15 joyful games to beat back boredom

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Games are a simple way to bring play into your days! This list of 15 games from The Aesthetics of Joy provides inspiration for couples, families, and your next gathering.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love games. Candyland was an early favorite, which, being as I was an only child, my poor dad got roped into playing with me constantly. Then games like Pictionary, Operation, Twister, and mancala, this last one irresistible with the clanking of its colored stones. One day my dad brought home Scattergories, which was fun until it resulted in my best friend and I getting in an epic fight, one so big I never touched the game again.

I suppose one or both of us might be a touch competitive. But give us a deck of cards and we could make an entire rainy afternoon disappear. If Slapjack or War was the order of the day, her younger sister was banished or relegated to an observer’s role. If Hearts or Rummy was the game, she was called back and begged into service.

In college, drinking games became the thing, but after, I found my single adult life to be sorely lacking in games. A good date might progress from drinks to a round of pool or ping pong, or even better, a bar with a stash of well-worn classics like Battleship or Trivial Pursuit. But games weren’t the kind of regular feature that they had been throughout my childhood and teen years.

And then one day, after I’d been married a couple of years, we decided to banish TV from our weekends — and games started showing up in the mail. Two-player games are surprisingly hard to find, and Albert had combed the internet looking for ones to inspire us. When nieces and friends with kids visited, more fun games arrived, and suddenly we had the beginnings of a real games closet.

Why do games bring so much joy? Games offer an escape from the real world, with different rules and parameters that give us a break from the constraints of everyday life. They provide a conduit to play, opening up a portal to fantasy and imagination, to connection and interaction, or simply to a different way of thinking. Like all forms of play, games pull us into the present. They’re designed to be absorbing, and it’s hard to worry about other things when you’re strategizing about how to take over your opponent’s fortress or come up with the most words before the clock runs out. One of the reasons I think games are especially powerful is that they make play accessible even for people who don’t feel comfortable playing in other areas of life. Because games define a clear space apart from everyday life, we can feel free to let our guard down and be a little bit more playful, knowing that the stakes are lower here because “it’s only a game.”

Games also provide a way to connect with others that is similarly removed from the mechanics of everyday life. If you find that your interactions with family or friends have become weighed down by domestic quibbles or other tensions, games are a wonderful reset to clear the air and lighten the atmosphere.

So I thought I’d share a peek into our favorites, as well as some classics that I find to be just as enjoyable as they were when I was a kid. I’ve skipped complex strategy games (like Settlers of Catan) in favor of games that are either a bit more visual or more straightforward. These are accessible to a wide range of ages, but still fun for adults!

Games for two players

Patchwork

For players aged 8 and up
In this game, players take turns piecing together a quilt out of oddly shaped (Tetris-like) pieces. Pieces are purchased with buttons, a currency that can be earned through the course of gameplay. What I love about this game is the puzzle-like quality of fitting the pieces together, as well as smart scoring system that allows for different strategies for winning.

Jaipur

For players 12 and up
Jaipur is a card-based game that puts you in the position of being a trader at the market in the capital city of Rajasthan. Your goal is to sell your gold, silver, leather, silk, and other goods for the best prices. The more you have, the better the price you can command, but wait too long and you risk a competitor swooping in to get the highest price. The game’s wild card element is the herd of camels each trader keeps, which make trading much more fun and unpredictable.

Jaipur is made for two players, but can be played with three as well. The manufacturer says it’s for ages 12 and up but thinking about the 9-10 year olds I know, I think they could definitely have fun with it. It’s another game with diverse paths to winning, which makes it fun to play again and again, even with just adults.

Azul

For players 8 and up
This game, inspired by the tiled walls of Portugal, brings a splash of color and pattern to your game night. Tiles are grouped into clusters at random, and players take turns choosing groups of tiles to add to their boards. There’s a bit of strategy in this, in that you want the right number of each kind of tile for your wall, but not extra, which can count against you. And your opponent might want the same tiles as you, so you have to make in-the-moment decisions about which ones to choose. The strategy of this game gives your brain a workout, but for me the best part is how visually stunning it is!

Mastermind

For players 8 and up
An oldie but a goodie, Mastermind asks you to make a “code” out of four colored pegs which are hidden from your opponent. Your opponent then tries to guess your combination, which you give feedback on by indicating how many pegs are the correct color, and how many in the correct position. I love that even in the simplicity of this game, there are some good strategic challenges. And it is great for teaching kids that even when you feel like you have very little information, you can start to form educated guesses and work your way to an answer.

Games for families and friends

Apples to Apples

Main edition labeled for 12 and up, Junior edition 9 and up
I know so many people who love this game, and with good reason. There’s a junior version that’s accessible to kids (as long as they’re able to read comfortably and have a decent range of words in their vocabulary), while the main version often gets pulled out among adults at parties. Everyone gets dealt a handful of red cards, each with the name of a person, place, or thing on it. Then players take turns choosing a green card (with an adjective on it) that sets the tone for the round. So let’s say it’s my turn and I draw the adjective “fun.” All other players now have to look at their red cards and decide which one they think I would find the most fun. Once all players have anonymously submitted their cards, I rank them in order, and points are awarded.

The brilliance of the game occurs in the intersection between the randomness of the cards you happen to have in your hand and how much you know about your fellow players. Quirky likes and dislikes are on full display here, and half of the joy is arguing after your turn, “Oh come on, haunted houses are FUN!” “Sure, but not as fun as musicals!” This one is best in a group.

Bananagrams

For ages 7 and up
Bananagrams is kind of like a fast-moving, free-form Scrabble, where you have a set number of letter tiles and you have to make as many words with them as quickly as you possibly can. The twist in Bananagrams is that when you run out of letters, you have to draw a mystery letter from the “bunch” — but every time you draw a letter, everyone else needs to as well!

The language of this game is very joyful. You yell “Split!” to start the game, “Peel” when you need another letter, and “Bananas!” when you’ve used all your tiles. It’s fast-paced so it’s easy to fit in a ten-minute round while waiting for dinner or between other activities. And it’s also incredibly portable, which makes it great for a picnic or other outdoor excursion.

Sushi Go

For ages 8 and up
This is definitely the cutest game on the list. Though it’s rated 8 and up, I’ve played with kids as young as 6 and it’s been fun, though they might need help from a teammate. Sushi Go is a card based game, where you are building your own bento box with different kinds of sushi rolls, appetizers, and condiments. The basic flow of the game is that everyone gets dealt a set of cards. From those cards, each player chooses one to keep, and passes the rest to the player on their left. This continues, with everyone building their best possible bento from the cards on offer.

What makes this game fun is that there are all kinds of cards that have special features, like the wasabi card (which makes your next card worth triple points) or the chopsticks card, which lets you take two cards instead of one. Not only that, but there are different kinds of sushi cards with different behaviors and point values that can be swapped into the “menu.” This changes up the whole game, meaning there are lots of different variations you can play to keep it surprising.

Jenga

For ages 6 and up
Jenga is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s so simple, but so fun to set up a tower and try to keep building it higher and higher, as each piece moved makes it more and more unstable. As one of the few non-verbal games here, it’s great for kids and helps with fine motor coordination. At the same time, I know my friends were not the only college students to turn it into a drinking game (write a question on each piece; everyone who answers yes has to drink), though this eventually makes keeping the tower balanced more challenging!

Sunnylife makes a colorful version of this game, which is extra joyful.

Spot it!

For ages 6 and up
Spot it! is a super-simple game consisting of a stack of circular cards. Each card has lots of colorful images and symbols on it, and between every pair of cards in the deck, there is exactly one matching element.

There are several ways to play, but the easiest is to put the stack of cards in the center of the table face-up, and deal one card to each player which sits face-up in front of them. Players look at their card and the central card to find a matching element. When they see one, they call it out, and then get to put that card on the top of their stack in front of them. Play continues until all the cards are gone. The game is fast-paced, exciting, and extremely accessible even to younger kids. (I’ve played with kids as young as 5.)

Tenzi

For ages 7 and up
Albert and I discovered Tenzi last summer at one of those hardware-meets-toy stores that seems to exist in just about every New England beach town. It’s a dice game where each player has ten dice, with the goal being to get the same number showing on all ten dice. It’s fast — each round might take a minute or less — and incredibly straightforward, but bizarrely addicting. We found it a great vacation game to play when we had a few minutes to kill between things.

There’s not much to this game, but the creators have produced a card set with 77 different variations to keep it interesting. Though it says for ages 7 and up, honestly I think it will work for younger kids. Players just need to be evenly matched in terms of dexterity to be able to scoop up the dice with the wrong numbers and quickly roll until all the numbers match.

For parties

Some of the games I’ve already mentioned, such as Apples to Apples and Jenga, work well for parties. And these games below can work in families, but are even better with a group of adults

Celebrity

Everyone present gets 7-10 small slips of paper on which to write the names of celebrities, one per piece. It’s more fun when you go for well-known names, so don’t get too obscure. Celebrities can alive or dead, but no fictional characters. Fold all the names (no peeking) and place them into a bowl.

Divide the group into two teams of about 3 to 6 players per team. One player from the first team stands up and has one minute to pull one slip at a time and describe the celebrity named on the piece of paper while their team guesses. You can’t say their name, but you can say almost anything else to explain who they are. If you don’t know the name, or your team gets stuck, you can pass (and the name goes back in the bowl), but you lose one point per pass.

When all slips have been done, the names get put back in the bowl for round two. In this round, you can only say two words to describe each celebrity. This sounds impossible, but it works because everyone already is somewhat familiar with the names in the bowl from the first round. And if you feel like playing a third round, you can’t describe the celebrities, but have to act them out, either as charades, or by doing an impersonation. (To be honest, I rarely get this far, as 1-2 rounds is plenty!)

The beauty of this game is that you don’t need anything to play — just paper, a pen, and a fun group of people — so it can be a spontaneous go-to if you have a group lingering after dinner or around a fire.

Novel

I learned this game from my friends Alex and Jenny, who hosted a round after a dinner party at their house. True to the name, this game requires having a stack of novels, one for each player. It’s best to choose pulp fiction kinds of books, the ones you’d find in a dollar bin at a flea market. (Since I learned this game, I always keep an eye out for these at used bookstores and library sales.)

For this game, each player gets a novel, a few index cards, and a pen. The first player presents their novel to the group, showing the title, the author, and reading the description on the back of the book. Then players are tasked with making up a first line for the novel and writing it on their index card, while the player whose book it is copies the real first line of the book onto their card. All the cards are passed in, and the player leading the round reads out all the potential first lines. Players then guess which one they think is the real first line. One point is awarded to any player who guesses correctly, and two points go to any player whose fake first line convinced someone to support it.

For fans of Fictionary or Balderdash, this game follows the same pattern but is a step up in terms of creativity and fun. Though it requires a little setup and the right crowd, it has made me laugh so hard I’ve cried, and it’s really fun to introduce to a new audience.

Taboo

For this game, you have to describe items listed on the pre-printed cards to your teammates (like Celebrity) but without using any of the taboo words on the card. And to make sure you don’t cheat, a member of the opposing team is looking over your shoulder with a buzzer, letting everyone know when you accidentally use a forbidden word.

Though I haven’t played in years, it’s probably the first thing I’d pull out of a friend’s game closet if I saw it in there. There’s something about that buzzer that is just the right balance of annoying and joyful, and this game is truly timeless.

What are your favorite games? Please add your recommendations in the comments!

July 10th, 2020

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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Lynda Louden on July 11, 2020

    This is game is good for three or more. The more the better up to ten, but you decide. We call it nose. But others have played with spoons rather than noses. Noses is soooo much better.
    Use a deck of cards, and for each player you use four of each suit, four kings, four tens, etc. Shuffle the deck and deal – four cards to each person. You are only allowed four cards in your hand at a time. (There is a tendency for beginners to want to take the fifth card before passing their fourth card. No.) The first person to get four of a kind in their hand puts their index finger on their nose. The last person to put their finger on their nose, get an N. Shuffle the cards, deal – repeat. When a player gets NOSE he is out of the game. When its down to two people you think its gets boring but it gets better! Play and See! Love Lynda

    Reply
  2. Barbara Bentley on July 11, 2020

    Pass the Pigs is a fun and very portable game. The game consists of a pair of little plastic pigs that you roll like dice.  You earn points depending on how they land.  You keep rolling to build points until you decide to stop and pass to the next player or until you “pig out”, which is when you roll two upside down pigs and lose all points for that turn.  Winner is the person who reached a certain number of points first.

    Reply
  3. Karen on July 11, 2020

    Wondering which of these games might be playable “virtually” in support of geographic separation and/or social distancing?

    Reply
  4. Susan on July 11, 2020

    Thanks for the recommendations and especially for the descriptions. I’m always looking for a good game.

    Reply
  5. Kerri on July 11, 2020

    Catch Phrase has been a family favorite for nearly 20 years. It is played in 2 teams. You try to get your teammates to guess the word in the disc that is passed around. A random timer starts to buzz faster as time is running out, adding to the pressure. Lots of laughs as descriptios get personal. Best in a group of 6+.

    Reply
  6. Serendipity on July 13, 2020

    Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza is perfectly portable and fast. We’ve played with 4-year-olds and up. Great for strengthening neural networks and improving brain health, too. Rat-a-Tat-Cat is a second highly portable game that combines basic math and probability. Both games are fun with 2+ players and easy to play at a small table or in the grass.

    Reply
  7. merry on July 13, 2020

    Some more ideas:

    non-competitive games where everyone can relax. All that tension, with one person or team winning, isn’t that great – especially now! They are out there! OK! – also more entertainment for one person who lives by themselves – like me! I bounce balls around, entertain my kitty, go for nature walks, do PennyPress puzzles, shoot baskets at a local forgotten park. There must be a lot more to do for us one on one people – and then its useful too for friends/family alone on a trip, etc. Did you know 40% of households are single people? Otherwise, thank you so much and joy to the world! Merry

    Reply
  8. Laura on July 23, 2020

    Thanks for the great ideas! I love the game Scribblish at parties. It’s a picture version of the game “Telephone”. You’re given a caption which you need to draw. The next person draws a caption for your drawing and so on, and the next person a drawing for that caption and so on. At the end, you have to guess which was your original caption. Some cards allow you to fill in the blank into the caption, which usually ends up being a dirty word. It’s totally hilarious!

    Another great one is Guesstures – like charades but you have to get people to guess the word and grab each card before it drops. 

    Reply

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