Tiddlywinks is a four-player game. Each player controls one colour of "winks" — small plastic discs, two of which are slightly larger than the other four. The person who is playing blue partners the person who is playing red; the person who is playing yellow partners the person who is playing green. If only two people are playing, each person controls both colours from a partnership.
The game starts with the winks at the corners of a 6 foot by 3 foot felt mat, with all of the winks of one colour together and the partnering colour opposite each other; green's corner is to the left of blue's. The players first take turns to play a wink using a "squidger" — a (usually plastic) disc, larger than the winks — by pressing the wink into the mat and drawing the squidger back, away from the direction the wink should travel. As the wink squeezes out from under the squidger, it is thrown across the playing area as the mat returns to shape. Players may use squidgers of different size, shape and flexibility to play different types of shot; some players have a large selection available to them.
There is a pot in the middle of the mat. After each colour has had a turn, the colour of wink closest to the pot is declared the winner of the "squidge off", and all the winks are returned to their corners.
From this point, a timer is started (so that tactical games cannot go on forever), the squidge-off winner begins the game by playing a wink (typically to a position somewhere near the pot), and the players take turns, with each colour followed by the one who started to the left.
If a player lands one of the winks (of the right colour) in the pot, that player gets another turn. It is easier to pot a wink if the wink is positioned near, but not too near, to the pot — players often have a "favourite potting distance". If all his winks end up in the pot (the colour has "potted out"), that colour wins the game. Experienced players with all six winks positioned near the pot can get them all into the pot in a single turn, so much of the game is about either trying to get into that position, or stopping one's opponents from being able to pot out first.
If a wink is underneath — even slightly — another wink, the lower wink may not be played. This means that a player can capture (or "squop") an opposing wink by landing atop it, stopping that colour from being able to pot out. The owner of the uppermost wink may play it, so long as the squidger makes contact with the topmost wink first, so one can rescue a captured wink by squopping, in turn, the wink which had captured it, and then manipulating the pile from above. If an attempted rescue misses nearby, it may be possible for the squopping wink to cover both opponents, so a rescue is at risk; with practice, some squopped winks can be quite mobile. Alternatively, a player may want to use one colour to tie up both opposing colours, leaving the partnering colour more able to win. Although a wink which has been potted cannot then be squopped, that wink can also no longer be played, and so cannot be used to attack opponents or rescue squopped winks. A player who has tried to pot out but failed part way through will therefore be at a disadvantage in a squopping game. For this reason, most games consist of "piles" built by squopping winks, with each side vying for control.
If nobody has potted out by the end of the time limit, a few extra rounds are played, at the end of which the colour in the strongest position wins, with points assigned for other placings. This means that the last few turns of the game are often stressful and tactical, as the players try to make the best use of the shots they have left. Games often end with no winks potted, since the points benefit for potting may be outweighed by having to free opposing winks.
Tiddlywinks is often compared to croquet, if croquet were played with 24 balls (and less fresh air). It has some things in common with lawn bowls or curling, without the compulsive cleaning of the latter or the hayfever of the former, but tiddlywinks game strategy is much more complex. Advanced play is similar to how chess would be played if it were possible to miss when taking a pawn.
Tiddlywinks normally involves players standing in close proximity in a relatively confined space. As of 2020/2021, this seems, at least in the short term, to cause a problem.
Games should be held according to government guidelines: wear a mask, don't have a large gathering in one place, take turns at a table, don't have a celebratory hug at the end of the game, etc. Where possible, attempts are being made to arrange games to be played "outside" in gazebos (winks mats don't work when they have been rained on). Players are encouraged to apply enough clothing (notably to forearms) to limit the transfer of an infection via the playing surface — also Cambridge can be cold outside. History suggests that winking in gloves is a bit tricky, though. At the time of writing, arrangements for 2021 are still in flux.
Players should note that tiddlywinks is a game that basically involves standing for a long time and bending to reach over a table (or lying prone across it), which is an unnatural posture to consider in couture, especially for the vertically challenged. While there have been games played in black tie (or CUTwC bow tie), games are normally played in more comfortable, casual garb — style has rarely been a priority. However, it is worth being aware of the looseness (or tightness) of clothing, both in as much as it may interfere with the travel of winks (notably for scarves and ties, but to quote a famous incident "what's this wink doing in my pocket?"), and also in terms of the amount of flesh that you are happy exposing from a playing pose if your attire hangs or rides down or up. Lining the pot with hair (head or chest) is cheating, as is rearranging piles with either clothing or anatomy rather than with winks. Some senior players keep their feet comfortable during long days by playing in sandals or socks; in confined spaces, please take care if your own footwear is either robust or pointy. There is a long tradition of glasses being left on the table during a shot; please ensure that they don't interfere with the winks. And if they're for drinking rather than seeing, please find a surface less susceptible to stains.