Ten New Games for Long Car Rides

October is the month for retreating in New England. This week I’m in between two retreats to New Hampshire, my 11th and 12th fall retreats there in my six years of grad school — I’ve gone to all six math department retreats, four with my church, and two with the Graduate Christian Fellowship.

Retreats in grad school have provided what frisbee tournaments in college and sightseeing across the Western US in my childhood did: Long car or bus rides. When I’m not sleeping, getting to know or catching up with people, or just pontificating on society in general together, it’s often the right context to play some kind of game with the other passengers.

But given the moving environment and constrained seating positions, such rides don’t easily lend themselves to nearly any of the board games in our collection. Card games like Hanabi or A Game for Good Christians probably come closest but often those need some kind of surface to play onto. Growing up, my siblings and I would keep a wooden tray under one of the seats in our mini-van, which we would then place on the armrests of the two captain’s chairs for such a surface on which to play card games, but that was always a bit imperfect as cards would slide around whenever we went around a windy mountain road.

In this post, though, I want to focus on games that don’t require any advance preparation or equipment. Many of these games typically spread by word-of-mouth, but I’m hoping that by articulating them in a blog post, we can speed up that process. They aren’t all “new” per se, but unless you spend a lot of time around me, I can almost guarantee you haven’t heard of half of these. Without further ado, here are the categories:

  • Visual identification games that encourage looking out the window
  • Verbal word association games that test whether you think alike
  • Card games that don’t require a surface to play on
  • Guessing games that involve internet-connected smartphones
  • Guessing games that resemble jokes

I give two examples of games from each category. They’re roughly ordered from most well-known to least well-known, at least based on my friend groups. The last two categories are some of my own inventions. Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments!

Games that encourage looking out the window

I get carsick, as I’m sure many of you do, so it helps me to have an incentive to look out the window beyond not wanting to feel sick. This is very clearly irrational behavior on my part: If I’m feeling more nauseous staring at a random article I’m reading on my phone, then I should just stop doing so and look out the window. But just casually looking outside is boring, so my attention tends to snap back to my phone unless there’s a compelling reason to keep me looking outside, like a game.

Punch Buggy

Requires: Urban or suburban environment
Equipment: None
Players: 2+
Drivers: Should not play

In Punch Buggy, players look for Volkswagen Beetles (with their distinctive rounded shape) and if the find one, announce what color it is like this: “Red Punch Buggy, no punch back” while lightly punching someone else in the car. If they are mistaken on the identity of the car upon further inspection, the person who was punched can instead punch them back with a similar degree of force.

Punch Buggy

“Red Punch Buggy, no punch back!”

This game is so well-known, it even entered a scene of the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, albeit with Stitch throwing the car rather than punching:

My wife Grace and I both like to play with an additional variant we invented: Poke Cooper. That is, if we see a Mini Cooper, we lightly poke each other and announce the color:

Mini Cooper

“Green Poke Cooper, no poke back.”

Like Buggies, Coopers also have a distinctive look to them, with the flat roof and more pointed corners, although both have come out with versions that do a better job of blending in:

We will often also mentally keep track of how many pokes and punches we’ve each gotten in on one journey and compete to see who can win the majority. At one time, we tried adding “Slap Prius” but quickly found ourselves overwhelmed by the number of Priuses in the Boston area.

Cows My Cows

Requires: Rural, ideally predominantly Christian environment
Equipment: None
Players: 2+
Drivers: Should not play

Like Punch Buggy, this game involves being the first to spot something, in this case herds of cows or horses. To “claim” a herd as your own, you just say the magic words “cows my cows” and those cows are yours. Same thing with “horses my horses.” The player with the most cows and horses put together at the end is the winner; while you can’t quickly count herd sizes, you can still usually tell who won.

Cows My Cows

 “Cows my cows!” This herd would be worth a lot if you were the first one to see it.

As a twist, if you see a church, you can “kill” all of someone else’s cows by saying “church kill your cows.” This causes their cow count (cownt?) to go to zero, a vital comeback mechanism. In the original game, horses are permanent, but if you don’t like that idea, I think the most appropriate additional option is “Water tower kill your horses.”

Unlike Punch Buggy, which seems more or less standardized (it has its own Wikipedia page), this game seems to have all sorts of variants on the internet; this just happens to be the version I was introduced to as a kid. Another version I found online involves churches “marrying your cows” to double their number, with graveyards accomplishing the goal of killing someone else’s cows. Like surprisingly many aspects of childhood, there’s a degree of cultural “telephone” going on, and it seems likely that the version I know was mutated from the original. Everyone always asks why churches kill people’s cows, and it seems that part was lost in translation. I’m curious which versions other people know.

With the different environments these two games cater to, there should be enough incentive to encourage people to look outside nearly anywhere.

Verbal Word Games

In this category are games that can be played verbally and often involve knowledge of words in the English (or another) language in some way.

Contact

Equipment: None
Players: 3+
Drivers: Can play

The game of Contact pits one of the players (the “Word Master”) against the other two or more players (the “Guessers”). The Word Master begins by thinking of a Secret Word and giving the Guessers its first letter. The Guessers each individually then try to come up with “clues” relating to any words that begin with that letter and offer them up for everyone to hear. Clues can be anything but should be designed to make another player think of one unique word. Any Guesser can offer and subsequently clarify any number of clues in any order; the only rule is that the Word Master must be able to hear every clue or clarification.

Once a clue is announced, the Word Master can try to bat it down by guessing words, all while not saying their Secret Word. If they succeed in guessing the intended word, the clue-giver confirms this and withdraws the clue. Meanwhile, the other Guessers silently try to guess the answer to any remaining clues, and if any of them think they have it, they say “Contact.” Any number of other Guessers can do so, and once contact is established and the Word Master gives up guessing, they “Challenge” the contact. All players in on the contact count to three and then say the word they were thinking of. If none of the other players matches the clue-giver’s word, the clue fails and everyone returns to thinking of clues or trying to guess other players’ clues.

If at least one of them does guess the word, though, the Word Master gives out another letter of their word. All subsequent answers to clues must also start with all of the letters revealed so far, which generally makes clues easier to guess but harder to come up with. The game ends when the Secret Word is the answer to a successful clue, but if this happens super early, the Word Master can switch the Secret Word to another consistent option that hasn’t been used by anyone.

A couple clarifications: Answers should come from the same set of options as the Word Master has for the Secret Word, and not be any words that have been said already. If you want to allow proper nouns, then this should be agreed upon before the Word Master comes up with the Secret Word and should apply to both. In other words, think of the clue answers as essentially guesses of the Secret Word (hence why they must be consistent with the revealed prefix), so they must all be potentially

As a game, Contact is a bit like an unstructured version of Codenames, the hit strategy/party hybrid word game that also involves inventing clues to invoke particular words. The constraints on the clues are different, but both afford some degree of flexibility in who’s playing (apart from the Word Master, of course) and often work well for friends or family who have some shared context through which to make references.

Convergence

Equipment: None
Players: 2
Drivers: Can play

The other word association game I know is a two-player game (again exactly covering the case when Contact is not playable). It’s much simpler: In the first round, both players start by thinking of a random word, then say their words simultaneously (e.g. by counting to three). In all subsequent rounds, they try to think of another word that is somehow “between” or “related to” both words but which hasn’t been said by either player in a previous round. The players collectively win when they say the same word.

You can think of Convergence as a fun way to measure how similarly some people think. The wordplay is also interesting; sometimes there is an unexpected commonality between two words that can be fun to discover, ideally together. Grace and I just played a game, and here’s how it went:

Eminem, Panda
Hello, Snacks
Appetizer, Party
Chips, Fancy
Ruffles, Poker
Shuffle, Cards
Deck, Dealer
Stack, Game
Jenga, Jenga

Unfortunately, I don’t know of a good way to play with more than two players. You can of course naturally extend the game, but it’s quite hard to come up with something related to three different words without basically ignoring one of them. It’s also a little unclear when the game should end: Do all the players need to say the same word, or just two of them? Fortunately, if you have three or more players, though, you can just play Contact.

Card games that don’t require a surface

Card games with a traditional 52-card deck are classic ways to pass time. In a moving vehicle without a surface, though, trick-taking games like Hearts and Spades can be tough to play since there isn’t a natural place to store tricks you’ve won to count up later. There are probably a myriad of games that do work well in this context, but I’ll just be sharing two examples of games that I’ve seen work well on buses; both only require cards to be in players’ hands or generally discarded and don’t require a separate scoresheet (unless you want to keep track of performance over multiple games). If you know any other games in this category, please let me know!

Scum

Equipment: Standard deck of cards
Players: 3+
Drivers: Cannot play

In Scum, a relative of Big Two and Tichu, players compete to play all of the cards out of their hand before each other. One person leads by playing any number of cards of one number, and players proceed by playing the same number of cards of a higher number or passing. Once all but one person has passed consecutively, the player who played last leads the next hand. Like in Big Two, the 2’s are the highest cards in the game, followed by Aces, Kings, and so on.

The interesting mechanic, to me at least, is the positive feedback loop introduced between rounds. The first player to deplete their hand is dubbed the “king” or “queen” and the last player is dubbed the “scum.” In the next round, the scum must pass the king/queen their highest-valued card, and the king or queen passes the scum any card they wish. Players in between take similar roles in a hierarchy with potential for similar penalties in a gradation from the top to the bottom. For instance, with five players, the King, Prince, Merchant, Peasant and Scum, the King and Scum could exchange two cards while the Peasant and Prince exchange one card in the same fashion as before.

Played over a long period of time, the players will eventually exchange positions, but the structural advantages afforded to those at the top increase the pressure on them to win. It’s especially impressive to win as the Scum or, conversely, embarrassing to finish last from the King position, but those dramatic rises and falls occur rarely enough to add excitement.

Other variants call this game “President” and invoke corporate hierarchies, but I find the medieval theme to be a better fit and (for some) hit a little less close to home.

Canadian Fish

Equipment: Standard deck of cards, with the 8’s removed.
Players: 6 or 8
Drivers: Cannot play

A more difficult variant of the kids game Go Fish!, Canadian Fish (also known as Literature) is played on two teams of 3 or 4 players. There is an advantage to seeing the hands of both your teammates’ and your opponents’, so ideally pick the teams so that adjacent/close players are on opposite teams.

With the 8’s removed, the deck is divided evenly into eight “half-suits” of six cards each, the 2 through 7 and the 9 through Ace. Similar to Go Fish!, the goal of each team is to collect all of the cards of a given suit into their team’s hands. To actually score the suit, though, any player on that team must declare which player from their team has each specific card from that half-suit, and if they’re wrong, then the half-suit is given to the other team. This declaring can happen at any moment during the game by anyone.

With a 48-card deck, starting hands are distributed evenly. Over the course of the game, players take turns asking specific members of the opposite team for cards that they aren’t holding, but which lie in the same half-suit as cards they are holding. If the player being asked has the card, they pass it to the asker, who can then proceed to ask for another card from the same person or another member of opposite team. If not, then play passes to the person who was just asked, not clockwise around the circle.

When a player runs out of cards, then they can naturally no longer be asked. If it happens to be their turn (because of a declaration that just occurred), then the player who passed the turn to them chooses a different opponent to pass the turn to. When all of the players on one team are out of cards, the only thing left is for the team holding cards to declare who has what without any further collaboration.

This game definitely has a memory component, but it also has a bit of teamwork when trying to figure out half-suits that are shared among multiple people on the same team. You have to think about what they know and ask for the right card to convey negative information about your own hand. You don’t generally have to pay attention to half-suits where you don’t have a card, but it’s helpful to keep an eye out for when two players on opposite teams are holding an entire half-suit and realize that, since whichever one of them gets to go before the other will win the half-suit.

For new players, I suggest playing with a simpler variant I invented: the groupings are by number rather than half-suits. This makes 12 sets of 4, which generally means less to keep track of. (You can also play take any other number out besides the 8’s in this case.) Both are fun, but the full game is definitely more of a card-counting challenge.

As in the previous two categories, Scum and Canadian Fish naturally play well under complimentary conditions. Given the symmetric penalties/rewards, Scum is best with an odd number of players, so that each finish position leads to a different outcome in the next game, with the middle player not passing any cards. Canadian Fish, meanwhile, must be played with exactly 6 or 8 players, although any other even number would also work. And if you have 4 players, you could just play Hearts…

Guessing games that involve internet-connected smartphones

Of course, these days we don’t only have to play the classics. Smartphones are ubiquitous these days, and while internet access might not be, these are a couple of games that you can play while you have it.

ThisIsWhyImBroke Price is Right

Equipment: Internet-connected smartphone
Players: 3+
Drivers: Can play, but only as guessers

ThisIsWhyImBroke.com is a website that’s basically a list of links to quirky and, well, imminently purchasable objects; I’ve occasionally used it to find entertaining Christmas gifts for my family. But you can also easily make a game out of it. Take turns scrolling through the objects and finding one that you like that has a price listed. Read off the description and show the image to everyone, and then have everyone else go around guessing the price. The Price is Right scoring applies: Closest but not over the price wins, so make sure to continue to rotate who starts the guessing with the players, since there’s a definite advantage to going later. I think the easiest is just to go around clockwise starting after the person who picked the object.

 

$24.99

How much do you think this Cat Face Massager costs? Its description says: “Keep Mr. Whiskers purring all the day long by getting him this feline face massager. The ergonomic base is outfitted with a board cushion, massage ridges, an anti-skid ring, a catnip container, and a multi-purpose massager that’ll leave your cat in ecstasy.” Scroll over for the answer.

That’s really all there is to it, although I suppose you could keep score if you wanted to. Most of the enjoyment from the game comes from introducing the objects themselves, which are often hilarious and/or tempting to buy. It’s basically window shopping made into a game, with the added puzzle of accurately estimating prices. Some of the objects there are perhaps not to your taste, but that’s fine — you can just skip those.

Reverse-Engineering a Google Image Search

Equipment: Internet-connected smartphone
Players: 2+
Drivers: Can play, but only as guessers

I don’t remember if I invented this game or another person introduced it to me, which probably means it’s the latter and I’m forgetting who did. Anyways, the concept of the game is also simple: One player thinks up a word or short phrase to search on Google Images and then passes their phone to everyone else with only the images showing. The goal of the other players is to guess what the search terms were. Whoever guesses it first gets to propose the next search, unless someone else has a better idea they want to try.

Adventure

What did I search for here? Scroll over for the answer.

Usually you have to pre-screen the images to make sure they don’t have the word written in them, and come up with a different search term if that’s the case (this happens annoyingly often for single word searches). I’m not sure if there’s a setting on Google images to disallow this, but if there is, that would make this game much better.

Guessing games that resemble jokes

This last category is actually more like a subset of the previous category because these games also require an internet-connected smartphone, but I’ve put these two together because both of these guessing games are more like guessing the punchline to a joke.

Just like jokes, these games are more of one-shots; if you’ve already shared them with that particular audience, they’re both not as funny and easier to guess just from memory. Fortunately, I play them rarely enough that they’re always new with a particular audience.

TL;DR Wikipedia Jeopardy

Equipment: Internet-connected smartphone
Players: 2+
Drivers: Can play, but only as guessers

TL;DR Wikipedia was a bit of a meme back in 2014 but which is still around today. The idea was to condense Wikipedia articles into a single snarky sentence, like this one:

TL;DR Wikipedia Sweatpants

Like ThisIsWhyImBroke Price is Right, my innovation is to marry this with a classic TV show. Instead of simply reading these entries off, the game consists of reading the snarky description and then having everyone else try to guess what it applies to. For example, for this image, one person would read, “A nonverbal means of indicating you would like your order to go” and everyone tries to guess “What are sweatpants?”

Of course, the usual disclaimer applies: some entries simply don’t work for this, and for others, you need to introduce pronouns to the description accordingly. The main downside to this game is that TL;DR Wikipedia has not been super active since 2014, so its entries on current events are a bit dated.

Funny Google Image Search Typos

Equipment: Internet-connected smartphone
Players: 2+
Drivers: Should not play

Also keeping with the Google Image Search theme from above, I’ve recently come across this Bored Panda compilation of Google Image Search typos that pleasantly surprised the searchers. For instance, can you tell what this person searched, and what they meant to search?

Baroque Obama

That’s right, that’s “Baroque Obama” — clearly they meant Barack. That’s essentially the game, scrolling through that compilation and trying to guess what they accidentally searched and what they meant to search. It’s best if one person peeks ahead and then shows just the image to everyone else to try to guess.

Usual disclaimer applies that this doesn’t work for all of them; just as with the Google image search game above, some have the search term in the image. But there are enough good ones in that collection to last a while.


Through all of these different categories, I hope that you’ve found at least one new game you’d like to try out on your next road trip!

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