5 Games You Can Play With Only Pen and Paper

group activity with paper
Whether you're a kid or an adult, you can find some fun in old-fashioned paper games. Simon Potter/Getty Images

In the age of DVD players in cars and smartphones for 6-year-olds, it's easy to forget that we can actually entertain ourselves without an electrical outlet. But both kids and adults alike might still find themselves twiddling their thumbs (instead of typing with them) on occasion. And playing a game with paper and pen -- or any writing implement -- remains a viable way to keep yourself busy.

To be sure, there are loads of games you can play with only a writing tool and paper. From games that employ strategy to those that allow you to let loose creatively, all of them can be scratched out on the back of napkin. (If you're really dedicated to squeezing the absolute most out of your technology, rest assured that almost any pen-and-paper game has an online equivalent.)


In the next few pages, we'll check out a variety of games that will keep everyone busy, from kids on a road trip to adults who are tired of playing digital games with strangers online.

5: Tic-tac-toe

Tic tac toe game
You can play this simple game on any type of paper, from a Post-it to a napkin.

Tic-tac-toe is an old standby in the pen-and-paper game category -- make that a really, really old standby. It was actually played in ancient Egypt around 1300 B.C.E., and the Romans played a version as well. Instead of paper and pen, each player had three game pieces they would move around the game board for an attempt at 3 in a row.

Which, you might know, is the goal of tic-tac-toe (or noughts-and-crosses, as it's known in the UK). To play, draw a grid on your paper of two vertical lines dissecting two horizontal lines. Player one puts an X in a box; player two proceeds to put Os. The point of the game is to try to get three of your marks in a row or to block your opponent from doing so. But beware, the clash of two experienced tic-tac-toe players will often result in a stalemate.


Technology is such that you can now play the game online for free or print off grids to save your wrist the trouble of making them yourself.

4: Battleship

Yup, it's true. The board game actually began as a pen-and-paper game for two. It's quite similar to the game you've probably played with a board and pieces; the object is to "hit" your opponent's ships on their grid by making strategic guesses as to where they are.

If you're desperately trying to entertain the kids on a road trip, give them both two grids each that are sectioned out 11 by 11; the top row marked 1-10, the side reading A-J. (The left-hand corner square will be blank.) Each player gets the following:


  • 1 carrier (5 squares)
  • 2 battleships (4 squares each)
  • 3 destroyers (2 squares each)
  • 2 cruisers (3 squares each)
  • 1 submarine (3 squares)

Have the kids outline all their own ships on one grid and then let them go crazy guessing the other's coordinates (marking down their guesses on the other grid). When one hits all the squares of the ship, it's been sunk. Let 'em at it until someone hits all the ships in the sea; it's a lot better than hitting each other.

3: Hangman

People playing hangman
It's not looking too good for this guy.
Image source/Thinkstock

Hangman comes from the vicious time in late-19th century Britain called the Victorian era. (OK, it's more known for its obsessive decorum and rather uptight mores, but maybe a game where the loser is represented by a man hanging from a gallows was a way to let loose.) It's easy enough: One player thinks of a word (or phrase) and writes blanks for every letter below an ominous-looking gallows with a rope. The other player guesses letters until the word or phrase can be sussed out. The only wrinkle is that for each wrong guess, another body part is added to the swinging rope. (Six body parts are standard: head, torso, two arms and two legs.) You have to fill in the blanks before the man is drawn in completely or you lose (not to mention confronted with your own precarious mortality).

If you're looking for an extremely hard word or you just can't think of anything, there are Web sites (complete with algorithms) that will give you suggestions for the most challenging Hangman words. Interestingly, short words seem to dominate, along with words that have repeated letters. Thus, "jazz" comes out as a top head-scratcher.


2: Consequences

While we usually think of games as point-oriented and perhaps even cutthroat, you might want to do something a little more creative with your pen and paper. If you're interested in harnessing your artistic side -- or just love a good game of Mad Libs -- Consequences might be a good choice for you.

The object of the game is to fill in a template story with your own characters, descriptions and actions. You do that by taking turns with one or more people to choose a word or phrase to complete the story. Fold over the paper after each word or phrase is written so nobody knows how the story is shaping up.


Although there are lots of variations on the story, it usually follows a pattern like this:

  • Adjective for a person
  • Name of a person
  • Met (in a standard game, two characters always meet but you could adjust this to another verb)
  • Adjective for a person
  • Name of person
  • Where they met
  • First person wore
  • Second person wore
  • First said to second
  • Second replied
  • The consequence was... (a description of what happened after)
  • What the world said

For younger players, you can even do a drawing version where each kid draws a head, passes it to the next person to add more of the body and so on until you have a completed "monster" or fantasy creature from each kid's initial drawing.

1: M.A.S.H.

This game doesn't have points either, but it will certainly keep a carful of kids occupied -- or entertain nostalgic adults, for that matter. The goal of the game is no small matter: It's to see into the future.

First off, the first player (the "fortuneteller") writes M.A.S.H. at the top of the paper. Those letters stand for mansion, apartment, shack and house. He or she thinks of a few categories: spouse, number of kids, job, type of car -- really, anything that might indicate the prospective life of the player. (Movies starred in? Years of unemployment?)


For each category, the first player solicits at least three choices from the second player -- if you want, you can leave one spot for the fortuneteller to add in an idea. When all the spots are filled, the fortuneteller will begin to draw a spiral. When the second player says stop, the fortuneteller will count the rings across the circle.

Starting from the M.A.S.H. at the top, the fortuneteller will count each entry, eliminating every fifth choice. He or she will continue until only one choice is left in each category, and at the end the fortuneteller will read your "fortune," culled from the remaining selections.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Collinger, Zachary. "How to play M.A.S.H." Grandparents.com. 2011. (May 24, 2012) http://www.grandparents.com/gp/content/activitiesandevents/games/article/mash.html
  • Fischer, Jessica. "Paper and Pencil Games." Lifeasmom.com. 2011. (May 24, 2012) http://lifeasmom.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/A-Simpler-Season-Paper-Pencil-Games.pdf
  • McLoone, Jon. "25 Best Hangman Words." Wolfram Research Company. Aug. 13, 2010. (May 24, 2012)
  • Pen and Pencil Games. "Consequences." Papg.com. (May 24, 2012) http://www.papg.com/show?1TXW
  • Scrabble Blog. "Three popular word games." Scabblepages.com. Aug. 2, 2011. (May 24, 2012) http://www.scrabblepages.com/blog/words/three-popular-word-games/
  • University of Alabama Birmingham, Computer and Information Science program. "Tic Tac Toe." (May 24, 2012) http://students.cis.uab.edu/chemdoc3/history.html