There are several variations of how it is played, so the game doesn’t have any set rules. When our family first played the game, we only watched for plates from various states and Canadian provinces. The first person to spot a different state’s plate called it aloud then jotted the name on a page in a paper tablet. The person who first saw the most different states’ or provinces’ plates, at the end of the trip was the winner.
During shorter trips, we usually only saw Nebraska plates, the game was usually short because Iowa and South Dakota plates were often the only other plates to see. On slightly longer trips, we might see plates from Kansas, Colorado, or Wyoming. A real thrill was to see a license plate from Alaska or Ontario. I’m not sure why so many drivers from that province were in Nebraska at that time, but they far outnumbered cars from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I don’t think we ever spotted plates from any other province.
Most of the time we just kept track of the different types of Nebraska plates. When I was young, the numbering system was categorized by county numbers. For instance, vehicles from Madison County have the prefix “7”. A Madison County plate might show “7-A123”. A vehicle from Wayne County might be stamped “27-A123”.
A bonus point was awarded if we could name the county that issued the plate. Another point was given if we could identify the county seat of that county. Our childhood Nebraska license plate game would be more difficult to play today because the numbering system has been altered for the higher population counties. They now use three letters, three numbers such as “ABC 123”. Lower population counties still use the old prefixes. Another complicating factor are vanity plates. There are also higher priced specialty plates.
Sometimes we tried to figure out how other states assigned plate numbers. Some, like Iowa, were straightforward. The county name, itself, appeared at the bottom of the plate. Then some combination of letters and numbers identified the vehicle.
South Dakota had a variation on the county numbering system, similar to Nebraska’s, but we couldn’t figure out which number belonged with any particular county. South Dakota eventually adopted a confusing system that mixed up numbers and letters. One aspect of South Dakota plates, is that the passenger car plates usually had a depiction of Mount Rushmore somewhere on each plate.
California plates added a different dimension to our license plate game. Older cars had black plates with yellow numbers and letters, while newer cars sported blue plates with yellow numbers, so we counted California as two states. The new California plates aren’t as distinctive and the numbering lettering system appears to be random and arbitrary. I suppose with so many motor vehicles registered in California, the numbering of cars is much more complicated.
As far as attractiveness of license plates goes, in my opinion, New Mexico’s older plates win hands down. The ancient Zia Sun symbol is an elegant and simple adornment also found on their state flag. I think it might be worth moving to Albuquerque just to have “Land of Enchantment” plates on the ol’ Camry.
It’s funny how such common things as license plates can stimulate so much curiosity and enjoyment.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the very first license plate in the world was registered to Daniel and Hermann Beissbarth of Munich, Germany in 1899. It was simply the number “1” on an orange plate.