black, and blue, that player can add the yellow 7 and remove one of the other tiles to use elsewhere.

Removing Tiles

As long as the remaining tiles form valid sets, tiles can be removed from the ends of runs. Any one tile may be removed from a four-tile group.

Joker Substitution

There are two jokers in the game. A joker may be used in the opening set. It scores the same point value of the tile it represents. A player cannot retrieve a joker from a set before their initial meld.

After the opening set, a player can retrieve a joker from a set on the table and replace it during his turn with a tile of the same numerical value and color it represents. The tile used to replace the joker must come from that player’s rack and not from the other tiles on the table (i.e., pool).

A joker that has been replaced must be used in the player’s same turn as part of a new set. A set of tiles containing a joker can still be split, shifted, or built onto in any possible way. Of course, you must maintain a set of at least three tiles to be valid.

If a losing player has a joker in their possession when the round ends, the joker has a penalty point value of 30 points. Those negative scores can destroy your chances of winning. If you have a joker near the end of a round, it’s best to play it quickly.

Harvested Tiles

If a tile is taken from an existing set (i.e., “harvested”), that tile must be played during the same turn. It can’t be kept for later use.

Special Rules

If you’d like to add another layer to the game, you can opt to include some special rules and rule variations.

Incomplete Runs

A player who unsuccessfully builds on or manipulates other sets on the table must replace the tiles in their original positions, take back the tiles he played and draw three tiles from the pool.

Joker Tiles

Jokers are marked with a smiley face, and they act just like wild cards in a card game. As I mentioned earlier, joker tiles can substitute for another tile. However, it’s not required to use them. You can set aside these tiles at the beginning of the game.

Time Limit Rules

You can also impose a two-minute time limit on each player’s turn. Use a stopwatch or smartphone app to ensure each player only takes two minutes.

Draw Two

When you cannot or do not want to add a tile, you can draw from the pool. To draw, pick up two tiles, discard one to the River, and place the other on your rack. This ends the turn. The River is a row of tiles discarded during a draw. They must be kept in order of discard.

Pull from the River

If you want a particular tile from the River, you must pick up all the tiles in front of it. Tiles are added to the River from left to right. The oldest tile is to the far left, while the newest tile is to the far right. The oldest tile you draw in the River is the Key Tile and must be played during that turn. The other tile pieces in the River are called the plunder. All of the Plunder Tile must be placed on your Rack and cannot be used this turn. Once you play the Key Tile, your turn is over. You can use any tiles already on your rack in order to use the Key Tile.

There’s nothing worse in Rummikub than getting stuck with a Key Tile you can’t play. Best to take a tile you know you can play immediately.

What Are the Rules for the Opening Set in Rummikub?

To place a valid move, you need a run or a group of three or more tiles from your original 14 tiles. These can be played from your hand, or it can be a combination of your hand and shifting things around on the board so all the groups and runs are still valid. If a person cannot make a valid move, they must take a new tile from the pool and their turn is over.

Each player’s opening move has to be at least 30 points, based on the tile value. If not, they cannot play and need to draw a random tile from the pool. Sometimes, players have to play multiple sets to reach the required 30 points.

Can You Play Rummikub with 2 Players?

Yes. You can play Rummikub with two players, all the way up to four players. For five or six players, you can use the Rummikub XP rule book and box set.

How Many Joker Tiles are in Rummikub?

There are two joker tiles in a Rummikub set. According to Rummikub rules, jokers have the same numerical value as the tile they’re replacing, much like a wild card would in a card game. If you have a Joker still in your rack at the end of the game, it’s a penalty of 30 points.

What is a Meld in Rummikub?

A meld is a set of matching tiles. There are two different sets of tiles: groups and runs. Groups are three or four tiles of different colors and the same number. Runs are three or more tiles of the same color in consecutive number order. You can have as many tiles in a run as there are consecutive numbers.

How to Play Rummikub with Cards

Rummikub shares a lot of similarities to the card game Rummy, so it only makes sense you can play Rummikub using cards instead of tiles.

If you play with cards, use the jokers as… well, jokers. Use the number value cards as is, with their point value corresponding directly to the number shown. Each set of tiles of the same color goes through 1-13. You can use the Jack as an 11, a Queen as a 12, and a King as a 13.

It’s important to know that this is how to adapt Rummikub rules to a card format. This is not the same thing as Rummy, which has its own set of rules.

How to Play Rummikub: Wrap Up

Hopefully you now know how to play Rummikub. This game is great for families, friends, and game nights. It’s an abstract strategy game that’s easy to learn but challenging to master. I recommend it for your next gaming session.

Ready to find more abstract strategy games to play? Check out my review of the best games like Chess, so you begin playing against the best with ease.