Parlor Games
by Sarah Thurmond

Everything is working perfectly. The guests show up on time, the conversation is lively and intelligent, dinner is a hit, and everyone seems to be having a brilliant time. Then, as you remove the last dish from the table, you notice your once fabulous party is going cold. You feel your guests straining to come up with something to say. The seven-second lull seems more like 15 seconds. Your usually reliably funny friend, George, can only come up with, "Yep, yep, yep, yep." Before you know it, one of your guests is reaching for the remote control.

Don't panic. There is hope. There is…the parlor game. As corny and old-fashioned as it may seem to our sophisticated minds today, a parlor game is a great way to relieve pressure on a host and put everyone back in party mode. With a rousing contest of Blindman's Bluff, Charades, or Pass the Slipper, you don't have to worry about providing entertainment because the parlor game is a group effort. Everyone has to participate and make fools of themselves.

The parlor game became a popular pastime activity during Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), when industry began making life a little easier for the middle to upper classes of English society. Work once performed by human hands was starting to be done by machines so there was more time to pursue leisure activities, including reading and recreational sports such as tennis and bicycling. And there was more free time to socialize with friends and family.

In The 1900 House, a program that ran on PBS a few years ago, a modern-day family lived three months as a Victorian family. The Bowlers, for the most part, seemed miserable. There was no indoor plumbing, electricity, or television, and they had to make their own shampoo, which turned their hair into birds' nests. But there was an episode when the family participated in an old time leisure activity, with the children providing the evening's entertainment—a skit they created and performed. Magically, the family's weariness melted away because a) it was silly fun, and b) it wasn't that bad of a play. The children were proud that their work was so well received. Another benefit of the parlor game, it boosts self-esteem.

With the advent of radio, motion pictures, and television in the 20th century, people have become lax about their leisure time entertainment. Parlor games have fallen by the wayside.

The cousin of the parlor game, the board game, continues to have staying power because it requires no physical activity beyond the rolling of dice. (There are exceptions. The Victorians surely would categorize Pictionary, a game where one person has to stand up and draw pictures, as a parlor game.) People accustomed to sitting and letting something else entertain them have cast aside parlor games because not only would they have to get up and move their bodies, they would also have to be creative. Why bother when there's Netflix?

The last time I played a parlor game was at a dinner party several months ago. After the meal, when our group of six found ourselves exhausted of conversation topics, the party's host suggested a game of Charades. Rules were explained: "No speaking and no using real objects! If your team guesses correctly, touch the tip of your nose." We divided the group into boys and girls and decided to stick with movie, book, and song titles, and TV shows. A team scored a point if it guessed the title correctly within three minutes, which seems like enough time but isn't if the movie title you have to act out is Bubba Ho-Tep. Anyway, the girls kicked ass. We were on the same wavelength, guessing titles before clues were even given. One instance of our supremacy over the guys was when my friend gave us the clues that her phrase was a song that had four words. She then pretended to push an imaginary button on an imaginary wall and acted like she was waiting. "Love in an Elevator!" Easy, economical, a perfect way to act out a whole phrase without going into each word.

The cable channel AMC tried to create a buzz about Charades last June with Celebrity Charades, a game show of sorts produced by actors Bob Balaban, Hillary Swank, and Chad Lowe. It had celebrity guests playing for money that went to charity. I watched one episode and found it boring. First of all, they took it so seriously, probably because of the charity aspect of the show. Second, Charades is not a spectator sport. It begs for participation. It's no fun to sit and watch others play. Karaoke, another cousin of the parlor game, has the same effect. If someone offers you the mike, you know later that you'll regret not grabbing it.

A parlor game, such as Charades, is a great way to spend an evening with friends or family. The level of skill does not have to be high and the amount of physical activity is minimal. Our leisure time may revolve around TV and video game poker but our minds still appreciate some creative form of entertainment. It would be a shame if we were too old or too cool to not want to have some good old-fashioned fun.

So, the next time your party seems to be sliding into the annals of "Worst Parties Ever," suggest a parlor game. If anything, it will put some energy back in your guests. Let's get this parlor game started!


Blindman's Bluff: For those with politically correct friends, you can call it Visually-Challenged Man's Bluff. Best played at a big party in a big room. One person is blindfolded and everyone else scatters around the room. The "blind" man catches someone and then tries to guess who it is by touching the caught person's face, arms, shoulders, etc. (Get it? Like a blind man?) You can add variations to the game, like have everyone run out of the room and listen as the "blind" man bumps into furniture. (Make sure you remove any glass and other breakables.) Or, play it naked.

Suitable for: Affectionate folks. Not for the squeamish or uptight.
Skill level: Depends on how sensitive a player's hands are.
Physical exertion level: On a scale of one (easy) to ten (hard), about a seven.

Charades: Best played with no more than eight participants. Divide into two teams. Each team comes up with titles (usually of a song, album, book, movie, TV show, play, etc.) or people (historical or not, dead or alive). Each title is written on a scrap of paper, folded, and then put in bowls or hats, which the teams will draw from. Players take turns acting out the titles without speaking or using a physical object. Players can either act out the whole phrase (like my friend did with "Love in an Elevator") or go through each word. Click here for all the rules on how to play.

Suitable for: Spotlight seekers and those who don't embarrass easily.
Skill level: For actors, it's a breeze. For introverts, it might be tough.
Physical exertion level: You gotta move to win!

Pass the Slipper: This is as kindergarten as it gets. One person, the guesser, stands in the middle of the room and closes her eyes (or puts a blindfold on). No peeking. The others stand in a circle around the guesser. An object is selected and it gets passed around behind the players' backs. When the guesser opens her eyes (or takes off the blindfold), the passing stops. The non-guessing players should all look guilty. If the guesser guesses who has the object, she trades places with the object holder and the action resumes. This could segue into another parlor game, Twenty Questions! The guesser can ask only 20 questions to figure out what the object is. Animal or mineral? Bigger than a breadbox? You get the idea.

Suitable for: Everyone.
Skill level: Two if guessing who holds object. Ten if guessing object.
Physical exertion level: Um, there's standing.


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Parlor Games
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