Beat the boredom with these old-fashioned parlour games

The Golden Age of Parlour Games authors Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras share their boredom-busting tips

Book Reviews
Home alone? This boredom-busting game, called The Memory Tray, could even be done solo - or with your favourite furry friend for company.

Home alone? This boredom-busting game, called The Memory Tray, could even be done solo - or with your favourite furry friend for company.

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Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to return to the era of parlour games.

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With millions of Aussies being urged to stay at home in a bid to 'flatten the curve' of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been suddenly thrown into a scramble to find things to keep us entertained.

Whether you've been hunting down those board games which have been gathering dust on the top bookshelf or trying to find a full pack of cards (why is there always one missing?), now is the time to rediscover all those pastimes usually reserved for camping holidays or power cuts.

Luckily for authors Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras, they caught on to the appeal of indoor games at least a decade before coronavirus threw our lives into disarray.

In 2009 the pair set about to revive the tradition of indoor family games in their book The Golden Age of Parlour Games.

The book is a bid to get kids (and grown-ups) to push aside the consoles, turn off the telly, and bring some mental stimulation, silliness and laughter, joy and connection back into your living room.

A message that is all the more relevant in these days of self-isolation. So what is a parlour game? In their book, Jones and Tsintziras explain:

"A parlour is just a living room, and parlour games are group games played in said room. Easy. In historical terms, however, 'parlour games' generally refer to those diversions enjoyed in British and American - and, to a lesser extent, Australian - parlours of the Victorian era.

"In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, well-to-do families had more leisure time than their predecessors, and this gave rise to a whole new generation of games involving wordplay, memory, logic, dramatic skills, and acts of absurd and pointless fun.

"These games were often played at small evening parties with family and friends; think Mansfield Park and the gay goings-on in the parlour after supper. Most Victorian parlour games used equipment found in the home, and tended to be imaginative, resourceful, and overwhelmingly people-powered.

"While competitive, they were not particularly about winning and losing: they brought family and friends together for the uncomplicated purpose of enjoying one another's company while having fun for fun's sake. It was a great time to be a games lover."

Bursting with games of logic and memory, wordplay, card games, role-play, and rough and tumble, not a single game in the book requires equipment that you won't find in your average home: a pack of cards, a dictionary, an hourglass, dice, paper and pen.

Games are organised thematically and referenced for age appropriateness.

All are set out with clear rules and instructions. There are games that will challenge and stimulate you, and games that will have you in fits; games that can last all night, and games to fill that empty half-hour before tea; games for adults and older children, and games for your grandchildren's birthday party (even if they have to be done using video catch-up).

This is book for fun-lovers aged four to 104, winds back the clock to remind you of games you'd forgotten and then a whole lot more.

Here Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras offer three game ideas from their book to get you started:

DICTIONARY

Also know as Fictionary, Spoof Words, or the trademarked Balderdash, this great game not only helps you learn new words but also tests the ability of players to devise and deliver wacky definitions for obscure words while keeping a straight face.

For two to 12 players (ages nine and up). You will need a dictionary, pen, and identical pieces of paper. Playing time, 10 minutes per word.

Object of the game: To pull one over your opponents with plausible definitions for obscure words.

HOW TO PLAY

One person (the 'reader', if you like) uses the dictionary to look up a word that they believe will be unknown to most people. He states the word to the group, and if anyone knows what the word means, a new word is chosen. He writes down the real definition on a piece of paper. All the other players then set about making up a definition for the word, which they write down on their piece of paper. For example:

Word: mirza

Jo: 'A mermaid crossed with a pizza.'

Marian: 'A person who sleepwalks.'

John: 'A person who smells.'

Actual meaning: A royal prince

All the definitions are given to the reader and mixed in with the real definition. He then reads all these out to the rest of the players, while trying to keep a straight face. Each player then has to guess which de nition they believe is the correct one. The game is scored as follows:

If a player guesses the correct meaning, they get two points. If a player's definition gets a vote from others, they get one point. If no one guesses the real de nition, the reader gets two points.

Play then rotates around the group, giving everyone a chance to be the reader. The player with the most points at the end wins.

VARIATION: There are a number of ways to play this game, but one simple way is to have a player choose an obscure word from the dictionary and make up three definitions on the spot. Then, they share these with the other players, along with the real definition. The person with the dictionary gets one point for every guess that is incorrect, and the dictionary is passed on to the next player. The person with the most points at the end of the game wins.

THE MEMORY TRAY

After studying a tray full of objects, these objects are hidden, and players have to seek, in the recesses of their brains, to remember what on earth they were. It is also known as Kim's Game, because the main character played it during his spy training in Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel, Kim. Fun and competitive, the Memory Tray is also a great exercise in observation and recall.

You will need a tray, a cloth, between 10 and 20 small objects, paper and pen, and a stopwatch. Playing time, 10 minutes.

Object of the game: To remember as many of the objects as you can.

HOW TO PLAY

One player is nominated the conductor, and he gathers together between ten and 20 small household objects and places them on a tray. Absolutely anything will do: a pencil, an orange, a paperclip, a mobile phone, a pair of spectacles, etc.

He should adapt the number of articles to suit the ages of the players, and increase it as they get better at the game.

Players are then given one minute to study and memorise the items, before the tray is covered with a cloth. They are then given two minutes to write down as many items as they can remember from the tray.

Players submit their lists, after which they can look again at the Memory Tray to see what they got wrong and right.

For each item remembered correctly, one point is scored. However, if a player writes down an item that was never there, they lose a point.

The conductor then conceals the tray again and secretly removes a single item. When he brings it back, players study the tray, and the rst person to work out what is missing wins three bonus points.

FLIP THE KIPPER

We love this game. It is absurdly simple, and yet children and adults seem to take equal pleasure in it and become hilariously competitive. We learnt it from an octogenarian named Rose at the Norfolk Bowling Club in England, who was taught it by her grandmother.

You will need newspaper and scissors, pen, books for flapping. Playing time,10 minutes

OBJECT OF THE GAME: To get your kipper over the finish line first.

HOW TO PLAY

To make the kippers, draw a simple fish shape onto an old newspaper and then cut around it (through the layers). The fish should be roughly 40cm long.

You should now have a nice stack of newspaper kippers; give one to each player and have them write their names on the fish, for later identification.

You will need to have a decent-sized floor space cleared of any obstructions. Create a start and finish line at either end of the room. Make it as long as you can.

Players each need a book to flap: this creates the wind to propel their kipper along. Try to use books of roughly the same size to make it fair. (We use matching books from a set of school readers; magazines would also be good.)

Players line up in a row with their kippers. At 'go', they flap their books wildly to race their kippers across the oor and over the finish line. The first kipper over the line wins.

  • This is an edited extract from Parlour Games for Modern Families by Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras, published in 2009 by Scribe ($24.99) available here
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