Be A Holiday Hero: Transform Family Gatherings with Two Free and Clutterless Party Games

Be A Holiday Hero- Transform Family Gatherings with Two Free and Clutterless Party Games

Games will save your introverted soul this holiday season

Playing these two games have provided some of the funniest and most memorable times I’ve had in large groups. If you’re headed to a family holiday gathering that’s open to a game part of the evening, no need to jump on Kickstarter to order the next trend (although this particular one can be fun with the right crowd), just read on!

But why, party games?

I know deep in my introverted heart that I’m not the only one who sighs with satisfaction when learning that a social situation will have a quality party game at its center. Games provide a clear and warm social structure for my site specific extrovert to emerge and connect with large groups.

And the organizer and minimalist in me loves that two of the most successful party games I’ve participated in require no extra purchases and the game equipment is either recycled or added back to the bookshelf at its conclusion.

I’ve seen even the most reluctant participants turn wild-eyed and passionate playing these things, it’s gorgeous watching people come out of their heads in front of you over such silly pursuits!

Enough, jabbering, on with the games!

Fishbowl or Hamburger, Hot Dog

I learned about this game from my friend, Jean-Michele and she’s generously given me permission to republish her rules below.

A variation of the game Celebrity or Lunchbox, that has its own unique take that in my experience makes it superior. Not least of all that they added the alternate title Hamburger, Hot Dog which describes how you fold the game’s required slips of paper: (Hint: don’t fold it hotdog, hamburger style as I mistakenly coached our group on Thanksgiving that will give you a goofy looking slip.)

FISHBOWL, aka HAMBURGER/HOTDOG: the rules as interpreted and adapted by Jean-Michele Gregory

Players divide into teams appropriate to the overall size of the group.

Each player receives 5 slips of paper and writes down five words or phrases. (Recent examples: “Marc Chagall”, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it”, “Estonia”)

The slips of paper are folded twice (“hamburger, hotdog”) and placed in a large bowl.

Then there are 3 rounds: word coaxing, charades, and one-word clues.

Each team alternates players, of course, and play alternates between teams, of course, with each team getting one minute to guess as many in the bowl as possible.

Round 1: “OK, he’s a famous painter, Jean-Michele loves him, he’s an impressionist, lots of weddings and floating horses and blue cows–”
“–Marc Chagall!”
Round 2: <someone mimes a man painting, a floating horse, etc>
Round 3: “Painter.”
Points: You get 1 point for each piece of paper your team captures.

More rules: If you accidentally say a word that’s in the answer (e.g., “music” for the “The Sound of Music”), player must put that clue aside and then it returns to the bowl for the next team’s turn.

No one can “pass” on a clue. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fun when the game gets stalled b/c no one can figure out what the player means when he keeps pointing to his behind and saying the word “candy cane!”

There is some debate as to how many teams is best. M is a big advocate of having just two teams, whereas I think sometimes it’s nice to have three. The one thing is that you don’t want to make any individual team too small, because then if one of those people has to leave, or is a weak player, or what-have-you, it puts more stress on that team and makes it more about winning and losing than playing.


  • There’s just one fishbowl or mixing bowl or hat used for the clues for both teams. This probably seems obvious looking at the title of the game, but somehow someone (it might have been my wife) convinced me at our Thanksgiving round that for our initial round that there should be 2 bowls for each team and it threw things off. We recovered for the second round, but learn from our mistake!
  • Supplies as promised are minimal: a few sheets of paper to tear or cut into slips, some pencils or pens and a large bowl or hat for the clues. There are boxed and sold versions of the game, the latest is a Kickstarter, hipster fueled version called Monikers and another one called Time’s Up. Both look fine, but go for the minimal, man!
  • Jean Michele’s suggestion of including phrases may seem intimidating to beginners, but can result in big, big fun. You can also theme the clue suggestions.

For example:

At our friend’s co-ed baby shower everyone was asked to write advice for the new parents. So it was phrase heavy, but some were fairly simple like: “Start sleep training early.” However one was brutally long – something along the lines of:

“Be sure to always keep your heart open to the wild experiences of simultaneously being in love and frustrated with the same little person.”

Seems impossible, right? And it was, but that’s when the fun really starts to emerge: you’re watching and helping somebody scale a Mount Everest phrase like that in front of their peers. By the third round, there were entire factions formed committed solely to memorizing the exact words and order of the phrase. Pure party game gold.

First Line, Last Line

I’ve played this one a few times, but memorably the first time was at a party with very funny people and STRONG mojitos. I don’t think either of those are a requirement, but ten years ago it resulted in a hilarious evening.

This is kind of a variation of Fictionary or its commercial version Balderdash, but instead of trying to get your fellow players to vote for your phony definitions of words, you’re trying to get them to believe you wrote the first or last line of one of the books your party participants bring for the center of the table.

All the rules are beautifully explained by Dwight Garner in this NYTimes piece: “What’s Scrabble When You Can Play Novelist?”

Garner mentions in the article a variation that the Clintons would play with Bartlett’s Quotations that sounds like a fun twist.

In that game one player picks a quotation from Bartlett’s and gives the other players the author’s name and the years he or she was born and died. “Then each player,” Schlesinger said, “must invent a quotation to be plausibly ascribed to the author.”
Schlesinger had a fine time. “The game gives ample scope to individual creativity and turned out to be considerable fun,” he wrote. “We all made up plausible quotes from Strindberg and Peter Ustinov, as well as from some of Bartlett’s unknowns.”

Less Stuff, More Humanity

My holiday wish is that you introduce one of these games at one of your family gatherings and witness that the Christmas special kind of message is often true: the best experiences don’t come in a gift with a bow.

Now your turn: what’s your favorite box-less party or parlor game?

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  • GetOrganizedAlready

    Something like the 2nd game, it’s Telephone-Pictionary, requiring only note paper and pencils.
    Everyone has a stack of paper, writes a made-up sentence on the top piece of paper and passes their whole pile to the left.
    Next, everyone reads the sentence passed to them, puts that paper on the bottom of the stack and draws their interpretation on said sentence. Then everyone passes their interpretive drawings (and the rest of their stack of paper) to the left again.
    On it continues until you get your original stack back along with the hilarious drawings and interpretations of the drawings from around the circle.


    • Ah, that seems very funny, Nonni, thanks for sharing! It’s been a regrettably long time since I’ve played Pictionary, but I think some of my extremely fond associations to party games coming from playing that game with my parents and their friends in the early 90’s.