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How to keep Christmas fun: Best games to play virtually

Here’s how you can keep the fun in Christmas, even if you have to keep your distance.

While this year’s Christmas won’t be the same, we can still make the most of the time we have (virtually) with our loved ones. And what better way than to play a game? With the help of Dr Sam Illingworth, science communicator and games fanatic, here are our top tips for keeping Christmas fun.

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And if you’re looking for last-minute Christmas gift inspiration, check out our best science and tech gifts.

How can we make Christmas fun without technology fatigue?

Illingworth says taking it back to basics this year might help restore some normality and is the easiest to adapt to virtually. Whatever your preference, there’s a lot to explore here.

“There’s definitely something for everyone, but basically we’ll have to put a little bit more effort in and give technology a of a try. Maybe the additional time that would be spent setting the table for 16 can now be spent creating a virtual environment for fun to take place,” says Illingworth.

So, whether you enjoy a classic board game or charades, have already hopped on the Among Us train or have a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign, we’ve got Christmas covered.

How to play party games over video call

Starting simple, we can minimize the digital hurdles by taking our family favourites to video calls. At this point, hopefully there’s one person in each household that knows how to set up a virtual meeting on Zoom, MS Teams or Google Meet. Then, each household can form a team and you can get started with a game of charades or Pictionary.

Charades or Pictionary

Pictionary: a team game that involves sketched clues © Getty Images
Pictionary: a team game that involves sketched clues © Getty Images

You can split into two teams, set up a timer and simply use a charades idea generator or random word generator on your phone while a laptop per household connects you all via video. The best bit about this is it can be completely free and you don’t all need set up separate laptops for the virtual call.

What you need: 2+ devices with video calling, random word generator or card decks, a timer.

Who can play: Anyone, but 4-10 players is recommended.

20 Questions

Another game which transfers easily to video calls is 20 Questions, where someone assigns you a person, place, object etc. This is normally written on a post-it (or a card on a headband, if you own the game) and stuck to your head for everyone else to see. Then each person takes turn asking questions for clues to who or what they are.

Assigning the virtual post-it can be done by the private message function on your video call. Let one person choose and private message everyone but the guesser to share their choice. Then the guessing can begin and take turns assigning and guessing to your hearts’ content. Or, until someone abruptly ends the game, exasperated with your terrible choices. At least, on a video call you can mute before hearing the door slam.

What you need: 2+ devices with video calling, a timer.

Who can play: Anyone, 4+ players recommended.

Werewolf

This game is basically an in-person version of Among Us, the game that exploded into popularity during lockdown. This is a simple Villagers versus Werewolves story with one person acting as the moderator to set the scene and assign characters from a deck of cards. The aim of the game depends on your character:

  • Werewolves aim to kill all the Villagers and overtake the town. At the start of the game, everyone closes their eyes and werewolves are asked to look around and see each other.
  • Villagers must protect the town and determine who the Werewolves are, with different characters (Doctor, Seer etc.) gaining different levels of insight.

In the game, the Werewolves are given opportunities to kill and then everyone has village meetings to discuss and vote to eliminate who they think is a Werewolf. The catch? Werewolves know who each other are and can turn the discussion against an innocent Villager.

Here’s a handy guide for all the details on how to play Werewolf  generally and to adapt online, Illingworth suggests setting up a video call and let the moderator privately message each person their character before beginning this story. You can let the Werewolves ‘meet’ each other in a private message group to simplify the game further.

What you need: 2+ devices with video calling, a card deck, a timer for the meetings, and a willing moderator. If you don’t want to buy the game you can create these quickly on some squares of paper.

Who can play: 7+ players, but it can be adapted for more.

Among Us

With a similar premise to Werewolf, this is a fully digital game which randomly assigns players as either Crew Members or Imposters, and there are a number of tasks to complete aboard a virtual ship (if you pick the main map).

Again, the aim of the game depends on your character:

  • Crewmates hope to complete the tasks as quickly as possible and determine who the Imposter is (who’s sus?)
  • Imposter(s) must slyly disrupt this progress using the “Sabotage” button to cause ship emergencies and killing fellow players off without being caught.

When someone discovers a dead player, they can report it or if you see some suspicious behaviour, there’s an emergency meeting button. Everyone must then discuss who they think is innocent and who they’re going to eject from the game.

Among Us Digital Game

A simple way to play is to mute everyone on a video call and then unmute for the meetings. Though it’s harder to hide your lying, this lets everyone see and interact with each other as closely as you would in person. If you already know how to use a Discord gaming channel, this is the gamer-approved way to play, according to Illingworth.

Both Werewolf and Among Us are based around a storyline, where everyone gets an assigned character and works together to figure out who the “enemy” character is.

What you need: 4+ devices with video calling and the Among Us app.

Who can play: 4-10 players.

How to play board games virtually

If you want to recreate your favourite card and board games from hearts and chess to Battleship, there are two main platforms worth checking out.

Tabletopia and Boardgame Arena both have fairly simple layouts and you can sign up with your email. They let you search their games list, and both categorise games into classics or popular, complexity and number of players. Whether you want to return to your favourites or pick up something new, these sites are definitely worth exploring.

“These are pretty straightforward environments, and quite easy to set up and teach. There’s a relatively low learning curve and they even have dedicated channels to chat,” says Illingworth.

GIF Credit: Silver Spoon, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
Virtual Connect Four © Silver Spoon, CC BY-SA 3.0

This is suitable for all ages too – if you’re stuck somewhere alone, you can even play Connect Four with your kid, nephew or niece.

For those who have a regular board game night, you may know these platforms well and perhaps have found this time to be a blessing in disguise for getting your games group together on one of these platforms. If you’re looking to try something new, there are new releases and even prototypes available.

Codenames

Codenames is a word game where you play as a spy whose goal is to identify your fellow field agents by their codenames.

CodeNames Image

The spymaster on your team knows who they are, but they can’t tell you because the other team is listening in. All they can give you is a one-word coded message. Be careful not to guess wrongly: you might hit a civilian or an assassin.

It can be adapted to video calls or you can create a room online for the game and send the link to others where the cards become visible.

What you need: 2+ devices with video calling, a card deck, and a timer. If everyone wants to play online, you only need a game link and everyone’s devices to access it.

Who can play: 4-10 players.

Video Games

For those more advanced video gamers, Illingworth says his game of the year is Hades.

“It’s a rogue-like game where you’re battling through a dungeon. And every playthrough is slightly different. You play the son of Hades, a Greek God, and you need to escape the evil characters. This is beautifully written, and makes you really care about the narrative,” says Illingworth.

As a single player game, if you want to escape the noise of Christmas later in the evening, Hades is the one for you.

What you need: A computer or Nintendo Switch.

Who can play: 1 player, solo game.

Science Games

For families that are together this years, here are our 8 best science board games to enjoy. Illingworth
agrees with our choices of Wingspan and Evolution (and recently, Evolution: Climate Expansion). He also offers up Photosynthesis, which is less scientific but gets you thinking about how trees are planted and grow.

Evolution board game (Best science board games)

“The best are those games where the mechanics of playing teach you something about science, rather than there being lots to read. The key thing is that people should want to keep reaching for them off the shelf. And then if there’s a learning experience too, that’s fantastic,” says Illingworth.

For video games, the Final Fantasy 7 Remake is his top choice. “It has a really amazing message about how mankind treats the planet and the limitations to how we mind the planet. So it’s a message of science versus nature and the limits to which that should be explored,” explains Illingworth.

From a technophobe who’s just grasped group video calls to the seasoned virtual gamer, we hope our picks of the best games for a lockdown Christmas can bring a little holiday cheer. And if you prefer a simple virtual quiz, here’s our Science 2020 quiz.

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