How to guide for a White Elephant Gift Exchange

In its most basic form, the gameplay is 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 his gift stolen, he also has 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.

Since the process of stealing can prolong the game and can give distinct disadvantages to certain places in the order of play, different variations have arisen.

To speed up gameplay, there is often a certain number of steals allowed per turn. For example, after the third gift on a turn is stolen, the fourth player may be required to open a wrapped gift. An exception may be made for the last round (after all gifts have been opened), allowing an infinite amount of swapping (see below).

A certain gift may be particularly sought after, prolonging the game (almost indefinitely). To address this, two related variations have been widely adopted: First, no gift may be stolen more than once per turn. However, this gives a distinct advantage to the final participant. Because of this, a second common variation states that after a gift has been stolen a certain number of times (usually 3) it is “frozen” (or “dead” or “safe”) and cannot be stolen again.

Another popular variant no longer places a limit on the number of times a gift can be stolen, but instead limits the number of times a person can be stolen from. Once the person reaches that number, the last gift they choose is automatically frozen to them. The frozen person can no longer be stolen from or steal from anyone else. The gifts themselves can circulate as often as possible unless frozen to someone, however a person can not steal back the gift that was just taken from them.

Since the first player is the only one without the option of seeing any unwrapped gifts, some variations allow this player to take one final turn after all gifts have been opened and swap with any “unfrozen” gift.

One variation (usually only for games with serious gifts) is to mark gifts as suitable for males, females, or to both, to guide people into selecting a more appropriate gift.

Another variation is to leave all the gifts wrapped until the end. Stealing is still allowed (up to a pre-defined number of times) but must be done while the gifts are still wrapped. In this case, there is no stealing after the wrapping comes off.

Variations exist even in the process of choosing the play order. For example instead of numbers from a hat, two decks of cards may be used to determine the picking order. Each deck is shuffled individually, and one of them is dealt to the players. One person flips the top card of the remaining deck, whoever has the first matching card then takes a gift. The cards are flipped again until another match is found, and that person is next to take a gift or takes someone else’s unwrapped gift. This continues until everyone has had his or her turn. Dice are another way to determine who is allowed to “steal” a present, when the holder of the die roll doubles (2 of the same number) it is then their turn to take a gift.

One variation states that the gifts must not be purchased; but rather, the items must be things found lying around the house or the garage – things that are valuable (not garbage) but for which the owner has found no use.

Another option is to keep the gifts anonymous. In this case, standard-sized boxes may be used, or gifts may at least be wrapped inside-out (the white portion of wrapping paper showing) in order to help maintain the anonymity.

In another variation, the Host provides several extra wrapped packages that contain cards instead of gifts. Cards have instructions such as: pick two wrapped gifts, trade this card for the last wrapped gift, holder of this card cannot have their gift stolen (pick another gift). For every card that causes a player to keep two gifts, the Host provides an extra wrapped gift.

Using email or other social sites (i.e.: Facebook), this game may even be played online using comment streams, linked images, videos, and banter into a web-based, online party. The online variant may be tied to online gift shopping.

A more drastic variation involves giving gifts that are neither purchased nor desirable—essentially an “ugliest gift” or possibly “Old Maid” variation.

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