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family game night

Family game night: 7 great games we love

Some of these just need a paper and pencil

Tips from a family game night expert:

For my family, getting together means games, and lots of them. Some of them appeal to some portions of the family more than others, but there are a few that we have found that appeal to young and old alike and can have twists and turns, and deep belly laughs.

Here are seven games we love. Four require no special equipment other than some writing utensils and scrap paper. Three are store-bought games.

Set out a few snacks and you’ve got the perfect plan for an evening in. Enjoy!

More fun and games: 10 games to play with your family || 11 cool games to play with your kids || 5 fun games to spark dinnertime conversation


kids playing a game of charades


Family game night: The DIY Games

Write, Draw, Pass

My nuclear family’s favorite party game is this simple, noncompetitive activity that goes by a number of names, including “Paper Telephone,” “Telephone Pictionary,” “Pass it on,” or if you buy an official set with special dry-erase notebooks, “Telestrations.” In our house, we call it the “Silly Notebook Game.”

Number of players: At least 4

Player ability requirements: Reading and writing

Materials: Pencils and erasers for each player, long strips of scrap paper. You can cut up regular paper into three or four strips. We use rolls of old cash register paper we buy from Seattle ReCreative.

How to play:

1. Sit in a circle around a table.

2. Each player writes something on the paper. It could range from a word to a paragraph. Don’t show anyone what you wrote.

3. Each player passes the paper along. (All passing in this game goes in the same direction.)

4. Players read (silently), the paper they received, then draw a picture of what it says.

5. Players fold over the original writing and pass the paper to the next player.

6. Players look at the picture newly passed to them, write what it represents, fold over the original picture, and pass the paper along.

7. Continue passing the paper along, adding pictures or words until there’s no more room on it. Then, it’s time to unfold the paper and view the results.



Charades is a classic for a reason. The team-miming game can easily accommodate a variety of people of different abilities. You can guess or heckle even if you aren’t up for miming. And if you are too young to understand what’s going on, it’s still kind of entertaining.

Number of players: At least 4 total participants. The more, the better.

Player ability requirements: Understanding the rules. Preliterate children can join in with assistance.

Materials: Pencils, scrap paper, timepiece

How to play:

1. Players divide into two teams. Each team comes up with a list of words or phrases for the other team to act out. The person with the best handwriting writes each chosen word on a piece of paper.

2. Players take turns trying to communicate, without talking, the assigned word or phrase within a limited period of time. Usually two or three minutes. The rest of the team tries to guess. No talking, no pointing at objects within the room (though you can point at someone on track for the correct answer), and only those hand signals agreed upon by the group (hand signals for a number of words and syllables are typical).

3. Each player should have at least one turn. (If you have uneven numbers, someone should do two turns.) The team with the best record of communicating in a given time wins.


Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Another game of many names. I have heard it called “Questions” or “Twenty Questions.”

Number of players: At least 4, but more is better.

Player ability requirements: The ability to read. I have played this game successfully with a group that included first and second-graders.

Materials: Scrap paper, at least 2 pencils

How to play:

1. Players divide into two teams. Each team comes up with a list of nouns: animal, vegetable, or mineral. There is no category for, say, abstract concepts like time or properties like heat. Also, no bacteria, fungi, slime mold, or other miscellaneous living things. And no things that are a blend, such as, say cotton-polyester shirts.

2. The team member with the most legible handwriting writes the cards for the other team.

3. Each player picks a card and announces whether it is an animal, vegetable, or mineral. Then teammates ask questions about each with a yes or no answer. After 20 questions, it is time to guess.

4. The team with the best record of identifying the noun wins.


Dictionary Game

When I was a kid, we used to play this game using a gigantic Oxford English Dictionary. These days, you can gorge on words online. Googling “Browse dictionary” is an excellent way to obtain an alphabetical list of random words, just like in an old paper book.

Number of players: At least 4, but more is better.

Player ability requirements: Probably best for late elementary schoolers and older.

Materials: Scrap paper and pencils for all

How to play:

1. Players take turns looking through the dictionary, selecting an interesting word that they expect no one to know, and reading it out to everyone.

2. The player who reads the word writes down the definition on paper. The other players come up with a plausible definition of the word and writes it down on a piece of paper. This is all done individually.

3. The word-reader then mixes up the actual and guessed definitions and reads them out in turn.

4. Players vote on what they think the actual definition is.

5. The more votes a definition gets, the more points go to the player who created it. Unless it’s the actual definition. Then nobody gets any points.


Store-bought games

The box for Sorry, a game for family game night


When my kids get together with my parents and siblings, there will be at least one family game night where we play Sorry. This simple board game has rules that don’t stretch anyone’s ability to concentrate. Children as young as four can easily grasp the rules for counting and moving pieces. However, they aren’t necessarily psychologically ready for the more cut-throat aspects of the game, in which players knock each others’ pieces off in pursuit of victory or languish in the “start” area, waiting in vain for the right card to come. My family loves it. If more than four people want to play, we join two or three boards together. It makes the games go on longer, but nobody minds.

We look forward to those moments when a player must choose whether to knock someone else’s piece off. Then, everyone around the board argues over the piece’s fate. Usually, talking at the same time. It gets loud.

Apples to Apples Junior

The age recommendation is 9, but I have had many great times playing this game with bright first-graders during our family game night. And the Junior game works well for all ages. The problem with playing the adult version of the game is that many of the cards refer to pop-culture figures, which not only leaves kids behind but can also mystify grandparents. If you play with an adult set, go through the cards beforehand and ditch the ones most likely to lose people.


This beautiful game, featuring playfully surreal art by Marie Cardouat, is excellent for multigenerational groups because play depends on what players see in pictures. When interpreting odd pictures, your background doesn’t matter so much. The game doesn’t require literacy, though it requires a certain amount of verbal vocabulary. The age recommendation for this is 8, but I have met 6-year-olds who are whizzes at it.


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About the Author

Fiona Cohen