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Carnivals Games You Should Play (And Games to Skip!)

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Carnival Ferris WheelMy favorite part about spring, besides the good weather, is the arrival of carnivals. Carnivals are little bastions of legalized gambling wrapped up in a nice funnel cake shell and deep fried in clown makeup, less than safe rides, and bright flashing lights. I love carnivals because you can walk around for free, listen to the cheer of the crowd as someone wins an oversized stuffed animal, and enjoy the outdoors while sampling a bit of capitalism here or there.

The cornerstone of every carnival is the game area. I say it’s legalized gambling because otherwise rational people hand over real money to play fake games and win stuffed prizes. When you go to a casino, you know all the games have a house edge. When you go to a carnival, you know all the games are rigged. If you insist on playing, as I do, it’s important to maximize your fun. If maximizing your fun involves winning a prize, then we have a rule you must follow if you want to get the most for your money. If you are just playing to have fun and could care less about winning a prize, play whatever makes you happy.

Games to Play

Obey this one carnival game rule and you will go far kiddo.

The Carnival Game Rule: Play games in which you compete against other players.

In these types games, much like casino poker rooms, the carnival is just taking a little off the top by paying out prizes worth slightly less than the aggregate entry fee. Ten kids paying $2 a round means you can give out a $10 prize and still make $10. This is why the larger the competitive field, the bigger the prize. When you play, wait until the field has enough players to qualify for the larger prizes. Your chances of winning go down but you truly score big when you do. (eagle eye mathematicians will no doubt recognize your expected value won’t change with more people playing but the base expected value in this game is higher because someone will win each time the game runs – this is not proof that more is better, only that this game is better than others)

The two most popular and common of these types of games are the one where you shoot a water cannon at a target (usually into a clown’s mouth) and any horse racing skee-ball type of game.

Here’s a quick protip on the water cannon games – watch which cannon seems to shoot water out the fastest. The water pressure won’t be the same on every gun, it’s simply not possible, so find the gun (or ask the operator!) that seems to have the greatest pressure and use it.

The only exception to the Carnival Rule is the game where someone has to guess your weight, age, or month of your birthday. The game is still rigged, because each prize is going to be less than the cost of playing the game, but you can still leave feeling like a winner when they guess incorrectly.

Games to Skip

In general, skip any game that relies on you beating the house. Each game is rigged in its own special way and beating it will require you to do something very few people do. Here are the most popular house games and how they screw you:

  • Basketball: In this game, you’re trying to sink a basketball shot… with the rim that’s much farther away. A regulation basketball rim is twice the size of a regulation basketball. A Carnival basketball rim is certainly not twice the size of the regulation basketball you’ll be shooting. Not only is the rim smaller, it and the backboard is harder, and sometimes the basketball is smaller than regulation size.
  • Darts: In this game, you’re trying to pop a balloon tied to a board. What makes this difficult is that the balloons are not fully inflated, the darts are dull, and they may be more heavily weighted on the tip. When you do hit one, the dull tipped darts slide off the skin of the not-fully-inflated balloons.
  • Shooting Out A Star: You try to shoot out a red star on a white piece of paper using a BB rifle. The only way to beat this game is to shoot a circle around the start and gave it fall out. You don’t have enough pellets to knock out all of the red paper, you must cut the star out. Good luck!

If you are intent on beating the Carnival at it’s own games, I recommend checking out this guide to beating carnival games. The guide gives you the best chance at winning these, and many other, rigged Carnival games.

(Photo: nakrnsm)

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13 Responses to “Carnivals Games You Should Play (And Games to Skip!)”

  1. cubiclegeoff says:

    Great article. I never think about playing the group games, but I see the better value. The only game I hate more than anything is covering a circle on the table with three, smaller metal circles. They make it look easy, but it’s extremely difficult.

  2. tbork84 says:

    The only thing at a carnival where you can be sure you come out ahead is fried dough. Best part of the carnival hands down.

  3. MoneyNing says:

    Carnival games should be for entertainment value only (whether you win OR lose)!

    I mean, even if you win and you get a huge teddy bear, what’s the point unless you are still in high school and you want your date to give you a kiss?? :)

    Play to have fun, and enjoy the process!

    • tbork84 says:

      As long as you have a date with you, it doesn’t matter how old they are. I know plenty of women who would get a kick out of having a giant stuffed animal won for them.

  4. I usually skip the games because I almost never win. Next time, I will give your suggestions a try. Thanks.

  5. zapeta says:

    I usually skip the games altogether but they can be fun if you go in to it not expecting to win anything.

  6. Strebkr says:

    In our area the festivals usually benefit a school or church. So its fun to go and play the games, but in the end its just a fun way to support the school.

  7. thunderthighs says:

    The best prize I can remember winning was at my elementary school fair: a school of Comet goldfish for my aquarium. When my friend and I went to redeem our vouchers, it didn’t matter to us one bit that the man who owned the pet store who donated them as prizes told us they were only worth 3 cents a piece. They grew to be gigantic, anyway! :D

    • Strebkr says:

      Goldfish just attract kids. I remember winning one as well. I don’t think mine grew to be as big as yours because I remember him floating in his tank a short time later. Oh well


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