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Charades

Charades is a party game in which one person pantomimes the name of something and the other players try to guess what it is.

On this page I wish to tell you everything there is to know about the game of Charades.

The target name is a movie or book title or a person or some other specific set of words that fits one of several pre-defined categories.

Here's a quick example.  If your target name is the book So Big, you as the actor might pretend to sew for the first word, hoping one of the guessers will eventually say, "Sew."  Then you'd hold your hands far apart for the second word.

However, that was a particularly easy example.  For almost all targets the game would be unreasonably difficult if it weren't for certain conventions, all of which are shown by signs.  If you learn the conventions, you can act out for the guessers a virtually limitless number of targets.  The bulk of this article is devoted to listing and describing those conventions.

Hard-copy reference.  You can examine or copy and paste or download a generic, pared-down version of this article for printing here.  It's a simple ASCII text file (charades_printer.txt, 3,486 bytes, dated 02/02/2004 at 11:41 am), so you have a great deal of freedom in whatever you decide to do with it, but the idea is for you to print it out, make copies, and hand them out to the guests at your next party.  With one-inch margins using Times New Roman 12 this fits easily on the front and back of a single sheet.  Note: Once you've gone there, you must hit your BACK button to get back here.

 

If you like Charades you might like the page on 20 Questions.

Official Rules

As far as I know, there's nothing official about what I have to say about the game of Charades.

However, I have thought it through enough and played enough games that I believe the rules and conventions I list will sustain a fun version of Charades.

There certainly are regional differences in the signs and conventions, and for that matter you may, of course, choose to ignore or modify or add to anything I say.

All that's important is that all the players agree.

 

Charades shares a number of desirable characteristics with the game of 20 Questions, described here.  It's a parlor game but not a board game, it requires only two people (though more are better), it strengthens one's language skills, it requires quick and imaginative thinking, it requires some breadth of knowledge of the world at large, it requires obedience to only two rules, and it promotes silliness.

Rules.  But first, the simple rules of Charades.

There are only two rules, and both enforce the whole idea that you as the actor must rely solely on pantomime.  This game should never have been named Charades; it should be called Pantomime or just Mime.

  • You may not make any oral utterances.  You may make other sounds such as clapping,* but you can't use your voice to moo like a cow.
      

  • You may not mouth words such as "Ho ho ho" for Santa Claus, or draw letters in the air, or anything like that that would reduce the game to a mindless exercise in patience.

You may use and refer to objects.  For instance, you may grab a handful of potato salad and panachedly dash it onto your hostess's sofa, then point at it gleefully.  (Target: "couch potato.")

*In one variation of Charades, making sounds of any kind is prohibited.  To me this additional restriction just makes the game slower and less entertaining.

 


Conventions

It's the various conventions of play that really make Charades possible.  By learning these signs -- whether you're the actor or a guesser -- you'll be better able to end each round of Charades as quickly as possible, which is the only goal.  Unless you count having fun.  Or being silly.  Which I don't necessarily do.

On the nose.  The most universally known convention is the one that says, "You guessed exactly right."  The sign is to touch your nose with your index finger and point to the guesser with the other.  (Your other index finger, not your other nose.)

Note that a different sign is pointing at a guesser without touching your nose.  If you point at a player without touching your nose you're saying, "Yes, your guess is best so far."  Only when a players guesses the exact word should you want to also touch your nose.

The signs for the various conventions are sorted into three tables.

  • Category: One special set of signs indicates the category of the target, i.e., whether it's a movie or a famous person, etc.
  • Words and syllables: Another special set of signs gives the guessers information about the words and syllables of the target.
  • Other: The third set of signs is an olio of other conventions.

 

The first two signs.  An overriding convention is the first two steps:

  • STEP #1 is always to sign the category.
  • STEP #2 is always to sign the total number of words.

  

Categories in Charades

STEP #1 in any new round is for you as the actor to sign the category of the target.

Theoretically every target will fit into at least one of these categories.  If a target fits more than one category, give the sign for each one in any order you think best.

Book

Press the palms of your hands together in front of you, then open them as though they were hinged at the little fingers.

It should look as though you're opening a book in your hands.

Movie

Hold your left hand up to your eye as though you're looking through a spyglass, and make vertical circles in the air with your right fist.

The idea is that you're using an old-fashioned, crank-powered movie camera.

Song

Hold both hands up to your mouth as if to shout.

The idea is holding a megaphone and singing la Rudee Vallee.  A variation is to tilt your head up, open your mouth and hold out one hand, palm up, la opera.

TV show

Place your forefingers together in front of you pointing at the players, then draw a rectangle in the air the size and shape of a television screen.

Your fingers start at the center of the top of the screen, then move apart sideways, then down, then back to each other at the center of the bottom.

Play While looking up, with both hands pretend to continually tow on the pulleyed rope that opens a theater curtain.
Person

Place your hands on your hips, i.e., hold your arms akimbo.

For a person it's useful right away to establish the gender.  One convention is to hold up the index finger (like the number one, perhaps) for a male and make a circle with your thumb and forefinger (like the number zero, perhaps) for a female.  Other pairs of signals can be imagined.

This sign can also mean the target is a character but not a person, such as Nemo the fish.  

Phrase or quote

Make finger-quotes in the air.  Make one pair of double-quotes for a phrase.  Immediately make a second pair for a (presumably longer) quote or proverb.

Examples of phrases are "Top dog" and "Bottom of the barrel."

Examples of quotes are "A rolling stone gathers no moss" and "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."  Tip: For these you might try to elicit the entire target by pantomiming only the phrases "rolling stone" or "glass house."

 

 

  

Words and Syllables in Charades

You sign words by holding up the appropriate number of fingers to the guessers, palm away from you.

You sign syllables by placing the appropriate number of fingers of one hand, palm down, on your (presumably other) forearm.

How many
words

Count up the number of words in the target, then hold up that many fingers in front of you, palm(s) facing the guessers.

This is invariably STEP #2 in a round of Charades.  If you make the "Number of words" sign a second time, it has a new meaning, described immediately below.

Which
word

To indicate which word of the target you're going to mime, count out to that word and hold up that number of fingers in the same way as above.

So, if you're going for the second word of a five-word target, you'd hold up five fingers and then, when you nose-point someone who guessed "Five words," you'd hold up only two fingers, hoping to elicit the guess "Second word."

How many
syllables

To indicate how many syllables are in the word you're going to mime, place that number of fingers on your forearm so all can see.

If you're going to be pantomiming a word of more than five syllables, you've got a problem.  And I'll bet you can solve it.

If you make the "fingers on forearm" sign a second time, it has a new meaning, described immediately below.

Which
syllable

To indicate which syllable of the word you're going for, count out to that syllable and place that number of fingers on your forearm in the same way as above.

For example, if you're going for the third syllable of Pinocchio. you'd first lay four fingers on your forearm to indicate it's a four-syllable word, then you'd lay three fingers on your forearm to indicate you're going to mime key.

 

 

  

Other conventions in Charades

Below are other conventions you can sign.  The more of these you know and the more efficiently you use them, the better player you will be.

  • "Small word" and "Sounds like" create new words.

  • "Chop," "Shorten," "Lengthen," and "Past tense" modify a word that's already been guessed.

  • "Stop," "Wrong track," and "Right track" do not necessarily relate to a specific word at all.

Small word

Hold your thumb and forefinger an inch apart horizontally.

Upon seeing this sign the guessers will just randomly call out small words -- "the," "and," "of" and so on -- till someone gets it and you do the nose-point signal.

Sounds like

Tug your earlobe.

This oft-overlooked sign is invaluable.  When you use the "Sounds like" sign you're saying, "What I'm about to pantomime sounds like what I want you to say."  For example, after using this sign you could pantomime a gun, hoping eventually to elicit the word ton, as in the second syllable of Patton.

(A different sign sometimes used for this convention is to cup your hand behind your ear, as though you're straining to hear something.  I think this sign suffers from the fact you might want to use this action for some other purpose, whereas it's unlikely you'd have any other use for the earlobe-tugging sign.)

Chop the word

Hold one hand in front of you with the palm facing left (or right, if it is the left hand)  and use the other hand to pantomime chopping.

If you pantomime sewing to try to elicit the word sew (for so) and someone eventually says, "Sewing," you would point at the player.  But because the word you want is sew, not sewing, you'd use the "Chop the word" sign, meaning "Chop off some of the word you guessed."

By choosing which end to chop from you can indicate which end to chop.

Shorten the word

Place your hands, palms facing each other, a foot apart or so, as though you were demonstrating the size of the fish you caught or something, then move them closer together.

This is simply a more general form of the "Chop the word" sign.

Lengthen the word

Hold the four tips of your thumbs and forefingers together in front of you and then pretend to stretch a rubber band horizontally.

For example, if the guessed word so far is paper, you can use the stretch sign to try to elicit newspaper.  As with "Chop the word," you can choose to elicit adding more at the beginning or the end by moving only one hand or the other.

Past tense of the word

Hold out one hand palm up and then wave your hand up to your shoulder, indicating something that's behind you.

Use this sign to indicate the past tense of a verb you've already established.

This signal also has a different meaning: It can mean, "Go back to a guess you made a moment ago."

To indicate the subluxative present participulate, place your index finger in your nose.  To indicate the subluxative past participulate, use someone else's.

Stop

Hold out both hands, palms facing the players.

Sometimes you want the guessers to stop so you can mime something new.

You're on the wrong track

Wave your hands, palms down (or facing the guessers), over one another, as though you're calling the runner safe several times.

Sometimes (no doubt because of a mistake a guesser made, not you!) the players will get way off track, and you have to get them to abandon what they're thinking and start over.  For example, if for some reason the players mistakenly start calling out the names of the seven dwarfs, you can get them to abandon that track by using the "Wrong track" sign.

You're on the right track

Wave both hands toward yourself, palms toward you.

If a guesser finally stumbles onto the right track, use this sign to say, "Yes, keep guessing!"  The closer a guesser gets, the franticlier you wave him towards you.

 

 

 

Although Charades is typically thought of as a game in which one team competes against another, you can also play a simpler version I call Free-For-All.

Free-For-All.  In this lackadaisical version the actor thinks up her own target name and all the other players try to name it.  Presumably every actor will always choose a target that can be easily pantomimed.

You may decide or not, as you like, that whoever does finally guess it first is the actor for the next round.

Or you may decide to force a wallflower onto the stage.  This can be more interesting than you might think.  You might find someone who doesn't speak well in front of a crowd who acts well there.

Team play.  In the more traditional version of Charades the participants divide into two teams that compete for the shortest cumulative solving time.  Unlike in the Free-For-All version, the target names must be chosen at random from an independently created, written list, and each actor is stuck with whatever target she gets.

Because some target names are harder than others, it's possible when using a written list that one team will get significantly more hard targets than the other team.  The only way I can think of to ameliorate this unfairness is to play a large number of rounds, thus giving the laws of probability more opportunities to assert themselves.

In team play a randomly chosen target name is assigned to the first actor for Team A, and only her teammates make guesses.  The number of seconds it takes for her to succeed is timed and recorded, and the next round is played in the same way by Team B.  You go through these pairs of rounds till every participant has acted out at least one target name.  At any time after that (as long as each team has acted out the same number of targets, of course), the lower total time detemines the winner.  Another option is to allow each team to nominate its own actor for each round.  Again, as long as whatever the rules are apply equally, they're fair.

Compared to Free-For-All there are two significant drawbacks to the team-play version.  One is that a list of possible target names must be available, a list that, obviously, no player has seen.  This can be accomplished by using lists that already exist, such as in packaged games that you can buy at a toy store or online.  Or it can be accomplished by having one person in the group, presumably ahead of time, create the list and agree, of course, not to be a guesser.

Another drawback to team play is that at any given moment half the people are not playing at all, whereas in Free-For-All all of the participants play all of the time.  This can be ameliorated to some extent by showing the inactive team members the card or piece of paper that lists the target, so at least they can judge how well the other team's actor is doing as they're sitting around otherwise doing nothing.

Incidentally, it's not unheard of for a member of the inactive team to blurt out a guess, and there's no rule preventing the actor from taking advantage of that blunder.  There's also no rule preventing the teammates of the aforementioned blurter from administering a well-deserved noogie.

  
Other information.
  Here are a few other online sources of information on the Game of Charades.

 

Finally, if you have a suggestion or a correction or any other comment on the subject of Charades, please .  It's by hearing from people who have read all the way down to here that I can improve this page.

 

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