Yankee Trader Gift Exchange Rules

AKA White Elephant Gift Exchange


Sometimes, especially at Christmas when everyone is already giving lots of gifts, you want to have a party at which you exchange gifts but you want to make it somewhat impersonal. For example, at work, where you don't know everyone very well. It would be expensive for everyone to get a gift for everyone they know and it might be embarassing if some people got a lot of gifts while other people get very few. The "Yankee Trader" game is a good way to distribute gifts in a fun way.

Basic Rules

The basic rules are simple. Each person brings a gift. All gifts must be wrapped. Every person gets a unique number. Starting with 1 and going in order, each player may either pick a wrapped gift and unwrap it or "steal" a gift from someone who already has one. People who have their gifts stolen now have a turn and may unwrap a new gift or steal from someone. When someone has unwrapped a gift, the person with the next number in order takes a turn. When the last package is unwrapped the game is over and everyone takes home the gifts they have.

That's all there is to it. There are, however, a wide variety of variants which I will now relate.


Gift Variants

Usually there is some limit to the kind of gifts you can bring. For example, it might be a new gift that you bought new or it could be something you already had. Likewise it could be something "nice" (like a bottle of good wine) or something "naughty" (like a vibrator). Games involving cheap or naughty or weird gifts are usually called "White Elephant" while games involving new, nice gifts are usually called "Yankee Trader".

The experience is somewhat marred if some people bring really good gifts while others bring really bad gifts so it's a good idea to put an upper and a lower price limit on the price of the gifts as well as some guidelines about what kind of gifts to bring.

While someone bringing a cheap gift doesn't enhance the experience, strictly enforced rules about which gifts are allowed can be kind of a downer -- this is supposed to be a game, after all. Still, what if someone brings wood shavings in a box (perhaps they think it adds spice to the game) or, disasterously, nothing at all? If this has proven to be a problem in the past, label the gifts as each person brings it with his or her name and add some sanctions. For example, if you don't bring a gift you can't take a number. Or add a rule that any player who doesn't like their gift can trade with the person who brought it -- a little extreme but very effective! Or perhaps require that a general consensus exist that a gift is at or above the average quality before you allow a steal.

Steal Variants

Some people play that you can trade your gift with someone else after you open it. This will leave the people who go early with junk but it will certainly make things go quickly.

Other people allow players to not unwrap their gifts. I don't think is is much fun, personally.

Generally, the people who go early are much worse off. To compensate, the player with number 1 (and sometimes other low numbers) will be allowed to steal another gift after the whole thing is over.

Another variant on this is that a few extra gifts are added (that is, more gifts than people) and the first players go again at the end until there are no gifts left. This means that some people will get extra gifts.

Steal Limits

If everyone is allowed to steal and there are no limits put on the process, the game can take a really long time. Often, gifts can only be stolen 2 or 3 times after which the item is "locked" and can no longer be stolen. It's convenient to put stickers of some kind on a gift each time it's stolen to keep track of when it's locked.

Generally a rule must be instituted that says that an item cannot be stolen back -- otherwise two people can just steal a covetted item back and forth forever.

You can also add a limit to the number of people who are eligible to steal, if the number of participants is very large. For example, if there are 30 or more people, you can allow only people with prime numbers to steal.


Another variant on stealing gifts is to allow players to buy "protection". By paying some amount of money the player's gift is treated as if it's "locked" and is no longer elegible to be stolen. Typically this is done at parties hosted by organizations and the money goes to the organization in support of something done for the members. It might also go into a "kitty" that can later be used for lunches or other fun things that would benefit the players -- in other words, the money goes to a "good cause."

Last changed 8/14/07.

This page Copyright © 2003,2007 Dave Menconi.