Pen-and-Paper Games Will Make You Smarter Than Your Phone - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Pen-and-Paper Games Will Make You Smarter Than Your Phone

Pen-and-Paper Games Will Make You Smarter Than Your Phone

By Dora Ballew


While you can play games on your cell phone, really testing your brain requires you to go analog.

By Dora Ballew

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine playing games without smartphones. Yet, for thousands of years, idle hours were happily spent with a pen and napkin (or plume and papyrus). We all know hangman and tic-tac-toe, but there’s a whole world of pen-and-paper games being eclipsed by our digital devices. And many, as you’ll find out while playing in a moment of my-phone-died desperation, put our apps to shame.  

“Computer games can be much more elaborate” and focused on realism, explains Joris Dormans, Ph.D., a digital game developer and lecturer on game design, “but that doesn’t mean they’re better.” Nondigital games do a better job of “teaching systematic thinking,” he says, because “you don’t only interact with the system — you also operate the system” or even make the system. It’s the simplicity that helps us learn. Here are four ways to go analog with your gaming. 

Smarty-pants theories abound about how and why you can win — but we won’t spoil it for you.

Sprouts (2 players) 

Start with three or more dots drawn anywhere on a page. Then, take turns drawing lines from one dot to another (or itself), and placing a new dot anywhere on that line. The catch: No dot can have more than three lines connecting to it, and no line can cross any other line. You win when your opponent can’t draw a line. The game was created by mathematicians John Horton Conway and Michael S. Paterson at Cambridge University in 1967, and smarty-pants theories abound about how and why you can win — but we won’t spoil it for you.

Tip: Make things more visually interesting by getting wacky with your lines. 


Exquisite Corpse: The Drawing (2-4 players)

Play this game and you’ll be in the company of folks like André Breton, Nusch Éluard, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. It was invented by surrealists about a century ago. The rules are simple. Fold a piece of paper in as many parts as there are players, and make notches on the folds to show how thick certain parts of your “corpse” are. For example, two notches on the top fold might indicate the thickness of the lowermost point of the neck. Then, each player draws in one section of the corpse, carefully shielding their work from others. All bodies, human or animal, real or dreamed, are game — so the resulting figure tends to be strange. 


Exquisite Corpse: The Poem (3-50 players)

There’s also a language-based version of the game. Imagine Mad Libs but with words. To start, one player decides on the framework. The easiest way: Stick to the basic [adjective] [noun] [verb in any tense] [adjective] [noun]. All players then take turns filling in that framework with one word, without showing their word to the other players. The resulting “poem” is then read aloud, with articles and prepositions added as needed.

Tip: At your next big party, give everyone a slip of paper with a part of speech and a number, and ask them to write down their word on the other side. Have everyone read their contribution in order for a fun poetic moment. 

Exquisite corpse game 1a


Racetrack (2-4 players) 

This one is Dormans’ favorite. On a piece of graph paper, draw a “racetrack” with an inner loop that’s at least as many squares wide as there are players. Each player makes an identifying symbol along the starting/finishing line. Your first move can be to any of the eight intersections surrounding your original point. For all subsequent moves, locate the point you’d land on if you replicated your previous move, and then choose one of the eight intersections surrounding that point. Then draw a line from your previous point to your current point. If you touch the tracklines or cross paths with any other car, you “crash” and lose the game. The winner is whoever makes it to the finish line first without crashing. 

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