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Telephone (Chinese Whispers) 101: How to Play / Rules / Variations

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

people surprising and telling secrets to each other

Don’t remember how to play the Telephone Game or haven’t had the opportunity to play it before? You are officially in luck! You are about to learn everything you need to know about the game, including how to play, the rules, and the variations that you can try. Settle in; there’s a lot to learn about the much-loved Telephone Game

The Telephone Game:

  • How to play: players stand in a line and whisper a message from one person to the next until it gets to the end of the line. The last person in the line repeats the message.
  • Rules: the message can only be whispered once and not purposefully misconstrued along the way.
  • Variations: some popular variations include Team Telephone, Rumors, Charades Telephone, and Picture Telephone.

The above summary gives you a brief overview of the Telephone Game and what to expect. Of course, there is a lot more to the game than just a brief summary. If you want to learn a bit more about the game, how it is played, and how to play the variations, simply read on. 

What is the Telephone Game?

The Telephone Game (as it is called in North America), or Chinese Whispers (as it is commonly called in Commonwealth countries), is a children’s game that is quite enjoyed by adults too. It is played in schools, at parties, at social gatherings, and even at team-building events. 

The individual who invented the game is not known. Most people today call the game Telephone Game or Broken Telephone as the original name of Chinese Whispers can be seen as racist. 

The original name was based on the fact that some people believed Chinese people spoke in a way that was purposefully hard to understand. The game, which is based on possible confusion and the inability to hear, was thus associated with the name “Chinese Whispers”. 

How to Play Telephone

Playing the Telephone Game is fairly simple. Players can play in one line or two. The first person in the line is given a word, phrase, or sentence. The player then turns to the next person in line and whispers the message into their ear. The next player does the very same thing until the message makes it to the end of the line. 

Then, the last person in the line must announce what the word, phrase, or sentence was. If it is correct, it is considered a win. If it is incorrect, it is considered a loss. Even though the wrong phrase is considered a loss, it is often the cause of much hilarity. 

While you can look up fun phrases and words online to use in the Telephone Game, it’s a good idea to let each player have a turn coming up with a phrase or a message. This will make each player feel more involved, and it also makes it more fun. Players are encouraged to use unfamiliar words and phrases or something funny, so that the game doesn’t become boring.

Rules of the Telephone Game

Let’s talk about the rules. It’s usually the first thing that people look into before they play a game. You’re in for a nice surprise with the Telephone Game. Most games have a lot of rules attached to them, but not the Telephone Game. 

There aren’t many rules to the Telephone Game, which is one of the reasons why it is so great for parties and smaller kids too. The rules that you need to remember are:

  • Only whisper the message once and don’t ask players to repeat the message.
  • Do not purposefully change the word/phrase/message.
  • Whisper the message quietly, so that other players don’t hear.
  • For three players or more.
Children on a bench playing Chinese whispers

Variations of the Telephone Game (Chinese Whispers)

Playing the traditional version of the Telephone Game is undoubtedly fun, but what do you do when players start to get a little bored or distracted? Then it’s time to shake things up a bit with something new and intriguing. 

You can make the game more interesting and fun by incorporating a few variations of the game. There are many variations out there, but below, we focus on just four of the most popular variations to consider. Let’s jump right into learning what’s different about them and how they are played. 

1. Team Telephone

When playing with just one line of players, the Telephone Game is considered non-competitive. While this can be fun and all-inclusive, a lot of people like a little competition. Winning and losing are the whole reason why some people love to play games. If you want to add an element of competitiveness to the game, play Team Telephone.

This variation of Chinese Whispers is best played with a large group of people. Break the group up into two or three lines. Each line is a team that will play against the other. Each team is provided with the very same word/phrase/message. The team who repeats the message that is closest to the original at the end is the winner.

You can include some rewards or prizes for this in order to up the ante. 

2. Telephone Rumors

This variation of the Telephone Game is also sometimes called “Gossip”. It’s a fun version of the game as it’s less demanding on the message being sent to the end of the line perfectly. In fact, in this version of the game, players are encouraged to listen to the message and then change just one or two of the words. This will change the meaning of the message as it goes along. 

When the message reaches the end of the line and the last person announces what the message is, it is usually quite hilarious!

3. Charades Telephone

Charades Telephone, which is also often called “Charades Down the Line”, is quite a funny version of the game. It involves elements of Charades, a game most people are familiar with.

In this version of the game, the person with the message acts it out instead of whispering it to the next person in the line. The person who receives the acted-out message must then turn around and tap the next person on the shoulder. They then act the message out to the next person in the line. This continues until the last person in the line receives the Charade. 

The last person must then verbally announce what they believe the original message was/is. This variation works best with a group of 5 or 6 people. Everyone must stand with their backs to the first person and only turn around to see the clue when tapped on the shoulder. This stops players from seeing the message acted out by players ahead of them.  

4. Picture Telephone

This variation of the Telephone Game is very similar to a game of Pictionary. To start off with, everyone playing the game must get a piece of paper and a pencil or a pen. Then, each player must write their phrase or message on the top of the piece of paper, and then in the bottom corner, they must write their own name very small. 

Pencil with paper and book on wooden table

After writing the phrase down, each player passes their piece of paper to the player on the right. The person reads the message and then tries to depict the same message in a drawing. They then fold the paper backward, so that the sentence/message at the top is covered. They then pass the paper to the player on the right. The player must then write down what they think the picture is. 

Once again, the page is folded so that the first drawing is concealed and only the word/phrase/message is visible. The next player then draws a picture of that. This continues for a pre-determined number of rounds. 

Most people opt to play until everyone ends up with their initial page. At the end, the paper is unfolded, and the messages and images are compared. This can be quite hilarious!

Last Word

If you were wondering how to play the game and what sort of variations you could try, simply refer to the above titbits of information. Good luck and enjoy!

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.