Playing games at the kitchen table is a regular part of life at our house. I play games after school three or four days a week with my children, as well as a family game night most weeks. Sarah and I play games together one or two nights a week, and I have a regular game night with a few friends. Sarah and I also host a potluck dinner about once a month where we invite friends over to play games.
While many of the games we play are ones that have been purchased or received as gifts over the last fifteen years or so, some of them are actually games that we play using a few items we would have around the house anyway.
The heart of a game is the people you play it with. If you have a group of people that are all on board for whatever you're doing, you don't need a nice game board or production-quality materials. You just need a fun game idea.
Here are twenty games we've played in the last few years using items from around the house. If you have the items I list in the first section - and most houses already have most of them - you're ready to play any of these games. Some of them will be quite familiar, while others not so much.
Items I'm Assuming You Have
Pens, pencils, index cards, and paper These are basic office supplies that most people tend to have in an office supply drawer somewhere in their home. Index cards are probably the least likely ones to have on hand, but you can buy them by the hundreds for far less than a penny apiece if you shop around.
Coins Almost everyone has a change jar somewhere loaded with coins. Coins can work really well as a game component for many different games.
The contents of a chess set Most households have a chess set floating around somewhere. While chess itself is a great game, the board and the pieces can provide the foundation of several more interesting games (I'll list two of them below).
A deck or two of ordinary playing cards Again, this is an item most families have in a drawer somewhere. A deck of playing cards opens the door to a lot of different games, many of which I deeply enjoy.
Assorted dice When I was growing up, my parents always had a handful of dice floating around in a drawer somewhere, as did my grandmother and great-grandmother. Lo and behold, so do we. I always save the dice out of old copies of Monopoly or Risk. In fact, I have purchased beat-up copies of Risk from yard sales for a quarter just to get that handful of dice. This is probably the most esoteric item listed here, but not having it only locks you out of a couple of the games listed below.
Ten Games You've Probably Heard Of
Here are ten popular games you may already know. These games are generally older ones and have been passed around quite a lot over the last hundred years or so. Chances are that you either already know how to play these games or are at least familiar with them.
1,000 Blank White Cards
While I'm not sure how well known this game is, I have seen it in Hoyle game rules books and I've found other groups that play it, so I'll assume you've probably heard of it.
1,000 Blank White Cards just involves about 150 blank index cards and pens. There are no rules - you make them up as the game grows. Prior to the first game, the players should collectively make up card game rules and write them on cards, along with illustrations, on about half the cards, leaving the rest blank. For example, you could make a card that says "First player to 100 points wins," then make a card that says "I gain 100 points" (though that might be a bad idea). You can get really creative here - there might be cards that say things like "Tear up and throw away any card that says the word 'win' or 'wins' on it."
At the start of a game, players each draw a hand of five cards. On a normal turn, a player draws a card and then plays one, doing whatever it says. When it's not your turn, it's considered appropriate to take a blank card from your hand and start writing on it and adding an illustration. You keep playing until someone wins based on whatever rules you come up with; that player earns two points. If a rules conflict comes up, players just vote on how it resolves.
After the game, players reset the deck by getting the balance back to 75 blank cards and 75 player-made cards by eliminating un-fun or uninteresting player cards. We award one point to any person that gets a new card added to the 75 that we save, meaning that a creative player can lose the actual card play but still win the game through creativity.
Bridge is a trick-taking game for four players, as are a few of the other games on this list. Of the card games listed here, I find it to be the biggest brain-burner, as each hand - and even each play - requires quite a bit of thought.
Bridge has a lot of players, who often meet up to play the game at bridge clubs. However, it works quite well as a card game that's played around the dinner table.
I play a variation of bridge called 500 on a very regular basis with my wife's family, but if all else were equal, I'd vote for bridge instead.
Canasta is a set-collection card game for two to six players, though it's most often played with four players. In the game, you're trying to collect sets of seven cards faster than the other players.
Canasta can be very fast paced, with a lot of wild cards and crazy plays as people rush to try to beat the others to completing sets. It's a great game for generating crazy stories.
Charades is a game I enjoy quite a bit with friends after having a few beers. It works best when everyone's a bit uninhibited.
At the start of the game, split everyone into two teams. Each team gets twenty or so slips of paper and needs to write down a clue for the other team to act out on slips of paper, which are then folded up and tossed into a hat for the other team. Once that's done, the teams alternate. On one team's turn, one person from that team draws a clue, then has a certain amount of time (a minute is usually good) to act out that clue without speaking or writing anything down. If their team guesses it right, they get a point. Generally, teams play through all of the clues.
In order to keep the game fair (and to keep people from writing impossible clues), we add a penalty rule where if someone thinks a clue was truly impossible to execute or guess, everyone votes on it. If a majority thinks a clue was unfair, the team who wrote the clue loses a point. This keeps people from writing impossible ones.
If you have a chess set, why not play chess?
Chess is a classic board game for two players that can really challenge your abstract gaming skills. It has a long and storied history and tons of books written about the game, but it's still a game that two people can sit down and easily play in an hour or so.
Cribbage is a great card game for two (or more) players. In this game, players try to score points by playing their cards in the right sequence while alternating with the other player. For example, if you follow another player to bring the total of all played cards to fifteen, you score a point. If you bring the total to thirty one, you score two points.
The game flows extremely quickly, with hands rotating fast and points being scored so quickly that paper can be really inefficient for scoring, which is why there are often cribbage boards for keeping score. This is a game that my eight year old fell in absolute love with for a month or so.
If you'd like to know more about cribbage, I found the rules explanation from Bicycle to be the most useful.
Dots and Boxes
Many people are familiar with this simple game. All you need are two (or more) players, a sheet of blank paper, and a pen. On that piece of paper, you just make a grid of dots - the dots should be arranged in a way so that you can connect them with straight lines to form little squares. Players take turns connecting two adjacent dots. When that player is able to form a square, they write their first initial in the square and then take another turn. The person with the most filled squares is the winner.
I find this game to be fun by making grids with strange shapes, which can turn the game into an interesting logical challenge. We've made thin rectangles. We've made grids that have an empty middle. We've also made huge grids, including one that took several days to finish.
For more details, you can check out the Wikipedia entry for dots and boxes. There's also a different version of the game that's a bit more complicated and requires two different colored pens, but can be a real brain burner.
Of the "ten games familiar to you," I've probably played this game more than any other as it was a bit of a fad in my dormitory during my sophomore year and I also played it a great deal during my high school years.
Gin is a set collection card game for two players where you hold all of the sets (runs of cards or sets of the same kind) you're collecting in your hand until your entire hand forms sets (or your hand is complete garbage, which can actually be good, too).
I spent much of my freshman year in college playing "penny-a-point" hearts with a circle of several guys who seemed to constantly have a game going on in the floor lounge in a nearby dormitory. I like to think I made money over the course of those months, but I'm not sure I did. It's also a card game that many people are familiar with thanks to the Windows implementation of the game.
Anyway, hearts is a brilliant trick-taking game for four players, with each player playing individually. In the game, players are trying to avoid winning any hearts or the dastardly queen of spades in any trick. You don't want those cards because the goal in hearts is to have the lowest score and those are the only cards worth points.
There's a wonderful interactive introduction to hearts for you to try out, and if you have further questions, the Bicycle rules for the game are clear.
Liar's dice is a great quick bluffing game that requires a few opaque cups and five dice for each player. Each player shakes their dice in their cup, dumps them face down under the cup, and then peeks at the dice. After that, players go around the table claiming that they have the best set of dice under their cup. Whenever someone sees what they think of as deception, they can challenge it, at which point everyone reveals their dice. If the challenged person wasn't lying, they get a single die from the challenger; otherwise, they must give one of their die to the challenger. Players are eliminated when they have no dice, and the game ends either by agreement or by one player having all the dice.
The game moves extremely quickly, with new dice being rolled every minute or two. It's mostly about bluffing and being able to read bluffs.
Ten Games You Probably Haven't Heard Of
Now that we've touched on ten simple games you've likely heard of, here are ten you probably haven't heard of that are just as fun.
A2A is a great variation of the classic game Apples to Apples, except with a bit of 1,000 Blank White Cards (see above) mixed in.
You just take a big stack of white cards and give everyone a single card at the start of the round. The clue giver starts by writing CLUE in big letters on his card, while the others write GUESS on theirs, then everyone flips their cards over. The clue giver then writes a clue of some kind on their card. I generally like the clues to take the form of a "fill-in-the-blank" sentence where the blank is a noun. So, for example, you might write "____ is my favorite secret ingredient in potato salad" or "Last election, I voted for ____ for President as a protest vote."
Everyone else thinks of a humorous response and writes it on their card, then the clue-giver takes all of the guesses, mixes them up, then reveals them all, choosing the one that is the funniest or the most fitting. That player gets the CLUE card, which is worth a point. All cards are saved, but then the game repeats again with blank cards.
Keep playing to some specified point total - say, seven points.
Now, here's where it gets really fun. Play this game with blank cards a few times, then play it again using the cards you've already made. Shuffle up the stacks, then use the already-existing CLUE and GUESS cards. When we do this, we usually tear up and throw away the least-funny GUESS card for each clue in order to "improve" the card set.
After a while, this becomes a bizarre and hilarious homebrew game.
Arimaa is an abstract game that can be played with the components of chess, but the rules are vastly different.
In Arimaa, four spaces on the board are "pits," which is how you eliminate pieces. All pieces move identically, one space at a time, and you get four moves per turn. A "larger" piece can move an adjacent smaller piece by either pushing or pulling it, and the only way to eliminate pieces is by pushing or pulling them into a pit. You win by getting one of your smallest pieces to the home row of the other player.
Arimaa.com provides a great introduction to the game.
Chess960 is played exactly like chess, except with one change - the starting pieces (except for pawns) are rearranged randomly, with the two players having a mirror image of each other's starting positions. That's where the 960 number comes from - there are 960 possible starting positions. After that, you play normal chess.
Why do I list this as a distinct game? It's because, compared to regular chess, you constantly feel like you're on uncertain ground right from the opening move. Pieces are always in weird places.
You can read a lot more about the game at the Wikipedia entry for Chess960.
EPYC is a pen-and-paper game for several players that has a lot in common with charades and 1,000 Blank White Cards.
Each player takes a piece of paper, then on the top of the sheet, they write a phrase or a short sentence. Players pass the sheets to the left, then the next player must draw a picture of whatever was described in that short sentence in the top quarter or so of the sheet. Then, that player folds the sentence backward behind the sheet, hiding it but leaving the picture, and passes it on. The next player looks at the picture and then tries to write a sentence guessing what the picture is, folding back the picture when he/she is done and then passing the sheet. We usually stop this when someone writes a fifth sentence on the sheet while looking at the fourth picture.
There isn't really any scoring here, just hilarity. By the time of the second or third picture, things are completely confused, and virtually every sheet, when completely unfolded, is absolutely hilarious.
Last Word is a great word game for two to four players, also designed by the great designer Sid Sackson. You only need a pen and a sheet of paper to play it.
To start, you draw a 9 by 9 square grid on a sheet of paper, then add nine letters at random to the middle nine squares. After that, players take turns adding letters to the grid. When you add a letter, you must add it adjacent (diagonals are fine) to at least two filled squares on the board. Then, for each row, column, and diagonal that contains your new letter, you may create and score one word. You do this by taking letters continuous to the letter you added in that row/diagonal/column and rearranging them to make the longest possible word. You then multiply the lengths of the words you formed - so if you managed to form CAT, HAT, and BOAT off of a column, a row, and a diagonal that you added, you'd score 36 points - 3 x 4 x 3. Play continues until at least one square is filled along each edge of the board.
The beauty of this game is that "easy" letters like E, T, and A are really helpful for you to score words, but then they make it easy for the next player to score even longer words.
Paper Boxing is a great little pen-and-paper game invented by the prolific game designer Sid Sackson.
In Paper Boxing, each player secretly makes a grid of 4 squares by 4 squares, writes an S in the one in the upper left, then fills the other squares with the numbers 1 through 15 however he or she wants. The grids are then revealed and the players begin to play. The first player, from the S, moves to any other adjacent square in his or her grid, then the other player does the same. Whoever ends in the highest number won the round. The player who went second the first time goes first the second time, moving from their current square to a new square.
The game is played over fifteen rounds, with the game winner being the person who won the most rounds. If someone can't move to an adjacent square from their current square, they lose.
This is currently our preferred restaurant game, as we'll play it on the back of the placemats.
Sprouts is another pen-and-paper game for two or more players. It's a surprisingly hard game for as simple as it sounds.
At the start of the game, the players put a few dots on a sheet of paper - it's a good idea to spread them out. We usually start with five or six.
On a player's turn, that player must connect any two dots with a straight or curved line. However, players cannot cross any line that already exists and a new line cannot start or end on a dot that already has three lines coming out of it. In fact, we usually mark "dead" dots by turning them into a little X, because those dots can no longer be connected. Then, once a new line is added, the player must add a new dot somewhere along that new line, meaning that the new dot already has two lines coming out of it. The player who takes the last move and leaves the other player without any line to complete wins (or loses, if you're playing reverse sprouts).
This game is shockingly complicated for as simple as it sounds. It's another great "back of the restaurant mat" game.
Take-Back-Toe, designed by James Ernest, is the winner of the "Thousand Year Game Design Challenge," in which games were designed from simple components that might still be played in a thousand years. All you need to play are forty coins and a single six-sided die. Here's how it plays, quoted from the official rules:
On a 3x4 board, players will take turns moving chips around. The board starts with a stack of 10 chips on each space in the center row. On each turn, you roll a 6-sided die, and then move that number of chips from one space to an adjacent space (adjacency is orthogonal, not diagonal). To win, you must be the first player to have three stacks of the same size in your home row (the row closest to you). You can't move fewer chips than the number you roll, so it's theoretically possible that you will be forced to pass. Also, you can't undo your opponent's most recent move.
The "3x4 board" isn't needed - just have twelve clear piles on the table.
This works great if you happen to have a bunch of pocket change nearby, and the game ends up being much more thought-provoking than you might expect.
Werewolf is a game for eight or more players (up to 33 with a single deck of cards, or 64 with two decks). I find it works best with fifteen or so. In the game, one person is the moderator, a small number of people are werewolves, and the rest are villagers. There are many variants on this game, so I'll just describe the basics.
The moderator starts by counting the number of players, dividing by six, and rounding up. That's the number of werewolves. So, if there are 13 players, there would be three werewolves and the rest of the players - ten - are villagers. The moderator then grabs a deck of cards and pulls out a number of black faced cards equal to the werewolf count, a single joker, and a number of red-faced cards so that each other player gets a red card. In this thirteen player example, there would be three black cards, a joker, and nine red cards. These are shuffled and one card is given secretly to each player.
During the first "night" phase of the game, the moderator asks everyone to close their eyes (they go to sleep, essentially), then all werewolves open their eyes and look at the moderator and at each other, then they close their eyes, then the person with the joker - the seer, who is a special villager - opens his or her eyes and points to a single other person in the room, to which the moderator shakes their head yes or no to indicate whether that person is a werewolf.
After that, everyone opens their eyes, starting a "day" phase. The players collectively decide one person to banish because they're suspected of being a werewolf. People can lie and negotiate however they want during this phase, but at the end of it, one person (decided through whatever process they want) is banished from the game. They reveal their card and they sit out for the rest of the game.
There is then another "night" phase where everyone closes their eyes. The werewolves then open their eyes and pick a villager to banish from the game. They then close their eyes and if the seer is still in the game, the seer tries to identify another werewolf by pointing, as before.
"Days" and "nights" alternate until a victory condition is met. If there is ever a time when all werewolves are banished, the villagers win. If thereis an equal number of werewolves and villagers, the werewolves win.
This is a great game for a large group to play. It involves a lot of lying, bluffing, and deduction and plays pretty quickly unless your group gets too large (games with more than 25 or so tend to get fairly long).
Zuniq is a pen-and-paper game that I also discovered through the "Thousand Year Game Design Challenge," as it was one of the finalists, Marcus Donnantuoni. It's an interesting take on the "dots and boxes" game described earlier. Here's how this one plays (as described here):
Zuniq is an abstract game for two players, played in an 8x8 grid of evenly spaced dots. Players take turns joining two horizontally or vertically adjacent dots by a segment. Eventually, closed zones will form. It’s irrelevant which player closes which zone; zones do not belong to any player. There are only two restrictions: one, once closed, zones are out of bounds for the players and they cannot move in its interior anymore; and two, there can never be zones of the same size. Zuniq’s goal is simple: to be the last player able to move. The player who cannot make a move (either because there are none possible or because it would make a zone with repeated size) is the loser. Draws are impossible.
This is another game that seems really simple, but when you play it a bit, you begin to realize how wonderfully "think-y" it really is. We've filled up many sheets of paper playing this one.
The games listed here cover all kinds of ground, from creative to strategic, from two player to involving a large group, from short to long. None of them require much equipment, however, because the truth of the matter is that you don't need a lot of stuff to enjoy a lot of games.
Games are fun because they make you think and they allow you to spend time with people whose company you enjoy. All of these games fall right in line with that spirit.