Before the days of video games and movies, entertainment at parties consisted of games that guests could play in small groups, most often in the parlor of the host’s home.
Today, traditional party games continue to bring people together by enabling face-to-face interaction, rekindling family time that is often overtaken by technology and devices. While some popular games from centuries past have been lost to the annals of time, games like charades and word-play games (some of which have been converted to board games like Balderdash), along with card games like Old Maid or cue games like English Billiards have been repurposed with a modern twist.
Because most of these activities are played indoors, they are perfect for the cold weather season. When spending time with family and friends over the holidays, limit screen time by hosting a round or two of a traditional party game. Take inspiration from this list of classic activities, games, and Victorian parlor games to have some good old-fashioned fun this winter break.
The Victorian era was the heyday of parlor games in both Britain and the United States. Thanks to industrialization, Victorians found they had more free time for leisure than previous generations. As a way to enjoy the extra time, they played games which usually required little or no special equipment. As such, these parlor games were played by both the upper and lower classes.
Reverend Crawley’s Game
Like Twister without the board, Reverend Crawley’s Game is meant to mix up its players. The players stand in a circle and are hold hands with two people who are not standing immediately to their right or left. When everyone has done so, the players are challenged to untangle the web of intertwined people, bending around, crawling under, and squeezing between one another.
Are You There Moriarty?
Are You There Moriarty? is a dueling game where players are blindfolded and given rolled up newspaper or cushions. After receiving their “weapon” they must hold hands and take turns asking, “Are you there Moriarty?” to which the other player must respond yes, revealing the location of their head. Their opponent should then attempt to whack them with their cushion as they try to dodge the blows. The first player to be struck on the head is out of the game.
Still popular at parties today, Charades was a favorite of the upper class during the Victorian period and was mentioned by famous authors of the time, including Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. For this game, players are divided into two teams. Phrases or words are written down on pieces of paper to be acted out without speaking. Members of each team take turns choosing a word or phrase, while the other team members try to guess what they are acting out within a set amount of time. The team to guess the most phrases correctly wins the game.
Board games first became popular during the early 1800s. Unlike parlor games, which were played by everyone, board games were originally reserved for the upper classes. Because these were favored by the wealthy, antique versions of the game boards still in existence today are beautifully crafted pieces by dedicated craftsmen and carpenters.
Combination tables accommodated more than one game, frequently featuring a chess board and an area covered in soft leather for dice or playing card games. These tables can be dedicated to games or used as everyday furniture, and are highly sought-after by today’s collectors. Many were designed to fold into themselves for transport, and were usually made from hardwoods like rose, walnut, maple, hawthorn, or cherry. The tables often utilize fine marquetry designs to create precise board designs.
Thought to have originated in Persia, backgammon is one of the oldest board games in history. A backgammon set is made up of a board with 24 long triangles, two sets of playing pieces (often called checkers or draughts), two pairs of dice, dice cups, and a doubling cube. Meant for two players at a time, each player receives 15 playing pieces which are moved between the 24 triangles (or points) on the board, according to the roll of two dice. The object of the game is to be the first to move all 15 playing pieces off the board. A mix of both strategy and luck, backgammon players are at the mercy of their dice roll, but also need to choose the best moves for their pieces while anticipating which moves the other player may make.
The game known as Checkers is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. Internationally known as “Draughts,” the modern version of Checkers first appeared in books starting at around the year 1500. Played by two players, Checkers consists of a board with 64 squares, alternating between light and dark colors (often red and black). Each player receives 12 colored disks that correspond with the colors of the board. Players place their discs on the squares closest to themselves and alternate turns, with black going first. The object of the game is to either capture all of one’s opponents pieces, or get to the point where one’s opponent is unable to make a move, therefore ending the game.
Thought to have originated in India, Chess was likely invented before the 7th century, but the current rules were created in the 1800s. Similar to Checkers, Chess is played on a square board made up of 64 squares alternating dark and light colors. Unlike checkers, in which each player receives a set of colored disks, each Chess player begins with 16 black or white pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and eight pawns. Each type of piece is governed by different rules for moving, with the queen being most important and the pawn being the least. The goal of the game is to capture your opponent’s king in what is called a checkmate. To do this, each player attacks and captures their opponent’s pieces until the king isn’t able to move. A game of strategy, Chess is highly competitive and is even recognized as a sport by some organizations.
Card games have been played in Eastern countries like China and India for thousands of years, but many that are played today in the UK and U.S. are inspired by games that originated in Europe in the 14th century. At that time, the four suits (diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs) were developed. Later, in the 15th century, the French mastered printing with a stencil technique which enabled mass production of card decks.
Playing cards have become popular collector’s items; antique decks are hand painted with imagery that provides unique insight into the socio political atmosphere. The reproducibility of cards today means that most decks are commonplace, but contemporary limited edition sets are sought after, as well. To play most card games, a deck of 52 cards – either vintage or current – is all that is required.
Old Maid (or Scabby Queen)
Often called Scabby Queen in Britain, Old Maid is a Victorian card game meant for two or more players. While some card decks are made specifically for the game, a normal 52-card deck can be used as well. If using a regular deck, one card is removed (generally the queen of clubs) so that there is one unmatched set in the deck. The card without a match becomes the “Old Maid.” To play, the dealer deals out all cards to the players. Players discard any pairs in their hand, and then take turns offering their hand face down to the player to their left. That player selects a card and checks to see if it makes a pair with any of the cards in their existing hand (and if so, places it face up in front of them). Players continue to take cards and discard their pairs until no more pairs can be made. At that point, the player holding the “Old Maid” loses the game.
Go Fish, which was often referred to as “Happy Families” in the Victorian era, is a card game meant for two to five players. Five cards are dealt to each player and then the remaining cards are spread out in a pile on the floor or table. When it is a player’s turn, they can ask another player for their cards of a particular rank (suits are not important). If the player who is addressed does not have any cards of that rank, they instruct the requesting player to “Go Fish,” and the player who made the request draws a card from the pool and places it in their hand. If the player receives cards of the rank they request, they can continue requesting cards until they do not receive the card they ask for. If the player does not receive the card they asked for, their turn is over. The game ends when all thirteen ranks of cards have been completed. The winner is the player with the most complete sets in front of them at the end of the game.
Cue games like billiards, snooker, and pool have roots dating back to Cleopatra’s Egypt and are thought to be loosely related to outdoor games including croquet and bocce. The game, which lost popularity for some decades, recently experienced a revival thanks to the Hollywood actor Paul Newman, whose films “The Hustler” and “the Color of Money” gave billiards an air of “cool.”
Cue games require a variety of collectible equipment including cues, scoring boards, balls, and light fixtures.
English Billiards is a game where a cue stick is used to strike billiard balls placed on a cloth-covered table. The game requires two cue balls and one object ball. Rectangular in shape, there are many types of billiards tables, but most are covered by green or blue felt, which is surrounded by bumpers and contains six pockets (three on each side of the table). Originally called the “Winning and Losing Carambole Game,” points are scored either by pocketing balls or by caroms, in which a player strikes both the object ball and their opponent’s cue ball with the same shot. A player wins the game either when they score the most points within a certain period of time or score a fixed number of points total.
Snooker, which is closely related to billiards and pool, is another cue sport that dates back to the mid-19th century. Often played in India by members of the British Army, the game later became popular in England, where the World Snooker Championship was established in 1927. The game requires a cue and colored balls, including one white cue ball, 15 red balls, and six balls of different colors. All of the different colored balls are worth a certain amount of points. The object of the game is to pocket the colored balls in a certain sequence, with players receiving points for each time a ball is pocketed. The game is won by the players who accumulates the most points.