How to Play Yankee Swap

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From extended family get togethers to end-of-the-year office parties, gift exchanges can be a great way to add a little more fun to the standard tradition of gift-giving. Similar to a White Elephant exchange, a Yankee Swap is a chance to bring together a group of people without the stress of finding the perfect gift for a Secret Santa exchange.

The basic rules of Yankee Swap begin just like White Elephant: Everyone is assigned a number at random, then the first player chooses a gift and opens it. The next player chooses their gift, then either opens it or swaps it for a previous player's unwrapped gift. If your gift is taken, you get to choose a new unwrapped gift to open. However, there are several variations of Yankee Swap that can make the game even more interesting.

Never participated in a Yankee Swap before? We've got you covered. Here's what you need to know:

How Many Can Play Yankee Swap?

In Yankee Swap, there's no set number of players—but the more people involved, the more fun the game becomes. It's best to work with no fewer than five or six people to offer enough variation and options to keep the fun going.

What to Bring to a Yankee Swap

To start, each person brings a wrapped gift. The gifts shouldn't be labeled in any way in order to create an element of surprise.

It's a good idea to set a maximum spend, so that the game is fair for everyone. Some groups like to make their Yankee Swaps themed—say, for example, everyone must find a gift that's perfect for a beach vacation, or they have to pick out a food-related gift. Whatever you decide, make sure everyone agrees to the rules beforehand.

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Who Goes First?

Everyone should place their wrapped gift in a pile so they're visible to every participant. Then, each person picks a number from a hat (make sure to have the same amount of numbers as there are people). Whoever draws the number one picks a wrapped gift from the pile and opens it in front of everyone.

The "Swap" in Yankee Swap

After the first person opens a gift, the next person has the option to either a) open a new gift from the remaining pile of choices or b) take the already opened gift from the first player. If he or she decides to steal the gift from the first person, that person then gets to unwrap a new gift.

This continues with each consecutive player. For example, the third person then has the choice to either a) also unwrap a new gift or b) steal from any of the already opened gifts. Keep in mind that the person whose gift is taken can only unwrap a new gift—he or she cannot swap at that point. This goes on until every gift has been unwrapped and each person has gotten a chance to pick a gift.

Variations in Yankee Swap

One of the joys of gift exchanges is that you can add your own twist to make it even more personalized. One common variation to a Yankee Swap is that once every gift is open, the first player is then allowed to swap his or her gift with any other one. This means the first person essentially gets to pick any gift at all.

Another option: Player one can decide to swap his or her gift with any person. If they swap a gift, the recipient can either decide to keep the swapped gift or swap with someone else. This continues until someone decides to keep his or her gift. This is a great way to extend the Yankee Swap if it ends too quickly.

If you want to mix up the order, you can use two decks of playing cards. Players can pick a card from one deck. The other is shuffled, and then the top card is flipped. Whoever has the same card in their hands goes first. This continues until all the gifts have been unwrapped.

group of people opening gifts at a yankee swap
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Yankee Swap Tips

Remember: Gift exchanges are meant to be fun, so it's important not to take them too seriously. Let's say you get a bad gift—that's all part of the experience, and maybe next year you'll get luckier. That said, it's a good idea to encourage participants not to bring junk gifts that no one wants. The idea is to give a gift that is exciting and entices people to steal during their play.

If you're struggling to find a great Yankee Swap gift, try to consider options that are universally liked. Perhaps a fun kitchen gadget such as a waffle maker or a new coffee pot or travel packing cubes. Keep gifts gender-neutral, and consider your audience. A gift your child brings to a school Yankee Swap will, of course, be different than the one you bring to the Yankee Swap hosted by your boss.

Above all, take this time to enjoy the people in your life and make memories that will last longer than that cast iron pan you just won.