Gaming Unplugged: Board Games, Card Games, and Party Games to use in Teen Programs

Sometimes I just want to keep things low-tech with my programming for teens. I’ve talked before about ready-made craft programs in Maker Kits. Today I have some quick ideas for low-tech gaming (with minimal set up and generally quick game play) if you want to do an “unplugged” game program.

  • Card Games: It’s pretty old school but I like having some standard decks of playing cards on hand for game programs. You can also have a book of solitaire games (and shock everyone when you reveal that yes, we used to play with real cards!) and books with basic card games (there’s The Card Game Bible and Hoyle’s Modern Encyclopedia of Card Games if you’re looking for where to start). There are also novelty decks for specific games like Old Maid or Crazy Eights and more. You can also explain card counting with Black Jack. Then, of course, there’s the classic: Uno. If none of the games appeal, you can always have everyone try to build card houses.
  • 1,000 Blank White Cards: This game is about as low tech as it gets. All you need to start are some pens and note cards. Players make the deck as they go so teens can create cards in addition to some you made ahead of time (maybe with help from volunteers). The game can take any form depending on what cards are created. Most involve some kind of point value, an action, and an illustration. Want to know more before you get started? There’s a wiki for that.
  • Charades: I am on a crusade to make sure teens know how to play charades and let me tell you it’s been uphill at my library. Charades has players draw a word/phrase of some kind and pantomime the action or words within to get others to guess the answer. It can be played either individually or in teams. I suggest using a word generator or other strategy to create prompts ahead of time because when I had teens write them up it devolved into a lot of obscure video game characters. You may also have to explain the concept with some examples. I had prompts in one game for “Little Women” and “The Hunger Games” and teens tried to act out the entire story instead of just the title.
  • Codenames: This game has a couple of version. I’ve been using the Codenames Pictures version. The game can work with 2-8 players (or more in teams) so it’s great for larger groups as well. Codenames is a cross between “Guess Who?” and “Battleship” with Spymaster players who lay out the board and know the location of their own spies on the board. Spymasters then use clues based on picture tiles in the game to reveal those locations to the rest of their team (example: “1, game” would tell the other players to look for the one tile on the board that refers to a game, possibly a dice or a billiard ball) to uncover the spies. Whoever collects all of their spies off the board first wins.
  • Coup: Easily one of my favorite games, Coup is a bluffing game where players compete to wield the most influence and win the game. The game includes a deck of cards, coins, and some how-to/role cards and works with 2 to 6 players (or more if you do teams. I think of this game as extreme “Go Fish.” Every player starts with two hidden cards which can take on various roles. Players then have to take actions to draw currency and gather enough money to either assassinate the competition or unseat them in a coup (forcing them to reveal a card). Whoever ends the game with more influence (one or two cards still hidden) wins. I love it for programs because it can be as easy or as hard as teens want to make it.
  • Dominoes: Dominoes is about as basic as it gets for low-tech games. There are a variety of ways to play but essentially you are matching pips (dots) to remove them from your hand of dominoes. Winning can either be done by using all dominoes in your hand or by determining points at the end of the game depending on what works for your crowd. Dominoes come in a range of sets including Double 6 (the highest domino has 6 pips on each side) up to double 18. I would suggest going with at least a double 12 set if you are playing with teens to make the game more complex. Having a larger set also means there will also be more dominoes to play so it will work better for larger groups. There is also a variant called Squaremino if you’re into that.
  • Grifters: This game is a from the people behind Coup but a bit more complicated. In this deck building game, players are all in charge of a group of criminals with various skills in brain, speed, or brawn. Players build their deck of grifters to complete different jobs and earn coins. Whoever has earned the most after all jobs are completed wins. Grifters works for 2-4 players (or teams therein) and it’s a bit more complicated so play runs longer but if you have the time it’s a blast.
  • Jenga: Does this need any explanation? Probably not.
  • Mafia: I only heard about this game while searching for information to put in this post. It sounds a little complicated at first but I think with the right group of teens it could be a lot of fun. It seems like it could be a good ongoing game for a program with regular attendance like an advisory group or some kind of club.
  • Sushi Go: This pick and pass game works for 2 to 5 players and involves building various sets of sushi. Go Fish but with fish that you eat.
  • Who Wins?: You might have seen this book on YALSA’s 2017 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list. Who Wins? is an interactive book that pits various historical figures ranging from Nicola Tesla to Harriet Tubman in head-to-head competitions in everything from The Hunger Games to ping pong. If you act as moderator and raise questions about the various merits of each figure (“Would George Washington’s wealth–rated 10/10–be any help to catch Jack the Ripper?”) it can lead to some interesting discussions. Teens also had a great time setting up various competitions. I brought this along with several other games to a program but the book kept everyone occupied for the entire hour.
  • Yahtzee or Dice: Yahtzee is a counting game but instead of cards you’re working with dice to build various sequences. You can buy a kit or just get some dice and make your own scoring. You can also up the stakes with double dice.

Now you know some of my favorite “unplugged” games to use with teens. Do you know of any other games I might have missed or have anything else to recommend? Let me know in the comments.

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