Playing Dreidel come Hanukkah-time is a tradition for my family. Hanukkah may be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to give Dreidel a spin; even those who don’t celebrate this winter holiday will get a kick out of the game.
Dreidel is not solely a Hanukkah custom. Many countries, including Britain, Ireland and Germany, have had their own versions of Dreidel throughout the centuries with symbols in different languages. The Jewish version of Dreidel is said to date back to the Maccabean revolt; the Jews used dreidels as a cover to hide the fact that they were studying the Torah, which had been outlawed by the Greeks.
The Hebrew symbols on the dreidel — “nun,” “gimel,” “hey” and “shin” — form an acronym that spells out “nes gadol haya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, “shin” is replaced with “pey,” and the acronym instead stands for “a great miracle happened here.”
The Basic Rules of Dreidel
Each player starts off with a number of “pieces,” usually about 15, in front of them. My family often goes for pennies or quarters as pieces, but any small object will do. The goal of the game is to acquire all of the pieces in play.
Start off by having every player put one piece into a pile in the center, hereafter known as ‘the pot.” As the game goes along, everyone should put a piece into the pot whenever it becomes empty or there is only one piece left.
Pick a player to go first. This player will spin the dreidel, then take the action that corresponds to the symbol it lands on. “Gimel” (ℷ), or “everything,” means that the player takes the entire contents of the pot and adds it to their personal stash of pieces. “Hey” (ה), or “half,” means that the player takes half of the pieces in the pot, rounded up. “Shin” (ש), or “put in,” means that the player must put one of their own pieces into the pot. “Nun” (נ), or “nothing,” means that the player ends their turn without taking an action.
Players now take turns in a counterclockwise direction, spinning the dreidel and taking the appropriate action. If a player runs out of pieces, they are out of the game. Once someone has successfully gained all of the pieces in play, they are crowned the victor.
As you can see, the game is fairly simple. Once you’ve played a few rounds and are looking for a challenge, I recommend that you try out some of the following variations — or, of course, come up with your own original Dreidel spin-off (no pun intended).
1. Try Using Different Types of Pieces
If you’re in the mood for a snack, you can play with chocolate chips, mini-marshmallows or leftover Halloween candy — October wasn’t too far back, after all. A common type of piece is Hanukkah gelt, or chocolate coins wrapped in foil. You can also use cold, hard cash: dimes, quarters or even dollar bills work well.
2. Make It a Gambling Game
If you’re bored with simply spinning the dreidel and letting the symbols tell you what to do, feel free to add some intrigue by introducing betting as part of the game. When it’s your turn, ante up a piece to try and guess what spin you’ll get. Since the dreidel has four sides, it makes sense to bet using 3:1 odds; this means that if you ante one piece, you’ll get three back if you guess the symbol correctly. You can also allow people to bet on other players’ spins.
3. Loan Pieces to Struggling Players
If you want to elongate your game, let broke players (who would normally be out) ask for a loan from the rich. This way, no one is ever truly eliminated, and everyone can continue to partake in the fun. Of course, it’s up to the propositioned players to decide whether they want to loan out their pieces or not, and what they want their interest rate to be.
4. Add Dreidel to Another Board Game
Dreidel can easily be combined with any game that involves currency; just have players spin the dreidel before each turn. For example, in Monopoly, you can make the Free Parking pot the Dreidel pot, and have people either give money to or take money from it each turn depending on what symbol they spin. In this case, “pieces” could be a single Monopoly dollar, $10, $50 or any other amount you choose.
Another fun twist is Dreidel Truth or Dare, which can be played one of two ways. One way is to have players cash in pieces at the end in order to “buy” questions or dares that they can use on other players. Alternatively, you can use a more classic Truth or Dare format by replacing two sides of the dreidel with “truth” and two sides with “dare” and having a spin dictate each player’s choice.
Don’t feel limited to these two suggestions, of course; the options for combined Dreidel games are limitless. There’s a creative way to incorporate a dreidel into any board game, whether you end up playing Dreidel Candyland, Poker Dreidel or Dreidels of Catan.
5. Pick a Unique Dreidel
Small, wooden dreidels have a certain authentic charm, but sometimes, a snazzy dreidel can make the game much more fun. Some interesting ones that I’ve seen include a fidget spinner dreidel and an inflatable dreidel; you can find more fun options on Amazon.
Clearly, Dreidel can be a blast if you’re willing to get creative with how you play it — but, if your creative juices just aren’t flowing and you want to stick to the basics, that’s fine too. Until the pandemic is over, your safest option is probably Virtual Dreidel anyway.