And we’re back with the latest installment in my continuing series on better alternatives to popular games. We’ve already covered abstract strategy games (Yahtzee, Dominoes, Scrabble, Cribbage, and Uno) and themed strategy games (Risk, Clue, Monopoly, Stratego, and Chess). This week we’re covering party games: Scattergories, Taboo, Pictionary, Charades, and Trivial Pursuit.
There’s no single definition to party games, but I have three general rules of thumb:
- You can learn the rules in 3 minutes
- The game works well with a group of 7 or more people
- It’s highly interactive (and ideally generates laughs)
I’m not sure where the term “party games” comes from, but my own experience is that I played Taboo in college rather than going to frat parties, so maybe they’re anti-party games? Regardless, let’s pop out the punch and balloons — the party’s about to start!
- What was great about this game — This game was and is really great. You’re coming up with words that fit the category, the more creative the better. In encourages and rewards a wide array of knowledge, and because all players are writing down answers simultaneously, there’s very little downtime.
- What was terrible about it — The fights, oh the fights. The game incentivizes you to come up with things that are obscure or even not quite accurate, but as you push the envelope inevitably opponents will say your answers don’t count. And it relies on a common knowledge base. I was literally in tears as a child when my uncle said a whale wasn’t an animal, it was a mammal.
- What you should play instead: Hive Mind — It’s the same core mechanic of writing down answers that fit a category like Scattergories, but flipping the script where you get more points by writing down common answers that others wrote down. You do still have disagreements over whether two answers are the same, but they’re more civil. Plus you get the same hilarious dynamic you see in Family Feud when someone throws out a really obscure answer — “What were you thinking?”
- What was great about this game — Like Scattergories, I’ve got a soft spot for Taboo. It joyously filled many a Friday night in college. The cauldron of competition forges deep bonds with your teammates. In the pressure cooker of clue giving you need to think quickly on your feet, but the best part is when you fail to think quickly and make silly mistakes. I’ll never forget my friend Mark stammering “Huge…b-b-b-breasts” when he was trying to get his teammates to guess monogram. I get confusing monogram and mammogram, but I’m still curious as to why he thinks mammograms only apply to large knockers.
- What was terrible about it — The frustration and awkwardness. It’s hard to balance teams in Taboo, so you’ll often have one team that runs away with it. Plus, the feature is the bug. Giving clues is incredibly stressful for some people, and the game makes them squirm for 60 seconds while letting their teammates down.
- What you should play instead: Just One — It preserves the core dynamic of giving clues to guess words, but in a cooperative rather than team-based game. Everyone but the one guesser secretly writes clues, and they only get to show the guesser unique (non-matching) clues. The challenge and fun is coming up with clear clues that no one else in the group will think of. The guesser gets one shot, which minimizes the awkwardness.
- What was great about this game — The hilarity of silly pictures that look totally different than originally intended. There’s nothing quite like your teammates guessing every variety of big cat when you were drawing a clown.
- What was terrible about it — Pictionary has the same drawbacks as Taboo. It’s hard to balance teams, and some people find the process of drawing highly stressful and unfun. Additionally, there’s the challenge of paper itself — you’re either crammed around tiny pieces of paper or you’ve invested in a huge easel.
- What you should play instead: Drawful 2 — This is actually a video game rather than a board game, but it’s so spectacular I made an exception. Like Pictionary, players receive something to draw, but players draw on their smart phones with their fingers, and the images appear on the TV, simplifying logistics while improving experience. Even better, when other players see the image, they all have the chance to write what they think it is. Players then see both the correct answer and what everyone wrote down and vote on which one they think is right. You get points if you guess the correct answer and if people selected your answer, much like Balderdash. This game never fails to generate loads of laughs.
- Bonus recommendation: Telestrations — This game combines Pictionary and the classic game of telephone, where players whisper something to their neighbor and you see how the message evolves as you go down the line. The difference is you alternate between drawing a picture and writing down what the picture is as you pass easels around a circle. There’s almost no downtime as everyone is working simultaneously. The payoff is at the end when you share the progression with the group. There’s no score keeping or winning, so this doesn’t appeal to folks who are looking for a competition, but Telestrations does bring gobs and gobs of lighthearted fun.
- What was great about this game — Lots of laughs from silly imitations and, as with Taboo, the fun of working together with your team to beat the others.
- What was terrible about it — Stage fright. Many really don’t like acting in front of peers, so it’s rare to get a group of people who are all genuinely excited about charades.
- What you should play instead: Codenames Pictures — I’ll confess it’s a big stretch to connect this to Charades, but the game is so great I had to include it. Like charades, you’re playing in teams. There’s a grid of 20 zany images, and they’re a mix between your team’s, the other team’s, and no one’s. Each team has a clue giver that tries to use one-word clues to get their teammates to guess their images but not the other team’s. It’s more plodding and methodical than charades, but also more intellectually stimulating. The original Codenames uses words, but I prefer Codenames Pictures both because the pictures themselves are so entertaining and you dispense with the rule about being penalized for accidentally using a form of a word on the board.
- What was great about this game — You learn things! No one ever walked away from a game of Trivial Pursuit without acquiring new knowledge. Plus, it’s gratifying to finally have a use for all those random factoids you’ve acquired over time that have no practical value.
- What was terrible about it — It. Is. So. Slow. You’ve got to answer so many questions right to earn the right to answer a question correctly that will earn a wedge. And the game slows down even more at the end, when you’re left with the categories you’re bad at and the dice won’t cooperate to get you to the wedge space. In the final minutes, the game moves at the pace of a turtle walking in molasses on a high-gravity planet.
- What you should play instead: Wits and Wagers — Every answer in this game is numerical. All the players write down their answers, and then players place bets on what the real answer is. Bad at trivia but good at knowing who is and good at gambling? You can be a winner in Wits and Wagers! The game moves very quickly, playing in 30 minutes, and the reveal of the answer every time has the same energy of the ball stopping on a roulette wheel.
- Bonus “recommendation”: Half Truth — I can’t properly recommend this game because I haven’t played it and it hasn’t been thoroughly reviewed on BoardGameGeek, but it looks great. A collaboration between Richard Garfield (phenomenal board game designer) and Ken Jennings (record setting Jeopardy Champion), every question is multiple choice with three right answers and three wrong answers. Players place bets on the answers they think are right and earn more if they make all three guesses versus focusing on the answers they’re more confident it. Play moves briskly since everyone plays simultaneously, and there’s still a strong reward for actually knowing things, just like in Trivial Pursuit. It’s available on Kickstarter until September 19.