The Addictive Properties of Party Games

Aaron Lynch


Party games are socially unavoidable.  Sure, they can be fun to play, but eventually someone’s friend will insist there is a game you just have to play because their cousin was playing it and—seriously, not even joking—peed their pants laughing.  Now I like a good chuckle like my friend’s incontinence-stricken cousin, but these games don’t always end with fits of laughter. Party games are a lot of fun when you get the right group of people together, but with unfamiliar people the experience can be stressful or annoying, especially if the game does not work with the audience.

The reality is party games are about laughing and having a good time, but after a while playing the same party games can get old.  And just like an tired marriage, the experience can border on irritating, which requires spicing things up with new and different experiences.

In this article I explore the party game genre as well as compare modern party games that have expanded and improved upon classic party game mechanics to identify what it was that made the experience more enjoyable.

What is a Party Game?

There are probably a few party games you can think of off the top of your head: Apples to Apples, Balderdash, Scattergories come to mind, but as a genre they share relatively little in common with one another.  I started to develop a list of the characteristics these games share and ended up with:

  • Playable with a large group
  • Very flexible number of players
  • Players can drop in and out with minimal disruption
  • Emphasis on laughing/having fun

With the exception of laughing/having fun, the common characteristic that defines a party game is the ability to attract, entertain and manage large numbers.  It makes sense that the definition is loose because the genre encompasses games that have almost nothing mechanically in common. That’s not to say that some party games do not share common attributes, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw subgroups start to develop: word comparison games, acting games, drawing games, etc.

Choosing a Party Game

Party games come in many flavors, however, not all party games are created equal.   When picking a party game it is important to note what will work given the circumstances, but there are also a few basic rules to follow when picking out a potential new party game:

  • Have an audience in mind – Your fun is directly proportional to the enjoyment of your friends, which means picking an appropriate game is just as important as picking a fun game. Do you have a competitive friend coming over? Pick something that de-emphasizes winning.  Do you have a loud obnoxious friend? Pick a quiet game to prevent over stimulation.
  • The game should be rule light – The average person has the attention span of a gnat. If you want to pull the game out at a party, it has to be easy enough for new players to catch on quickly and to explain the rules amidst distractions.
  • There should be limited “free time” – Players need to feel included and a part of the action.  If they the length of time between their turn is taking too long, they will start to lose interest.  Players should not be waiting around for something to happen, otherwise they will find something else to do.  Simultaneous and fast-paced team games are good for keeping people involved.

There were a couple party games I wanted to take a closer look that clearly borrowed an old game mechanic from a classic party game.  In the three following cases, the game has taken a popular mechanic in a game and improved upon it to create a more enjoyable experience than its predecessor. 

Word Comparison Games

Apples to Apples is a classic game of comparisons, challenging players to place down a noun that fits a given adjective in a funny, accurate, or ironic way.   Apples to Apples won a Mensa International Award when it first appeared in 1999 and has dozens of editions including: Apples to Apples: Bible Edition, Apples to Apples: Junior Jewish Edition, y Manzanas con Manzanas.

What is both fun and frustrating about Apples to Apples is the strategy behind picking cards.  One person sits out from the round and judges the answers of the other players, so the goal is to pick a card that fits with what the judge is looking for.  The problem is sixty to eighty percent of the cards in the deck are super boring.  The idea is each card will mean something different to every individual and clearly Apples to Apples was designed for mass appeal, but I don’t care what adjective comes up, the 1930s as a noun will never be funny. EVER. The only easy way to correct for that design failure is to narrow the audience down.

A few months ago I played the game Cards Against Humanity with a small group of friends.  Based on the premise of Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity is a comparison game developed for people with no sense of inappropriate boundaries, like myself.

A fair warning – do not play this game if you are easily offended.

While this game is not for everyone, playing it reminded me why Apples to Apples is fun: shock value.  While I was sick of Apples to Apples, and have been for a while, Cards Against Humanity was a less-tired way to laugh with my friends about odd or, in this case, inappropriate comparisons.

The biggest difference is the relationship between the two different kinds of cards. Instead of trying to create a comparison between one noun and one adjective, like Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity introduces a mechanic where players can place between one and three cards at the same time and players try to either answer a question or finish a sentence.  The result is hilarious Mad Lib-esque scenarios that will surely offend everyone in the best possible way.

I do not have enough experience with Cards Against Humanity to know if it has a lot of replay value, but I suspect it will get boring once the initial surprise of vulgarity wears off.

Description Games

Balderdash is the classic dictionary game that challenges players to come up with convincing definitions of words and, at the same time, try to guess the correct definition of an esoteric word.  While the game itself is not particularly funny, the beauty of the game is in the inside jokes that develop throughout the game. The problem is the rigidity in the game design: if you try to diverge too far from a true dictionary definition, no one will guess your card and you will get fewer points. In the end, there is no true reward for being comedic, but rather rewarding players for being boring or prescriptive, which limits the fun potential.

What I like about The Game of Things… is its ability to accentuate the fun aspects of Balderdash, while eliminating the rigid structure of dictionary definitions.  Instead of going for accuracy, The Game of Things… pits competitors against one another to guess who wrote which answer.  As in Balderdash, one person sits out of the round as a judge and cannot score points, but instead of the game confining itself to a correct definition of a word, The Game of Things… creates scenarios and you answer with some ‘thing’. In the second round, in which players would normally try to guess the correct definition of the word, players try to guess who wrote which answer.

The basic accuracy element remains true to the game, but the players are focused less on the dictionary and more on the other people in the room, which makes the experience much more enjoyable and truer to the party game ideal of creating a fun, sociable experience.

Acting Games

Charades is the traditional phrase acting/guessing game where people take turns pantomiming an action, noun, verb, quote or any other number of things.  It’s boring AND embarrassing, a terrible combination.

A more contemporary version of Charades is Times Up.  I’ve been told Times Up is not much more than a more formal version of the game Celebrity, but the idea is to act out a series of people (celebrities, historical figures or fictional characters) with each round having fewer identifying cues starting with full sentence descriptions and ending with no verbal clues, like Charades.  What’s fun about this game is the fast paced ability to test our memory, and the silly actions that people link with random people.

While pantomiming can be fun in small doses, it can also be embarrassing to get in front of a large group of new people and act something out.  To counteract that, Times Up eases players into the game play through three rounds of play and puts the teams on equal footing by making sure everyone knows all the people after the first round.

Instead of testing our courage and acting ability, like Charades does, Times Up tests our creativity to remember and link what was previously said to key words and actions, which is so much more fun.

Choosing a Party Game

Party games can be a lot of fun for you and your friends to play.  The problem is, if the only party games you have in your closet are tired old games that no one ever wants to play, you will not ever have fun playing them.  It might be time to try out a couple new ones and introduce them to your friends. Party games are like crack. It is never as good the second time you play it and you will forever be searching for that first high, so don’t hesitate to try new games with different groups of people. Branch out, try some new games, and end up with a variety of party games to make social gatherings a little less… painful.

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