Even without television, video games, and the internet, our Victorian predecessors found plenty of ways to entertain themselves around the holidays. They just had to get creative, using everything from flaming raisins to pure imagination to pass the time. Here are 15 classic parlor games to break out if you and your loved ones feel like unplugging during the holiday season.
Whether they’re played in the form of board games or mobile apps, word games are incredibly popular. They were also a hit with Victorian audiences, though the options they had back then were severely limited. Instead of pulling up a game on their phone, players would pull out a dictionary. To play Fictionary, one person reads an obscure word from the dictionary while everyone else jots down their made-up definitions. After the person with the dictionary reads the fake definitions out loud along with the real one, players vote on whichever definition they think is true. Fake submissions earn points for each vote they receive and players earn points for guessing the right answer. If no one guesses correctly, whoever is holding the dictionary gets a point.
2. SQUEAK PIGGY SQUEAK
Also known as Oink Piggy Oink or Grunt Piggy Grunt, Squeak Piggy Squeak is a spin off Blind Man’s Bluff. One player chosen to be the “farmer” gets blindfolded and sits on a pillow in the center of a circle of “piggies.” After spinning around a few times, the farmer stumbles over to a random piggy and places the pillow on their lap. When he sits down and says “Squeak Piggy Squeak” the piggy must make a squeaking sound: If the farmer can guess who he’s sitting on based on the noise alone the piggy becomes the new farmer. This game hasn’t proven to be as timeless as Blind Man’s Bluff, but we bet it would still make for a successful icebreaker with modern party guests.
3. THE MINISTER’S CAT
The Minister’s Cat follows the formula of many classic word games: Players sit around in a circle and take turns describing the minister’s cat with a different adjective. Each adjective must start with a different letter of the alphabet, starting with “A.” For example, the first player might say, “The minister’s cat is an angry cat,” followed next by, “The minister’s cat is a brilliant cat.” Players are eliminated if they repeat an adjective or fail to come up with a new one.
4. THE SCULPTOR
This game gives players a chance to show off their inner artist. Players stand still while the person chosen to be “the sculptor” walks around positioning everyone into silly poses. Participants aren’t allowed to laugh, move, or smile. If this happens the sculptor becomes a statue and the player who broke character assumes the role. Everyone should get to be the sculptor at least once, since he or she obviously has the most fun of anyone.
5. CHANGE SEATS!
And you thought musical chairs could get rowdy. During Change Seats!, players sit in a circle of chairs, while one player stands in the center of the circle. Whoever is “It” picks someone in the circle and asks him or her, “Do you love your neighbor?” If the answer is “No,” the people seated on either side must quickly change seats, before the person in the center can steal one of their chairs. However, the person being questioned may also answer, “Yes, I love my neighbor, except those who … [are wearing red, have blue eyes, etc.].” At that point, everyone who falls into the category must stand up and try to change seats as quickly as they can, while the person in the middle tries to steal one.
6. ARE YOU THERE, MORIARTY?
Are You There, Moriarty? is similar to Marco Polo, except instead of playing in a pool, a pair of players lay face-down on the floor about arm’s length apart. Both participants are blindfolded and each is equipped with a rolled-up newspaper. The game begins when the first player calls out “Are you there, Moriarty?” When the second player responds, the caller attempts to bop him over the head with his makeshift weapon. The newspaper swordfight proceeds until both parties feel too silly to continue.
7. FRUIT BOWL
Fruit Bowl is like musical chairs with a delicious twist. Game participants are assigned one of a handful of fruit categories: apple, banana, strawberry, etc. Everyone takes a seat while one player is left standing. That player chooses a fruit to call out—if he or she says “apple,” for example, then all the apples have to switch seats while the person who is “It” scrambles to find a seat as well. The last player left standing takes over the job of calling out names.
8. PASS THE SLIPPER
If you don’t have a slipper for this game, any light object you trust your party guests to handle will do. One person sits in the middle of the circle with their eyes closed while people around the perimeter pass along an item. The player at the center opens their eyes at random moments and the passing stops. If he or she can’t see who’s holding the “slipper,” he or she must guess where it stopped. The two players switch spots if the guesser succeeds.
If you’ve ever made up a story one piece at a time as a group, you know the basic concept of Consequences. This version can lead to even more hilarious, and often horrifying results. The first player kicks things off by drawing a head (whether human, animal, or mythical) on a sheet of paper, then folds it over to cover the creation. After passing it on, the next player draws a torso, the next legs, and so on. Once the sheet has made the rounds, players can unfold it to marvel at whatever monstrosity they created as a team.
10. THE LAUGHING GAME
The rules of the Laughing Game are straightforward. One player begins by saying the word “ha” with a straight face. The second player continues saying “ha ha,” followed by “ha ha ha” and so forth in a circle. The object is to keeping going as long as possible without cracking up. If a player breaks so much as a smile, he’s out of the game.
11. WINK MURDER
Nothing spices up a holiday party like a good murder mystery. To play this game, one participant acts as the “murderer,” while another plays the detective whose job it is to identify him or her. The murderer covertly winks at the other players in the circle, causing them to drop dead. Using his or her deductive reasoning skills the detective has three shots to guess which of the players left alive is the murderer.
12. ELEPHANT’S FOOT UMBRELLA STAND
Elephant’s foot umbrella stands may not be as common as they were in the Victorian Era, but the game named after them is still fun to play. The leader starts the game by saying “I went to the store and bought…” followed by an object. Whatever object the leader names has to fit a secret rule they’ve decided to follow throughout the game. For example, if the rule is that every object must end with the letter “E,” the leader might say “I went to the store and bought an orange.” Players then taking turns guessing the rule by naming objects they think apply. If a player says “I went to the store and bought a boat” the leader would say something like “They’re all out of boats.” But if they said they bought a kite instead, the leader would approve their purchase without sharing why. The game becomes more fun the longer you play, assuming you’re not the last player to catch on.
The only thing you need to play Lookabout is an object. The host shows the selected item—whether it’s a shoe, a vase, or a pillow—to the party guests and asks them to leave the room. Once it’s hidden, guests are allowed to return and attempt to locate the object. Players take a seat whenever they spot it, and the last person remaining becomes the next hider.
A round of Forfeits is a fast way to loosen up your party guests. To start, everyone forfeits an item of value (keys, phone, wallet, etc.). A player selected to be the “auctioneer” stands at the front of the room and presents each item as if it were to sale. Players can get their item back for a price—the auctioneer might tell them to sing a song, share a secret, or do 100 jumping jacks. In the smartphone era the stakes of this Victorian parlor game are even higher.
This game, while certainly an ice-breaker, is probably best left to the Victorians. To play snap-dragon, party guests, typically together for Christmas Eve, would dunk raisins in a bowl of brandy and set the booze on fire. Players would then attempt to pick out the raisins and pop them in their mouths. There’s not really a point to the game other than to avoid getting burnt. Suddenly spending the holidays glued to your phone sounds like the saner option.