A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Monday, August 27, 2012

The irresistible game of Picture Telephone

One of my favorite games is Picture Telephone. Like the children's game of Telephone (in which a message is whispered from one player to the next, becoming garbled in the process, to hilarious effect), Picture Telephone is about transmitting a sentence through a sequence of players. What distinguishes Picture Telephone is that sentences are alternately written and then depicted through drawing. Players are not allowed to write words in their drawings; that would defeat the whole purpose of the game.

For an idea of how it works, consider this mock-up of a typical game:

(This image is from the now defunct site for an online version of Picture Telephone called Broken Picture Telephone. In my experience, actual Picture Telephone games will have complete sentences and will be funnier.)

Inevitably, there will be someone in the group whose drawings of a person talking into a microphone will be mistaken for a person licking an ice cream cone, and someone else in the group will routinely have trouble recognizing what the previous person drew. These players will only make the game more fun.

There are some unwritten rules to this game: Players must legitimately try to communicate the message that they are given. It is very easy to deliberately derail the game and really spoils the fun for everyone. This is fundamentally a cooperative game.

As a corollary, it only makes sense to write as an initial sentence, a sentence that you feel reasonably certain that the next person can draw. Action sentences, like "The picnic was ruined by ants", are good. Don't worry, the sentence will often become more complex and challenging as it makes its way around the circle.

The dynamics of this game are interesting. Occasionally one sentence will make it all the way through the game essentially unchanged. Sentences can even diverge from their original subject and then return to it. Certain concepts seem to have strange attractors in Picture Telephone, such as how many four-legged animals tend to converge to dogs or cats.

The core of the game is the challenge of receiving a written sentence and trying to figure out how you can possibly make a drawing from which the next person can correctly infer the original sentence. I enjoy tremendously this process. The drawing is fun too. Basically, there is nothing about this game that I dislike.

All that you need to play this game is a bunch of 3-by-5 note cards and writing utensils.

As your group becomes more skilled at communicating through drawing, you can use more complex sentences. Consequently, the sophistication of the game scales with the players, like Dixit and chess do.

I have enjoyed this game for years, and I consider it to be one of the most fun games to play whenever a group of seven or nine player is available. It is certainly the game that has made me laugh the most. I have decided to write about it now because I recently spent rather a lot of time playing a new online variation on Picture Telephone called Drawception, about which I will say a lot more in the next post.