Drew Barrymore playing host to Cameron Diaz, Matthew Perry and Robert Downey Jr. for Twister. Kathy Najimy, Hank Azaria, Kristen Johnson and Mike Myers competing at Celebrity. Julia Roberts and friends playing Cranium between takes on movie sets.
Celebrities usually set trends, but this time they're simply following suit as more and more 20- and 30-year-olds invite friends over for hours-long sessions competing, not at Game Boy or PlayStation, but board games -- everything from Pictionary to Scrabble.
"I see a range of people playing, but certainly the twentysomethings take to it pretty easily," said Ken Tidwell, managing editor of Game Cabinet, a Webzine that makes European games available in the United States. "After college, video games become less important and the board games edge them out. They're less violent and ... they're a lot more social," Tidwell said. "I think when this crowd that started out playing Pokemon grows up, there'll be even more people getting into games."
It's an opportune moment. Playing across all age groups increases during times of distress -- the recent wars, for example -- or downturns in the economy. According to the Toy Industry Association, a trade organization that tracks sales, Americans give in to their cocooning instincts by staying home and building models, piecing together puzzles and playing games.
"Following 9 / 11, there was an increase in board-game sales," said Terri Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the group. "Families were staying closer to home, and board games are a way to do that."
Greg McCandless, 26, of Los Angeles notes: "In the past couple years more people my age are playing. We played cards in college, but once you graduate it's hard to get people together because you're not living in close quarters."
Holding a game night is less pressure than throwing a big bash, McCandless said. "Everyone's trying to be witty and their personalities come out. And it's always fun when someone brings a new person, a co-worker or someone they've started dating. It's hard to keep your personality under wraps when you have to act things out."
Especially with today's most popular games, which resemble parlor amusements from the Victorian era, with lots of performing and interaction between players.
McCandless and friends play Guesstures, a variation on charades, and Celebrity, a game in which teams try to guess names of famous people by others' descriptions or impersonations.
Other popular games include Taboo, in which players try to get each other to say a particular word but without using certain restricted words as clues. Just try to get someone to say apple without mentioning "fruit pie," "red" or "cider."
The mother of all game-night adventures is Cranium. Atop Amazon. com's best-seller games list, it combines elements of Trivial Pursuit, charades and Pictionary.
Roberts sang its praises on Oprah: "It's just the most fun game." And if you believe the tabs, Britney Spears left Justin Timberlake because of his addiction to Cranium.
Is it that much fun?
Michelle and Mark Woodyard of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., think so. On a recent game night, they built a whole evening around it, starting with appletinis and pigs in blankets to a full-on dinner buffet of coq au vin and an elegant creme brulee for dessert. Cranium-heads evidently need nourishment to fire on all cylinders.
"It makes us use all aspects of our brains and do problem-solving," said Mark Woodyard, 41, a management consultant. "With Cranium, everybody has to do something you might believe you're not good at, like acting or drawing. You check your ego at the door."
Just ask his buddy Scott Marshall, 29, of Rancho Santa Margarita, who went all-out trying to get players to guess the movie title Dances With Wolves. The broad-shouldered, former firefighter first tried his buffalo impression. When that didn't work he put his fists on his hips and started bobbing around in a no-holds-barred, frenetic Riverdance jig.
"I like getting together with friends and making a fool of myself," Marshall said. His team bought him a buffalo T-shirt to commemorate the occasion.
"You come away with a definition you didn't know before, and each time you play you feel a little more confident in certain areas," said another member of the group, Susan Crouse, 38, of Laguna Hills, Calif. "It's challenging and it definitely keeps you out of coach-potato syndrome."
Anne Valdespino is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Wise and Otherwise -- A Games magazine "party game of the year" winner gives players the first part of an obscure adage and asks them to invent authentic-sounding endings. Players get points if others vote for their version.
Wit's End -- Braniacs who find Trivial Pursuit too easy will delight in this knowledge- and trivia-based game, which ups the ante with puzzlers such as "Borneo is to 3, as Hispaniola is to 1, 2, 3 or 4?"
Stare! -- A loose combination of the old Memory game and Clue. Players, working individually or in teams, stare at a card for a predetermined amount of time (10, 20 or 30 seconds), then have to answer questions about what they've seen.
Loaded Questions -- A variation on The Newlywed Game awards points when one player correctly guesses how another will answer probing questions such as "If you could rid the Earth of three creatures, which three would you dispose of?"
If... -- This series of books (there are now four) is designed to be read aloud and answered during an evening with friends or family. They pose questions such as "If you could be God for a day, what would you do?" or "If you had to name the one thing that most frightens you about growing old, what would it be?"