You're Definitely a Kid of the '90s if You Played POGs

By: Mark Mancini  | 

POGs
POGs were played by tons of kids in the '90s. Never heard of them? Then you're probably too old. Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The '90s, am I right? Hollywood's cashed in pretty hard on our nostalgia for this decade. "Animaniacs" is back, there's a new "Jurassic Park" trilogy and hey, did you hear we're getting a long-awaited "Space Jam" sequel?

(We think that's phat. Like, it's so phat, you guys. Who doesn't love "Space Jam?")

Less attention is now paid to another '90s pop culture artifact: POGs.

Remember those things? Remember the time Milhouse van Houten literally traded Bart Simpson's soul away for a set of them? Alas, much like "The Simpsons," POGs have somewhat dropped off the radar since their '90s heyday.

A lot of us older than the age of 30 or so probably could use a quick refresher. If the word "POGs" rings a bell, but you've sort of forgotten what they were, where they came from and why schools started banning the playthings, then this article is for you.

Menko
Menko, a Japanese card game thought to have originated during that country’s Kamakura Period, may have inspired a similar game called "milk caps."
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

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What Are POGs?

By some accounts, the story of POGs began a long, long time ago in the Land of the Rising Sun. Menko is a Japanese card game thought to have originated during that country's Kamakura Period, which lasted from 1185 to 1333 B.C.E.

The classic version of Menko operates under a simple premise. First, one player lays down a card. Then an opponent tries to flip it over by throwing their own card at the target. If player two succeeds, he or she gets to claim both cards.

The latter half of the 19th century saw an influx of Japanese immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands. Here, Menko may or may not have inspired a similar game called "milk caps."

Popular in the early 1900s, this was a children's pastime that could be enjoyed on the cheap. Children would stack up bottle caps in a vertical pile. Next, they'd take turns tossing a harder object (known as a "kini" or "slammer") at the stack. Any caps that landed face-up would go to the thrower.

POGs
During gameplay, each player has their own collection of POGs and one or more slammers. The players each contribute an equal number of POGs to build a stack, taking turns throwing their slammer down onto the top of the stack causing the POGs to scatter.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

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"The Mother of POGs"

We owe the word "POG" to Haleakala Dairy, a company based on the Hawaiian island of Maui. In the 1970s, Haleakala debuted a new mixed juice drink named "Passionfruit-Orange-Guava," or "POG," after its three main ingredients.

Today, the beverage is sold in cartons. But at first, POG juice was distributed in bottles sealed with cardboard caps. And these lids were the perfect fit for a new spin on the milk caps game.

Blossom Galbiso (1949-1994) was a teacher and guidance counselor who's lovingly remembered as "the Mother of POGs." Milk caps — as in, the game — had pretty much gone extinct by the time she started working at Waialua Elementary School in Oahu, Hawaii.

So in 1991, she reintroduced the old time-waster to her pupils. The rest is history.

Suddenly, milk caps were all the rage again — at Waialua Elementary and beyond. "The beauty of it is that they [students] stopped playing the real rough games in the playground," Galbiso later told the press. "It's a non-sexist game," she added. "Both boys and girls can play, and it teaches rules."

Yet a few changes were necessary. Milk bottles, like the ones older generations had played with, weren't as common in the 1990s. In their absence, children turned to POG juice caps.

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The World POG Federation

Now Galbiso may have been the Mother of POGs, but it was Alan Rypinski who made them a global sensation.

Haleakala Dairy didn't actually print its own bottlecaps; those were manufactured by Stanpac, a separate company based in Canada. Thanks to Galbiso, Stanpac realized it could make a killing in the Hawaiian toy market by selling its juice lids as game pieces there.

Rypinski, a California business owner, somehow caught wind of this. In 1993 he purchased the "POG" brand name from Haleakala and founded the World POG Federation (WPF).

That's when things really got serious. With relentless marketing, the federation turned POGs into a multimillion-dollar industry, and the American mainland's newest playground craze.

Why did the game catch on? Partly because it has easy rules any child can follow.

POGs
POGs invaded schoolyards '90s, starting first in Hawaii and spreading across the globe.
Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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How to Play POG

The game of POGs, as it's become known, requires two key components.

First, you'll need the eponymous POG caps. Those are cardboard discs about the size of a U.S. half dollar. Every cap has two sides; one is (essentially) blank, but the other comes adorned with an eye-catching logo, illustration or photograph. We call this second side the "face."

Once you've rounded up some caps, you've got to find a "slammer." Heavier discs made of plastic, rubber or metal, slammers tend to look drab by comparison. But they're every bit as important.

The actual gameplay follows "milk caps" pretty closely. Here's our CliffsNotes version of the rules:

  • Participants meet over a flat surface where they pile caps into a stack. Everyone has to chip in the same number of caps. According to "The Unofficial POG and Cap Player's Handbook" by Jason Page, the ideal stack is around 12 caps tall. However, the exact height doesn't really matter.
  • Once the stacks have been built, player one chucks their slammer at it. He or she will get to take all of the caps that land face-up. (By the way, if you miss the stack completely or fail to move it that still counts as your turn. Sorry; no do-overs.)
  • Restack the remaining caps and then let your second player try to hit the pile with a slammer. Just as before, if this person flips any caps onto their faces, (s)he gets to claim them. Keep repeating the process until all the caps are gone, at which point, the game ends.
  • The winner is whoever managed to flip — and thus, claim — the most POG caps.
POGs
POGs began to fall out of favor with parents when they started to look at the game as a form of "playground gambling."
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

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Why POGs Eventually Failed

Now that we know the basics, let's check in on Rypinski and his World POG Federation.

Saying POGs spread like wildfire feels like an understatement. In February 1993, the WPF threw the first-ever U.S. National POG Tournament. Within a year, the game had made its way to the East Coast, infiltrating playgrounds from Maryland to California.

Rypinski realized his core products, the POG caps, were basically collectible business cards. The WPF struck licensing deals with just about every brand you can think of. Kids started playing with McDonald's POGs, Ninja Turtles POGs, National Hockey League POGs, and so on.

Even the Catholic Church wanted a piece of the action. On Sept. 16, 1995, The New York Times reported that the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, had ordered 50,000 POGs with Pope John Paul II's face on them.

Yet the POG bubble had to burst sometime. Rypinski and company have been accused of oversaturating the market with too many POG variants. Besides, by the mid-'90s, parents were starting to complain.

Back in the day, when kids played POGs, they often played for keeps. If you took your favorite caps to school, you could easily lose them to another student who managed to flip the toys over at recess.

Understandably that sometimes caused fights. Since many teachers considered the game disruptive — and way too similar to gambling for comfort — POGs started getting banned in various schools around the country.

By the 21st century, POGs were decidedly "out." Don't take it from us, take it from Boy's Life magazine, which was already dismissing POGs as a bygone fad in a 1998 issue. At least we have our memories.

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