It’s Not the Games in Your Party, but the Party in Your Games
by Wayne Saunders
So you’re going to throw a party, you’ve laid in the schnapps and snickerdoodles, and you’re thinking of exhuming the resident board game returning to dust in the closet since the last party you threw. There’s nothing wrong with the same old game–if your last party was successful and if your guest list is completely different the second time around. (I would come regardless.) But imagine what you might do instead as you take my little quiz on game playing in the publicness of your own home.
1. DO I WANT TO THROW A GAMES PARTY? OR MERELY A PARTY WITH GAMES? The difference lies in how well you know your guests, and in what the guests you know are like. A games party works only if everyone there likes to play games enough to play them all evening, which means that the players be the sort who don’t mind mixing conviviality with competition. Many people think games are trivial, or boring, or intimidating. You might be surprised at the number of people who would put up with a few lighthearted games just to be where they could talk with people afterwards, but who would never play games for their own sake, and certainly not from party’s beginning to end. Even game enthusiasts differ widely as to which games they will enthuse about, or even tolerate; only a small proportion will play anything that comes their way. Scrabble experts may exchange words with bridge fans, Pictionary buffs may draw the line at Charades. One party I hosted early in my gaming career sprang a long and complicated game of ancient Mediterranean trade routes on several new friends, who, I was dismayed to find, called it a night when the night was still younger than young. If I’d only stopped to realize I didn’t know them very well, I would have taken the safer course with a few short games surrounded by a sea of conversation. Or else tailored my guest list to fit a game I simply had to play.
2. DO I WANT TO PLAY PARTY GAMES? OR OTHER KINDS? The phrase “party game” has been defined variously by different writers, but all we need care about is that the definition we settle on will fit our purposes. Since we’re interested in games suitable for parties, we’ll take special notice of those aspects of games that make them especially suitable. For my money, what gives party games the edge at parties is their theatricality: they allow large groups of people, say eight or more, to stay in touch with each other by taking turns being spectator and spectacle. Victorians called these games “round” ones because their “circle” of players always had room for one more. In the figurative center of the circle were one or two players who were guessing, drawing, acting, or extemporizing, with the surrounding players teamed up to give clues or guess or judge. The game could be between teams or one against all, but in every case the direction of each player’s gaze wasn’t on a board with pieces (though these could be present), but on each other, much more as in a game of poker (or baseball) than in a game of bridge. We might say that, whereas other games are group projects, the project of party games is the group itself, the appreciation of its skills and personalities, the enjoyment of its coupes and boners. These are all possible because the real field of combat is conversation or, in more sportslike games, physical contact. In this world of close interpersonal access, turns are quick, thinking is more intuitive than analytical, and even non-gamers are able to fake winning moves and to indulge themselves in the social undercurrent of the pseudo-serious skirmishes. In fact, the wit and dexterity of party games is a lot like that of the surrounding world into which it spills and from which it tolerates constant invasions of motive. The Victorian “sociable,” for example, was never without awarding “forfeits,” or tasks, to players who had erred in their performance of the game, though many of those tasks involved kissing, which only sharpened the flirtatious edges of the occasion. A modern equivalent is Milton Bradley’s classic action game of Twister, which places human limbs and torsos in a proximity unmatched by any other social institution.
Why, then, would you want to play another kind of game at your party? That sounds like a loaded question, similar to “Have you stopped beating your husband, yet?” I know there are many good reasons for wanting to have friends over for a few friendly rubbers of bridge, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to call that a party. Talking is even discouraged during play! Mah Jongg encourages conversation and tends to move away from the sharp analytical ideals of bridge, though a table still allows only four players, who still stare a lot at their tiles. And whereas the boards found in a few proprietary party games are used mainly to keep score or to change the scoring opportunities that arise in competitive conversation, board games proper are fields of battle in which intelligence replaces wit, and strategy enthusiasm. If you want to play party games, you’ll probably have to throw a party, whereas other kinds of games take other venues, like clubs, tournaments, bouts, and even get-togethers. (Just go easy on the Schnapps.)
3. WHAT KINDS OF PARTY GAMES ARE THERE FOR ME TO CHOOSE FROM? Just because party games are more forgiving of non-game-players who may happen into a party’s net doesn’t excuse the host from trying to match games to guests–or the reverse. But what is the host to make of one Victorian term that appears in even a few modern books: “parlor games”? Are these just the same as party games? Or just one kind of party game? Or a larger class of which party games is only one type? The phrase was originally used by Victorians for the competitive part of a wider field of “amusements” enjoyed in the formal meeting room of a house, whether it was the drawing room of the wealthy or the parlor of most of the rest of us. Since the parlor’s special use was for receiving guests and family on special occasions, indoor party games played there came to be called “parlor games,” though the Victorians themselves usually limited the term to the traditional, non-proprietary games that still made up the bulk of their party amusements, and especially to the round games that worked so well at parties and family gatherings. As parlors were replaced by dens and dining rooms, the term was gradually replaced by “party games,” which had the added advantage of including outdoor as well as indoor games, and these with proprietary as well as improvised equipment, but also the disadvantage of seeming to exclude more informal gatherings of friends and relatives. Some recent books have resurrected the older term to denote traditional indoor games, but also for the nostalgia the term brings up for better days, presumably before television and computer games.
Though proprietary party games, most based on traditional games, inhabited some American parlors as early as the 1840s and later grew to overtake the homespun variety, both kinds are based on the same principles of group dynamics and so can be divided into roughly the same subcategories. But these divisions were sometimes muddled by the Victorians and now also by the modern games industry, because no one system can do the job that classifiers have wanted it to do. Instead, they have often tried to combine several systems willy-nilly, so that many, if not most, games end up falling under more than one heading. Much of the overlap could be avoided if the classifiers would just appreciate the many kinds of kinds there are. A recent book, for example, contrasted “parlor games” with “games requiring limited mental exertion,” as if a game couldn’t be both. And one games magazine recently juxtaposed “party games” with “word games,” thereby confusing the social function of games with their medium. (Under which label should the party/word game of Scattergories be placed?)
Of course, if you know your crowd, you should be able to cobble together a suitable bunch of games for them using any classification system, but to make things easier for you, I have started you off with one of my own:
•On what occasion are you playing? 1) casual party, 2) games party, 3) celebratory party, 4) dinner party, 5) house party, 6) family get-together.
•Where are you playing? 1) in a room, 2) throughout the house or apartment, 3) in the yard, 4) at McDonald’s, 5) all over the city.
•What do you want to do when you play? 1)guess from clues, 2) remember something you have just seen or heard, 3) show you know something (trivia, your friends’ personalities), 4) create a picture or a story, 5) find something in a room or in the neighborhood, 6) exhibit agility or dexterity, etc.
•What implements do you want to use? 1) spoken words, 2) conversation, 3) pencil and paper, 4) records or CDs, 5) household articles, 6) proprietary games that use these things.
4. DO I WANT TO PLAY TRADITIONAL GAMES? OR PROPRIETARY? Even though the basic kinds of games appear in both formats, each has something special about it. Traditional games are, well, traditional, the stuff played by the bearded ones in pictures on our walls and so a connection with our past. They’re time-tested. (Sometimes over hundreds of years. Parlor games began long before there were parlors, at least as early as the fifteenth century, and perhaps derived from courtly practices, fertility customs, religious rites, and pub games that go back centuries before that.) The equipment for playing traditional games is generally cheap or ready at hand, and yet you can take pride in transforming such common objects into games of simple elegance and hilarious consequences. Unlike many proprietary games which are not much more than traditional games with board and pieces gratuitously added, traditional games are spare and efficient, and thus focus the action on player interaction rather than on the table.
Proprietary games, on the other hand, come packaged for the 90s for people who want to live in the present. Some are only distantly related to their Victorian ancestors, some are improvements (such as the CD recordings in the Rykodisc game Play It By Ear vs. the old game of guessing piano selections), and some introduce a completely new idea along with the technology to bring it off. That’s not to say the recent game of Channel Surfing by Milton Bradley, played by cruising television stations with a remote and a timer, couldn’t be simulated with a stack of magazines and a watch with a second hand; but the modern version is faster in a game in which speed makes the game what it is. Rather than taking pride in making the game yourself, you can take pride in owning something that can enable you to play the game better than you could have had you made it yourself–a distinctly modern (yuppie) conceit. And even the diehard traditional player has to admit it’s more convenient (if not imaginative) to play with ready-made Charades phrases and score sheets and timer than with their ancient counterparts. Even the boards, which some complain are unpartylike, almost always defer to the verbal action around them, and in some cases can excuse themselves altogether.
But nobody says you can’t mix traditional and proprietary together.
5. WHERE CAN I FIND THE BEST TRADITIONAL PARTY GAMES? You can learn to play the traditional kinds of games, and in many cases the traditional games themselves, from books on party and parlor games. Some old books, as well as those recently out of print, can be found in used book shops, which may also be able to search and advertise for the books you request, or refer you to someone who can.
Though one author claims that books on parlor games weren’t published in America before about 1825, we know that many European works, containing many of the same games, were printed centuries earlier. Among the best old American and British volumes are the anonymous The Sociable; or, One Thousand and One Home Amusements (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1858); the likewise anonymous Cassell’s Book of Indoor Amusements, Card Games, and Fireside Fun (Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1881); and, by the great popularizer of magic, games, and puzzles, Angelo John Lewis (“Professor Hoffman”), Drawing-Room Amusements (1879), republished as Parlor Amusements and Evening Party Entertainments (George Routledge & Sons). More recent is Patrick Beaver’s general survey, Victorian Parlor Games (Thomas Nelson, l974); games specialist Gyles Brandreth, Home Entertainment for All the Family (The Stephen Greene Press, 1977), originally published as Gyles Brandreth’s Complete Book of Home Entertainment (Shire Publications, 1974) and containing most of the Victorian “amusements”; Bernard S. Mason and Elmer D. Mitchell, Party Games (Harper & Row, Perennial Library Edition, 1986), originally published as part of Social Games for Recreation (A.S. Barnes and Company, 1935), a popular work in the 1950s; etymologist and drama critic Joseph T. Shipley, Playing With Words (Prentice-Hall, 1960); major card game historian David Parlett, Botticelli and Beyond (Pantheon Books, 1981), originally published in Great Britain by Penguin Books; James Charlton, Charades (Harper & Row, 1983), including a history of the long-running television game show, Pantomime Quiz. My two personal favorite parlor game books, written with style and an urbane perspective, are the actor/director Andrew Melsom’s House Party Games and Amusements for the Upper Class and Other Folks (Barnes & Noble, 1983), originally published as Are You There, Moriarty? (Thames and Hudson, 1981); and, for the same sort of player at dinner parties, actor/producer Robert Thomsen’s Games, Anyone? (Doubleday, 1964). Among books I believe are still in print are three from the decades-old games and puzzles specialist, Sterling Publishing Company, Sheila Anne Barry, The World’s Best Party Games (1987); Andrea Campbell, Great Games for Great Parties (1991); and Phil Wiswell, Great Party Games for Grown-Ups (1988), originally I Hate Charades and 49 Other New Games (1981); also Sara Dickerman, Parlor Games: 50 Games for Low-Tech Highbrows (Andrews and McMeal, 1996); Jim Deacove, Co-Op[erative] Parlor Games (Family Pastimes, 1987); and two companion volumes from Tony Augarde and Oxford Press, The Oxford Guide to Word Games (1984), a masterly historical study, and The Oxford A to Z of Word Games (1994), a compendium of rules for playing. Finally, two accounts of games as they were actually played: the game sometimes called Acting in the Manner of the Adverb (a classic Charades variant) is portrayed with humor and pathos by Noel Coward in the second act of an early (1925) play, “Hay Fever”; and the game of Superghosts (a classic letter-adding game in which the object is not to make a word) appears in one of James Thurber’s later essays, “Do You Want to Make Something Out of It?,” published in the New Yorker September 29, 1951 and later collected in Thurber Country (Simon and Schuster, 1953).
6. WHERE CAN I FIND THE BEST PROPRIETARY PARTY GAMES? You can often unearth antique and out-of-print games in antique stores and at garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets, or else by joining the American Game Collectors Association (P.O. Box 44, Dresher, PA 19025). The more popular new games are available in major toy stores, but many excellent but little-known games can be found only in specialty or games shops, catalogs, or directly from the manufacturer.
The best of the old lot include Peter Coddles (various companies, from the 1850s to the 1930s), not a game as much as a rousing story to be read aloud and supplemented from time to time with phrases printed on cards in the hands of the “players,” the ancestor of the Mad Libs seen from the 1950s; Mental Whoopee (Simon & Schuster, 1936), a popular compendium of competitive puzzles and quizzes on cards, designed by puzzle pundit Jerome Meyer; Quick Wit (Parker Brothers, 1938), requiring players to be the first to blurt out the name of something from a given category and beginning with a given letter. Some recent games which are no longer available (but should be) are Inklings (Mattell, 1993), which asks teams to create the shortest guessable clues to categories of words; Mock My Words (TW2, 1992), which has players guessing familiar phrases by reading aloud series of words that sound almost like them; Pounce (Talicor, 1991), based on older proprietary (and traditional?) versions, with a plunger that one player tries to force down on little plastic mice as the other players try to yank them away by their tails; Bullwinkle and Rocky (TSR, 1988), simply a lark as several players with hand puppets take the parts of characters from the cartoon series and try to create (and finish) their own stories. Among the party games that may still be on the shelves are such old favorites as The Charade Game (Pressman); 20 Questions (University Games); Taboo (Milton Bradley), from the traditional game of the same name, in which players get their teammates to guess words by giving clues that don’t contain the several words ideal clues would have; Beyond Balderdash (Parker Brothers), based loosely on the traditional Dictionary Game, though now players try to mix not only their own fake word definitions of words with the real ones, but their fake famous people, fake acronyms, fake movies, and fake famous dates; Pit (Winning Moves, licensed from Parker Brothers, who carried the game for 90 years!), the wild card- trading, commodities-trading game; Outburst (Golden Games); Boggle (Parker Brothers), with a grid of letter cubes that players stand around madly trying to connect in their minds to make words. But have you heard of 25 Words or Less (Winning Moves), which forces teams to bid on how few clues it will take to get their teammates to guess a list of words? Or Think-It, Link-It (TL1), from the traditional game known as Stinky Pinky, among other things, which has teams guessing rhymed word pairs from clues? (What is a dumb messenger of love? A stupid cupid, of course.) There is also Chronology (Great American Puzzle Factory), in which players must arrange historic events cards in chronological order (or fail, to the delight of their more knowing colleagues); Encore (Endless Games), a trivia game in which teams try to remember the most song lyrics containing a given word; Bethump’d With Words (Mamopalire), a glorious trivia game for up to eight people, based on fascinating facts about the English language; and endless prepackaged mystery games in which party guests come prepared to assume the role of one character in a live-action mystery which all the guests (including the secret murderer) must then help solve. These are only a few of the better choices you’ll have to make.
But try not to include them all in your first party. Think of your guests.