Thanks to COVID-19, many of us will be gathering with our loved ones this holiday season via Zoom.

That's a problem for those of us who enjoy spending the annual family get-together humiliating our relatives in a board game around the kitchen table.

How can you kick your brother's butt in Jenga on a video conferencing platform? How can you prove once again that you're the family Rummikub champion over FaceTime?

Never fear. You can still trigger multigenerational trash talking and reignite bitter sibling rivalries during this season of peace, joy and coronavirus with our suggestions for Zoom-friendly family games.

Read on to learn about games that don't require boards, games that were specifically designed for Zoom and virtual versions of familiar board games (even Jenga, or something like it) featuring digital blocks.

First up, there are a host of classic parlor or car-trip games that don't require boards and would work perfectly well on a virtual platform.

We probably don't need to tell you how to play charades, but we would like to point you to an online tool to make your intrafamily charades smackdown more memorable.

Paige Lyman is a stay-at-home mom from Houston, Texas, who created thegame­, a website devoted to suggestions for family-friendly games.

One of the website's features is a random word generator of thousands of words Lyman has curated to be fun to act out in charades and other guessing games. You can choose your difficulty level ranging from easy (sneeze, bird, prayer) to really hard (ergonomic, space-time continuum, teenager).

Another trick to playing charades on Zoom is to use the platform's "spotlight" feature to maximize the image of the person who is acting out the phrase.

Another good Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout or Webex option is do-it-yourself Pictionary.

If you haven't played Pictionary, it's like charades, except instead of silently acting out a word that the rest of your team has to guess, you have to draw it.

Here's how to play: Divide your family gathering into two teams and the team that has tallied the most correct guesses within the time limit wins.

You don't even need a pen or paper to play it on Zoom. Just use the "share screen" function on the platform to create a virtual whiteboard seen by the whole party that you can draw on using your cursor.

Lyman also has a list of words for Pictionary (ghost, lung, inquisition) on her website. She also sells DIY escape room kits including one designed to be played over Zoom or a video call.

One other board-free riddle game that would work well virtually is called Going on a Picnic.

One player thinks up a secret rule for objects that can be taken on a picnic and the other players have to try to guess what the rule is by the objects the player allows or rejects for the picnic.

The rule maker starts by declaring something like, "I'm going on a picnic, and I'm bringing strawberries and I can go." If another player says, "I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing bananas," the rule maker says. "No, you can't go." But if someone says, "I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing ketchup," she'll reply, "Yes, you can go."

Play continues until the other players making guesses can deduce that only red things can be taken on the picnic. Going on a Picnic is described as a good car game for kids, but we could also see it as a remote drinking game for adults.

Getting on board

If you still want to play a board game with family members in distant locations, there are plenty of options.

Chess, for example, has a long history of socially distanced game play called correspondence chess in which players in different locations would make moves by exchanging postcards sent in the mail.

Things were speeded up with faxes and e-mail, but of course today there are plenty of ways to play chess against a distant opponent in real time on a virtual board at websites like

Likewise, there are also online versions of popular board games ranging from Monopoly to Rummikub.

If you need ideas of online board games to try, you might want to visit the new social board gaming service developed in the Twin Cities called

The Maple Grove-based company aims to digitize popular board games like Sushi Go Party! with a subscription-based model that helps tutor players who are trying a game for the first time.

Even dexterity board games have become digitized with a virtual version of Jenga and similar tower block games like Blockle or Table Tower Online.

Another locally made option that would work on Zoom is Storyology (, a storytelling party game made in Minneapolis by inventor Jake Reiny. It's basically a spinnable wooden disk with story topics printed on it.

Players take turns telling stories from their lives based on the prompts from the disk (first job, best pet, last trip). They compete to see who is best at remembering the stories that everyone told.

Playing in the pandemic

If you want to try to play a game designed just for Zoom especially for this moment, check out, a website recently created by the University of Southern California game design program.

It's the result of a challenge to designers to create new games during the pandemic that would work on Zoom. They've got dozens of options including guessing games, murder mysteries, virtual escape rooms, role playing games, storytelling activities, dance-offs and drawing games.

One that intrigued us was MUTE-iny, in which players have to read a sentence slowly while muted. The other players compare guesses on what's being said.

In other words, a great way to announce something to your family that you've been hesitant to say aloud.

There's also Zoom Spot, in which players shut off their cameras briefly while one person secretly adds or removes an object in their room. When the cameras come back on, the other players have to try and guess who changed what.

And in Split Decision, the players have to guess whether all, most, half, fewer than half or none of those present will answer yes to questions like "Are there enough cats in the world?" or "Do you believe in ghosts?" or "Would you like to go out on a date with someone here?"

Players get points if they are able to correctly guess what proportion of their fellow players will say yes to "Would you take a one-way trip back in time to successfully kill Hitler?"

At the very least, you'll get some conversations started by polling your family on if they'd like to be cloned or if they would like to start over and relive their life or if they'd sacrifice their life to guarantee the survival of an endangered species of their choice.

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775