WHEN A FAMILY divides over the issue of party games, a get-together can be a terrible sight.

In one corner of the room, Sis and Dad and Great-Uncle Venky sit around their board, laughing and hooting and periodically urging the others to join them. The others valiantly try to keep their conversation going but find it frequently interrupted by the noise and invitations. Or they reluctantly take part, their evident lack of cheer dampening the fun for all. Can grouchiness be avoided? Can this marriage between parties and games be saved?

Perhaps the problem is, as so many parents artlessly tell their children, that you just haven't found the right girl. Or game.

This holiday season, consider a few of my favorites for your family game shelf.

If you don't already have Taboo (Hasbro, $25.99), or Balderdash (Mattel, $25), consider them wise investments in your word power. They're less cutthroat than Monopoly, more imaginative than Go Fish and more friendly to bad spellers and ESL students than Scrabble.

In Taboo, one player draws a card with a word that she must get the other players to guess, but she can't use as hints any of five clues listed on the card. (For example, for "apple," she can't say "red," "fruit," "pie," "cider" or "core.")

I say, discard the timer and the score book, and just take turns guessing and hinting within a smallish group of players. I like to play two-person games, learning about my friend's patterns of thought through the circumlocutions he employs and guesses he makes.


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I still laugh remembering my Taboo session with Seth a few years back. He was trying to get me to guess "Kentucky," and told me, "This is a state that starts with my dad's first name." I blurted, "Kennessee!"

The sessions can get silly when everyone knows each other. "I went on it this morning." "The Internet!" "Leonard is at one of these right now." "A wedding!" And you learn such interesting things about your fellow players. I've seen a game where one person thought "jealousy" and "envy" were synonyms and another didn't. In another game one person hinted, "This man committed genocide, but now he has a day named after him," and a guesser complained, "There are so many!"

In Balderdash, players hear an obscure word and make up definitions for it. All the fake definitions and the real definition get read aloud. Players get points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players with well-conceived fake definitions. This game is best played in large groups of geeky adults; the vibrant marketplace of ideas is the real attraction.

I am a little troubled that I am good at this game, since that implies I am good both at guessing etymologies and at telling convincing lies. Perhaps I could go into some sort of egghead politics and become president of Mensa.

Once Upon A Time (Atlas Games, $20.95) is the most absorbing game I have ever played. In telling a story and trying to wrest it toward a particular ending, players use randomly dealt cards as the skeletons of their narratives and to grab control of the game.

I love the types of tales different people will tell. One person gravitates toward love stories, another toward absurdist farce.

Claudia creates stories-within-stories and cites existing fairy tales; Zack foreshadows and makes his characters and plots from grand archetypes; Andrew inserts hilarious nonsequiturs and then somehow gets them to make sense; and I like tying up loose threads.

But there are people who prefer not to play games with their friends, in all senses of that phrase. And that's not necessarily something to be fixed. Some of us are introverts and some are extroverts. Some like big parties and some like intimate tete-a-tetes. And some of us just like to talk, while others can only feel comfortable talking if we make the point of the gathering something other than conversation — eating, watching a movie, shooting hoops, playing Scrabble.

Some of us need a foundation or a skeleton for a get-together, something to provide a structure for the evening, without which unalloyed conversation is as uncomfortable a prospect as a tightrope walk or an impromptu speech.

So learn your own style and the styles of your friends and family. Don't put someone else in a tight spot; these misunderstood mismatches cause far more discomfort than they have to. That's the heart of being a good sport, no matter what game you play.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week; write her at sumana@crummy.com.