Party Games – Part 1


When I was a child, my family would always go and stay with my Grandparents in London for Christmas.  All my extended family seemed to live near them so most evenings between Christmas and New Year, everyone would come round and we would play party games.

I loved it.  When I think back on the games they played now, they weren’t really that great.  They played a lot of Trivial Pursuit and there was no family version back then, so I rarely knew any of the answers, but everyone got into and it created a lively atmosphere.  I was always sad when I had to go to bed!

Having discovered many other kinds of games over the years, party games are probably lower down my list of favourite genres, but every now and then I still really enjoy a good party game.  So I thought we could take a look at the different kinds of party games available to the modern gamer.

Before we launch in, it is probably worth chatting about my definition of a party game, because inevitably, people will disagree about exactly what constitutes a party game.  For me, a party game should satisfy at least two, but ideally all three of the following criteria:

  • High player count

This is critical I think.  If a game can’t play more than four, it’s not going to be much of a party!

  • Light

Again, a game that requires people to be deep in thought isn’t going to create that party atmosphere.  People may well take it seriously (my family certainly did!), but it shouldn’t be mentally taxing.

  • Short

This one seems a bit more flexible.  I think party games should be short, but there are a few that can go on for a couple of hours, especially with a big crowd.  As long as people are enjoying themselves, I think that’s fine.

For today, I thought we would begin with the oldest party games of all: parlour games.

Parlour Games

Parlour games are games that don’t really require a game.  You just need a group of people, maybe a pen and some paper and you’re off.  They have been played by families long before the modern boardgame was invented and despite all the more modern games, these are probably my favourite kind of party game!

My family used to play Charades a lot.  You just split into two teams and take it in turns to communicate the name of a book, a film or a famous phrase by acting it out.  It’s great fun and my family became pretty good at it.  They had lots of agreed conventions to indicate the number of syllables or to request people to call out lots of small words (like a, an, the, at, in, on, etc.) or expand their guesses around an idea.

Other classics include Telestrations, where you write down a phrase and then the next person has to draw it and the person after that has to guess what the phrase is by only looking at the drawing.  It carries on going, alternating between drawing and guessing until it gets all the way round the circle.

The results can have people in stitches!

It’s effectively Chinese Whispers/Telephone with drawings.  I like the fact that everyone is working on a separate sheet simultaneously so at the end, you have lots of sheets to look at.  The results can have people in stitches!  This is also one of those games where being bad at drawing improves the fun factor!

I used to really enjoy Freeman, Hardy, Willis (or the less strict, but more absurd, Animal Game).  Everyone sits in a circle and is given a name (eg. Freeman) or a number (1, 2, 3, etc.).  You set up a rhythm that everyone has to follow (clap, clap, click, click) and when people click their fingers, someone says their own moniker followed by someone else’s.

Freeman (who is in the highest position) always starts and calls out, “Freeman, 4” for example.  Then person 4 has to say, “4, 2” for example and it carries on going until someone messes up.  The numbers or names have to be said in time with the finger clicks.  It’s harder than you think.

If someone gets it wrong, they stand up and move to the lowest position and everyone below them moves up one, but the name or number is attached to the seat, not the person!  So if you move seats, you take on a different moniker, which really messes with your head.  Everyone is trying to evict Freeman from the top spot.

It’s silly fun and goes down really well when playing with kids.

The Animal Game is essentially the same thing without the rhythm (which makes it easier), but instead of names and numbers, each player is given an animal with an associated sound and action.  It’s silly fun and goes down really well when playing with kids.

For something more sedate, there’s the more recent Werewolf (or Mafia, which I prefer thematically).  This was the precursor to the excellent One Night Ultimate Werewolf.  Everyone sits in a circle and you secretly allocate two or three werewolves, who have to try to kill off all the other players (villagers).

The game is played in alternating Day and Night phases.  In the Night phase, everyone closes their eyes and the werewolves try to kill someone (by giving a silent signal).  In the Day phase, everyone discusses any murders that have taken place and try to identify the werewolves.  There is a vote at the end of every Day and the player with the most votes is eliminated (and you discover who they were).

People are eliminated until all the werewolves are killed or there are more werewolves than villagers, in which case the werewolves win.  It can be surprisingly entertaining, but you need a moderator and it can be quite long, which is why I tend to prefer One Night Ultimate Werewolf these days, which solves both of those problems.

Probably the most successful game I’ve seen, in terms of pure fun, has to be Celebrities, which has more recently been branded as Time’s Up.  Everyone writes the names of three celebrities on bits of paper and you fold them and stick them all in a hat.

The game is played in two teams and over three rounds.  In the first round, the teams take it in turn to select one of their members who has to get their team to guess as many celebrities from the hat as possible in 30 seconds by describing them.

For round two, you stick all the names back in the hat and this time people have to communicate the appropriate celebrity using only one word.  This sounds impossibly hard until you realise that everyone has already heard the list of possible celebrities from round one, so there aren’t that many possibilities to pick from.

You just pick the first action that comes to mind and do it as enthusiastically as you can.

In the final round, you go through all the celebrities again, but this time it’s Charades.  This is where the fun really kicks in.  There simply isn’t time to do a proper act, but everyone is familiar with the list of celebrities now so you just pick the first action that comes to mind for a given celebrity and do it as enthusiastically as you can.  It’s hilarious!

Finally then, is a game that always goes down well, with any group of people.  It’s called Empires.  Everyone secretly chooses a famous person and tells the moderator who they’ve chosen.  The moderator then reads out the list of names to the whole group and people take it in turns to guess who people have picked.

If you guess someone correctly, they have to come and sit at your feet and they become part of your empire.  They can advise you, but you get to make all the decisions.  If you guess the leader of an empire, the entire empire has to come and sit at your feet.  You keep going until there is only one emperor/empress left, who wins.  It’s surprisingly difficult to choose someone who people wouldn’t associate with you!

Next week, we will look at some more modern party games, but honestly, I don’t think they get any better than the classic parlour games!  Did you play any of these when you were younger?  Which one was your favourite?

Party Games – Part 2

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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[…] than others.  I started playing it with my family and they loved it!  It rapidly became my go-to party game for those times when you want something more calm and thoughtful.  At least it was… until […]


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