Few things beat a good party game for putting people at ease—be they best friends or acquaintances at best. I attended a baby shower whose host displayed a platter of adorable infant-related items and instructed us to commit them to memory. After Jackie and her tray left the room, her mother-in-law distributed pencils and paper. However, instead of asking us to list the contents of the tray—which I’d been repeating under my breath—she asked us, “What was Jackie wearing?” Oops. We sighed and chattered and maybe (or not) remembered those brown Mary Janes. Why do party games entertain large groups of people so well? They’re often easy to learn, participatory, and open-ended enough to withstand—or even prompt—spontaneous variations, digressive conversations, and lots of laughter.
Party games that engage all players in each round usually hit the mark. For example, in Apples to Apples, players use humor and table talk to influence the judge as they vie for most “hilarious comparison.” Pictionary drives players frantic, and in the game’s television variant, Win, Lose or Draw, the opposing team must stay alert for a chance to sweep the round. So too with the fast-paced card game 31, where players tend to succeed when they pay attention to their opponents’ draws and discards. Moreover, instead of leading players to quibble over complicated rules, these simple party games level the playing field and promote positive social interaction. Games that liberate participants from crowding around a small board also facilitate play in a room full of people. Scattergories players, for example, may ponder “Fruit Beginning with J” from their own private corners of the living room. Taboo, in which players pair up to communicate a word or phrase without using five of its most relevant related words, also requires few components: only cards, a timer, and a buzzer for enforcing the rules. People who’d prefer to play just for fun need not even tally their wins on the score sheet. Amusements without winners or losers allow for outright silliness. Mad Libs books appeared frequently at my friends’ slumber parties. The Strong’s collection is short on examples of these but won’t receive any of mine, which were mostly exercises in fourth-grade-level scatology. Random juxtapositions of words or images also were a favorite of the Surrealists, the nonsense-seekers of the 1920s, who collectively created “exquisite corpse” stories and drawings. A late-19th-century predecessor to such pastimes, Peter Coddle and His First Trip to New York, invited players to supply ridiculous nouns for stories about a country boy’s tour of the city. The Victorians loved literate parlor games—imagine playing The Minister’s Cat under the influence of Christmas punch, as seen in the film Scrooge. It’s debatable whether people become better or worse at such games as the night progresses. Whether partiers play games off the shelf or concoct their own amusements, well-designed games help them pass the time without noticing time is passing. Which party games have won out among your friends?