Party Games Explained

Party games began life as parlour games, specifically designed to entertain large groups of people in social situations.

Forms of parlour games can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, where they played something called Copper Mosquito, which you may know, and likely played at school as Blind Man’s Bluff.

Parlour games were popular for hundreds of years, especially at Christmas, and double especially with wealthy land-owners, probably because it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to ‘own land’. Though they were less popular with the Puritans, who actually banned Christmas revelry for a few years…great PR move guys, I feel sorry for your social media intern.

Parlour games peaked in the Victorian Era, where they too had a variation of Blind Man’s Bluff called Squeak Piggy Squeak. They also had Hunt The Thimble, Wink Murder, and Fictionary, which involved looking up obscure words in the dictionary and having people come up with fake definitions, essentially what Balderdash is today. And my personal favourite, Snap-Dragon, which involved trying to grab a raisin from a burning bowl of brandy. Which is less a parlour game and more a cut challenge from Fort Boyard.

Parlour games were very much DIY projects, spread by word of mouth, often using paper and pencils, items around the house, or in the case of the popular parlour game The Sculptor, the bodies of fellows guests, grabbing limbs and posing them into guessable shapes.

There’s even a game called Are You There Moriarty where people lie blindfolded on the floor and try to tw*t each other with newspapers.


Remember when we thought the Victorians were dignified?


As far back as mass-printing goes though, people were producing party games, like the cards to play Oliver Twist, which was a precursor to Chase the Ace.

The popularity of these boxed parlour games spiked in the 1920 and they remained firm favourites at Christmas right up until the 60s when TV and multimedia distractions began to take over.

These boxed games would often repackage classic parlour games like Charades with printed cards to take the effort out of coming up with a load of titles off the top of your head.

And they’re still popular now, though they’ve undergone a bit of a digital evolution. Heads-Up on smartphones is a quick-fire repurposing of classic game Celebrities, and thanks to its tried and true formula still retains the fun of grandma trying to guess who Nicki Minaj is.

Meanwhile, the app Picolo has harnessed the power of computing to do something truly worthy: randomly generating mini-drinking games.

So whether it’s chasing your mates around with a blindfold on, getting Aunty Agnes to hold the iPhone to her forehead, or grabbing a shrivelled raisin from hot brandy (which definitely should be a euphemism), party games have been popular for thousands of years.


But why have they endured?


So party games are popular because they’re simple, but they also tend to be looked down on by hobby gamers entirely because they’re simple.

The term party game often comes with disparaging connotations, suggesting something isn’t a real board game because it doesn’t have a phonebook of rules and enough small bits of wood to choke a cave troll.

For a large section of hobby gamers, a game’s substance lies in its complicated choices and multitudinous strategies, so compared to Terraforming Mars, games like Pictionary serve to dumb down what the term board game means.

Part of the push-pull comes from the rise of the quote-unquote designer, like Klaus Teuber who designed Catan, and Alexander Pfister who gave us Great Western Trail. These are complicated, balanced games that reward careful strategy and take great care and skill in designing, whereas party games are pretty much handed down, by word of mouth, and for most of them points don’t even matter. I mean f**king hell Cranium has sold over 22 million copies and it’s literally just Charades, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit sellotaped together with some riddles and Playdoh thrown in. You can understand more serious gamers getting a bit of an elitist huff about it. Best not tell them about Are You There Moriarty then.

Over the years, games we played at parties have morphed into the packaged Party Games we know today, and as board gaming has swollen over the last few years to be a $ 3 billion industry, party games are more and more prevalent. If you walk into a bookshop, you’ll see dozens of party games for sale, ditto Forbidden Planet and Amazon.

The DNA of party games remains unchanged though, it’s just been codified with rulesets: like Balderdash replacing Fictionary, or the official boxed versions of Pictionary and numerous variations like Telestrations, Scrawl and Pictomania.

Guess the traitor games like Mafia have morphed into Werewolf, The Resistance and countless others with ‘social deduction’ becoming its entire own arm of gaming.

And then yeah, Cranium has cornered the market by gluing every other parlour game together with PlayDoh.

That’s without diving into branded social games like the F.R.I.E.N.D.S game or the First Dates Game, or a RAFT of game show-based games; Pointless, Catchphrase, The Chase, The Wall, Tipping Point…What the f**k is Tipping Point!?


Oh, it’s the least interesting thing from an arcade.


There have obviously been some mega-hits in the party gaming world that you could point to as standards. Obviously, Cranium is a smash. It’s sold 22 million copies in 20 years. Pictionary has sold 40 million, it’s the top-selling party game of all time, and like the 9th most-selling game in the world, but when was the last time you played it?

Apples to Apples was a monster hit, and while that name may not be the most well-known to the UK mainstream it conquered America and sold over 12 million copies. Apples to Apples was a game about putting together a random question with a random answer using cards, and hoping to create something funny.

If that mechanism sounds familiar to you it’s because about 10 years ago a startup company put out a copy of the game with edgy, adult questions and answers, and it’s become one of the most widely-played party games in the world today, Cards Against Humanity.

Cards Against Humanity is basically an explicit version of Apples to Apples. One person puts forward a question on a black card, questions like What’s a Girl’s Best Friend? What’s That Smell? And I Drink to Forget [blank]?

Then everyone looks through their hand of white cards, picks one that they think will provide a funny answer and whoever gets the biggest laugh wins the round.

It’s a game that purposefully encourages its players to be offensive and, like its box, has strived to achieve the reputation of being the black sheep of the board gaming world, the bad boy, although less a bad boy who breaks the law, and more like a bad boy who keeps getting his bum out in class.

The game was created by 8 friends from Illinois who met in high school. It was originally called Cardenfreude, after the term schadenfreude which is the German expression for shameful laughter or finding amusement in suffering or unfortunate circumstances. It was Kickstarted in 2011 and one month after public release became the top selling game on Amazon.

In just two years the game had generated over $10 million in revenue, it’s had 5 main editions, 6 official expansions, dozens of micro-expansions, a product called ‘Please Do Not Buy This Product’ which was a 69 inches long Cards Against Humanity Box containing a single card, proof if nothing else that Cards Against Humanity is so successful that it’s made tit-around money.


But what do gamers think of it?


On, which is the IMDB of board gaming, a database for user scores and official reviews,  Cards Against Humanity has a 5.9 rating which is… not great, but actually better than a lot of mass-appeal games. In comparison, Monopoly has a 4.4. People really hate it.

So we’ve looked at the most popular party game that regular people are playing right now, the final part of explaining party games from all sides, especially to someone who’s trying to get into board gaming, is to look at what gamers inside the hobby are playing the most.

Despite the general sense of elitism in board gaming, that quality increases with complexity, there are some hugely beloved party games within the hobby.

Just One is a super-light, super-silly co-op game that last year won the Spiel de Jahres, the board gaming equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. Dixit and Mysterium, both of which are sort of like charades but using crazy abstract art to communicate with, have been huge successes.

However, the biggest party game of the last few years is without a doubt, Codenames. Designed by acclaimed boardgame designer Vlaada Chvatil it’s a team game where people have to link words together using clues in order for their teammate to guess them, but the tricky part is avoiding guessing the words of the opposing team, wasting a pick on a neutral word or the dreaded Assassin card which instantly loses you the game.

It’s all about communicating and getting on the same wavelength with other players, with a nice element or risk reward too as the broader you make your clue the more chance there is to guess more of your words, but that also increases the risk that one of the opponents’ words might have been hoovered up in an avenue of thinking you hadn’t accounted for.

Unlike its spy stylings, Codenames has been drawing plenty of attention to itself since release: winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2016, selling 1 million copies of its original version, and becoming the number 1 ranked party game on board game geek. 

It’s even had a two player only spinoff called Codenames Duet, as well as Marvel, Disney, Harry Potter and Simpsons themed versions, a picture version which is really bad and even an adult version with words like bum and dick and stuff. It’s so popular they made, basically, Codenames against Humanity.

Author Richard Lingard said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Party games are informative. They don’t just teach us things we didn’t know about our fellow players like Never Have I Ever, but they teach us about the content of their character; are they competitive, mischievous, a team player, but also how they think, how they communicate, intuit and impart information.

They’re about communication between each other. The most popular party game right now is about people putting together offensive concepts to try and form a social bond out of stuff that normally repels people. The biggest selling party game of all time is about trying to communicate ideas visually and the joy that can be found in the failure to do so. The gamer’s choice is all about working together and again, using language and groupthink to link ideas and words.

Party games are geared around a moment of bond, of slight shining moments of cohesion when you or someone else puts a concept out there, an extension of themselves, and you pick it up. Or, more often & funnier, those moments of disconnection between intention and communication.

We’re a tribal species and we’re compelled to find these moments where we think like one, and for all their simplicity, party games appeal to that primal need to gather, celebrate, and crucially, be understood.