A white elephant gift exchange is a gift giving game with numerous variations but the basic rules are usually the same. Rules are often adjusted to accommodate large groups or to make the game more fun, more competitive, or more relevant to the participants. In its simplest form, the game goes like this:
1. Each participant buys, finds, or makes a gift and wraps it before the party so that no one can guess what’s inside.
2. All the gifts are gathered in a central location where everyone can see the anonymous selection of packages.
3. Each participant randomly receives a number that determines the order in which they will take their turns.
4. The first player begins the game by selecting and opening any of the wrapped gifts.
5. The second player has two choices. Either select and open a new wrapped gift or steal the gift that player 1 opened. If they decide to steal, the first player then opens a new gift.
6. The third player has the same choices, either steal one of the last two opened gifts or open a new gift. If either of the first two players are robbed they open a new gift, or in some game variations can steal as well. Play continues until all the gifts have been opened, at which point the player who went first, who has not had the opportunity to steal yet, has the option to keep what they have or swap gifts with any of the players. The game ends when all participants have finished stealing from one another.
Rules on Gift Stealing:
In many variations a player that has had a gift stolen from them can either open a new gift or steal from someone else. Typically in this case a player cannot steal back the same item that was just stolen from them. This could obviously lead to an endless cycle. If the group is large there should be restrictions on stealing. After all the gifts are opened the game can stretch on needlessly as players continually steal from one another. Because of the potentially long stealing cycles and because players whose turns are late in the game have the advantage of seeing a larger selection of opened gifts, it his common for there to be limits placed on how gifts can be stolen.
One solution is to limit the number of times that any individual gift can change hands over the course of the entire game. For a group of a dozen or so people it may be appropriate to limit the number of steals of any single gift to 3 times. After the third steal the gift is frozen and can no longer be stolen by other players.
A second strategy to control stealing is to limit the overall number of steals that can occur during any given turn. If there is a limit of two steals per turn, the second person who has been robbed would be forced to open a new gift. Their new gift may be stolen during another turn and they may be able to steal a gift at that time.
Another popular variation limits the number of times any individual gift can be stolen per turn, usually one steal per gift. There can be multiple rounds of stealing per turn, since a player who has been stolen from can steal a different gift from someone else, but no player can steal something that has already changed hands during that turn. They may get a chance to resteal the same item in a later turn.
Some variations prevent endless stealing of a popular gifts by limiting the number of times that any individual player can be stolen from.
Some white elephant parties have a theme that all the gifts must relate to. For example a theme might be gifts from the Eighties, edible gifts, funny gifts, things you can wear, useful items, holiday decor, homemade crafts, or ugly gifts. Themes can be challenging like all gifts must weigh 1 pound, all gifts must be white in color or all gifts must start with an assigned letter of the alphabet
Stick to a Budget
It’s common to put limits on the value of gifts. Purchased gifts cannot exceed the maximum price and things brought from home should not exceed the agreed upon value.
Recycle, Reuse, Regift
Instead of buying gifts participants must bring something they already have from home. This can be interesting depending on the group, lots of people have unusual items tucked away that never get used.
Can’t Judge a Gift by it’s Cover
All gifts are wrapped identically so the contents are even more disguised. Participants could all use the same size box and wrapping paper, a paper shopping bag or a gift bag provided by the host.
Fishing in the Same Pond
In this variation everyone must get their gift from the same place, perhaps a particular retail store, flea market, or craigslist.
Gift Card Roulette
Everyone brings a gift card of the same value to the store of their choice. This creates a fair game where no one feels cheap or short-changed.
All gifts are selected and swapped before any are opened. Players must judge what’s inside each present by the shape, weight and feel of the wrapping.
If there is enough time some groups allow infinite swapping at the end of the game, in hopes that each person will end up with the item they want the most.
Clues and Mysteries
To add a layer of intrigue, participants can mark their gift with hints on what’s inside. A box may be labeled “Keeps cool under pressure”, “Use with caution”, “Got it at half price”, “Only one ever made” or “Don’t feed after midnight”.
Who’s Responsible for This?
Typically white elephant gifts are anonymous, but if the group is well acquainted it can be fun to label the outside of the gift with the name of the person who brought it. People will make educated guesses about what each participant might bring, usually incorrectly.
Some ambitious hosts may provide extra wrapped packages that contain special rules or instructions like pick two gifts, block a gift from being stolen, or choose the next player’s gift for them.
Same game, different name:
White elephant exchanges go by dozens of other names including Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, Cutthroat Christmas, Chinese Auction, Rob your Neighbor, Thieves’ Christmas, and more. All these games are essentially the same, although the name white elephant exchange is often associated with funny or strange gifts.
Yankee Swap gifts are often more useful in nature. Players try to find the best gifts they can within the game’s spending limit.
A pink flamingo may be more appropriate for a white elephant exchange than a Yankee Swap.
Dirty Santa and Cutthroat Christmas are versions where stealing gifts is encouraged. The word dirty in Dirty Santa refers to the frequent robbing of gifts rather than the nature of the gifts themselves.
Secret Santa is a slightly different game where participants are secretly assigned a person to get a gift for. The person receiving the gift has no knowledge of who gave it to them. Typically people try to guess who their Secret Santa was after they’ve opened their gift.
Pollyanna Swap is a gift giving game like Secret Santa except it is not exclusively played at Holiday parties.