A Party Game Fan’s Ultimate Holiday Party Game Guide

By Nathan Beeler

Makin’ a List
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, if you are a party game fanatic like I am.  With friends and family around and gay happy parties to attend there are plenty of chances to rejoice in the lighter, sillier side of gaming.  Gone for the moment are strategic considerations, look ahead, and analysis paralysis, as they are replaced by quick thinking, creative energy, and hopefully a whole lot of laughter.  Party games offer a chance to create memorable moments and to revel in a kind of competition where the points don’t matter but good players will still give their all in pursuit of them.

Not all party games will elicit the proper response, however.  There are a whole lot of options out there to choose from, and the overwhelming majority of them are merely mediocre, if they aren’t actively painful.  As you are probably the person your non-gamer friends look toward to spice up a gathering, it is your responsibility to sift through the morass for those perfect gems and hidden treasures and bring them along to the party.  At the very least, as game sommelier you’ll want to tote enough good options to fit the mood and configuration of the attendees.  You owe it to your friends to come properly prepared.

So what should you take to a holiday party?  Standbys like Electronic Catchphrase and Electronic Taboo (if you are lucky enough to have one) are always fun, and should be included in any party game kit to act as a universal catchall.  Beyond that it is a matter of taste, of course.  What follows is an alphabetical list of what I would would use to line the edges of my party game bag of holding, and hopefully a bit of why these and not others.

Note: I’m not going to try to define what a party game is, nor am I going to defend any of these choices as party games.  For the purposes of this article, a game qualifies if it is anything I would take to a gathering where light entertainment was more important than anything else.  My tastes tend toward creativity and quick thinking based games (but not speed games, per se), but there should be plenty of options in here for everyone.

25 Words or Less (Bruce Sterten, 1996)
Inklings (1993)

If you think non-musical Name That Tune, you’ve got the idea of 25 Words or Less (should be fewer).  It is one of a series of economy of words games that I adore.  Two players bid on the total number of words they think will be required to clue their teammates into a complete set of words on a card.  The winner of the bid then has a sandtimer’s worth of time and the number of clue words they bid to get their teammates to say each answer in turn.  The team can guess as often as they want, but each new clue word given by the cluegiver takes one of the precious few available.  They’re not getting the answer with “skyscraper” like you thought they would?  You have to decide quickly if you want to throw in “distinctive” or “apple” or “york”, taking away a word you thought you might need later.  Maybe you throw caution to the wind and say “new york”, taking two whole clue words but surely gaining time you can use to be more efficient than you thought you’d have to be later.  Gamers tend to like this because you can be very cerebral with your clue giving: crafting the money clue is always one of those moments.  Some non-gamers take a few rounds to figure out how to bid properly, but even that is fun to watch, as the winning bids continue to get lower and lower as they gain confidence.

Inklings feels fairly similar to 25 Words or Less (fewer, damnit!), in the sense that the main skill is giving clues with as little information as possible.  But instead of saying words, Inklings has players writing clues using as few letters as possible.  Each turn a player is given a card that has seven answers under one category (famous days, newspapers, types of meat), as well as a dry erase board with spaces for letters and symbols.  If you can successfully clue your answer using only two spaces you can get the maximum five points.  Using three or four letters and symbols will net you four points, and so on.  Of course, you can’t just spell the answer – that would be lame and is against the rules anyway.  After working through the card in a limited amount of time, the other team gets a chance to guess at any answers that weren’t guessed the first time.  So there is a nice dynamic of wanting to use as few spaces as possible to maximize points, but needing to convey enough information to ensure some points are earned.  The memorable moments come when a player goes for a two letter money clue and their partners follow the logic and guess correctly.  This is a game for people who like to be clever and think outside the box, which is most people I like to play games with, even if they aren’t gamers.

Abstracts (M. Agrelius, 1988)
Abstracts is another “clueing your team to the correct answer” game, but with a twist that sets it apart from any other party game I know of.  Two players try to get their teammates to guess a proper noun on their card that is known to be either a person, place, or a thing.  But they can’t just give clues directly, because that would be too easy.  Instead, the rest of the team decides which of their question cards to hand the clue giver, who then reads it out and answers it.  The team then gets one collective guess to the answer.  All of that, from the picking the card to the guess, takes place in a brisk one minute.  The questions, which are the meat of the game, come in the form of “if you were a ____, what would you be?”  If the game is played with a group of people interested in having fun and not being weenie, it can take a number of rounds of these answers piled up before a common thread is discerned.  For instance, if I say I’m “the number 69”, that might not be enough to get at the thing I represent.  But if the other team says they are the holiday “Easter”, and then I say as an article of clothing I am “a smoking jacket”, could you make a guess then?  This game is hard to find, so probably not of much practical use on this list.  But if you ever get a chance to try it I highly recommend it.

Attribute (Marcel-André Casasola Merkle, 2002)
For a time Apples to Apples was a dominant party game in many circles.  But what once felt silly and comical eventually became repetitive and dull, the laughter forced.  I know a lot of gamers have gone through that same cycle, to various degrees, and the game languishes or gets donated.  I still like the base mechanism, though, so it was with some excitement and some trepidation that I approached Attribute, a game billed as “Apples to Apples only much better”.  Thankfully, it fully delivered on the promise.  In a small but delicious moment of content creations, each turn one player comes up with the noun in question.  This can be as specific and funny as the player wants it to be: the White House bathroom, my mother-in-law, puppy kisses.  Then everyone chooses an adjective from the set they have in their hand, with the intent of having it match well if they were dealt a green sheep card at the start of the round.  If they were dealt a red sheep card, they try to not match as much as possible.  When all adjective cards are flipped players look around the table, trying to quickly judge whether each player was dealt a green or red sheep card based on the adjective card in front of them.  If they think someone is a green, they may race to grab the face down sheep card from in front of that person.  Once all the dust has settled, and each person has taken a card if they want to, the sheep cards are revealed and points are given based on which ones were taken.  This scoring can take a bit for non-gamers to get their heads around, but the ideas behind it are pretty easy to grok; players will intuit what to do right away.  The game still allows for the fun lateral thinking and matching, while also adding a creative element.  Most importantly, it gets rid of the arbitrariness of the judge, which is the main improvement over Apples to Apples.

Beer and Pretzels (Ted Alspach, 2009)
Given the name, you’d expect Beer and Pretzels to be a featherweight little filler, and you’d be right.  Players take turns tossing coasters into the middle of the table, trying to get them to land inside of a loop of string.  By the end of the round, players get points for any image on a coaster that is completely uncovered by another coaster, as long as the coaster itself is touching (or part of a chain that is touching) the inside of the loop of the string.  Sit back, toss a coaster, and repeat until everyone is done and you can count the points.  That’s it.  If you get the purple expansion, which I highly recommend for the rules alone, up to six people can while away the minutes in this pleasant manner.  Laughter is somewhat inevitable when someone can’t help but have their coaster land upside down, or they perpetually cover their own coaster.  Watching someone try to use a coaster as a weapon to clear an offending coverer is usually hilarious, partly because it almost never works and partly because it usually flies off into the cat or possibly someone’s eye.  Remember, pain from a distance is comedy.

Bezzerwizzer (Jesper Bülow, 2007)
It’s reasonable to assume that Danish trivia games would be absent from a list of the best party games like this.  But despite its own handicaps Bezzerwizzer has clawed its way into this spot and a spot on my game shelf.  Trivia games by their nature are fairly questionable as party games, namely because some people flat out hate them.  Typically, those people feel like there’s nothing to do if they aren’t the smartest people in the room, and to some degree they’re right.  Bezzerwizzer solves this in a number of ways, but mostly it puts the game aspect back into the procedings.  Each round the team (or player) draws four category tiles out of a bag.  During the course of the round they must answer one question from each associated category: wide ranging categories like fashion, science, religion, music, history.  There are twenty categories on each card, so there’s something for everyone.  Next, the team chooses the order that the questions will be answered.  This is important because a correct answer is worth as many points as the phase of the round it was given in.  So you’d typically put your better categories later to maximize your score.  Then, to add another fun twist, teams are given three special action tiles each round: two bezzerwizzers and a zwap.  The zwap is used to swap any two unused category tiles.  Suddenly, this gives a player a reason to put her favorite categories earlier in the round (so they don’t get stolen) and a reason to put her least favorite later (so she can swap it out for a better one).  The bezzerwizzers are a method for stealing points if you don’t think another team will know an answer.  You can wait to hear the question, or earn more points by going off of the category alone.  All of this adds up to a lot of fun decisions to make, completely separate from the fun trivia aspect.  Note: make sure to play the full production version, as early pre-production sets didn’t make the questions hard enough and could easily be played without anyone ever missing anything.  That obviously makes all the machinations of zwapping and bezzerwizzering moot.

What Were You Thinking?

Sometimes, the perfect party game can be played with just some paper and some writing instruments, or in some cases nothing at all.  Celebrities is one of my all-time favorite games of any type, and it was released in purchaseable form as Time’s Up, which is also really great.  The only difference in the games is that Time’s Up comes with its own content, so players can jump right into the first round of the game.  For most people that is a boon, but I absolutely adore the content creation round of Celebrities.  Players pair off and spend rounds getting their partner to guess as many of the names in the group pool as possible in thirty seconds.  In subsequent rounds, players can give only one word, and then no words.  But of course, by then people have developed a language of sounds and charades that can be used to signal a given name, which will necessarily have been said a few times before.  This game never fails to create those moments you look for in a party game.

What Were You Thinking? (called What Was Y’all Thinking? by my southern friends) falls under the umbrella of list making games.  With the right people, this game can be side splittingly funny, and even with the wrong people it can still be some chuckles.  Each round one person makes up a category (“superheroes”, “the best athletes in their sport”, “offensive words”) and everyone writes down seven answers each, trying to match as many other people’s answers as possible.  In theory you get a point for every person who wrote down that answer, but I’m pretty sure we’ve never counted points at the end.  Usually, the fun of the game is about trying to match or trying to amuse.  Once again, there are several games like this you can buy, but in this case I can think of no good reason to.  The pen and paper version is strictly superior.

Finally, if the group is in a mellow mood, possibly laying around late at night and drinking/drunk, Botticelli can be a fun little brain burner.  One player thinks of a celebrity, living or dead, real or fictional, and gives everyone else the first letter of the last name.  Everyone else alternates between rounds of trying to stump that player with clues about other celebrities with the same last initial, and then asking yes/no questions about the mystery celebrity.  The game ends when someone in the group guesses the identity, usually followed hard by a new game where the guesser gets to come up with next celebrity.  I enjoy party games like this because the true joy is in crafting a perfect stumper.  Anyone can find “are you a talk show host?” that may or may not do the job.  But coming up with “are you a red headed lesbian?” or “have you sung at the halftime of a superbowl” causes people to rack their brains for information that may not be indexed in that way.  I’m something of a football fan, but I’ve been completely flummoxed when trying to come up with “a defensive football player” whose last name begins with a certain letter when put on the spot.  Speaking of that, the game is really only fun if people make sure the mystery celebrity is definitely known by all, and that at least one valid answer to the stumper could reasonably be known by the person being asked.  Being obscure isn’t fun in this case, as it’s more about teasing someone with “you know that you know a correct answer, if only you could think of it” type stumpers.  Delicious.

Encore (1989)
Singing games are divisive enough that a some people will refuse to play them anyway.  If you add to that a need to recall lyrics to songs quickly, you may alienate more friends by playing Encore than not.  However, if you can get it to the table, you’re nearly guaranteed a good time.  The main activity is, in the way we play, two teams going back and forth singing songs that have lyrics that either contain a certain word or fit a theme.  So if the theme is “days of the week”, one side could start in with “The Theme to Happy Days”, while the other follows that with “Friday I’m in Love”.  This process goes back and forth until one team is unable to come up with a fitting song in the allotted time.  Another side benefit to playing this is that you are destined to think of valid songs for days and days after.  To this day my ears still prick up if I catch a tune with the word “green” in it.  If the competitive thing doesn’t fit your group, there are semi-cooperative singing games in Hossa and Tunebaya.  While I prefer the mad scramble for unthought of song lyrics that Encore provides, I’ve had fun playing the others as well.

Hoopla (Michael Adams, 2002)
Hoopla is something of an anomaly here, in that its inclusion is really more about the type of experience it can offer than how great of a game it is.  Don’t misunderstand, I really enjoy the game; it’s easily my favorite Cranium product.  But the fact that the game is a co-operative party game is what sets it apart from other games of its calibur.  Collectively, the table has a full timer’s length to get through clueing a set of cards they’ve been dealt (the number of either of which can be adjusted to change the difficulty level).  On a given player’s turn he rolls the die which tells him which of the four methods he can use to clue the other players in to what’s on his card: drawing, sound effects, alliterative clue words, and something called tweener.  Tweener clues come in the form of “this thing is greater than X and smaller than Y”, where X and Y give a hint as to the nature of the answer (while still maintaining relative size values if you don’t want to be weenie).  For example, “it’s bigger than Conan’s sword and smaller than California”.  My favorites to try are probably the alliterations, because the activity feels so easy when you’re not under the pressure of the clock to come up with just the right letter and then words for that letter.  But under the gun it’s a different matter, and you often find yourself committing to a letter by saying a word, and then having nothing else to back it up.  Whatever the case, once someone shouts out the correct answer, it is the next person’s turn, and the race is on to get through all the cards before time runs out.

Inspeaquence (1995)
Inspeaquence is hilarious.  That’s more than enough reason to include it in the ultimate party bag.  The fact that it works really well for large groups and people can drop in or out is just icing at big holiday parties.  The game requires two teams of three or more players, where one person each turn acts as the guesser, while the others on her team give clues.  In the time alotted by a sand timer, the clue givers must work together to get the lone guesser to say as many answers on a card as possible, given that she may only make one guess per answer.  The fun twist is that each member of the clue givers may only give one word of the clue sentence at a time, taking turns in order.  The way we play, which definitely makes the game less prone to cheesiness, is that a team must form the clue as a complete question, and the guesser can’t guess until the sentence is completed (signalled by someone dinging a bell).  We also say you may not use “What is not X?”, because that’s also not fun.  The awesomeness comes from the people in front of you giving you words that go in a direction you weren’t prepared for, and now you have to scramble.  But of course your scrambling probably won’t be in the way they intended, so everyone fights to not spiral into complete confusion.  This game can be played with content from other games, by the way, and I recommend doing that somewhat because the printed version is rather dated and British.  This content did, however, lead to the great “Diego Maradona moment” that ranks as my favorite ever from gaming of any sort, so I have a soft spot for it.

Kakerlakenpoker (Jacques Zeimet, 2004)
Skull and Roses (Hervé Marly, 2011)
Liar’s Dice (Richard Borg, 1987)

I included this trio of bluffing games here, despite the fact that I don’t really consider Liar’s Dice to be a party game on its own.  Many do, though, so in the bag it goes.  But first is Kakerlakenpoker, pure bluffing goodness.  Everyone has a hand of cards composed of eight kinds of creepy crawlies: rats and spiders and scorpions, oh my.  To start the game someone takes a card and passes it face down to someone else, telling them which of the beasts is being passed.  Or perhaps they can bluff and say a different animal that isn’t really on the card.  The recipient now has two options: accept the card, look at it, and then pass it on to someone else, or make a call about whether the passer was telling the truth or not.  Passing forces the player to make a claim about what the card is, which may or may not be the same as it was claimed to be when passed to him.  Eventually, someone will have to determine that the passer is or is not lying, and that the animal is or is not what they say it is.  At this point the card is flipped over and the card goes as a penalty point to the person in the wrong (either the guesser or the passer).  The game goes until someone has four of the same type of animal, and that person is the game’s sole loser.  This should sound trivially simple, and it truly is.  The game’s simplicity, along with the fact that it plays up to eight, is what makes it ideal for a party.  The only necessary skill is looking into a person’s eyes and judging whether they’re bluffing or not.

Skull and Roses adds another element to the bluffing game by making it a contest of bravery.  Thematically, it is a game of rival biker gangs playing a bluffing game in order to determine the next gang leader.  This works particularly well with the game itself, because the winner of the game is usually the person who took the biggest risks successfully: the person who had the biggest balls, if you will.  Each player starts with a set of five coasters with their gang’s insignia on the back and four roses and one skull on the front.  A round starts with everyone taking one of their coasters and placing it face down in front of them.  The start player may then either add another coaster to their stack or start making a bid.  As long as players continue to add coasters this continues around and around the table.  As soon as anyone decides to bid, then no more coasters may be added.  Each player may then either make a higher bid or drop out.  Players are bidding on how many roses they can find without uncovering a skull.  Whoever wins the bid must first turn over their entire stack.  The implication of flipping your own stack first is that you would only ever bid if all your played coasters are roses or if you were bluffing.  Finally, the winning bidder can start pulling coasters off other players’ stacks of their choice until they reach their bid number or until they crap out by finding a skull.  Making a bid is quite an accomplishment, which is why it only takes two successful bids to win the game.

While Liar’s Dice feels less like a party game to me than the other two, possible because it is a bit more mathy and completely themeless, it is in my opinion the best bluffing game that exists.  Personally, I think it is one of the best games of any type.  Everyone gets a set of five dice that they roll and keep hidden under a cup.  On his turn a person must set or raise a bid for the number of dice of a given pip count they think everyone has under all the cups.  The idea is that players should start fairly low and build up, revealing more about what they all have in the process.  Eventually, someone will call the bid and all the dice will be revealed and counted.  Whoever is wrong pays as a penalty some of their dice.  The last person with any dice left is the winner.  Despite the fact that it’s a dice based game, the luck level feels fairly low most of the time, as the winner is usually the person who read everyone else best most often.

Objets Trouvés (Philippe des Pallières, 2005)
Pictomania (Vlaada Chvátil, 2011)

Both of these games have in common that players are trying to clue people in to one word or phrase from a set of six, where the differences between the answers is not necessarily huge and some are awesomely hard to clue.  In Objets Trouvés, the way to clue in the answer is to use a set of objects (the game’s name means “found objects” I’m told) like a rock, a toothbrush, a spaceman figure, or a deflated balloon, to form a stationary diorama.  As soon as players know which of the answers on the card is correct they put their corresponding numbered card in the middle of the table.  The closer they are to the bottom of the stack the more points they can win.  But because the differences between possible answers can be deviously subtle, it behooves players to wait to be sure, because wrong answers also lose more points for being lower down.  Of course, if you wait too long you will earn fewer points for a correct answer.  The clue giving activity is great fun, because staging a set of random objects into “prenup” or “sprained ankle” without moving them can be quite a challenge.  In fact, sometimes you guess an answer simply because it isn’t any of the other possibilities.  In a wonderful twist, the objects in play can be swapped out at various points in the game with things found in your environment.  This means the game is different each time.  Lovely!  Note: as far as I know this game is only available in French or German, so a lot of work was done to translate the massive amount of content.

Pictomania takes those six brutally close answers (at the hardest, correct level) and has people quickly draw pictures of them.  Because everyone is drawing simultaneously and can guess at any time, there is a decision to make about when to look around and when to draw.  I found this to be a bit distracting and not as fun as with Objets Trouvés’ one clue giver.  However, the game makes up for this by having one card per person, with a system of symbols and numbers to determine which of the answers on which of the cards you think a person has.  Since there is only one person for each card and one for each number, you can use this meta knowledge to help determine which of two similar answers is correct for a drawing.  That honing in can be fun, though hilariously frustrating if you screw up a guess early in the process and leave yourself with a set of answers that don’t seem right at all.  Once you’ve made a guess you can’t change it, so just guessing quickly can be doubly painful as you wish you had that card back for its proper owner.  Lots of laughing and disbelief that “that was what you were trying to draw?!” leads to this game being a winner.

Password (1962)
Another one of my all time favorite games (I admitted to being a party game fiend in the title of this piece), Password is pure unadulterated clue giving bliss.  Sadly, it only plays up to four players, which means it’s not great for holiday parties, really.  But if there are four sharp people who like playing with words, then this would be the perfect game to bust out.  To begin a round, a clue giver looks at the next word he needs to get his partner to guess, says exactly one word, and waits for his partner to make a guess, all within thirty seconds.  If the partner is incorrect, the other clue giver may now look at the word and repeat the process.  This goes until someone is correct and that team gets the point.  The other team then gets to start the next round.  No charades or movements may be added to aid the clue giver, but he may add some tone to spice up the clue.  In our games we say a rising tone means the clue giver wants a word that’s a matched pair.  “Salt” said this way would probably mean the answer is “pepper”.  An elongated version of the word suggests the clue giver wants something that would follow it in a phrase.  “Bliiiiiiiiind” could mean “bat”, for instance.  Though it also might mean “luck”, or possibly “beggar”.  So your job as a good guesser is to think through all the possible answers it could be, and then try to think if that’s the way you’d clue each one or if there’s a more obvious clue that can eliminate that possibility.  You could probably eliminate “bat”, figuring your partner would say “basebaaaaaaall” or “vampiiiiiire” instead.  And all of this has to be done in thirty seconds.  Heady stuff, but absolutely brilliant fun when you have four players who are into thinking things through like that.

Pig Pong (1986)
Schnapp (Heinz Meister, 1993)
Loopin’ Louie (Carol Wiseley, 1992)

Sometimes, a dexterity game is just the right fit for a party’s mood, instead of the thinkier or speedier stuff that makes up most of this guide.  The three here are among my favorites, and some of the first I will go to for any get-together.  Pig Pong is another game that tops out at four, but it represents a much sillier lighter game than most others on this list.  Players form two teams and hold pig shaped rubber toys.  When squeezed, a blast of air shoots out of the nose of the pig, which can be directed at a ball made of drier sheet material.  The team that gets the ball to land on the other side of the net using only air power gets the point.  Very simple, and amazingly fun.  I’m usually sweating, and often bleeding by the time the game ends.  Though I have learned to clip my fingernails first, which helps.

For an even more physical event, you might pull out Schnapp.  An impossible to find kids’ game from Haba, Schnapp is simply a small wooden lever and a bunch of wooden discs with colored spirals on one side.  Each player (or team) is given a color, and when a disc is flipped in the air revealing the color of its spiral (but only in glimpses as it spins), the player associated with the disc must try to catch it before it lands.  If a player grabs the wrong disc she is penalized, which happens more than you’d think.  If a player grabs the correct disc, however, she gets to keep it in her score pile, and when any player has a certain amount of discs she wins.  I’ve come to find that a certain amount of physicality helps amp up the fun levels with this: elbows and gentle shoving.  But since you do need room to maneuver and high ceilings, we’re physically unable to bring this out as often as I’d like.

Much has already been said about Loopin’ Louie, and rightly so.  The game features a plastic airplane at the end of a spinning arm that can be bounced up and down as it travels around by being smacked by one of four players’ flippers.  I have introduced dozens of people to it at game parties, and it never fails to delight.  Thankfully, the game is back in print (though in a smaller form than the original version), so I no longer have to give people the sad news that while I’m glad they enjoyed playing they can only get a copy of their own by taking out another mortgage on their house.  When I play now we always use the tournament rules.  Normally, the winner of a round is the person who protects her chicken discs best from the spinning flopping Louie’s airplane.  This is still true in the tournament rules, except that person who wins a round then starts the next round with one fewer chicken than they had before.  The winner of the game is the first person to get rid of all three chickens this way.  Generally, this is also the person who is most able to simultanously deflect and aim the plane at everyone else’s chickens.  In other words, it’s a game of skill.  But it’s still incredibly silly and fun.

Reverse Charades (Scott and Bryce Porter, 2010)

Pantomiming clues is such a natural part of a lot of clue giving party games that few people think to go back to the source and play the original Charades very often.  This is a shame, because it is very often a huge crowd pleaser (and works well for huge crowds, too).  The way we play is to have two teams split off and write down answer phrases on slips of paper for the other team to guess.  The teams then come back and each member of the other team mutely acts out the parts one of the answers for her teammates.  Score is kept by tracking how long each team takes collectively to get all the answers, and the team to do it fastest wins (if anyone cares).  Doing the clue writing this way scratches two very important itches for me: content creation again, and meta-content creation.  As with Celebrities, you can try to come up with a theme for your answers that the other team can try to solve as it solves the individual phrases.  These metas can be as easy (each answer has a color in it) or as devious (no “e”s were used in any of the answers) as the teams desire.  Really it’s all about having fun and mental jousting.

Reverse Charades lacks a lot of the mental stimulation of its progenitor, but it does have something that no other game I’m aware of has: group charading.  The reverse part of the name comes from the fact that instead of one person pantomiming for a group of guessers, Reverse Charades has a group of people pantomiming for one guesser.  This wouldn’t seem like much of a twist without the content being tailored for such an activity, but thankfully it often is.  Now teams can do things like “ring around the rosie”, “ventriloquist” and “piggy back ride” that are harder to clue individually but seem like a snap with a group.  And for some funny reason, people just seem to fall into proper roles immediately: probably the time pressure pushing people to adapt quickly.  This is also a great game to play with people who are a little tentative, because they can hide in the group until they feel up to stepping forward.  And in my plays people always eventually step forward and shine.

Split Second (1992)
The main mechanism in split second is a central core that has places for six arms to be attached around it.  These arms are rubber band powered to quickly snap shut toward the device’s center.  So the way the game works is one player reads off a question whose answer is either a number or a couple letters.  Then players quickly write their answer in crayon on a flat surface at the end of the arm.  By letting go of the arm and having it race to the middle, a stack is formed with the earlier answers at the bottom.  The correct answer is then read off and paddles are pealed back to reveal what was scribbled on them.  Whoever gets the answer closest to the correct one wins the point.  In any tied or equally off situations, which happens very frequently, the person whose paddle is lowest wins.  What makes the game work so well is that it is a mixture of very common knowledge that has to be pulled quickly (“A car: _ _ Beetle”) and interesting statistical guessing (“How many minutes a day does the average person spend outside?”).  And just to keep things really interesting, there are some questions whose answers are given by the asker (“How many times have I gone skinny dipping?”).  This is a game that is hard to excel at, but very easy to enjoy.

Thingamajig (Aaron Weissblum, 2003)
Dixit (Jean-Louis Roubira, 2008)

Thingamajig as a game is trivially simple, which is one reason why it works so well as a party game.  It also has the added benefit of being playable by any size group that doesn’t need to be around a table, and that people can come and go at will.  These are huge benefits when the mood is right.  The whole thing is just a device with a button that spits out words and phrases to a little screen when pressed.  A player can give nearly any clue she wants to get everyone else to write down her word. The thing that has always made Thingamajig special is the scoring rule, which simply says you get one point per person that guesses the answer, unless everyone does, in which case you get no points.  It pays to be obvious, but not too obvious.  Though obvious isn’t necessarily most fun, and sometimes crafting a puzzle that you’re pretty sure only one person at best will get is the right thing to do.  After all, this is a party game and as such points aren’t really the point.  The game does suffer when there is one person that for whatever reason, maybe they’re much younger or from a different culture, is continually the one that fails to parse an otherwise straightforward clue.  If you can avoid that pitfall, Thingamajig can be sweet.

As a Spiel des Jahr winner, Dixit needs no introduction.  I include it here because it would be in the essential party game collection and in the right situations is a hoot and a holler both.  It goes next to Thingamajig specifically, however, because they both feel very similar to me.  Dixit uses a simple scoring rule to drive the clue crafting, but instead of crossword style clues to get at words, players come up with captions or stories for surreal little pieces of art.  The scoring rule for the storycrafter is they get three points as long as at least one other player picks the correct artwork out of a pile and not everyone does.  So instead of the ideal scoring clue being everyone but one person getting it, the ideal scoring here is getting exactly one person to understand.  This pushes the clues toward being more obscure, which fits the strange and wonderful art on the cards, and is certainly more up my alley anyway.

Times to Remember (Richard Borg, 1992)
The second game on this list by Richard Borg, Times to Remember is a smashing game for large groups of people that also plays well all the way down to two people.  Two teams of any size are each given a large cardboard wheel with the years 1950 to 1991+ written around the outside edge.  Additionally, they get a set of seven plastic clips that can be attached to the edge of the wheel.  The clips attach in such a way that they show anywhere from one to seven years in a window.  The game plays by one team asking a question whose answer is a year in the aforementioned range: “what year did The Sound of Music win the Best Picture Academy Award?”, for example.  Each team privately discusses which year they think it is, often with only a vague notion, and then chooses one of their window clips to put on the wheel.  The more confident someone is of the answer the smaller the window they should use.  Both teams then dramatically reveal their range of years and the answer is read out.  Any teams whose range encompasses the given year can discard that window from play.  A team wins when they get rid of their last window in this fashion.  This means that to win you must have one answer nailed to just one year.  The most fun thing about playing this game is trying to judge a team’s confidence in a given answer.  You’re fairly sure an answer is within a four year range, but wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of the three window clip?  This other person thinks it should be a little later, so maybe you slide it out a little.  Inevetably you push this process a little too far most of the time, to great groans.  The only real downside is the content ends at sometime in 1991 or 1992, and desperately needs to be updated.  It still works because everything in it is still true, and because the questions are older they lead to more wild guessing, which is often more entertaining.  But I’d still be pleased as punch if someone moved the end dates up twenty years on a new edition.

Time’s Up Title Recall (Peter Sarrett, Michael Adams, 2008)
Celebrities already made its appearance on this list, which is the same game as Time’s Up, except as noted before without the need to/ability to make your own content.  So why put this one specific edition of the printed game in the bag?  Aside from shifting the content away from purely celebrity names to those of titles of movies and books and other works, Title Recall brings a couple of innovations to the base game that I quite like.  The first is an ability to play a non-team version, specifically with odd numbers of players.  With Celebrities and Time’s Up you’ve always been able to make teams larger than two, which could then in theory work for any number of players.  But non-even pairings are less than ideal in my world.  If the clue giver gives a clue and a partnership only gets one guess, as is the case in the second and third rounds, a person can be burned by an over-eager partner who jumps in before he could spit out a known correct answer.  That is frustrating when it happens.  So Time’s Up Title Recall solves that by giving you a chart with shifting allegiances, allowing you to play any number of players, but always with one clue giver giving to one guesser at a time.  The other reason to bring the game out is the optional new fourth round, where not only can you not say anything, but you can no longer move.  With almost all typical clue giving tools taken away, the “statue round” really forces you to think as both as a giver and a guesser.  Because of this, I’ve found the extra round seems to go over well with hardcore party gamers and less well with others.  Therefore we don’t use it every time we play.  Isn’t that the point of a variant, anyway: to add variety?

Wise and Otherwise (1997)
Tabloid Teaser (1991)

Another game that can be played with some paper, pencils, and a dictionary is the parlor game Dictionary.  Someone looks up a word in the dictionary that presumably no one present knows the definition to and reads the word out.  They then write down the actualy dictionary definition, while everyone else writes down a made up definition.  Answers are gathered, shuffled, and then read out.  People vote for the one they think is correct, which gets them points if they are correct and it gets the creator points if they are wrong.  From this was born Balderdash, a game with pre-screened content that you can buy.  I wouldn’t personally include Dictionary or Balderdash in a list of essential party games, primarily because word definitions are fairly limiting.  Even Beyond Balderdash, with its movie plots and noteable dates, while much better, still misses the cut for me.  But as a fan of thinkier party games, especially those with content creation, I’m not tossing the entire mechanism away.  There are two variations on the theme that I quite like, and either one of them could get toted to the proverbial party with me.

Wise and Otherwise takes the original theme and changes it to famous idioms from around the world that players are finishing.  “In Ethiopia they have a saying – a man who climbs a tree…” could be one.  Players would fill out their version of the saying while someone writes the correct ending as printed on the card.  This works particularly well because the sayings in the game are so incredibly ludicrous that it’s very hard to tell the correct answer on tone alone.  You can be incredibly silly with your writing, which is really the point of a lot of party games in my book, and still not be as silly as the correct answer.  But they’re not all ridiculous, as some of them make perfect sense and are fairly somber.  You’re kept on your toes appropriately, and any tone you choose could be valid.

In Tabloid Teasers, players are given supermarket tabloid headlines with blanks in them and they are asked to fill in those blanks.  The real charm of this game is that it is, in my opinion, the most accessible of the Dictionary variants.  Often one simple word is all you may need – headlines are notably terse.  Anyone can come up with one word.  People like me that love content creation still get to try to be clever, while people who are intimidated by creating under pressure can have an easy time of it.  Essentially, that can be the perfect game for people with vastly different tastes to play together.

Word Blur (Geoff Girouard, 2007)
If this list was not alphabetical, but instead ordered by “most oh my god you must rush out and buy this game that’s still in print that you probably don’t know because you will love it and so will your friends”, then Word Blur would be first instead of last.  I love Word Blur, and have introduced it to dozens and dozens of people, many of whom have gone on to buy copies (it helps that it’s very inexpensive, too).  You can see what surely were the origins of the game with the synapsis, “the refrigerator magnet game”.  The smallish box is half filled with hundreds of non-magnetic but fridge magnet looking words on cardboard.  These are spread out in the middle of a table, while a clue giver from each of two teams gets a word or phrase from a card (the other half of the smallish box) to get their teammates to say.  Unlike most party games where you can speak or draw or pantomime, the only form of communication you are allowed in Word Blur is the words you find in the pile, and a possibly a modifier if placed next to a cardboard sheet cluers are given.  This tortuous restriction is fantastic, because unless you find the perfect word you are stuck making do with other words that are almost right.  Teams may not look at their opponent’s words, but they can listen to the guesses the other team is making.  This leads to some fun feedback loops of misdirection, sometimes, as clueless guessers throw out garbage to distract the enemy.  But the real joy is finding a money combination of words.  I had to clue “mushroom” in a game recently, and after building up “ground bell food, white, (not) mammal” and a few other things that weren’t quite working, I hit upon and magically found “1” and “up”.  Sadly, the other team got the answer just before I could show the words, but I was so happy with my out of the box thinking to an answer I didn’t even get to give that it was the highlight of the game for me.  One note on the game; the modifier stick comes with “opposite of/not” and “-er” and “-s” and “-y” to convert your word into the proper form for your clue.  It also has “sounds like”, which we find really lame.  Suddenly, you’re no longer clueing the word but the sound of the word.  So we removed that and put in “-ish”, which we find terribly useful.  That small change makes the game work smoothly and with appropriate difficulty.

So that’s it.  There’s my ultimate party bag.  I would hate to have to actually carry all these games anywhere though, so that’s why I find it’s best to have people come over to my house.  Until someone invents a damned teleporter device, anyway.

Happy Holidays everyone!

About nathanbeeler

Nathan has decided never to grow up.
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7 Responses to A Party Game Fan’s Ultimate Holiday Party Game Guide

  1. Norman Gerre says:

    I don’t often play party games but you’ve got be interested in some of those! Just wondering since it’s my personal favourite: what are your thoughts on Telestrations/Eat Poop You Cat? Wits and Wagers is another one that seems to go down well with a lot of people — I’m curious what you don’t like about it that keeps it off your list.

  2. nathanbeeler says:

    You’re the second person to ask me about Eat Poop You Cat/Telestrations. I love the activity, but hate how the published version shoehorned it into a game when to me it didn’t want to be. The points in Telestration incent a player to be as accurate as possible when the activity wants to be about “let’s do this thing and see what happens”. Also, I hate hate hate the content they give you. But we play Eat Poop You Can a lot at parties (and I’ve long enjoyed other surrealist games like “if…then” and the basis for Monstermaler). However, since there’s absolutely no pretense of a game when we do I didn’t include it here. Monstermaler itself just missed the cut. Wits and Wagers also would have definitely been in the next set of games if I expanded this list as it was one of the last to get removed. It lives in my real collection and I’m always happy to play it. Another one I remember shaving off as this got too long was We Didn’t Playtest This at All, which is entirely stupid but hilarious for two or three minutes every so often. Thanks for reading!

  3. peer says:

    My party game of the year is Bizzarie from Jiras Game. Very unique very funny. And its a wnder the game works at all :-)

  4. Frank Conradie says:

    Thanks for a great list Nathan! I was wondering what other games’ content you would suggest using to play Inspeaquence?

  5. nathanbeeler says:

    Thank you, Frank. And a great question in return. I know we have used Talkin’ Tango in the past. Pictionary would work fine as well. Word Blur might do, though I don’t think it mixes in any pop culture references – though that might be a good thing for your group. Password could work, but you’d have to look through the decoder screen. 25 Words or Less, Train of Thought, Alias: pretty much anything with six or more different things on a card would work. You could also use something like Taboo or Hoopla if you wanted to turn cards one at a time, though that makes it harder to look ahead and plan which words to do in which order, a fun part of the game.

  6. Alan How says:

    Great list Nathan. I’ve mentally added a few games for next party.

    I hold 1 -2 party nights per year. Each one has people who a) don’t know each other and b) don’t know games. In fact b) is scarier than a). We usually open with Outburst to calm each person down, add food and drinks, then work our way through some of the games you’ve outlined. 25 Word of less always gets people saying” where do you get these games?” . People are usually scared of looking like they don’t know anything on general knowledge, so those games don’t get a look in. We play In Speaquence so each team has to from sentences and yo can also play with multiple peole in a team if you have a large crowd roudn to play games.

    One set of games that you have not covered are dexterity type games. I usually include a game of Visionary which allows team play.

    • nathanbeeler says:

      Thanks, Alan. I like Visionary, and it definitely wins points for being very different. There is a whole world of dexterity party games of which I only added a few. I also considered Hamster Rolle, Bamboleo, and Pitch Car among others. Recently I tried Toc Toc Woodsman, which is also fantastic.

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