Ender Wiggins
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Introducing White Elephant

Let's be honest, there's a lot of gift-giving that happens around this time of the year, but some people just have no taste when it comes to giving good gifts. In the just-released card game White Elephant, you excel in bad gift-giving. That is to say, you have three not exactly highly loved people on your shopping list, and so you haul out some `junk' out of your garage or attic, then attempt to exchange what you have for better stuff, trying to be the player who is the best gift giver.

So where does the white elephant come in? As most people know, the term refers to a possession whose maintenance cost exceeds its usefulness or worth. The expression apparently originates from kings in what is now Thailand, who sought to ruin obnoxious courtiers by giving them a gift that was of little use but would cost an enormous amount to maintain.

The expression has also carried over to a popular holiday party game known as the "White Elephant Gift Exchange", which is what this card game is themed around. You may be more familiar with it under some of its other names like Dirty Santa, Yankee Swap, Chinese Gift Exchange, or Parcel Pass. In this traditional holiday game, participants all bring a humorous or less-than-useful wrapped gift - usually an inexpensive and used item - to a social gathering, and a game ensues in which players get to choose a gift from the pile of wrapped gifts brought by all the participants, or steal an opened gift from another player, in a light-hearted and fun quest to get the best gift. This new game does a wonderful job of translating this traditional party game to cards, so let's find out more!

Start of a gift exchange


Game box

The White Elephant Card Game comes in a conveniently portable game box, decorated with deliberately garish yet attractive artwork.

Box cover

The back of the box introduces the gift exchange theme, lists the components, and indicates the target audience for the game as 3-7 players ages 8 and up, playable in a time-frame of 15-20 minutes.

Box back

Component list

The primary components are cards. Here's what you all get inside the box:
● 50 Gift cards (1-10 in 5 suits)
● 7 Gift List cards
● instructions

Everything inside the box

Gift List cards

Each player will be issued a "Gift List" at the start of the game. Each such Gift List card has three names on it, corresponding to the five coloured `suits' in the game: Red (Mother In Law), Orange (Crazy Neighbor), Yellow (Fluffy the Cat), Green (Great Uncle Irwin), Blue (Random Stranger). These represent the three people that you'll be trying to collect gifts for in the game. Gifts for colours not on your Gift List will be of no value to you when scoring points at the end.

Examples of two Gift Lists

Gift cards

Then comes the deck of 50 Gift cards, which are made of excellent high quality cardstock that is durable and shuffles well.

The deck of 50 cards

Each card pictures a crazy gift that's perfectly appropriate for the white elephant game, so expect to see things that are completely kitschy, gaudy, tacky, or cheesy - garage sale leftovers and rejects you might say! So you may find anything from a slightly used wrench, a propeller cap, goosey-loosey salt-and-pepper shakers, to a can of screws. These gifts may be silly, but maybe your Crazy Neighbour will just love the gaudy bric-a-brac that you're getting him!

The worst or lowest scoring gifts in the game for each of the five recipients

There are ten cards in each of the five colours mentioned above. For each colour, there are gifts numbered from 1 through 10, with 10 being the most valuable and 1 being the least valuable.

All 10 gift cards for the Random Stranger (blue)

It should be noted that the folks making the game have deliberately gone for a very retro look, with garish colours and pictures that look like they've fallen straight out of a poloroid camera from the 1960s. The cards themselves also feature deliberately placed coffee stains and other dirt marks. Whether you like this or not will be a matter of personal taste, but if you keep trying to clean your cards like I did, you'll eventually come to realize that it's just part of the deliberate design.


The size of the instructions is a positive indication about how easy White Elephant is to learn. The entire rule-set easily fits on a single sheet folded into thirds, and the explanation of the gameplay itself only occupies one side. You can download them here. The rules will be very straight forward to anyone familiar with the White Elephant gift exchange concept. I would have liked to see a couple of things spelled out a little more clearly, because while it's hard to imagine that you could even get any of the rules for a game this simple wrong, I humbly have to confess that we did manage to accomplish that. But admittedly any questions we had were quickly answered by the designer in the forums. This is the kind of game that is really so straight-forward that you can explain it in little more than 60 seconds, so most people will have no trouble with the rules, and be off and playing within 5 minutes.

Cover of the instruction sheet



To get started, give all the players a random Gift List card. Each player also gets a starting hand of Gift cards, dependent on the amount of players in the game (9 for three players, 8 for four players, 5 for five players, 6 for six players, 7 for seven players).

Complete set-up for a six-player game

Flow of Play

The traditional game

There's a lot of variations of the traditional gift exchange game, but typically it works as follows: "Each participant supplies one wrapped gift. Participants determine in what order they will take turns choosing gifts. The first person opens a wrapped gift and the turn ends. The second person then chooses whether to open a wrapped gift or "steal" a previously opened gift. If a person has their gift stolen, they also have the option of choosing a wrapped gift or stealing an unwrapped one. When a wrapped gift is opened, the turn ends. When all gifts have been unwrapped, the game ends." (Source)

A hand of cards at the start of a game

Turn order

The card game works in pretty much the same way. Everyone chooses a Gift card and places it face down in the middle of the table. The starting player then chooses a gift from the middle and "opens" it by placing it face up in front of him. Then the next person in clockwise turn order may either:
a) steal an opened gift; or
b) choose an unopened gift.
If you choose an unopened gift from the middle of the table, you "open" it by placing it face up in front of you. If you steal an opened gift from another player, you take their opened gift and place it in front of you. If your gift is the one stolen, the turn sequence is interrupted and you may now steal an opened gift or open an unopened gift to replace it. To prevent the game going on indefinitely by having the same gift taken over and over again, "stolen" gifts can't be stolen immediately again until a new gift from the middle of the table has been opened.

Player 3 can steal an opened gift from Player 1 or 2, or take and unwrap a closed gift from the middle

Further rounds

When every player has a gift, they place it under their Gift List card, and the process is repeated with the next person being the starting player. This continues until all the Gift Cards have been played - at this point you should have just as many gifts as you started with.


At the game end, you only score the highest card of each colour/person on your Gift List (i.e. a maximum of three cards will score). The player with the highest score is the winner!

This player scores 20 points at game end


What do I think?

Accessibility: White Elephant is definitely a very light and fluffy card game that best excels with a casual group of players. If you take your gaming too seriously, you might be best advised to stay away, because this type of filler is definitely not going to satisfy your appetite for a hard core game. On the other hand if you're looking to find something suitable to pull out when the family or a group of non-gamers are over, this is an excellent choice. It really thrives with groups of 5 through 7 players, can be explained in a matter of minutes, and is highly interactive and fun.

Theme: I've always liked the White Elephant concept and it works really well in this game, because the game essentially is the traditional gift exchange, but simply played with cards and points. The gift-giving (and gift-stealing) theme really drives the game, and is one of the game's strongest selling points. There's also fun to be had in having some laughs about the silly gifts themselves, even though player choices will be determined by the number value rather than any preference for the gift itself.

Game-play: The origin of the game does mean that there's not a big amount of strategy, and you're sometimes at the mercy of other players and the luck of the draw. But then again that's true also of the white elephant gift exchange that inspired the game, and what the card game shares with it is the same kind of appeal and charm, especially as particularly valuable gifts end up going from one player to the next. And while there can be a good dose of luck and good fortune, over time you'll come to realize that there are more subtle decisions than might first appear. The player who goes last in a round does usually get the best choices, but you need to use your position in the turn order to your advantage, either by contributing a gift you need for yourself if you're going last, or taking a high value gift that someone else needs early in a round, confident that they'll steal it later and thus give you a wider choice, or even to prevent them getting the points.

Replayability: Admittedly the White Elephant Card Game is not going to have a huge amount of replay value with adult gamers, and I can't see it being played for three hours straight each night over a week's vacation. But I can see it getting a lot of play with different people, particular non-gamers or families, and most groups that we introduced it to all wanted to play again immediately. Kids especially loved it, and wanted to play multiple times, eager to try again with different people on their gift list. Considering that it's just a light filler that can be over in little more than 10-15 minutes, it's really the theme that makes this a solid winner even for adults, and will help to make it easy to bring it to the table for 15 minutes of laughs with almost any group, and many more times with families.

Components: I have to confess that I'm not a huge fan of the retro 60s style artwork. Some of the gifts pictured on the cards are almost a little`scary' to imagine getting as gifts, although really this is precisely the point. They're deliberately designed to make you both groan and laugh at the same time, and for the most part they do a good job of achieving this. In fact, part of the fun is musing over the gifts you end up giving at the end of the game, and perhaps even telling a little story about how happy Great Uncle Irwin or the Crazy Neighbour will be with that vintage piece of electronics you're giving him! I would not have been inclined to go so far as to include fake dirt and stains on the cards, but that's just my personal opinion, and I readily concede that others might really like this touch. I do wish, however, that the names of the gifts themselves were a little clearer and easier to read - even though they're really just part of the theme, it's much more interesting to refer to a card as the "Hohner Melodic Mouth Harp" than just the "Green 7". But these are relatively minor nitpicks in the broad scheme of things, and overall the quality of the components is good.

Examples of two tacky gifts


Is White Elephant for you? If you're looking for something that you can pull out for 2 or 3 plays after Thanksgiving dinner with Uncle Bob and the cousins who never normally play games, and don't mind if it goes back into the cupboard until the office Christmas party the next month, this game is ideal for exactly that. It also works very well in a family context with children - expect them to ask to play it multiple times, and fortunately as an adult you won't get sick of it too quickly. When evaluated by the niche it aims to fill, it deserves top marks. The real fun to be had here is reliving the silliness of a traditional white elephant gift exchange, combined with the silliness of some really bad gifts that most of us wouldn't be seen dead giving as presents in real life. Congratulations to Brian Kelley for making his dream a reality by publishing this game, and giving us gamers a wonderful gift about giving bad gifts.

mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Which would you rather play: White Elephant or Crappy Birthday?
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Ender Wiggins
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RiffRaff14 wrote:
Which would you rather play: White Elephant or Crappy Birthday?

Good question, and tough call, although I wouldn't consider them to be similar games aside from some thematic overlap. Both are good games but in a slightly different way. With Crappy Birthday, the focus is more on the personal preferences of the players, so player discussion on the merits of the individual gifts is the central focus, and the chief mechanic relies on personal taste and choice. With White Elephant, what the gifts are really doesn't matter in the end, because point scoring relies just on the set colours and point values. Crappy Birthday is more of a social activity (think: party game), while White Elephant is more of a game (think: filler).

So which I'd prefer to play would depend on the type of people I happen to have around in any given situation, and whether it demands something more along the lines of a social activity with lots of laughs or an actual game where you get to make more decisions. I love both, and they meet slightly different needs. Crappy Birthday has limited replay value within the same group, but has potential to see wider play with a wider range of different groups, while White Elephant is more likely to get multiple plays with the same group, but might appeal to a narrower range of different groups.

The strength of White Elephant is that even though it is just a filler, the theme is very strong, and if the players are so inclined, it will lead to some fun chatter and laughs about the silly gifts themselves, which for me is one of the things I like about both games.
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