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Text away: 15 free messaging games you can play with your friends

This article was original published on Oct. 6, 2013, and updated on March 28, 2016.

Nowadays, there are thousands of games available to play on smartphones. However, that was not always the case. In fact, believe it or not, there was a time SMS games were all the rage. For me it was middle school, those puberty-pivotal two years of existence my mind refuses to forget, but for many that time is now. Whether it’s because of finances, availability or stubbornness, many people have chosen to forgo the commonplace smartphone in favor of a more traditional offerings from major retailers. However, just because you possess a so-called “dumb phone” doesn’t mean you can’t tap into social gaming on the go. Even less-advanced devices come equipped with text messaging.

Here are our picks for the best texting games so you relive your adolescent youth or simply enjoy the underwhelming simplicity of SMS messages. We can’t guarantee any of them will spur that incredible satisfaction that comes from playing “luminescent” for 102 points, but they’ll likely rack your brain nonetheless.

Related: Our favorite iPhone games and picks for the best Android games

Make difficult choices and spill secrets

20 Questions

Twenty questions was a 19th-century, spoken parlor game well before the radio and television show hit American airwaves in the late ’40s. It’s a classic game of deductive reasoning and quick-hit creativity, requiring no more than two people and as little or as much time as the players set. The premise is simple: one person chooses an object or person while the other attempts to guess it in 20 questions or less. Once the subject is chosen, the opposite player sends a series of questions via text, ideally narrowing down the subject through the responding yes-or-no answers.

Example — Say you’ve chosen Morgan Freeman as your subject. The player opposite you may ask, “are you an animal?” You would respond negatively and they would move on to another question, such as “are you a human being?” Considering you’re Morgan Freeman, you would reply with “yes.” The game continues in a similar manner until the player guesses the correct answer or surpasses 20 questions, whichever comes first. Morgan Freeman is far too easy. Pick something harder.

Would You Rather

Would You Rather may not be a game built on the moral and ethical quandaries we’re forced to face on a day-to-day basis — at least I hope not — but it will certainly reveal the nature of your character. The basic premise is this: one person asks “would you rather…” followed by two differing hypothetical scenarios. The options can be as interrelated or as distant as you want them to be, but the two scenarios should carry equal weight if possible. Try to be creative in your questioning and avoid clarifying questions. Also, remember the best questions are the ones usually depicting two, uncomfortable and equally-terrible scenarios.

Examples: The WYR possibilities are virtually endless, allowing users to make the game a simple or harrowing as they want it to be. We’ve presented a few potential conundrums below, but Redditors have taken the game to an entirely new level. Pssh, and I thought I was creative.

“Would you rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?” (Here’s the right answer.)

“Would you rather talk like Jar Jar Binks, or look like Jar Jar Binks?”

“Would you rather change gender every time you sneeze, or not be able to tell the difference between a muffin and a baby?”

Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever, sometimes known as 10 Fingers, is that borderline inappropriate game you drunkenly played in hot tub once with your prospective boyfriend or girlfriend. It usually involves several players and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, but you can just as easily play it sober with two people via text. Begin by setting a specific number of lives, often represented by fingers when played in person, and any other additional rules you’d like to include. Afterward, the players take turns making statements of things they’ve never done before, hence the title of the game. The opposite player loses a point whenever a statement is made that contradicts his or her own experiences.

Though uncommon, some rules specify the person who loses a point must provide a detailed account of why he or she is doing so. According to one American college student quoted on Wikipedia, NHIE and similar games “reveal interesting things about the participants and help build friendships.” The attribution is questionable, but the game does often reveal deep-seated secrets about your friends that you may, or may not, want to know. Somehow I’ve found the game always manages to don an overly-sexual tone, but I’d advise you from taking gender-oriented cheap shots. A guy shouldn’t lose a point just because he’s kissed a girl — just saying.

Example: Assuming it’s your turn, you might say “Never have I ever been skinny dipping.” If the opposite person opposite you has gone skinny dipping, they would lose a point and then proceed in making a statement of his or her own. The game continues in a similar fashion until one player loses all of his or her points.

Name Game

The Name Game is rather tedious in the long run, but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the biggest time-wasters of all time. Played in elementary school classrooms and road-tripping minivans across the United States, it’s a simple spelling game derived from words in a particular topic. Players choose a topic, such as famous actors and actresses, and then select which player will go first. Once chosen, the first player chooses and says a word. Following in suite, the second player says a word that begins with the last letter of the opposite player’s previous word. The game can carry on indefinitely depending on player knowledge, so it’s often best to set a few ground rules prior to initiating the game. We suggest setting a specific time limit in which players can respond or narrowing the chosen topic to make the game difficult.

Example: Say your opponent and you have chosen the topic of famous actors who have been featured in superhero movies. You might begin by saying “Gary Oldman” — an obvious nod to the Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy — while your opponent might follow with “Ned Beatty,” the character who played Otis in Richard Donner’s 1978 rendition of Superman. The game continues in the same vein until one of the players can no longer name a followup person or subject word.

Story Time

They often say two heads are better than one, and though I don’t always agree, collaborative writing can be one of the most intriguing and inventive forms of writing in existence. With Story Time, one person begins by texting the beginning word, phrase or sentence to his or her collaborative partner. Once done, the other player reciprocates with another word, phrase or sentence that directly builds off the narrative begun in by the first player. Whether the resulting story is terrific or horrendous, a shotgun of a story or an epic, the back-and-forth prose eventually builds a potentially-cohesive plot line via a series of text message. The flow and style is never as eloquent or seamless as it would be if crafted by a single writer, but the capacity for unforeseen twists and the shroud of mystery surrounding the next phrase or sentence is often compelling enough to keep it going. Feel free to add restrictions, such as a specified word count per text or other structural elements hindering people from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind. I mean, have you read any self-published ebooks recently? I think you catch my drift.

Example: Let’s take the classic fairy-tale route for example. You might send a text with one of the most cliche lines of literature lore,”Once upon a time.” Building upon what you said, the other player might follow with “there lived a lonely typist who never spoke.” I admit it’s probably not the most exhilarating or enticing story introduction you’ve ever heard, but it’s a start. Afterward, you would respond with another phrase, then your partner, then you… and so on and so forth.

Test your knowledge and proximity to Kevin Bacon

Abbreviations

Abbreviations may very well be the most difficult game on our entire list. The series of letters essentially serve as acronyms, formed of the initial components in a particular phrase or word using the individual letters that begin each word. With Abbreviations, you first choose a phrase summarizing your current activity or simply a phrase you’d like to utilize for the game. Then you take the first letter from each word in the phrase and combine them to form an acronym, which you then tell to your opponent before letting them try to guess what the newly-minted abbreviation stands for. Hints and variations on the game, such as offering more than just the first letter of each word, are often welcome given how hard it can be. Furthermore, the winner is whoever can stump their opponent.

Example: If you’re “grabbing a beer downtown,” for instance, you would present your opponent with the abbreviation “GABD.” They would then attempt to guess what the acronym stands for, and if they fail to do so in an acceptable amount of time, you’re the winner. Again, you may want to offer up hints considering how open-ended an acronym such as “GABD” is. “Giggling about barking dalmatians,” anyone?

Kiss, Marry, Kill

Let’s be honest, most of us use an alternate name for Kiss, Marry, Kill — one not as family-friendly and less suitable for the Digital Trends pages. However, no matter what word you replace “kiss” with, the premise remains roughly the same. The games involves naming which of three people, celebrities or otherwise, you would kiss, marry, or kill. The game only requires two people, one to present the list of options and one to answer in response, with rounds that are often short and (not so) sweet. Although not necessary, I would advise playing the game with someone who has a sense of humor or is difficult to offend. Since the game is based on personal preference, there’s also no distinct winner or loser like many on our roundup. And believe me, people will surprise you.

Example: Suppose you were presented with a few fictional options from AMC’s Breaking Bad: Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader. You may choose to kill White (obviously), kiss Schrader, and marry Pinkman. To quote a coworker, Pinkman has the soul of angel and merely made a few bad decisions somewhere along the way (i.e. crystal meth production, stone-cold murder).

Quotes

Quotes is the classic game of attribution and trivial knowledge. The concept is fairly self-explanatory and straight-forward to the point where I doubt it even needs an explanation. One player presents his or her opponent with a quote over text – whether it  be an iconic movie line, a famous song lyric or any number of standout quotations in existence – while the other attempts to determine the specific actor, musician or other attributable person from which the line originates. It helps if two people share similar tastes in regards to the people they quote, but players can always offer one each other hints if a quote is particularly difficult to pinpoint without further clarification. Additional rules, such as time limits and lives, can always be implemented if your opponent is taking ages to come up with an answer or if you want to designate an ending point. The game’s drawback? It’s based on the honest policy, meaning you never know if your opponent pulled correct answer from his or her brain, or from IMDB.

Example: Assuming it’s your turn, you may text my opponent the line “even the genius asks questions.” If your opponent was versed in the realm of mid-’90s hip-hop, or hip-hop in general for that matter, he or she may respond with “Tupac Shakur” or name the specific song title. However, they also may remain dumbfounded, thus clenching your victory. The game proceeds back and forth in a similar manner, dictated by the number of allotted lives or until you just become bored beyond belief.

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon

I admit Footloose wasn’t Kevin’s Bacon’s finest work, but it’s tough to argue the merits of Apollo 13 and the rest of the Hollywood actor’s prolific film career. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a renowned trivia game based on the Six Degrees of Separation concept stipulating that any two people on the planet can be linked to one another within a maximum of six steps. In the Bacon rendition, one of the two people is Bacon by default. The game, originally created in 1994 by three Albright College students, can be played over text just as easily as any other method. To begin, one player presents his or her opponent with Bacon and another, arbitrary actor or actress that can be linked to the former within six steps. His or her opponent then tries to link the two people by specifying their connection, based on their roles with fellow actors and actresses, in as few as links as possible. Although the entire game revolves around the notion that Bacon is the most connected man in the industry, some claim Sean Connery is actually closer to the center of the Hollywood universe. Regardless, feel free to substitute any actor or actress in place of Bacon.

Example: Suppose your opponent presents you with Kevin Bacon and Justin Bieber. You might say Bieber was recently depicted as an alien in Men in Black III with Mike Colter, who also starred alongside Bacon in Taking Chance, a 2009 historical drama based around on the experiences of a marine in the Iraq War. That would make the Bieb’s have a Bacon number of two. Google it.

Categories

Categories sometimes goes by “List Builder,” but they’re essentially the same game regardless of which name you prefer. To begin, one or both players decide on a particular category or genre, whether it be Japanese car brands or feature-length films starring the infamous Ben Stiller, before sounding off different items that fit within the chosen category. You can always implement additional rules if you want to make the game more difficult, such as requiring answers to start with the next consecutive letter in the alphabet or answer with the same letter as the previous answer ended with. It’s best to choose a category with a finite number of plausible answers, though, otherwise the game can continue on for ages. As you might expect, the winner is the last person to come up with an appropriate answer that fits within the confines of the rules (without doing any research).

Example: Say you and your opponent settled on the aforementioned category regarding Ben Stiller’s filmography. Whereas your opponent might begin with a cult classic such as Zoolander or Tropic Thunder, you might follow up with Meet the Parents or the severely-underrated Heavyweights — the latter of which truly only serves as Stiller’s warm-up for his role as the ego-centric White Goodman in Dodgeball.

Bust a rhyme and partake in an impromptu spelling bee

Rhyme

Rhyme may be most well known to college kids with an affinity for Kings Cup, but that doesn’t make it any less suitable for gaming on the go. To begin, one person enters a word or phrase to which the second person must respond. However, the next person must always follow up with a phrase that rhymes with the previous response. Players continue to go back and forth in a similar manner until one player can no longer come up with an appropriate response that rhymes, thus deciding the victor. And believe it or not, there are words that rhyme with or “orange” and “silver,” so try not to feel cheeky quite yet.

Example: Your opponent may begin with the phrase, “today, I’m taking the bus and riding downtown.” Afterward, you might respond with, “making my way home and coverin’ some ground.” Sure, our example may not be the best out there, but it’s still a million times better than Little Wayne’s 2010 flop of an album, Rebirth. You get the point.

Breakdown

Texting is all about words, so why not increase your Scrabble-esque vocabulary skills in the process? With Breakdown, players must break apart a word and rearrange its letters to create as many different word combinations as possible within an allotted time frame. There’s not much to it — one player presents the word via text and his or her opponent replies with a series of words that can be constructed using the letters from the aforementioned word — but you always incorporate more restrictive rules, such as point values based on word length, if you find it too easy or seek a greater challenge. The winner depends on who manages to create the most legitimate number of words within the time frame and specified number of rounds. Although not always the case, longer words often present greater opportunity for reconstruction and more resulting word choices.

Example: Imagine your opponent presented you with the word “cornucopia” via text. You would begin rattling off as many words as you can muster that can be configured from the letters in cornucopia (i.e. corn, pun, piano). You would continue doing so until the allotted time runs out or you’ve completely blanked on new words. Your opponent would then tally the results before you present him with a word of your choice and the game continues.

Hangman

It’s hard to image playing Hangman sans the crudely drawn stick figure, the looming gallows and the unevenly-spaced underscores placed directly beneath. However, the presumed Victorian-era word game can easily be played using text messages if you lay the initial groundwork and rules beforehand. Once the the player going first has been determined, he or she texts his or her opponent a series of underscores representing the amount of letters in the chosen word. The other player then responds with a letter he or she believes might be in the word. If the guess is correct, the player who chose the initial word replies with the underscores, this time filling in the correctly-guessed letters. If the guess is wrong, the player who chose the initial word replies with the number of guesses that remain based upon the rules specified prior to beginning the game. The game is over when either the correctly guessed or no guesses remain. We recommend beginning your guesses with strictly vowels or some of most commonly found letters in the English dictionary (e, t, a, o, i, n, s, h,  r, d, l, and u).

Example: It’s been determined that you are to choose the first letter and you’ve chosen “jazz” as your first word. Your text would therefore consist of  four underscores indicated the four letters in the word (” _ _ _ _”), to which your opponent would reply with a letter. If he or she correctly guessed the letter “a,” you would respond with “_ a _ _,” but if he or she guess incorrectly, you would likely respond with “four guesses remain” or something along those lines. The game would continue back and forth until your opponent correctly guessed the word or subsequently ran out of guesses.

Ghost

Ghost is for all the spelling aficionados out there, one with which anyone who’s endured a family roadtrip likely knows. Like nearly all texting games on our list, it’s played back and forth between two people or a small handful of players. The goal of the word game is to add letters to a growing word fragment without actually completely a valid word. You can set additional parameters as well, such as a specified word length or category in which the word must fall, but you always must have a word in mind when playing. Each player adds a letter, one after the other, and the person who completes the word receives a “g.” The game continues in a similar manner until one player receives all the letters in the word “ghost,” similar to the infamous game of “Horse.”

Example: Say you started with the letter “h.” Your opponent may then respond with the letter “u,” to which you reply with “l.” If they then happen to play the letter “k” or “l,” for example, they would receive the first letter in “ghost” or whichever letter comes next when spelling the word.

Location

The beauty of cellphones is the sheer amount of freedom they afford — after all, you can use them virtually anywhere with the right network. Location is a game that’s built on said possibilities, one which requires your opponent to guess you location based on a set of hints  you provide. To begin, examine your immediate surroundings and make note of anything that might be unique to that particular environment, such as a chalk board, a massage table, or anything else that help better define your location. Your opponent, or opponents, then guess where you might be, using your hints as the premise. You can be as vague or specific as you like when offering clues, too, or place a cap on the number of allowed guesses. Once your opponent has answered correctly, or, if you’ve managed to stump him or her, allow them to have a go. It’s essentially like I Spy, only you’re describing a location instead of an object.

Example: Let’s assume you’re sitting in an ice cream parlor downtown. You might mention the sheer amount of candy at your disposal, or the lengthy counter abutting your arm. You may also allude to the group of manic children frantically running around, or if you’re opponent is still stumped, the Hoth-like temperature of the room. Continue giving similar or more specific clues until your opponent guess correctly, or until they’ve had enough. Afterward, switch positions.