Victorian Games

game piece

Acting Games

Acting games all involve the players immitating certain actions and performing scenes for the other players. Some games involve a group of people getting up to perform something, and others involve a single person acting something out. They're entertaining to watch and good games for getting guests out of their chairs. If your party guests enjoy acting and drama, these are the games for them! Make sure to play them in a place with enough room to move around. You may also want to give some thought ahead of time to props that your guests can use for some of the games and allow a certain amount of party time for guests to plan and get their act together.


This classic party game was already popular in the 18th century and is still played today, although the game has changed over the years. In fact, this version of Charades is very different from the one that people do at parties today. There are many variations on the rules, but the ones I present here are from Victorian Parlor Games by Patrick Beaver, pp. 49-51 with some further information from Cassell's Book of Sports and Pastimes, pp. 759-761, and The New Games Treasury by Merilyn Simonds Mohr, pp. 314-316.

Modern Charades vs. Victorian Charades: The basic object of the game is for a player or team of players to act out clues that will allow another player or team to guess a secret word. Most people today are familiar with the basic concept of the game, but there are different ways to play it. During the 1800s, Charades was played very differently from the modern form of the game. Mohr describes this older form of the game as "complex theatricals" and cites Cassell's Book of Sports and Pastimes (1881), which describes players staging a short play with two scenes in which the actors gave their audience clues to the word they were supposed to guess. This is different from the modern form of the game in which a single player mimes words for the other players to guess instead of speaking out loud and uses certain common gestures to help the other players understand the clues, like holding up their fingers to indicate the number of words in a phrase they want the audience to guess or tugging on their ear to let the players know that the answer is something that "sounds like" what they are about to mime (Mohr 315-316). The version described here is the Victorian form. The only props used for the game are some basic household items that might be lying around, such as items of clothing or furniture. From there, it's just a matter of being clever and creative and acting things out.

Victorian Rules: First, choose a player or team of players who will be acting out a word for the rest of the players to guess. Whether you use individuals or teams may depend on how many people are playing. For example, you could have two teams that both present plays and take turns guessing each other's words, or just one team of actors while the other party guests just remain guessers, in case some people don't want to act. The players doing the acting must choose which word they want to act out. For this game to work effectively, the word they choose should have multiple syllables, and the syllables should be short words by themselves, or at least sound like other short words. For instance, they could choose "rainbow" which can be broken down into "rain" and "bow" or "understand" which can be broken down into "under" and "stand." The word "persuade" has syllables that sound like "purse" and "wade", which also work well for acting out. (Beaver presents a longer list of possible words if you need more ideas.)

Using objects from around the house as props, the actors put together a series of short plays or scenes to introduce each part of the chosen word and one extra skit that includes the complete secret word itself. Give the actors a set amount of time to do their planning. The other actors or teams can plan their plays at the same time, or if some people just aren't interested in acting, only guessing, you can have them play another short game or talk among themselves and have snacks while they wait. Keep in mind that the plays are meant to be very short. I recommend limiting each scene to no more than a minute in length, and shorter is better. They don't have to be elaborate, so it shouldn't take too long for the players to plan what they're going to say, although inexperienced players may need a little more time and some advice when doing their planning. When all the preparations are made, the players all come together to present their little plays and to invite the other party guests to guess their words.

At some point in each little play, one of the actors must say part of the word or the word itself out loud (Cassell, Ltd. 760-761). In other words, the clues are spoken, not mimed. Cassell also says that "in the majority of cases the acting of a charade has the effect of making the word chosen anything but clear; indeed, the object of the players generally is to make it as ambiguous as possible" (p. 760). In other words, the actors do not want to make it too easy for their audience to guess the word. The hint words do not have to be the main focus of the little plays, and it might be better if they're not. Remember that the first scenes the players present only mention one part of the full word that the players want the others to guess. The full word doesn't appear until the final scene.

Example: Suppose that the players choose the word "rainbow." The three scenes that they perform around the word might go something like this:

First Scene
The actors might talk about what a difficult time they had on vacation because everything went wrong: they lost their luggage, they ended up in the worst room of the hotel, and at some point, someone could comment that when they tried to go sight-seeing, "it was non-stop rain" (which introduces the first syllable of "rainbow"). They could end the scene by saying that next year they're going somewhere else.
Second Scene
One of the players pretends to be a little kid, and another pretends to be his mother, helping him get ready for school. She could ask him if he remembered various things, like his book, his backpack, and his lunch. Then, she could notice that his shoe is untied. As she bends down to help him tie it, she can say something like, "See, watch, Johnny, this is how you tie a bow" (which introduces the second syllable of "rainbow"). Then, she could tell him to hurry because the school bus is here, and he has to go.
Third Scene
Two players pretend to be lovers, discussing their future. The lady can talk dreamily about the beautiful wedding that she imagines for the two of them. Then, the man could say that their future lives may not be "all sunshine and rainbow," (introducing the complete word), but whatever happens, they will always have each other. Then, the two of them could make plans to elope later that night.

You see how, in each scene, the word that is introduced isn't over-emphasized. It only needs to be said once. Repeating it would make it too obvious to the audience. It doesn't even have to be the main subject of the scene. Because the players are mainly discussing something else, the audience must listen closely to exactly what they are saying in order to catch the important words. Really, the final scene is the one that should tell the other players the word. They know that they are listening for a word that has two syllables, each a word by itself, and that each of the syllables was mentioned in a previous scene. If they catch the word "rainbow" in the dialogue, they will know that it is the type of word they're looking for, and they might remember that they heard the words "rain" and "bow" in the other two scenes.

For people accustomed to the miming form of Charades, the rules for this version might seem strange and confusing. If you'd like to watch an example of this type of Charades being acted out, watch the first five minutes of Murder at Midnight, a black-and-white murder mystery from 1931. The opening scene is at a party. I'll let you see if you can guess the word they're acting out before any of the guests do. (They explain it, if you don't.)

Because this game does require a little more setting up, it might be a good idea to explain the rules and set up teams early on in the party but have them actually present their plays much later, more like a finale. That will give the players more time to think about their words, come up with ideas, scout out props, and talk over generally how the game works even before they finalize their plans with their teammates. Provide them with paper and pencils to make notes. The more creative the players are, the better this game is!

What Am I Doing?

This game is similar to the modern form of Charades. The rules come from Victorian Parlor Games by Patrick Beaver, p. 52.

Basically, one person at a time stands up and starts to act out doing something while the others try to guess what the person is doing. The game is more fun if the person picks something that is unusual and hard to guess that requires wild gestures and strange poses. Patrick Beaver gives some examples of things to act out, such as giving an elephant a bath, trying to catch a flea, or solving a jigsaw puzzle (although the last suggestion only requires small motions and isn't as strange as giving an elephant a bath, it can still be difficult to guess). It doesn't have to be something that people would ordinarily do, and it could be funnier if it's not. Lion-taming and dragon-slaying could be equally valid choices.

If the other players manage to figure out what the person is acting out, that person has to pay a forfeit. Sometimes, the game is played with partnerships, two players acting out a scene together. If using partnerships, give the partners a couple of minutes to talk over what they're going to do in private before the game begins.

Dumb Crambo

This is a variation on the talking game Crambo and is something like a reversed version of modern Charades.

Start by dividing the players into two teams. One team, the guessers, leaves the room, and the other team chooses a secret word. The secret word has to be a verb, and it should rhyme with a lot of other words. The team that left the room returns, and the other team gives them a hint by telling them another verb that rhymes with the secret word. The guessers then try to guess the secret word without saying anything at all. They have to act out what they think the secret word is. If they are wrong, the members of the other team hiss at them, and they have to act out their next guess until they get it right (Beaver 63). When the guessing team is correct, the members of the other team clap. Then, the two sides switch places, and the guessing team gets to choose the new secret word for the others to guess (Greenaway 36).

For example, suppose the secret word is "cook" and the hint is "hook." The guessing team might decide to act out the word "look" as their first guess. The team members look around with their hands held straight across their foreheads above their eyes as if they were shading their eyes and looking into the distance. The opposing team hisses because "look" isn't the right word. Then, the guessing team starts miming stirring things in bowls and pots and frying something over a stove. The opposing team acknowledges that they are right because they realize that the guessers are pretending to cook something.

Tableaux Vivants ("Living Pictures")

The object of the game is for groups of players to create a scene for other players to interpret without moving or speaking. You'll need a large group of people to play this game well. Six people is about the minimum you would need in order to play, but it's better with more. The rules come from Victorian Parlor Games by Patrick Beaver, pp. 51-52.

Start by dividing the players into at least two groups of about three or four people, possibly more, depending on the number of people you have. One of the groups is left alone in a room to choose a scene to portray for the others.

The scene can be anything as long as the other players are likely to be familiar with it. Possible themes are historical events (like Washington crossing the Delaware), scenes from books (like the "Please, sir, I want some more" scene from Oliver Twist), or Biblical references (like Moses parting the Red Sea). During the Victorian Era, classical scenes and Shakespearian scenes were popular. As long as they are concepts that the other players would have heard described, seen represented in paintings or performances, or read about before and would stand a chance of recognizing, they will work. If the other players aren't interested in history, for instance, pick something more familiar, like scenes from popular fairy tales or nursery rhymes (or movies or tv shows for a more modern version of the game).

The players creating the scene then pose themselves as if they were part of the scene, holding still as if the scene were frozen in time, like a picture (which is the source of the game's name). They call the other players into the room, and the others have to guess what scene they are trying to portray.

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