Mornington Crescent (game)

From Academic Kids

Missing image
The Mornington Crescent tube station, from which the game takes its name

Mornington Crescent is a game created and popularized by the BBC Radio 4 programme I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Named after the Mornington Crescent tube station, it consists of moves between stations on the London Underground, the winner being the first to reach Mornington Crescent. The game's secretive, complex-sounding rules and dramatic manner of play are intended to parody strategy games and the deep analysis in which their players engage.



In its original form, the form in which it is still played on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, four players take turns making a "play" or "move", each of which consists of the name of a station on the London Underground, while a chairman (on ISIHAC, Humphrey Lyttelton) officiates. The first player to reach Mornington Crescent wins. Use of a map of the Underground is permitted for beginners, though veteran players develop such intimate knowledge of the stations as to render such aids unnecessary.

According to tradition, numerous volumes expound the hundreds of rules and regulations of gameplay; however, aside from the basic manner of play as explained above, no such rules exist. Nevertheless, when played on ISIHAC, the chairman often announces variants or alternative rules, such as "Mortimer's 2nd Amendment" or "Trumpington's Variation", at the commencement of the game. During play, players often explain their moves by invoking obscure but authoritative-sounding rules or gambits, e.g. "once Tooting Bec has been declared, the move may not be repeated unless two or more players are in knid". Some such plays, by dint of long use, have become "traditional"; but even these are still only sketchily defined. For example, once a player has named Dollis Hill, other players will often groan in anguish in anticipation of the forthcoming Dollis Hill loop; the common elaboration of this joke rule is that every second move thereafter, until a player of sufficient wit can cite a gambit to escape and allow the game to progress normally, returns to Dollis Hill.

Although, under the extant rules, it is technically possible to win the game on the first move by announcing "Mornington Crescent", such a circumstance rarely occurs, ostensibly due to the many complicated rules. It has happened at least once on air, directly after the player concerned spent four minutes discussing the particular rules by which they were playing. The true intent of the game is to be funny, and all other rules are invoked solely in the service of this objective.

When a novice player asks what other rules govern the order in which stations may be named, he or she is traditionally told that it would take too long to explain all the rules, and that (unless he or she can find a rulebook) the best way to learn is to observe a few games and "pick them up as you go along." Then the bewildered novice will sit and endure games.

Culture of secrecy

Those in the know about the game enjoy pretending to others that all the rules are real, and that they really are in a rule book. The alleged rulebook remains eternally elusive, and this supreme obscurity of the rules is a source of humour to players. Players frequently make reference to the International Mornington Crescent Society (IMCS), allegedly the dominant rule-making body for the game.

Radio 4 once broadcast the first part of a "two part documentary" on Mornington Crescent, which gave a history of the game through the ages. The promised second part, which would give an in-depth explanation of the rules, was, naturally, never broadcast.

As Lyttelton has put it on the show, "[the rulebook is maintained with] inimitable accuracy by the lovely Samantha, who sleeps with it under her pillow. As it now runs to 17 volumes, she is running out of pillows." (Samantha, the indescribably lovely scorer for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is equally fictitious.)

If Mornington Crescent is played well then an observer may come to realise what rules really operate, namely those of comedy, and other newcomers' initial bafflement will be amusing to all concerned. However, the game is far from a mere prank; aficionados legitimately play the game against one another for recreation even when not in the presence of the uninitiated.

Among Mornington Crescent players, there is a taboo against admitting that the rules are mostly fictitious. Some interpret this as an attempt to maintain the ignorance of outsiders. Another explanation is that admitting what's really going on is incompatible with actually playing the game: saying "but the rules aren't real" immediately spoils a previously engaging discussion of the strategy of shunting players who are in knid on the Piccadilly Line. It seems likely that different participants see different reasons for maintaining this silence.

The former interpretation of the taboo has led some to aggressively point out that there are no real rules whenever there's a possibility of someone being misled. Indeed, there is a hint of a reverse taboo: proponents of full disclosure see it as morally reprehensible to leave a newcomer in the dark. The debate remains unresolved, but it appears that all sides at least find it acceptable to privately explain the real situation to someone who asks.

Real rules

There is some evidence suggesting that in the early days there were a few simple rules, which the panellists knew and the audience didn't. The fact that the audience didn't know the rules was an in-joke for the panel. Since no one would be able to tell the difference, these rules were only loosely followed, and were eventually abandoned altogether.

Two books of 'rules' and history have been published, The Little Book of Mornington Crescent (2001; ISBN 0752844229) by Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer and Humphrey Lyttelton and Stovold's Mornington Crescent Almanac (2001; ISBN 0752847295) by Graeme Garden.

In the late 1980s Roger Heyworth, a director of Gibson's Games mooted the idea of publishing a Mornington Crescent game consisting of an empty box containing a flier promoting a club for aficionados. The plan was abandoned because of the number of customer complaints that it was expected to generate. In the late 1990s he approached the BBC with a card game design but this was rejected because it was insufficiently silly.

Starting in 1997 an attempt was made to create an actual serious playable version of Mornington Crescent, by means of a nomic. This was inspired by the propensity of nomics to create subgames and the observation that nomic players keep tweaking their nomics to keep them interesting to play. Mornington Nomic was a successful nomic for a while, and indeed succeeded in producing an interesting and playable game that matches the form of Mornington Crescent. While the nomic is no longer played, the resulting set of rules for Mornington Crescent remains.


Science fiction writer Michael Moorcock included a reference to the game in a comic book which he scripted, entitled Michael Moorcock's Multiverse. Since the comic was published in the US, the reference was clearly an in-joke for any British readers who happened to get hold of an imported copy, or US readers who are fans of the radio show.

In the 1980s postal gaming hobbyists invented a variant of Mornington Crescent for postal play, called Finchley Central.

In Sweden the game is sometimes played within science fiction fandom and then it uses the Stockholm Metro map and Stora Mossen as the target.

Calvin and Hobbes' Calvinball bears some resemblance to this game.

One episode of Garden and Brooke-Taylor's television series, The Goodies (also starring Bill Oddie) featured a card game called "Spat", which bore many similarities to Mornington Crescent. In it a hapless Bill was being taught Spat by Graeme and Tim but kept on accidentally breaking the increasingly surreal rules.

The British sitcom The League of Gentlemen features a card game indirectly inspired by Mornington Crescent called Go Johnny Go Go Go Go which has rules which appear to be entirely fictional (or deliberately overcomplex and obfuscated) for the purposes of defrauding naive players.

In the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action (broadcast in 1968), Captain Kirk spontaneously invents a card game called fizzbin after being captured, in order to distract the henchmen guarding him. Fizzbin supposedly has extremely complex and confusing rules, similar to Mornington Crescent. The card game Mao includes rules similar to Mornington Crescent in that the new player must try to learn the rules by observations and it is taboo to spell out the rules.

Online satirical gaming magazine Critical Miss ( featured a description of a card game called Clique. To begin, players download pictures of monsters, weapons, battles, etc, from the Internet or books, then print them on invented playing cards with a random, official-sounding description such as 'Add 3F with action card.' These are then taken to a convention , and the players appear to play the game by placing cards and making statements such as 'I take three meaningful sighs,' or 'I intercept your attack and engage strategic demoralization'; however, much like Mornington Crescent, the players simply make up the rules as they go along. A point at which Clique differs from Mornington Crescent is that it is not taboo to explain the rules to novices; in fact, it is encouraged. When explaining rules, they are also made up as the player goes along, but are made to sound very complicated. When the listener either glazes over or says "Why don't I just watch, and see if I can pick it up," the players have scored one point. Clique can be played in teams, with the winning team being either the first to get a prearranged number of points, or the one to get the most points in a prearranged time.

In the 1995 the British indie band Jake Shillingford and the My Life Story Orchestra (later renamed to just My Life Story) released an album called Mornington Crescent. Whether this was named after the station or the game isn't certain.

An episode of Friends featured a card game called "Cups", which one character (Chandler) had devised as a method of giving money to another character (Joey) without Joey realizing it. Thus, Chandler made up rules on the fly so that he would always lose. (Unfortunately, Joey then played the game with another character, and lost all the money he had won.)

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