Shenanigans ~ The Game

Every time I go home to New York, I get the rare privilege of catching up with old friends, and sometimes meeting a few new ones on top of that. Add that in to the nutty mix of the Adams Family Holidays, and you usually wind up with a bizzarre group of at least 10 people (usually spanning at least 3 generations) eating leftovers in my living room at around 11pm. One of my absolute favorite inadvertent holiday traditions usually happens during these late-night reunions. . . if we can’t find the sleds, or if my brother + co. don’t feel like taking some death-defying plunge off of a nearby waterfall, we usually wind up laughing until we cry while we play a rip-roaring game of (what we’ve always called) . . .


The Basics:

Shenanigans is a FANTASTIC game for any group of over 5 people. All you need to play is paper, pens/pencils, a clock/watch/timer-of-some-kind, and some sort of container (a bowl, a hat, etc.). 

index cards work!


This is a game of 4 rounds . . . although there are a few optional add-in rounds, to spice up the end if you feel up to an extra challenge. Here’s how it goes:

To get started, find (or make) about 30 small slips of paper and give everybody in the group as close to an even number as you can. On these blank pieces of paper, every person should write five words or less – This can be a word, a phrase, a quote, a movie title, a random joke, a name, anything! I’ve seen everything from “That’s what she said” to “Message in a Bottle” to “George Washington” to “sledding” to “Doug’s shirt” to ” Tommy Boy” to “Muffin-top”  to “You’re making me uncomfortable”. . . the sky’s pretty much the limit, just make sure everybody knows to keep it under 5 words, or it can get pretty tricky to play with!

Once the slips are written, everybody should fold them in half so the words are hidden, and put them into the container. Last time I played, we used a pot in lieu of a bowl, actually.



Once all the clues are in the “bowl”, everybody sits in a circle (if they aren’t already), and every other person is on the same team. This makes up the two teams in a slightly random way, which is the point! Pick a person (probably the one with the smartphone handy) to keep track of time, and pick another person to keep track of the score. Pretty much every cell-phone made now has some kind of stop-watch feature, so I’d recommend going with that. You could also go for a free online stopwatch, if you’re of the cognitively-delayed-phone ilk.

The goal of every round is to get your teammates to guess as many of the slips of paper as possible, using only the specific methods designated per round. Each team gets 60 seconds per turn, alternating until all of the clues have been guessed. 

Round 1 is played a lot like Taboo, or Catch Phrase. Basically, you can say anything except what is written on the paper (not even a little bit of it!) in order to get your teammates to guess what’s written. When you’re done with all the clues and have tallied the points, return the papers to the bowl for Round 2!

Round 2 is exactly like Charades. You can point, use props, act, make hand gestures, contort your face lake a monkey having a seizure, and pretty much do anything that involves no sound. Do not make a peep, people. (Ahem: When you’re done with all the clues and have tallied the points, return the papers to the bowl for Round 3 . . .)

Round 3 is played like Pictionary. Using a pen/pencil/marker/eyeliner and whatever paper you have handy, you draw pictures to get your teammates to guess the right clues. You can use pictures and symbols, even arrows, but no words.  Not to sound like a broken record, buuuut, when you’re done with all the clues and have tallied the points, return the papers to the bowl for Round 4.

Round 4 is the One Word Round, and my personal favorite. In this round, you can say JUST ONE WORD in order to get your teammates to guess the right answer. You have to choose your word well, but be speedy about it to use your time well! Sometimes you get really random associations throughout the game, and it makes for some easy silly one-word clues. The catch here is, IF you say the word “um” (which happens at LEAST once to every poor person who plays this game – so don’t feel too bad when it happens to you), it counts as your one word. This means that your teammates can still randomly guess, but unless they get lucky, your crew is screwed for that 60 second turn. If you goof/try to salvage an um-situation, and accidentally/intentionally say more than one word, your team forfeits the rest of their turn. Cut-throat? Yes. Brilliant? You betcha.

If you’re feeling up for a challenge, there are two options for a fifth round, both of which are pretty ridiculously hard. By now you’ve probably realized that each round gets harder because you have less and less information to go on, right? Well, round 5 follows that crazy trend.

Round 5 is wordless and body-movement-less. You must get your teammates to guess the word/phrase using EITHER only facial expressions (no movement allowed from the shoulders down – slightly impossible, truth be told) OR (and this was HYSTERICAL) sound effects. No words that express sounds, either, folks. You don’t say “sizzle”, you make the actual frickin’ sound of that bacon in the pan! If you go with sound effects, everyone whose turn it is to guess has to keep their eyes closed while they listen. I legitimately laughed until I cried listening to someone try to make sound effects for “Melty Melty Snowman” last night.


know the rules, people!


1.) You cannot Cannot CANNOT  look at the slip of paper before it is your actual turn to get your teammates to guess. That means if you peek, then you have to put it back in the bowl and pick a new one. Even if the clock is running and your team is going, you can’t look at the clue and prepare – there is no prep-time for Shenanigans, people. Players who are guessing their teammate’s word/phrase can (and really should, for efficiency’s sake) hold a closed-clue in their hand, but they cannot look at the clue unless or until it is their turn.

2.) Alternate which team starts each round. Team A should start 2 of the rounds, and Team B should start 2. If you decide to do a fifth round, courtesy dictates that the losing team starts.

3.) All clues have to be guessed word-perfect (if it says “Gretchen loves her butter”, you don’t get the point if your teammate guesses “Gretchen loves butter.”), but for Round 1, once a word in the phrase is guessed/said by a teammate,  the person giving clues can use it to help their teammates get the right phrasing.

4.) If your teammates don’t guess the word or phrase before their minute is up, you cannot announce the right answer after the turn is over. You just put the slip of paper back in the bowl for someone else to pick. Announcing it might inadvertently give the answer to the other team, so we play everything pretty secretive so there aren’t any whoopsie-losses!

Advice from a Veteran Player (Moi):

Very Expert, I assure you...

Try not to put siblings who are close on the same team. . . it makes for wicked advantages.

I wouldn’t play with more than 10 people, it’s just a liiiitle to chaotic.

If you play with a big crew, remember to decrease your number of paper-slips per person! This is possibly the most fun game of all time, but it can potentially lose its luster if it takes eons to get through all the papers!

The Classroom Extension

IF you happen to be a teacher who at any point in your curriculum needs to plan an engaging activity which reviews terms/words/phrases/vocabulary . . . And IF you feel like spicing up your class with a little fun-yet-effective game . . . AND if you’re a fun teacher who wants your students to remember content . . . well, then this is an awesome game to adapt for review classes! I use it in French class quite a bit, actually, usually with vocab lists (like a list of 30 verbs whose meanings I want kids to remember). I let them use their notes on the first round if they need them, but by the time they get to round four (we don’t go for a fifth in my classes!), it is incredible how much students know the words! It takes a little time the very first time you play, because the set up is more complex than some, but it is WELL worth the effort.




There you have it! I hope you all enjoy some Shenanigans as much as I do. If you’re with some people and y’all are bored, give it a chance, seriously, you won’t regret it!


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