Believe it or not, we’ve entered the holiday season. Though family gatherings will likely be different this year, we’re bringing you some practical advice for socializing through games because that’s what we do best.
Purely hypothetical: say you’re at a family gathering and you don’t want to participate in a conversation, whether because it’s boring or annoying or because you’ve already fought ten battles and you’re trying to pick them more carefully. What game are you playing to keep your mind off it and why?
Melissa Brinks: In past years, I would have said Twitter, which is sort of like a game in which you avoid having all your serotonin depleted by only looking at good art or animal videos, but I’ve given all that up in favor of utter garbage games. Currently I’m rotating through about five of them, which is a “pro strat” because they are all utterly suffused with ads—when one goes into ad mode, you simply exit and go onto the next until the previous one is playable again.
Of the ones that I have on my phone currently, Nonogram.com (that is the title of the app, “.com” is really there) is probably the best for occupying my attention. It reminds me a bit of Sudoku because it has a grid and some numbers, but it’s way easier, so unlike Sudoku I do not hate it. You’re given a 10×10 grid, with each column and row featuring one or more numbers. These numbers represent the number of boxes you must fill in correctly, using the process of elimination by completing other rows. In the end, you’re rewarded with a very simple pixel art of whatever it is you just “drew” by filling in the boxes.
This game is perfect for me because while I don’t want to participate in, say, my family’s gossip hour about the neighbors, I do very much love hearing juicy gossip and Nonogram.com is the perfect amount of engrossing to let me tune in and out as I like. It also has the added benefit of containing numbers, so if someone makes a snide remark about “these millennials with their phones,” I can simply lie through my teeth and say that I am doing brain exercises or something equally impressive (I do not actually do this, my family is wonderful and I love and miss them very much).
Maddi Butler: I sometimes wish One Piece Bon! Bon! Journey!! kept track of how long I’ve played it, because I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours on it since it was released in the U.S. in April. In my defense, though, it’s really good for a free match-3 game, requiring a lot more move planning than, say, Candy Crush. (And it was also a long way to the top 1%—gotta maintain that ranking!) For me it’s the perfect mix of strategy and mindlessness, an easy way to distract myself when I’m bored or anxious. Fortunately, though, my family gatherings tend to be pretty chill, so I don’t much anticipate having to whip out Bon! Bon! Journey!!
Naseem Jamnia: For the first time, I actually think my holidays will be pretty chill. Two of my grandparents passed away this year, and some family drama (and COVID) means I’m probably not seeing anyone from my limited extended family. Plus, this is the longest I’ve gone without seeing my parents and brother, so I actually anticipate having a nice visit when I see them in December. (I’m driving, and they’ve been very strict with social distancing/masks/etc!) Still, it’s pretty inevitable that I’ll hit my family limit and do whatever I can to distract myself. If I’m not bringing my Switch—maybe I’ll start my third Fire Emblem: Three Houses playthrough—then I’ll probably download old otome games I haven’t played in a while, like Midnight Cinderella or Love & Magic in Wonderland (yes, they are as cheesy and heterosexual as they sound). But for sustained distraction, maybe I’ll go back to one of the word games, like Wordscapes—my mom got super into it a few years ago, so she might not be too annoyed.
Zainabb Hull: I consider myself lucky for now being able to limit and control family time—I no longer ever have to be around the most toxic members of my family, and we don’t do family gatherings anyway. But I would turn to either Animal Crossing, which I find super soothing, or a puzzle game like those mentioned. I think puzzle games force us to concentrate on them which can be a great distraction tactic—and, depending on the specific dynamics with those around you, could even be used to distract others from whatever they’re currently spouting off about. My ideal would be something like Professor Layton or Sherlock Holmes, where there’s a narrative to follow alongside the puzzles themselves.
As a child with no say in attending family gatherings, I would often look to multiplayer games to cocoon myself and my brother away from the drama and conflict around us. We played a lot of empty offline multiplayer on Splinter Cell, ate the co-op comfort food of The Sims on PS2, and immersed ourselves in the incredible soundtrack of Sonic Heroes. When we couldn’t play actual multiplayer games (usually if I felt too drained), we’d just watch each other playing single player games and try to focus on the virtual world in front of us instead of our real one.
The kids are getting antsy. Your grandparents look as if they’re nodding off. What game do you pull out to make things more lively for everyone?
Melissa: I have two go-tos: Love Letter and One Night Ultimate Werewolf. They’re both easy to play, can be over quickly, and are lots of fun with very little prep work. The app version of Werewolf is especially helpful, and being able to change the music always gets my family laughing. Playing Werewolf with my grandpa is my favorite because he just refuses to answer any question at all regardless of what his role is, which is a fun extra level of chaos to an already chaotic game. Someday I’d like to do a family-wide Jackbox game but the truth is that many of my family members still use flip phones or Blackberry devices and I just don’t know how to make it work.
Maddi: Sushi Go! is wonderful because it’s straightforward to play and pretty simple to teach, which makes it great for players of all ages. A couple of years ago we tried The Oregon Trail card game, but it was definitely a steeper learning curve.
I think Jackbox would be difficult for me too—I could make the technology work, but there’s a generational divide between what I find funny and what my older family members find funny. I can’t see them laughing at meme-worthy shirts in Tee K.O. or the weird, often nihilistic humor that Quiplash tends to draw out.
Naseem: Honestly, we don’t play a lot of games in my family (and there’s only one card game my husband’s family plays), so I was curious to see what others would write. Definitely agree with these game suggestions, and also the thoughts on Jackbox games. Carcassonne is also a really easy to pick up and should be fun for everyone—it’s a simple tile-placement game, and for anyone who likes games where you fit shapes into available spaces, I cannot recommend Cartographers enough.
Re: my husband’s family card game—it’s called Telefunken and is apparently a Latin American variation on rummy. What I like about it is it gets people in the competitive spirit but is really easy to play. My husband’s family plays the Bolivian version, though we have so many decks mixed up that we definitely start with something closer to ten decks rather than two. If nothing else, it’s easy to pick up a multipack of cards from your local neighborhood Walgreens and get started.
Sara Davis: All you have to do in my family to wake everyone up is mention Death Scattergories, even though we only played it once many years ago. Scattergories is a pretty accessible family game; it’s low-tech, has few rules, and is generationally inclusive. But one year during an absolutely grueling drive from Memphis to Pittsburgh through an Ohio snowstorm, my brother and I decided to raise the stakes using our Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. If you won a round, you got to eat a jelly bean of your choosing. If you lost, you had to eat one of the disgusting ones. We started off with dirt and grass and escalated to earwax and vomit. Chaos ensued.
Zainabb: Yes, Sushi Go! I love that little game. As someone who gets nervous around too much competition, my go-tos are either party games (which don’t involve deception) like Sushi Go!, or cooperative games like Pandemic, which doesn’t take too long to play and is easy to get to grips with. I also enjoy short and simple storytelling games like Gloom but I’ve found that people can get more anxious about storytelling games if they’re not used to them, so it depends on the crowd.
You know you’re going to spend time with your little cousin. What games do you have on your phone so when they inevitably ask, “Do you have games on your phone?” you can answer “yes”?
Melissa: I asked this question, but truth be told, I have no young cousins and have no idea what “the kids” are into these days. I would not trust a kid with the games on my phone because they are all jam-packed with ads, and honestly, it’s a wonder my phone isn’t broken or hacked with some of the garbage I’ve downloaded—a child may not have my “discerning taste.” I think kids like Roblox? Maybe I would download that in advance.
Maddi: I tend to download phone games and forget about them, but I can’t see my cousins enjoying Bon! Bon! Journey!! or SINoALICE. My family is very small, so I only have two young cousins on my mom’s side. However, I blatantly admit I still want to impress them, so I’ve just started bringing my Nintendo Switch to family gatherings. They like Mario Kart and Mario Party. Actually, even my older relatives enjoy these games as well.
Naseem: My phone games range from kid-friendly and -accessible games like 1010!, which is basically a stationary Tetris, and Merge Dragons!, a match-3 game, to Mystic Messenger and The Arcana, which absolutely should not be played by a little cousin. (The latter might actually be fine for a tween, although the version on my phone specifically has already unlocked the “steamier” content.) Fortunately, like Missy, I also don’t have to worry about a little cousin flipping through my otome games.
Sara: In the past I’ve offered to scroll through photos instead; I usually keep a folder of cats and weird nature things for this reason. But one year my then-toddler nephew noticed that I had Dragon Age: Heroes installed. I let him start up a game—what wouldn’t I let him do?—and left him to it. After a while he handed the phone back and asked “What does this say?”
“Uh… ‘Victory!'” I read.
He’s welcome to bump up my game score anytime. I think I have The Room: Old Sins on my phone now; if I was able to see him this year, that’d be a fun one to visit together. He’s old enough now to love its steampunk spookiness.
Zainabb: Like Maddi, I would be fobbing kids off onto a metaphorical Switch (I think I would be too nervous to give my own Switch Lite to a child, I’M SORRY but this is one of many reasons why I have no interest in being a caregiver). I currently have Elder Scrolls: Blades installed which seems like the closest thing to Fortnite-style gaming in my library. It’s easy to pick up for a few missions, fight some bad guys, and repeat.
I don’t really use my phone to play games but I do have a puzzle game called Hue installed, which is pretty and relaxing. I would also grab Alto’s Adventure and its sequel, because those are the types of games I would have wanted to play on someone’s phone when I was a kiddo.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.