Party games are loosely defined as light games for larger groups that encourage social interaction. This is a broad category and it’s easy to see how many different types of games could be described like this – but the mere mention of a ‘party game’ is enough to send some people running out of the room or cowering in a corner. Why?

Early party games are probably mostly to blame. Many of the first party games emerged from traditional parlour games like Charades and The Dictionary Game. These games required players to be clever or funny, or both. The player can feel under pressure to perform in some way, which for some causes anxiety and stress. 

Some party games put one player in the spotlight, while everyone else watches them draw, speak or try to figure something out. The feeling of all eyes being on you, can make your mind go completely blank, trigger a hot flush or leave you wishing the floor would swallow you up. To be clear, it’s not always the actual game activities that are the problem, it’s more that everyone is watching. Some players that hate these games may actually enjoy all those activities if only they were not under such close scrutiny.

Over the last few years there’s been a big reaction to these problems, with many publishers shying away from games that require ‘user-generated content’ and games that put players on the spot. This has been generally welcomed and it’s certainly less likely that a modern party game will leave players upset or embarrassed. But it’s causing a different issue…

A lot of recent party games actually feel pretty similar. Party games almost invariably include a deck of cards with words or phrases on and often use simultaneous voting or player as judge to determine the winner of a round – and players are getting bored of it. We may have eliminated the lows, but have we also eliminated the highs? Is everything getting a bit ‘meh’?

It’s worth noting that social deduction games often fit within our description of party games as light games for larger groups that encourage social interaction. There are certainly social deduction games that don’t feel light, so in the world of Venn diagrams, it’s more of a largely overlapping intersection than a distinct subset.

Social deduction games usually give players hidden roles which they keep secret. While interacting with a scenario, players are trying to figure out what roles the other players are playing. Each player’s role affects how they interact, and how trustworthy they are. These games are often characterised by lying, bluffing, persuasion and negotiation. And herein lies another reason why some players steer clear of party games – lying, bluffing, persuasion and negotiation are not mechanics that are universally enjoyed.

There are some absolutely terrific and very well-loved party games out there – some new, some older. I’m not for a minute suggesting otherwise. But we are dealing with historical player embarrassment and anxiety, current boredom with voting systems and negative attitudes to social deduction by some players. My point is that there are some players that visibly blanche or suddenly discover something urgent that needs to be done the moment the idea of playing a party game is floated. It’s these people that I’m interested in. Of course, some of them may not enjoy 1) any light games, 2) any game with larger groups, or 3) any game that includes social interaction. But there are others… and these players are perhaps falling through the cracks. 

I think we’re at an interesting point. It feels like we need to move in new directions. I’d love to see some more innovation around party games. Here are four party game challenges for designers out there:

  • Can you create a party game that does not use a set of cards with words or phrases on? (My favourite example is A game about Wee Whimsical Creatures and trying to identify them after someone makes noises, by Bez Shahriari). 
  • Can you create a light social deduction where no player has to lie? (I’ve got a completely silent social deduction game that hits this brief. Video here.  Any publishers who are interested, do get in touch.) 
  • Can you create a party game where players are perhaps doing potentially embarrassing things (making funny noises, doing silly actions, singing, acting) but where players’ attention is never on a single person? (My game Bangarang, with Ginger Fox falls into this category.
  • Create a light game for up to 8 players where social interaction is key, but the predominant mechanic is area control or tile placement (writing this gave me a super-cool idea that I need to work on right now!)

Perhaps we need better sub-categories for party games, so that we can work out which ones we’re likely to enjoy and which we should steer clear of. After all, when you get an invitation to an actual party, you want to know what kind of party it is before you accept. Nothing would convince me to attend a cocktail party (well – almost nothing – if it was exclusively attended by board game designers, I might be tempted), but I’d clear my diary for a musical-theatre sing-a-long party and I’d be up for a pamper party, with the right company. What sub-categories of party games would you invent? 

I’d love to hear your views about party games. Which party games have you played that coax even party game haters to the table? And what are your personal favourites? If you’ve got an exciting new party game that’s doing something a bit different, I’d love to see it.