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Before play begins, every player receives several slips of paper (usually 10 for one round, or 5 or fewer for multiple rounds), and writes the name of a different celebrity on each. The names must be kept secret. All of the names are then placed in a hat, or similar receptacle.
While the game is called Celebrity, the names in the hat are not limited to those of famous figures from popular culture. Other acceptable names are those of fictional characters (e.g., Sherlock Holmes), famous animals (e.g., Lassie), or any name that is well known to the group of players. Players may decide at this point on a guideline for how obscure the names can be, such as A name is permissible if it is expected to be familiar with at least half of the players.
After all the names are in the hat, the players are split into two or more teams of three or more players.
One team is chosen to go first, and that team selects a player to give clues to the rest of his or her team. Play begins when the clue-giver picks a name out of the hat. From that moment, he or she has one minute to get his team to guess as many celebrity names as possible before time runs.
The clue-giver can say anything he or she wants as long as it is not any part of the celebrity's name or a direct reference to the name. For Dolly Parton, it is acceptable to say, "She has her own theme park in Tennessee", but not, "She has a themepark called 'Dollywood'." It is also illegal to give clues such as, "Her name begins with a 'D'." It is permissible to use other similar named people as clues. For example, "President Madison's wife's first name is the same as this person."
When the team guesses the celebrity name correctly, the clue-giver draws another name from the hat and continues until time is up or there are no more names in the hat. If an illegal clue is given, that name is set aside and another name is drawn from the hat.
When time is up, the current name is reinserted into the unguessed collection. This allows for a particularly difficult name to be guessed by several players on both sides. The team is awarded a point for every name they guessed correctly. They lose a point for every illegal clue that was given. Alternatively, if an illegal clue is given, the round ends immediately. At the end of the game, all clues will be gone, and you can simply add up cards held by each team to determine a winner.
The next team then picks a clue-giver and play continues until there are no more names in the hat. Teams must rotate the clue-giver each round until every member of the team has been given a chance.
- You can play the game in three rounds, using the instructions above as round 1. After all of the names have been guessed in round 1, they are returned to the hat. The second round proceeds in the same manner except that the clue-giver is now limited to only one word. The word can be repeated many times, but only one word is allowed. In some versions of the game, sounds and hand & body gestures are not allowed this round, while in other versions, hand and body gestures are permitted. In the third round, the clue-giver cannot speak at all, but must suggest the name to his or her team mates using hand motions, gestures, and pantomiming, similar to the party game Charades. After all the names have been guessed in the third round, the team with the most points is declared the winner. In this version of the game it is important to remind the players to pay attention to the descriptions at all times. They need to learn about the named people in case they have to describe or guess it in the following round(s).
- Round 2 can be played with a two- or three-word limit.
- The game is often limited to a single round. Since this shortens game-time, more names are generally added to start.
- Some groups allow a player to "pass" on a celebrity, putting it aside and going on to the next celebrity. At the end of the round, the score is the number of correctly guessed celebrities minus the number passed, and the passed celebrities go back into the hat. This variant can be difficult for beginners, as they tend to give up and pass on a difficult looking celebrity too quickly.
- Another pass variant allows passing in the first round, but not the second or third rounds.
- A scoring variant is to not subtract a point for an illegal clue but to treat it like a pass.
- Celebrity is sometimes called "The Name Game". In this variant, no personal names at all are permitted during rounds 1 and 2. (For instance, it would not be legal to clue "He was in a band with Paul, George, and Ringo" for the name "John Lennon," because Paul, George, and Ringo are all personal names. "He was in the Beatles" or "He grew up in Liverpool" would be fine, as only personal names are forbidden.) Additionally, there are no teams; all players sit in a circle, and each clue-giver only clues to one player at a time, with the pairs permuting after each round. Both the giver and the guesser receive a point for each correct guess in a thirty-second period.
- A variation called "Themed Celebrities" has each member use a common theme amongst their Celebrity names (i.e., starred in Steven Spielberg movies, redheads, etc.) This adds a theme-guessing component to the game. After a person completes a turn, he/she has the opportunity to guess what one of the themes is (You obviously cannot guess your own theme). If a theme is guessed correctly (as judged by the person who put that theme in), the guesser's team gets 5 points. You can only guess one theme per turn and you cannot discuss possible theme guesses during your turn. When it is not your turn, you may discuss possible theme guesses amongst your team (without giving away the theme that you put in). Some have also referred to this as the Hokey Pokey version, but it is more commonly referred to under the codename Ted.
- Another variant is if a team has no more names to guess in a given round they may use the time they have left and start off the next round.
Boxed commercial versions of the games have been sold under the names Time's Up! and Monikers.