Party games have an uncool reputation. The cynic in me suspects it’s because their ubiquity, ease of play and general enjoyment doesn’t allow much opportunity for gatekeeping. I’m guilty of this myself. I look at my stack of games and can’t help but feel disappointed if we go with a basic party game, even though I absolutely know it will generate the most fun for all. But hey, even strict art film connoisseurs are occasionally forced to watch Fast & Furious movies and grudgingly admit they had a good time (Note: not counting Hobbs & Shaw).
For me, a good party game has rules but you can bend them. It has a scoring mechanism but you can ignore it. It matters if you win or lose in the moment but not overall. The game itself should almost be beside the point, a shared catalyst for laughter and conversation that might otherwise be hard to come by. To hell with coming up with conversation; play a game instead.
My current favorite of these games is The Chameleon. As you might expect, there isn’t a whole lot to this game, so my review will be brief. That doesn’t mean the game is anything less than it should be, however. In fact, the game is basically perfect at what it’s supposed to do.
It goes like this. First you and your pals identify a big card with a bunch of words on a grid, all under the heading of one broad subject. You then pass out little cards. These act as a sort of map to the words on the larger card. Someone rolls two dice to pinpoint a place on your little card. Get the letter-number combo from THAT and find it on the larger card. It will take you to one word. For instance, on a card for “Phobias”, you might end up with “Spiders”.
But here’s the thing. One of you did not get a decoder card. Instead, this unlucky soul got a card stating “You are the Chameleon.” While this person does know the general subject in play, they cannot know the secret word.
Going around the table, everyone says a word they associate with the secret word. Even the chameleon. If you are too specific (“Web”), it makes it easier for the chameleon to figure out what the secret word might be. If you are too general (“Creepy”), it will sound like you don’t know the word. Once everyone says their chosen word, the table individually picks who they think the chameleon is, via finger-pointing. At this point, all is revealed.
So, yes, this is one of those games that requires a little deception, which often fills me with discomfort and nervous anxiety. I’m an easy giveaway, in other words. But that’s just when I know I don’t have a leg to stand on. If I can figure out what the secret word is before my turn, I can lie quite well and even help throw some poor, innocent soul under the bus with glee. The problem is The Chameleon rarely made it so easy for me.
Luckily, with a group of people (The Chameleon can play from 3-8 players), it’s not like you’re going to be the liar all that often. Most times, you’re going to be sniffing out the faker along with everyone else, which is an absolute blast. The game’s fun comes in two stages, picking your word and hearing everyone else’s and then the interrogation phase, in which the whole table argues over whose word was the most suspicious.
This isn’t exactly rocket science, nor is this even close to the only game that offers this dynamic. But The Chameleon is really pure. The rounds feel good and happen fast, with hardly any setup between. If you’re planning to play multiple games, do this one last as it has a very strong “one more round” factor that’ll keep people playing long after they’ve blown past their stated departure time, sad kids just waiting to get picked up from their clarinet lessons and shit.
And while I would rather rope some unfortunate into another four-hour game of Star Wars: Rebellion, that sort of thing isn’t going to get the job done with a group of wildly different people who just want to have a good time with the smallest amount of work possible. I imagine The Chameleon is more fun the more you know your fellow players, but it can also offer a great icebreaker for situations where you are less than comfortable. Like if you’re meeting your person’s parents for the first time and you really want them to like you, but you’re from the wrong side of the train tracks and you’re insecure about it even though that was a long time ago and you went to college and own a home and might even make partners within the decade and who the hell are they to judge you, they can’t even lie well in this stupid game. Not like you. Not. Like. You.