Andy Meneely
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Why White Elephant is Broken

For years, I have endured white elephant gift exchanges. And, for years, I kept telling myself "it's not that broken of a game", or "next year I want to try this variant", or "just enjoy yourself". But no. I was not enjoying myself. The White Elephant Gift Exchange is a broken, broken game, and we as a society have settled for poor game design, and have deluded ourselves into thinking that "traditional" means "good".

White Elephant is the Monopoly of party games. There. I said it.

For those unfamiliar with white elephant gift exchanges, here's how they work in my neck of the woods. Everyone comes to the party with a gift for nobody in particular. Everyone takes a random number out of a hat. Person with the 1 goes first, and takes a gift out of the pile (not theirs). Everyone oohs and ahhs. Then person 2 goes and they can either take a new gift, or they can steal from person 1. If they steal, person 1 must open a new gift. There are many different variants about preventing too much stealing, I won't get into those - none of them are perfect (trust me).

White Elephant Problem #1. Most people don't really want to play a turn-based "game" at a Christmas party

If you've ever been in one of these exchanges with more than a dozen people, you'll know that it's hard to keep people focused. REALLY hard. What inevitably happens is that the board game enthusiast starts getting antsy while the socialites start chit chatting.

And you know what? I'm gonna side with the chit-chatters. It's a party, people. Eat, drink, and be merry. White elephant, while it has its exciting moments, is boring and overly-structured.

White Elephant Problem #2. It's not fair.

This is not a balanced game. I'm sorry. You want a high number. The person who goes last has the best advantage. Yeah sure there are variants where Person 1 gets to steal at the very end, but then Person 2 is at a disadvantage.

Year after year I would get stressed about my number. Year after year I would talk to people who drew a low number and then got a crappy gift. People walk away unhappy in White Elephant gift exchanges. They may not be open about their unhappiness, but it's true.

White Elephant Problem #3. You Can't Arrive Late

Once you assign numbers, it's hard to be fair about assigning new numbers. Since larger numbers are more advantageous, you are essentially encouraging people to be late. Or worse, you're barring people from playing for showing up 30 minutes late (and I've been in parties where people do that... it's awkward and very Grinchy).

Why My Game is Better

Last year, I came up with a better idea for a Christmas party gift exchange. Same kind of constraints (everyone brings a gift, everyone goes home with a gift), but I went about it a whole new way. When I explained it to people, they looked at me like I was weird. Then we did it, and it was a smash hit. I'm never looking back.

I don't have a good title. Give me a title and I'll update this post with my favorite.

The Prep.

About two weeks ahead of time (i.e. about now), contact your friends and ask them to bring a gift to this party. The gift should be for nobody in particular. We usually do a $10 limit, but it also works with more if you're comfortable with that.

I think it's also important to note that joke gifts don't work in this game (you'll see why). Besides, joke gifts or trash gifts are usually mean and unfunny anyway. Make sure you communicate this to your friends. If you do want to be funny, be sure to include something sincere, valuable, and useful. This is about generosity and merriment.

Also, tell people to write a haiku about their gift and put it on the packaging. The haiku should be about the gift, and it will be read in front of everyone. This also gives the jokers in the bunch an opportunity to be funny without bringing a trash gift.

As host, you'll need to get some extra gifts. Get some cheap stuff, and then a few extra gifts in case someone doesn't bring something. (You would have probably done this with White Elephant anyway.) For us, we had, in addition to our own gifts:

* Some mason jars with homemade hot chocolate mix
* Some home-roasted coffee beans
* Some bags of nice cookies
* A copy of one of my card game prototypes
* A new box of Sharpies
* A roll of duct tape
* Other things that are $3-$10 in value, perhaps funny, but useful and desirable.

The above items are going to be not wrapped, and on the "Christmas Market". (Extra gifts for people who forget would be wrapped)

Finally, and this is the key to the whole game, get some poker chips. Maybe red-and-green? Or really any form of currency. These are going to be Christmas Bucks.

The Night.

As people arrive, have them put their gifts in a pile.

Once most people have arrived, give out each gift to everyone randomly. You can have them mob the pile and grab it, or distribute them yourself. Try to avoid conflicts-of-interest like spouses so that it's all surprises.

Next, give everyone 3 poker chips. These are Christmas Bucks. Everyone can, on their own, head over to the Christmas Market and buy whatever they want using their Christmas Bucks. BUT, you may note that the prices start at 5 bucks, and everyone has 3.

As a group, go around and ask everyone to read their haiku. This takes maybe 10 minutes, so people don't even need to sit down for this part. It's fun and funny - and gives hints for what people have.

Then... everyone opens their gifts at once!

Next... just mingle. Seriously. Just mingle and chat for the rest of the night.

And trade. Encourage people to trade their already-opened gifts. Keep your gift in your hand while you mingle so you don't forget.

Someone has something you want? Trade your thing and some Christmas Bucks to sweeten the deal.

Got what you want and have some bucks left over? Go find someone to give your bucks to. You'll make them smile.

Not get what you want? Trade your thing to someone who might want it, and just get bucks back - then go buy what you want from the Market.

You'd be surprised how the economy evens itself out throughout the night. Especially when people have their leftover bucks with nothing to spend them on, then end up giving them to people who want them.

Someone shows up late? Trade with them with your gift (since you're a nice host), or swap their gift with an extra one on the pile if you have extras.

Still have extras and everyone has arrived? Put the unopened gift on the market for a lot of Christmas Bucks!

The Reasons.

Reason this is fun #1: People get to chit-chat. No more taking turns and shushing people while opening gifts or trying to figure out who's next. This is a party!! The game is secondary to the socializing.

Reason this is fun #2: People come away feeling like they got what they wanted, either through buying, trading, or by luck of the draw.

Reason this is fun #3: People get to be generous. Giving your bucks to someone once you don't need them anymore is nice!

Reason is this fun #4: Peoples' inner bargainer and auctioneer come out. By the end of the night, you might have someone making some crazy deal to try and get what they want. It's pretty fun.

There you go. That's my game. It's not perfectly balanced, no, but it works really well with my friends so I thought I would share it.

Now I just need a name for it...
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Matt D
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I think this is a better game if you are looking for a method to fairly distribute gifts.

I don't think that the intent of a White Elephant party is really to distribute gifts that anyone places any high (or even medium) value on.

So, if your intent is to make sure people are happy with gifts -- your idea is way better.

If you just want to sit around and laugh and make fun of each other and have cries of excitement over who manages to ultimately end the night with the Bart Simpson ceramic coffee mug* that gets stolen five times -- traditional White Elephant is still your way to go.

* True story.


P.S.: I'm not a huge fan of White Elephant, largely because of the flaws that you pointed out in your thread. I also realize that I am a somewhat grinchy party pooper. And I accept that.
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Andrew Rowse
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andygamer wrote:
Now I just need a name for it...


How about 'Andy's Non-Acrimonious Lighthearted Swapping Experience'?

That way you can invite all your friends and family to an enormous ANALSEx party, at which you guarantee that everybody will 'come away feeling like they got what they wanted'.
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Jerry Martin
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Christmas Cash
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Derry Salewski
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This (which is also called a yankee swap perhaps?) is the WORST FUCKING THING IN THE WORLD. Anyone who suggests doing one should be punched in the face. Repeatedly.

I love Christmas and they are all ruining it.

Rant over.

Really they're like people who play monopoly and battleship and just don't know better.



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Andreas Pelikan
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Sounds fun. I've never been to a White Elephant gift exchange. In Austria Secret Santa - or "Engerl Bengerl" - is more popular.

Some ideas, playing on White Elephant/Yankee Swap:
Pink Elephant
Yankee Haggle
Malayali Swap
Rochester Swap
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Kevin Shillinglaw
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Your game is broken because haikus...haikues...people have to write a haiku.

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JT Call
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hestiansun wrote:
...if your intent is to make sure people are happy with gifts -- your idea is way better.

If you just want to sit around and laugh and make fun of each other and have cries of excitement over who manages to ultimately end the night with the Bart Simpson ceramic coffee mug* that gets stolen five times -- traditional White Elephant is still your way to go.


Like Andy, I have also hated White Elephant Gift exchanges (and for most of the same reasons). And, like Andy, I set about trying to make the game a bit better, but instead of putting them emphasis on socializing and making the game completely fair, I sought to make the game MORE fair without diluting the fun folks were having (and, if anything, maximizing that fun).

So if you want to make sure people are happy with their gifts and have plenty of time to socialize, I would whole-heartedly encourage people to try ANALSEx...or Christmas Cash...or whatever you want to call it.

If, on the other hand, you lean a bit more towards Matt's perspective (i.e., you don't mind a bit of "take that," but you don't want people to get totally screwed over because they drew a crappy number)...then try this:

JUSTIN'S VERSION OF WHITE ELEPHANT (yeah, I also don't have a cool name for it).

PREP TIME


(1) Go ahead and tell people to do the $10 or $20 limit, but if you are like my family, you will get some joker that decides to spend $1 or $60 on something and then slip it into the pack. That's fine. This game accounts for that.

(2) Be the joker that slips in a $1 or $60 gift into the pile of gifts...but do both! That way there are some really cool gifts and some really funny gifts. Even if you're not the host, make sure to bring a couple of extra gifts just to make sure there are enough gifts to go around. Also (and you'll see why in a second), bringing a couple of extra gifts is helpful in case someone gets a really crappy gift, because the chances are that they will still get something ELSE (as long as people aren't total asses and don't try to double-screw the guy/gal that got stuck with the recurring "Handerpants" gift that keeps getting re-gifted from year to year.*

For myself, I always make it a tradition to bring a silly gift, a practical gift, and a board/card game that I think folks will like. For this last gift, I also make sure it is a game that I don't own just in case no one wants to get a game (yeah, there are folks like that at White Elephant Gift exchanges)...and then I can always try and steal the game and end up with a gift that I wanted). whistle Sneaky, eh? devil

(3) Time to play the actual game.

*True story. http://www.handerpants.com/

GAME TIME

(1) Gather everyone in a big circle and explain the rules of the game. Tell them to listen very carefully or else they will get screwed over by the people that are actually listening.

(2) Tell everybody they need to pay close attention to what gifts are being opened. Later, if they want to steal someone's gift (or if someone else wants to steal their gift), the would-be thief will need to remember the name of the gift they want. It doesn't have to be exact (if there was a gift that contained 5 different kinds of chocolate, you could call it the "chocolate lovers grab-bag;" if there was a bart simpson coffee mug with a roll of tube socks stuff inside it, you can say "socks and mug" or "simpson stuff" or "socks and simpsons"). You CANNOT simply say "that one gift that Jesse got." That's cheating. If you can't remember what the gift was, you don't get to steal it.

(3) Tell everyone to remember WHO HAS THE GIFT in their possession. This could be the person who originally opened the gift, but once it's stolen by someone, you will need to remember the new owner of that gift. So if you try to steal the "Socks and Simpsons Stuff" from Matt and then later realize (to the guffaw of everyone else) that the gift was stolen by Andy a few turns ago...you're out of luck. No stealing for you. You need to remember what the gift was AND who has it. Also (and this is important): NO STEALING THE LAST GIFT THAT WAS STOLEN. More on this last rule later...

(4) Let the real games begin. It's time for Phase 1: The Elephanting. Everyone will take turns taking a gift from the White Elephant gift pile. I still hand out numbers to folks because it is kind of fun to watch people try to decide which gifts to take ("Hmmm...do I take the really big box? Could be something good...or it could be a giant snuggy. Or maybe I should take the small gift? Could be an iTunes gift card, but it could also be those damn Handerpants from last year.") It really doesn't matter, though. Some years, when we are pressed for time, I just hand out random gifts because...

(5) Once everyone has a gift, there should be a couple of gifts left over that no one opened. That's good. Leave them unopened, because we're now going to shift to Phase 2: Getting Lucky. Hand out a quarter to someone in the circle (probably the guy/gal who got the crappiest gift) and tell them to flip the coin. If they get "heads" they get to claim another gift from the circle. If they get "tails," they have to pass the coin to the person on their left. Keep passing and flipping the coin until all of the remaining gifts have been claimed.

(5a) If you want to be really nice, you can skip the coin flipping for this part and simply have the people with the worst gifts come up and take an extra gift. It's a little less dramatic, though, and there's a chance everyone will try and complain about their gift in order to try and get an extra gift (which usually doesn't make the gifter feel very good), so I normally stick with flipping the coin as mentioned above.

(6) At this point, all of the gifts should be opened. Some people will have good gifts, some people will have bad gifts, and some people will have multiple gifts. That's great. Now set a timer (I usually do one for 10 minutes because we normally have about 10-20 people playing, but you could do more or less time). Now we move on to Phase 3: The Stealing. People already know how the coin flipping works. The last guy who took the last gift passes the quarter to the left (just as before), but now the clock is ticking. People who like their gifts should be hiding them behind their backs (and the smart players will be hiding their crappy gifts, too, just to confuse people as to what they have).

(7) The next person who flips the coin now will now get to try and steal a gift from someone else in the circle. If they flip "heads," they must name the GIFT they want to steal and the PERSON who currently possesses the gift. If they are correct on both counts, the thief takes the gift they wanted and must give one of their gifts to the person who lost their gift. If you have two gifts, you get to choose which gift to give to the unlucky sot who lost their ceramic bart simpson mug.

(8) Keeping flipping the coin and passing it to the next person in the circle. If you don't get "heads" immediately, people will laugh and heckle you for your bad luck, but I've never seen a game where the person with a crappy gift didn't get at least 2-3 chances to steal a gift from someone during the night. And if people are content with the gifts they currently have in their possession, there is no need for them to flip the coin (just pass it to the next person in line and try not to give away the fact that you are sitting on a $50 iTunes gift card and a Chocolate-lover's-Spa-Package).

(9) Remind people of the time. Try to have them flip the coin quickly and claim gifts quickly so that lots of people have a chance to steal something. Everyone laughs when someone guesses wrong and loses their chance to steal the thing that they wanted. People will also laugh when they try to steal a gift that was just stolen, and then they are reminded that it is illegal to steal the most-recently-stolen gift. This gives people a chance to hang onto a gift that is really coveted...but not for long. If someone is paying attention and doesn't forget who has what, there is a really good chance they can steal the precious thing that they want...but there is also a pretty good chance that same gift will get stolen out from them in another minute or three.

(10) Remind people when there is only 1 minute left. Some folks will be screaming to flip the coin quickly so that they can get one more turn to steal. No matter what happens, the drama will be high and people will be laughing at their fortune/misfortune. Count down the final seconds, and when time runs out...STOP ALL FLIPPING AND STEALING!

(11) Congratulate everyone on their final gifts (good and bad). At this point, folks can feel free to trade their gifts with each other or keep them and gloat over how they got to keep/steal that thing they really wanted. In the end, it really doesn't matter, because for a brief period of time, everyone should have gotten to hold that thing that they wanted (if only for a minute), so everyone should feel like they sort of got what they wanted (even if they didn't get to keep it and go home with it).

(12) Be a real good gamer and/or and try to facilitate some trades with the people that seem especially disappointed. I will often act disappointed about getting something good stolen from me, but secretly I am glad someone is having a good time. If, however, I manage to keep that really good gift that everyone wanted, I have no qualms about going up to someone and trading it away to them for something less valuable. Sometimes I am just trying to snatch up that game that I wanted, but usually I am just trying to smooth over any ruffled feathers and make sure everyone had a good time...

Usually. ninjadevil

Maybe we call this one "Justin's Merry Flippin' Christmas."
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Rick Senki
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Swap Greet
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Andrew Rowse
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talusproteus wrote:
JUSTIN'S VERSION OF WHITE ELEPHANT (yeah, I also don't have a cool name for it).


I think it's quite clear that this is Merry Observational Memorygame By Justin.
 
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Russ Williams
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scifiantihero wrote:
This (which is also called a yankee swap perhaps?) is the WORST FUCKING THING IN THE WORLD. Anyone who suggests doing one should be punched in the face. Repeatedly.

I love Christmas and they are all ruining it.

Despite the White Elephant's flaws, I think I like its Christmas spirit a lot more than the Christmas spirit of the repeated punching in the face. :/
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JT Call
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russ wrote:
scifiantihero wrote:
This (which is also called a yankee swap perhaps?) is the WORST FUCKING THING IN THE WORLD. Anyone who suggests doing one should be punched in the face. Repeatedly.

I love Christmas and they are all ruining it.

Despite the White Elephant's flaws, I think I like its Christmas spirit a lot more than the Christmas spirit of the repeated punching in the face. :/


Touché.
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andygamer wrote:

White Elephant Problem #1. Most people don't really want to play a turn-based "game" at a Christmas party

It's not a game. It's just a way to give out small gifts where it is impractical for everyone to give a gift to everyone else. It's an excellent conversation starter, I've had some really weird stuff. Regifting it the following year can be even funnier.

andygamer wrote:

White Elephant Problem #2. It's not fair.

No one cares. Do you? Just accept that you might end up with crap with no use. The only time I have seen it go wrong is where almost everyone gets a good gift and only one or two get weird stuff, but that is usually the organizer's fault for not making it clear.

andygamer wrote:

White Elephant Problem #3. You Can't Arrive Late

Good. Unpunctual people don't deserve gifts.
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Carrot Ironfoundersson
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I don't do Christmas Parties, but would actively avoid anything that had anything like this.

I have "partaken" in Secret Santa's in the past, but never as part of a "Party".

And I have to agree with a comment above - Not everyone knows what a Haiku is, let alone can or wants to write one.

Maybe it's just my social circle (or lack thereof)
 
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Another solution - just play this:

White Elephant

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Renate Cloake
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I'd never heard of a white elephant before quite recently, but it turns out we've had a variant for years. The rules are simple:
1. Everyone brings a present with an agreed (fairly low) upper value.
2. Everyone must bring that present wrapped in an amusing* fashion.
3. Presents are placed in a pile in the middle.
4. Everyone is randomly assigned a number.
5. Everyone takes it in turn to survey the pile that is left, select a present that appeals to them in some way and unwrap it.
6. (Optional) attempt to work out who wrapped what.

* Amusing is interpreted differently by different people, but frequently the wrapping reflects the item inside.

Normally the item inside the present that anyone ends up with is not something that anyone is going to get terribly excited about, but just like many party games, it's the experience that counts, not the winning or losing.

I do like the rules for ANALSEx though, but I think I'll stick with my version
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At our office Christmas parties, we just had a simple Secret Santa. Nobody tried to make a game out of it.

Everybody brought a gift. A numbered sticker was put on each gift. After most people had finished eating, we all drew numbers out of a hat. That determined the gift we got. Afterwards, people went back to chatting and eating, and if they wanted to trade, they could work things out between themselves.

If people enjoy making it into a game, fine, but I don't see any reason to force a complicated structure onto it.

One year I got a bottle of wine. We don't drink. I was grumbling by the cookie table about it, when a coworker mentioned his own problem. He'd gotten a box of peanut brittle. He was allergic to peanuts. I love peanut brittle. I offered to trade. He agreed, thinking I was joking, since the purchase price of my gift was so much greater than his. I held out the wine with one hand, and held out my other hand to take the peanut brittle. He was surprised, but we traded, and both left happy.
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Jette Fire
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Name for andy gamer's version:

Golden Elephant
(The Golden Rule or law of reciprocity - treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself.)
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Jette Fire
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Alternative name:

White Elephant 575
(So we can all remember the number of syllables per line of haiku)
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C&H Schmidt
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I really like Andy's idea; much better than the original White Elephant exchange! thumbsup

And I don't think it's true that people always do these with crap gifts; I think it varies. Yes, there are some exchanges that specify exchanging "trash", but I know people also do these with what's supposed to be real small presents -- and then it's really sad if you just end up with one of the one or two stupid presents because you drew a low number (especially if the people doing it are children -- I've only ever done something like this as a child).

I have participated in something like White Elephant several times, but always with a variant that makes it slightly less unfair, but much longer:
You sit in a round and take turns rolling a die.
- One number lets you take a present from the pile or steal one from someone else (which can be opened or unopened).
- One number lets you open the present.
You are not out once you have an opened present in front of you; but you can still steal/ swap with others.
So you roll and roll and roll and more than half the time nothing happens. And the end point is variable, so whatever you fix as the endpoint, someone is going to feel cheated about not having been able to swap their shitty present.
So this variant isn't any better.
 
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KAndrw wrote:
andygamer wrote:
Now I just need a name for it...


How about 'Andy's Non-Acrimonious Lighthearted Swapping Experience'?

That way you can invite all your friends and family to an enormous ANALSEx party, at which you guarantee that everybody will 'come away feeling like they got what they wanted'.


You win. I laughed at this longer than I should have. Hahaha.
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talusproteus wrote:


JUSTIN'S VERSION OF WHITE ELEPHANT (yeah, I also don't have a cool name for it).



I hope you don't mind but I am totally taking this idea and using this for my exchange this year. My work people want to do a Secret santa, but instead of a normal one, they want to the White Elephant.
I was totally scared of it but now with this I can make it so awesome
Thanks so much
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August Larson
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I really like your idea! I will see if I can implement that this year.

A year or two ago I had an idea for a slightly altered version of the White Elephant Gift Exchange that combines a Secret Santa element, but is also funny. The host/organizer creates and then distributes a cliched persona for each participant. These can be mostly silly things such as "crazy cat lady/man", "hoarder", "hippie", "grandma", etc. Then you are given a Secret Santa recipient that players need to shop for. For example, if one was assigned to purchase a gift for the crazy cat lady/man, they may buy a really funky cat mug or a stuffed cat doll. Wrap the gift and bring it to the party.

Gameplay follows your preferred variant of the traditional White Elephant Gift exchange. The difference is that your goal is different. Players are not trying to get the gift they like best, but trying to get the gift that aligns to their assigned persona. This will encourage trading, as each gift will be desired. Some may be obvious, but perhaps the hoarder player thinks that cat mug is intended for them, so they fight over it.

At the end of the game, personas are revealed and each gift is revealed as to which player it was intended for. If the crazy cat lady/man gets the intended cat mug, they get a point. The person who brought the cat mug also gets a point for that player getting a good gift. Points could also be assigned by other categories, like most funny gift or something. Maybe points could be awarded for fewer turns taken to get the right gift. Points are tallied and prizes (provided by the host) are awarded. These prizes will be actually useful things like hot chocolate mix or a gift card. Players get to choose a gift in order of most points and so on.
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Michael Coniff
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"Behold, a treasure more valuable than gold."
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Names:


575 Exchange
Christmas Buck Exchange
Andy's Christmas Commerce
Giftopoly
Christmas Swap
Wallstreet Gift Exchange
Jingle Swap (incorporate a time limit with the swapping part that has to be finished by the end of a playlist of christmas songs)
Christmas Commerce
Red Horse Trade
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Mitch Willis
United States
Kathleen
Georgia
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andygamer wrote:
Why White Elephant is Broken

Maybe for gamers, but it's not broken for most folks, hence why it's still popular today. My extended family (the in-laws) have had a White Elephant every year since I've been married (over 30). Most places I've worked at have had a White Elephant every year and so has our church group and they've all been fun (in one church group there was a fruit cake that had been passed around for 'bout 10 years). Everyone enjoys it and everyone I've been to has been very social...and every one I've been a part of has set a restriction on the number of times a gift can be stolen...

I'm not saying your game is bad by any stretch, just that a White Elephant works very well for most folks...
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