Games of home

Sardines, anyone? For once, I’m not talking food — although I will be later — and I must say the thought of half a dozen of the little fishes, silvery and squeaky fresh, skewered and grilled over a white-hot parrilla with just a drop of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon for a condiment, enjoyed on a Spanish or Greek island beach, doesn’t half sound like a bad idea right now.

But I digress. The sardines I’m proposing do not need to be plucked from the Mediterranean, nor do they need any prep. Taking its name from the way the fish are tightly packed together in a can, Sardines is an old-fashioned and thoroughly excellent British parlor game, originally intended for children but riotously funny when played by adults alone, and which — since it entails the very antithesis of social distancing — has the extra frisson of naughtiness when played in the age of Covid. (Play responsibly — single households only please.)

Sardines is a riff on Hide-and-Seek and the rules couldn’t be simpler. One person, the hider, hides and after an agreed time, a couple of minutes say, the others in the group set out independently to find her. The first person, or seeker, to find the hider must then remain hidden with her, in exactly the same spot, until joined by the next seeker, until all the group bar one — the last seeker (and thus the loser of the game) finds all the hiders, invariably crammed together in a closet or huddled in the corner of an attic, like sardines crammed in a tin.

It’s an ill-wind and all that. Jigsaw puzzle manufacturers, we know, have seen their sales boom during Covid-19 and makers of board games, too, will have had something of a bonanza. But much as I’m always up for Monopoly, a Scrabble-fest, a game of cards, a rubber at bridge or a few hands of mahjong, there’s something about “homemade” games I find particularly appealing.

To play the “Dictionary Game,” you need nothing more than a good dictionary and a few pencils and paper. Each player takes it in turn to choose a word from the dictionary, preferably one with the most abstruse meaning possible. For example, “fud” (a rabbit’s tail) or “piu-piu” (a Maori gentleman’s flaxen skirt) might be good word to choose. Having established that nobody playing, except the word chooser himself, knows the real meaning of the chosen word (honesty and good sportsmanship are required at this point), each player then proceeds to write a false definition of the word, one which is most likely to fool the other players into believing it is the true definition.

The chooser writes down the real definition, and then all the definitions are handed to the chooser, who reads them out, including his own, real definition, at which point voting begins. Score one point for each definition you guess correctly, one point for each vote you receive for your own (false) definition, and three points if you are the chooser and none of the other players goes for your — entirely truthful — definition.

Another great game, for which I take full credit for inventing, although since there is nothing new under the sun, some smart kid somewhere will probably write in and say she thought of it first, is what I call Party Rooms. It’s the perfect game for lockdown (please, not again), or post-lockdown, but great fun in any season or circumstance. Each member of the household or shared dwelling plans a themed party in his or her bedroom, the parties to follow consecutively on a given evening. A kind of “party crawl” is thus created, as you move from room A to B to C, etc., although you could, of course, have individual parties on different nights, to spread it out a bit. Invitations are sent out ahead of time stating the theme and attire, and half an hour or so between parties allows guests time to regroup, take an Alka-Seltzer or black coffee or whatever and change into their various outfits.

At a recent Party Rooms evening chez moi, my theme was Moroccan, complete with gold lanterns made from paper, mint tea (laced with gin in some cases,) burning incense, gnoua music on the sound box, and Yours Truly lying on the marital bed in red pajamas and a fez, looking utterly ridiculous. It was a huge success. Another household member resurrected Studio 54 for his party — strobe lighting, Bianca Jagger’s white horse (in cut-out,) Sylvester belting out “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” but — for better or worse — I must admit there were no waiters in satin shorts, or illegal substances. 

Party Rooms works best with three or more participants (and rooms,) although, if you live alone, you can create a rather magical themed party and then invite guests via Zoom. Dressing up for the occasion, whether you are the host or a guest, is de rigueur.

For foodie families, cooking nights can be a riot — in the best sense. Each family or household member gets to cook on a given night for the rest of the gang. Decide the rules ahead of time. Hot or cold? A single dish or multiple courses? On my most recent cook-night, I made vitello tonnato, followed by pan-roasted lamb with juniper berries, with zabaglione for dessert, mainly because I’m a terrible show-off. But honestly, the recipes are simple enough (shout out to the late Marcella Hazan and her “Éssentials of Italian Cooking”) and if things go wrong — so what? 

Alternatively, get everybody to have a stab at making the same dish in turn, say once a week over the course of a few weeks, and see which one you all like best. And, by all means, get competitive and introduce voting, although in my view, in the interests of peace and love, I would make the voting anonymous. Just be sure that any members of the group who can’t shop for themselves give you their orders for ingredients ahead of time. And, it goes without saying, you should consider the dietary needs and preferences of the group you are going to cook for when planning your menu.

I love old-fashioned games played outdoors, too, like Kanjam (frisbee with a twist,) cornhole and the egg-and-spoon race. The limb-wrenching wheelbarrow race, too, is heaps of fun. Meanwhile, as is true for all popular sports, in addition to showcasing personal or team brilliance, a good outdoor game must offer a high prospect of humiliation and personal loss of dignity and, in this respect,  nothing comes near to the sack race. Hopping around in a sack like a demented bunny is far from chic, but it is, almost literally, a sack of laughs for all concerned.

And in the age of Covid, anything, which puts a smile on our face without costing a king’s ransom or worse, risking our life, gets my vote.

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