Every parent knows the feeling: As your kids grow up, your house starts to seem a little bit emptier. In our case, the transformation was sudden: Philip, Susan, Anne, Claire, Sally, Herman, 24 of our good friends in all—gone the day we gave away our copy of the beloved children’s game Guess Who? to younger relatives.
I can’t even estimate how much time I spent looking into those characters’ smiling faces, searching for the characteristics that set them apart from their peers: blond hair? A hat? Earrings? From ages 3–6 or so, my kids loved Guess Who?, and I loved playing it with them. It’s hard to make a game that adults love to play with kids, as I well know from my lucrative career as the designer of America’s favorite family card game, Ace of Hates. But Guess Who? really pulls it off. In Slate’s 40 Best Family Games, Noel Murray enumerates his Five Commandments for fun family games, but when your kids are kindergarten-aged, there are only Two:
1. It needs to go fast.
2. It needs to be not Candy Land.
Guess Who? fulfills both requirements with flying colors. A game takes 10 minutes max, which neatly matches both the attention span of a 5-year-old and the amount of time an adult wants to play a game meant for 5-year-olds. And amid the cheery, multiethnic faces of Guess Who?, there’s nary a Princess Lolly to be seen.
But my affection for Guess Who? had more to it than simple gratitude that the game wasn’t as bad as other games for little kids. It was my daughters’ first board game, and I loved seeing them puzzle their way through each round’s logic problem, as they asked me questions meant to winnow the roster down from 24 faces to the one mystery person I’d selected. I loved the matter-of-factness with which the game presented faces of all colors and ages, encouraging my children to observe and think about the differences between people—a useful counter to the lesson white culture so often taught them, that talking about race or ethnicity was dangerous or forbidden. (Our edition of the game, like the one a 6-year-old famously wrote to Hasbro about in 2012, was not great on gender, but the current edition splits men and women more equally.) And I loved the time I couldn’t guess the person my daughter had selected because she declared that Jay had a ponytail. “You can’t see it on the card,” she said, “but I know it’s there.”
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Her imagination points to another way to play the game, one suggested to me by my colleague Henry Grabar: Ignore physical characteristics entirely, and instead ask searching questions about the rich inner lives of these grinning cartoons. “Does he cry during movies on airplanes?” “Did she just eat a huge cheeseburger?” The fun then comes not from competition but from cooperation, creating a mind-meld with the person across the table and coming to a tacit agreement as to which of the Guess Whos, say, works in insurance but dreams of opening a B&B in Asheville.
That was more advanced than we ever got with our kids. But these days when my daughter plays Guess Who? with her cousin, sitting down to a game that now must seem to her awfully basic, she learns a little bit about the responsibilities of big people toward the small people in their lives. I’m just happy to see her reunited with old friends. “I remember these guys,” she said the last time her cousins broke the game out. “I played this when I was your age.”