Historic Card Games by David Parlett
England, 1500s

Laugh and Lie Down (or Lay Down) is one of the most exciting entries in Francis Willughby's Book of Games (c.1665)  - first, because his is the only known description of an ancient game previously known only by name, and, second, because it is the earliest known example of a European game of the Fishing family (Cassino, Scopa, etc), which may be of Chinese origin. To this may be added that it is that rare thing, a game designed for five players (though it can easily be adapted to four). As Willughby rightly remarks, "There is no other Game at cards that is any thing a kin to this." Though more of a fun game than a brain-strainer, it requires a fair amount of alertness, observation and quick-thinking to play well. J. E. Fender, in Our Lives, Our Fortunes (2004), writes "Until I played agin Daniel O'Buck, I alus thought Laugh and Lie Down wus truly a game o' chance".

The title refers to the fact that when you can no longer capture any table cards you must "lay down" by throwing your hand in, whereupon the other players are supposed to laugh at you. Strictly, therefore, it should be "Laugh and lay down", but one who lays down is said to lie down, which somehow sounds better and in any case is generally preferred - possibly also because, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, it is "freq. used punningly with reference to sexual intercourse".

Other references to the game recorded in the OED include:

Now nothynge but pay, pay, With, laughe and lay downe, Borowgh, cyte, and towne.
gapSkelton, Why not to Court (1522)
What game doo you plaie at cards? At primero, at trump, at laugh and lie downe.
gapFlorio, Second Fruites (1591)
At laugh and lie downe if they play,
What asse against the sport can bray?
gapLyly, Moth. Bomb. (1594)
Sorrow becomes me best. A suit of laugh and lye downe would wear better.
gapS. R., Noble Soldier (1634)
Laugh-and-lay-down, a childish game at cards.
gapForby, Voc. E. Anglia (c.1825)
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After Willughby, c.1665

Special terms
Two cards of the same rank (A-A, etc) are a pair, three alike a prial ("pair royal"), four alike a mournival (from the French mornifle, basically meaning a slap in the face, or insult).
Cards and deal
Whoever cuts the lowest card (Ace low) from the 52-card pack deals first, and the turn to deal thereafter passes to the left. At each deal the dealer puts up a stake of 3p and the other players 2p each, making a pot of 11p.
Deal eight cards to each player, face down and one at a time, and place the remaining 12 face up on the table. The 12 table cards should be clearly identifiable, but not arranged in any particular order. (Indeed, higgledy-piggledy adds to the fun.) If the table cards include a mournival (unlikely) the dealer wins all four matching cards and immediately places them face up on the table before him- or herself.
To win cards in pairs of the same rank and place them face up on the table before you as won cards. Also, to be the last player left in when the other four have run out of hand cards.
Before play, check your hand to see if it contains a prial or (very unlikely) a mournival. If you have one or more prials, you may immediately set down two of their cards face up on the table before you as the first of your won cards, keeping the third in hand. If you hold a mournival, you win all four cards and place them face up before you. If you forget to claim before play you can still do so on any future turn.
Dealer's left-hand neighbour starts and the turn to play then passes to the left. At each turn you play one card from your hand and use it to capture either one or three table cards of the same rank. Alternatively, you can play a pair from your hand to capture a pair on the table, but it's better to capture one card each on two separate occasions to ensure that you still have a capture in hand on a future turn, otherwise you may find yourself forced to lay down. (Similarly, you can play a prial to capture a singleton, but in this case you should have laid down a pair of it when first examining your hand.)
If you hold a matching pair, and another player captures a table card of that rank, you may immediately (even out of turn) add the pair to your won cards, since it can no longer be won in any other way.
When you can no longer capture by pairing, - whether because you have no cards matching any on the table, or because no table cards remain - you must throw your hand in by adding your hand cards to the table for others to capture subsequently. (The others are then supposed to laugh at you.) Play ceases when only one player has any cards left in hand. That player's cards, together with any remaining table cards, are added to the dealer's pile of won cards.
Spotting mistakes
You can also win cards by spotting other players' oversights, even if you have already laid (or lain) down. Specifically: -
  • If the table cards include a mournival and the dealer fails to take it, whoever claims it first wins all four cards.
  • If they include a prial, and a player captures only one such card instead of all three, whoever claims it first wins the unclaimed pair.
  • If a player lays down, and their cards include a pair that should have been won when the corresponding pair was taken, whoever claims that pair first wins it.
First, whoever was last in wins 5p from the pot. Next, everyone counts their won cards. Anyone who captured fewer than eight cards pays into the pot 1p for every pair of cards they won short of their original eight, and whoever who took more than eight takes from the pot 1p for every pair they won in excess of that eight. This exactly disposes of the 6p left in the pot after 5p has been paid to the last player left in.
No overall game structure is stated, but, in view of the dealer's advantage, a game should consist of a multiple of five deals with each player dealing in turn. Thorough shuffling between deals is not essential, as the act of dealing cards singly is enough to break up most pairs and prials.
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For other numbers of players

Willughby gives a version for four players and merely remarks that the game can be easily adapted for other numbers. Versions for three and six are my suggestions.

Four players
Make a pot of 9p (3-2-2-2). Deal 10 each and 12 to the table. Last in hand wins 3p from the pot. Win or lose 1p for every two cards taken above or below ten. (So Willughby. But you may prefer to make a pot of 13 (4-3-3-3) and win 7p for being the last with cards in hand.)
Three players
Pot of 10p (4-3-3). Deal 13 each and 13 to the table. Last in hand wins 5p from the pot. Win or lose 1p for every two cards taken above or below fourteen.
Six players
Pot of 13p (3-2-2-2-2-2). Deal 7 each and 10 to the table. Last in hand wins 5p from the pot. Win or lose 1p for every two cards taken above or below six.
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For five players

This is my adaptation for tournament play, where it is more desirable to keep a written score so that the eventual winners and runners-up can be decided on the basis of highest cumulative scores. I have removed the advantages accruing to the dealer and given them instead to the winner (the last player left in). The differences are as follows:

If the initially-dealt table cards include a mournival, turn the four cards face down and add them (eventually) to winner's won cards.

Score 1 point for each pair you have won in excess of the eight cards you were originally dealt. In other words, count your won cards and divide by two. (It's therefore no longer a zero-sum game, but this doesn't matter as scoring for everything you win reduces the incidence of ties.)

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Willughby says: "Whatever is overseen [i.e. overlooked] is his that can catch it first". It is unclear whether this means first in time or first in rotation, but it probably means the former, as he quite specifically categorises Laugh and Lie down as a fun game. Catching somebody out, therefore, does not count as a turn.

When you have a pair in hand that matches a pair on the table, you may wonder whether it is permissible to play your pair and capture all four cards simultaneously. Willughby has nothing to say about this. However, you would rarely want to do so, because taking only one pair in one turn leaves you with another play on a future turn, and, as Willughby points out, you want to keep as many options open as possible. As I see it, the only reason for wanting to win four at a time might be to reduce the number of cards credited to the dealer in the event that you finish as the only player with cards in hand.

To leave yourself as many future plays as possible, Willughby makes various recommendations, which can be summarised as follows. If there is only one card of a given rank on the table, and you hold a matching singleton or a pair, then capture the table card before somebody else does. If, however, there are two or three of a given rank on the table, and you can match that rank from hand, then you can safely hold back until you have no alternative.