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How to Have a Socially Distanced Game Night This Holiday Season

A game of Boggle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Hasbro Gaming.

In search of the perfect gift? Read more of Slate’s holiday gift guides here.

As we reach the end of a difficult year, many of us are realizing just how many of our annual holiday rituals involve gathering with friends and family in close quarters. We pile onto a couch to watch a football game. We crowd around a buffet table to snack and chat. We hunch over jigsaw puzzles. Right now, none of these activities are recommended, if you intend to spend time with people from outside your household.

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Games, however, are still an option! If you’re planning some socially distanced get-togethers this December, there are plenty of classic games and newer games that adapt well to any situation, whether you’re having a relative over to exchange gifts on your patio or congregating online. Here are six fine examples—in different genres—of games you can play in a variety of circumstances, to have some fun and make good holiday memories.

Qwixx

This popular modern dice game is in the “roll and write” category of games—meaning that the players each have their own score pads, which they mark up after someone rolls a set of dice. This general concept is easily adaptable to distanced gaming, whether you’re sitting 12 feet apart outside or you’re on a video chat. There’s no need to huddle over the table or even to pass the dice. Just designate someone to be the roller and have that person share a cellphone snapshot (or describe the dice out loud).

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Yahtzee is the best-known example of a roll-and-write game, and it would also work just fine following the above protocols. But it’s a little boring. A single Yahtzee game with a lot of players can take a long time to complete—and a good deal of that time is spent watching other people take their turns. Each Qwixx game goes much more quickly, sometimes lasting as little as five or 10 minutes. And because every player has the option to score points on every roll, everyone can stay engaged.

If you’re playing virtually, you can search for score sheets online and print them out. (There’s a Qwixx app, too, which includes a digital score pad and even digital dice, for those who don’t want to buy the physical game.) If you enjoy Qwixx and want something even more challenging, try the more recent roll-and-write game That’s Pretty Clever, which was a finalist for the prestigious German tabletop gaming award the Spiel des Jahres in 2018.

Boggle

Boggle is also kind of a dice game, in that it involves cubes that players shake up to generate a random assortment of values. The difference is that the cubes feature letters instead of numbers, and the dice are shaken in a plastic tray to form a grid that the players then use to make words. As with the roll-and-write games above, the primary equipment here only needs to be in the hands of one person, who can share a picture of the tray after shaking it up.

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You can also play virtually via plenty of websites that generate Boggle-style letter grids, plus an official Boggle app that can do the same. No matter how you choose to play, Boggle is one of the better options for multigenerational gaming. Having a big vocabulary can certainly help someone win the game, but younger kids can still have fun picking out short, simple words.

Pictionary

It’ll take a little more imagination and preparation to make this drawing game work at a socially distanced gathering, but if you’re willing to invest in a giant pad of paper and an easel, you can play Pictionary without requiring all the players to bunch together as a teammate hurriedly sketches onto a tiny sheet of paper.

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Or, if you want to try something a little wackier, Pictionary Air is a newer version of the game, where players draw in the air with a digital pen, while their art appears on the screen of a mobile phone or tablet.

There are several online knockoffs of Pictionary, too, which can be played by friends in far-flung locations. (The most popular of these is probably Skribbl.) It’s also possible to play the original game via Zoom, using the “whiteboard” function that lets users share real-time drawings with everyone in the session.

Taboo

As with Pictionary, there’s very little about the word-guessing game Taboo that demands players cluster together in the same space. Since one person is trying to get teammates to guess a word printed at the top of a card—while not using the “taboo” words printed below it—friends and family can play without being huddled in groups. The only real complication that the game requires is for someone to monitor the cards to make sure no one utters one of the forbidden words. Here again is where a cellphone camera comes in handy. Snap some pictures of the cards, text them to whomever is judging the round, start the timer, and let the frenzied shouting begin.

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Taboo works better for in-person play, but with enough preparation it is also viable for a virtual setting. (One idea is to designate someone as a nonplaying “keeper of the cards,” handling all of the logistical challenges while everyone else competes.) There are also unauthorized online versions of Taboo, easy to find via Google. Just maybe include the word “game” somewhere in your search. “Taboo online” might generate some pretty gnarly results.

Among Us

If you’ve ever enjoyed a “social deduction” party game like Mafia or Secret Hitler, the odds are you’ll like Among Us, a mystery-adventure game that’s become something of a phenomenon this year, as people have been looking for new ways to interact with one another online. Accessed via an app, Among Us is set aboard a spaceship, where some players work together to complete simple tasks, while others have been secretly assigned to try to kill their competitors and sabotage the mission. Periodically, competitors can pause the game to discuss who among them might be the “impostors,” before choosing to vote someone off the team. To win, the real players need to identify and exile all the fakers.

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The cute graphics and the frenzied pace of play are partly responsible for this game’s success. But the real appeal of Among Us is the deliberating, which can involve reckless accusations and hilarious lying. Are players doing poorly at their jobs around the ship because they’re just bad at the game? Or are they aligned with the saboteurs? As everyone makes their own case, the good-natured arguing can provoke a lot of hysterical laughter.

Heads Up!

Heads Up! is another word-guessing game, but with a twist: The guessers have the answers pressed against their foreheads, facing outward, while the crowd shouts out clues, sings songs, does pantomime … anything to get the people with the words on their heads to say the right thing. Heads Up! is available via an app, which comes with a few word packs and the option to buy more. It’s best suited to in-person play and is a fast-paced and high-energy variation on the classic family game Hedbanz. (Hedbanz features the words on physical cards, which are inserted into plastic headbands.)

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Hedbanz is an OK option too for in-person play—especially if younger kids want to join in. But it only has about 70 words for gameplay, which can be limiting. Both games encourage the kind of silliness that players will talk about with one another in the years to come, long after this pandemic has passed.

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