Last spring, the girls and I hosted a Star Wars party for their friends. We had just finished watching The Clone Wars animated series, and it was May the Fourth (as in "May the Fourth Be With You"), and the girls' birthday parties had been pretty typical affairs (the pottery place, Chuck E. Cheese), and so a Star Wars themed party seemed like the natural thing to do. The party was a hit with the girls and their friends, and preparing for the party, while a little stressful, was also a lot of fun for us. After it was over, we decided we would throw another themed party the next year.
If you've been reading my blog the last six months, you can probably guess what theme we chose this time around. That's right: board games. We've been on a board game kick lately at home, and the girls play board games all the time with their friends during aftercare at school. I'm not a big fan of classic board games -- I'm on record as anti-Monopoly -- but the girls love them and I figured we could come up with some decorations and snacks that tapped into the look and feel of games any seven- or eleven-year-old would recognize. And so, a couple of weeks ago, after a lot of prep work, we hosted a dozen kids (counting Hannah and Lily) at my house for a board game party.
I learned a few lessons from the Star Wars party:
- Don't plan too much. I had a couple of activities prepped for May the Fourth that we didn't even get to, which meant all the time (and stress) that went into that preparation was wasted. I kept things more modest this year.
- Hire a babysitter. One of the parents stuck around last year and helped, but a dozen kids was still too many to handle. This time around, I booked our regular babysitter for the party and had her corral the little kids while I managed the big kids.
- Create an agenda. I had a rough plan last time, but with four little kids and eight big kids in different parts of the house having fun with different activities, I had to get organized.
- Be clear that it's not a birthday party. Last year, a few parents didn't get the May the Fourth pun and asked about bringing gifts. They couldn't help themselves -- parents of elementary school kids are conditioned to think all parties are birthday parties. This year, the invite specifically said that this was a just-for-fun party.
What does a good themed party need? Decorations, snacks, and activities, all themed appropriately. Here's what we did:
In the spirit of not planning too much, we kept it simple. (No Star Wars quotes posted around the house, no life-size cardboard Stormtroopers.) We posted a few game boards and components above the fireplace. Please note that Ticky Tack (a) isn't strong enough to hold up game boards and (b) still leaves residue on your walls, just like it did in your dorm room years ago. Avoid.
Below the fireplace, we hung a welcome sign made to look like giant Scrabble letters. (As you'll see below, "giant-sized board games" was our thing.) For the Scrabble letters, I found some foam board at the craft store ("Foam board! I know how to work with foam board," I said to myself, because this is where I am in my life now) along with scrapbook paper with wood grain printed on it. I used my Exacto knife and ruler to cut these into 6" x 6" squares, then glue sticked (stuck?) the paper on the foam board. I was all set to make my own Scrabble stencils, when I found a pack of them for sale at the craft store. Seriously, they make such things, with the right font and everything. Stencils plus flip chart markers, and we were there. Well, we still needed to hang the sign, but I put the babysitter in charge of that, and she did good work. (Thanks, Kayla!)
Finally, in the entry way between the family room and the kitchen, we hung a banner made out of playing cards. The playing cards (Bicycle brand, accept no substitutes) I got for cheap, but I did spring for a hole punch with a smaller-than-usual diameter. Some hole punching, some plastic string, and Bob's your uncle. I know, playing cards aren't technically board games, but close enough.
Planning our snack selection was a group effort, but the presentation? That was almost entirely Hannah, and, I have to say, she did a fantastic job. She has a future in catering. Our board game themed snacks:
- Oreo cookies and vanilla creme cookies laid out like checkers on a checkerboard. We covered the checkerboard with cling wrap so the cookies didn't taste like wood.
- Alphabet Cheez-Its, looking like Scrabble tiles, in Scrabble-themed cupcake liners. Yes, they make Scrabble-themed cupcake liners. There's an entire Scrabble section at Michaels. I might have bought myself a coffee mug with a B3 on it.
- Brownies decorated to look like dominoes. (Again, not technically board games, but whatever.) I somehow managed to bake brownies that didn't crumble apart when cut, and Miss Kayla handled the artwork.
- Cinnamon Life cereal, in honor of the board game LIFE, one of Hannah's favorites.
- A "Water Works" station with cups decorated with print-at-home Monopoly money.
- And perhaps my favorite snack, for its simplicity: a bowl full of assorted Jelly Belly jelly beans with a Monopoly-style "Chance" sign. I may never play Monopoly, but I'm not above using it for decoration!
Plates and napkins were unthemed. I think I saw Scrabble plates and napkins at Michaels, but I had to draw the line somewhere to stay on budget.
You might think planning activities for a board game themed party would be straight forward. Just play board games, right? Good guess, but that's setting the bar too low. Yes, we played some regular board games -- especially the little kids, who had a blast playing Sleeping Queens and Sorry -- but we also played some giant-sized games.
First, Giant-Sized Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe. I'm sure you've played regular Tic-Tac-Toe, and I'm sure you've realized how deadly dull it is once you're older than, say, seven. As long as both players are on their toes (ha! puns), the game always ends in a tie. That's not the case with Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, which involve far more strategy. You draw a large Tic-Tac-Toe board, then draw smaller Tic-Tac-Toe boards inside each of the nine squares of the larger board. The goal is to get three-in-a-row on the big board by winning the smaller Tic-Tac-Toe games on the little boards. The hitch: You can't put your X or O just anywhere. Which smaller board you play on is determined by your opponents last move! See this post for a nice visual explanation of the rules.
At the party, we played a giant-sized version of Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe on big flip chart paper stuck to the wall. And we played in teams, with half of the big kids playing against the other half. This game worked really well. It was easy to explain, the kids got the hang of the rules after just a couple of moves, some of the kids got the strategy of it shortly after that, and playing in teams meant they had to confer and work together. Lots of fun, and super easy to prepare. You just need big sheets of paper and some markers. (Be sure to stack two or three sheets of paper so the markers don't bleed through to your walls.)
Second, Giant-Sized Doodle Dice. In regular-sized Doodle Dice, you roll six special dice. Each side of each die has one of six doodles: straight lines, curved lines, black dot, smiley face, and so on. You roll your dice, hoping to match designs made of those same six doodles shown on several cards drawn from a special deck. Maybe a lollipop made of a straight line and a dot, or "three men in a tub" made from three smiley faces, a curved line, a straight line, and another curved line. It's a lot of luck, a little bit of probability, and plenty of fun. We took this game and turned it into two activities: creating our own giant-sized cards, each with a unique design made from the doodles, and then playing the game itself.
For the cards, we used 8.5" x 11" cardstock paper matching the colors of the cards in the game. Using a photo of actual Doodle Dice and some image manipulation, I printed and cut out lots of copies of each doodle, each copy about 1.5" square. During the party, the kids designed their own Doodle Dice cards, using the pile of doodles, the cardstock paper, and glue sticks. (How did we do crafts before glue sticks?) This was the arts-and-crafts portion of the agenda, and it went really smoothly. The kids had fun coming up with and naming their own crazy designs (The One-Armed Snowman, Bob the Snail, Yoga Man, among others).
Later during the party, the kids played a giant-sized version of Doodle Dice using the giant cards they had made, along with 5" cube foam dice we decorated to match the dice in the game. (I'll spare you the details on creating these giant dice. Suffice it to say, it involved trips to two craft stores, Home Depot, and the Parent Teacher Store. Also a wasted can of spray paint. Pro tip: Spray paint doesn't work on foam.) The game worked fine, but rain forced us to move the activity inside the kitchen. It really needed more space, what with eight big kids rolling giant-sized dice. It also needed fairly settled kids, which wasn't happening by this point in the party. In hindsight, I'm not sure if Giant-Sized Doodle Dice was worth the effort. Making the cards was fun, but it didn't work as well as a party game as I had hoped.
Our third and final activity was the most fun: a Clue-themed photo booth. Last year's Star Wars photo booth worked well, so I went with the same strategy this year: props plus a large piece of fabric hung on the wall as a backdrop. For Star Wars, we found some fabric that looked like space -- black fabric with stars all over it. I was hoping to find some board game themed fabric at the craft store, but, alas, the current board game renaissance hasn't reached the fabric section of Jo Ann's. We settled for a simple black-and-white checkerboard, evoking checkers as well as the kitchen from at least one version of Clue.
The real fun in the photo booth was the props. The girls and I searched several craft and party stores to find hats and feather boas and aprons and sunglasses and fake mustaches that the kids could use to dress up like the characters from clue: Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, and the rest. (Poor Mr. Green, seriously lacking in character development.) The girls made signs identifying the characters that the kids could wear, and I made giant-sized versions of the weapon cards from classic Clue (the revolver, the candlestick, etc.) for the kids to hold. Oh, we also had a big toy magnifying glass, too. The girls and I did a test run before the party -- gotta check lighting and white balance ahead of time -- so I was ready for the photo shoot when the kids arrived. And they loved it. I won't share the photos here on the blog, since the kids are in them, but, trust me, the kids hammed it up for the camera.
All in all, it was a successful party. The little kids had a blast, and most of the big kids did, too. A couple of Hannah's friends really picked up on the strategy elements of the games they played -- Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe and Love Letter -- and she's hoping to have them back over this summer just to play more games. Unfortunately, Hannah came away from the party feeling frustrated. I think we invited one or two too many kids, since we had a couple who weren't really into the activities, preferring to cut up. Last year, I think Hannah would have been fine with that, but she's heading into middle school this fall, and she's more sensitive in social situations. It bothered her that some of her friends got a little out of control. I feel bad for her, but figuring out who you want your friends to be and how you want to interact with them is part of the transition from kid to pre-teen. I'm guessing parties will only get more stressful for her over the next couple of years. Poor girl!
I'm sure we'll have another themed party next year, but it will probably be a smaller affair, or perhaps just for Lily and her friends. My girls really enjoy exercising their creativity, so these parties make great family projects. And I hope the girls will look back on them fondly when they're older. I know I sure will.