Laughter is at the core of Charades

Games We Play: The Times takes an occassional look at the games Islanders play to enliven the seasons.

Charades is a venerable yet perpetually lively way to entertain a group of people gathered in your parlor. In the old days, I’m told, it was so common that it was called, simply, “The Game.”

One criterion holds for each player — laughter is the objective. Do not fear being laughed at. It will happen, if you’re lucky and good.

My wife and I have played Charades for decades and find the game is always fresh and new, even (maybe especially) when played with the same cast of characters.

You can find instructions online, but the rules are simple enough. You’ll need at least six players, a stopwatch or timer, a pad of paper, pencils, small slips of blank paper, and two little baskets or containers.

Divide your players into two groups (4 to 10 on a side is ideal) send them into separate rooms where they conspire to write short phrases: quotations, book titles, movies, songs, television shows, etc. on their slips, which are then put in a container. Phrases must be known to a majority of the team.

Reunited, one group sends a player to draw a slip from the other group’s container. The player may not show the slip to anyone in his or her own group, though members of the opposite group may see it.

The player then attempts to convey the message by pantomime to his group, without speaking, while another player keeps time. Three minutes is usual.

People have evolved a system of visual clues to indicate categories. Book: pretend to hold a book in your open hands. Movie: pretend to crank an old movie camera. Song: pretend to sing. Play title: pretend to pull the rope that opens the curtains. Opera: open the curtains and pretend to sing. Television: draw a rectangle to indicate the TV screen. Quotation or slogan: make quote marks in the air.

For example, if I’m given the phrase “To be or not to be,” I could begin by showing my teammates that it’s a “quote” from a play: first, pull the imaginary curtain for the stage, then draw quote marks in the air. Next I hold up six fingers meaning the quote is that many words.

I figure if I can get someone to say the first two words, they’ll quickly guess the rest. If I feel particularly weird, I could pull out one ear, which is the signal for “sounds like” and try to get them to say “Dooby” like Sinatra, and hope they’ll get it.

More likely I’d shoot for: first word, (hold up one finger to indicate first word, then hold up my thumb and forefinger to indicate a short word), then second word (mime as if a bee is bothering me, but that could lead them to guess “bug” or “fly”), so I give up on that, and indicate I’m going to show them the 4th word, “not”, and then I mime tying a knot.

If they don’t get that, they’re a batch of idiots, and I’m struggling and in trouble, like a friend of ours, an actor, some years ago. He decided on a course of action and acted each word out in order, and his team didn’t understand. So, rather than switch to new ideas, he, increasingly frustrated, repeated his first motions — again and again, getting ever redder in face.

Try new ideas if the gang doesn’t get the first try. And since my imaginary group are a team of dullards, in this case, I’ll try again, until the time runs out.

You would probably do it differently; there’s no one way to mime anything, because your knowledge of your group and its collective intuition is vital.

It’s a game that can be rollicking good fun, or a pit of terror for some. When you read the words on that slip of paper, you panic at first (“How in heaven’s name can I do this?”), and then your natural childlike talent for attracting attention reveals itself, and the show must go on.

Sometimes, of course, you freeze when your first clues aren’t quickly snapped up, when your players shout confusing and contradictory ideas, and in the confusion one may accidentally say the “Right word,” and then you have to quickly point at that person to indicate “You got it!” If you’re a word or two too late, there is no rewind button and you must try, try again.

Sometimes you need to abandon a brilliant idea and move on. One stolid fellow, after letting us know he was about to mime a three-word movie or song, stood before the group with one arm outstretched and the opposite hand held over it, thumb and forefinger making an O. He stood there for three minutes, getting more and more exasperated with his dense teammates. We never guessed “Moon Over Miami,” though in retrospect it seemed a bright idea.

My favorite memory is of a friend who was thin, painfully shy, reserved. It took a good deal of pleading to even get him to agree to participate. He drew a paper and paused for a long time, making faces of hopelessness, during which the rest of us wondered if the game were over. He asked the other team what the category was and they told him. He turned to us and made the motion of a movie camera.

Then he gestured as if enlarging his flat belly and sprawled on the floor, writhing as if in agony.

Our best guess: “The Exorcist.” But it was the old silent movie: “Birth of a Nation.”

Don Hinkle is a game player and frequent contributor to The Times.