How to Play the Name Game (aka Fishbowl, aka Celebrity, aka Salad Bowl)

The Name Game is the best game to play with a large group of people – hands down.

I learned it from friends in college and later found other friends with Usborne Books & More who played it under a different name or with a twist. We have come to use the “twist” variety and still call it “The Name Game.” We’ve played it for so many years in a row at our Advanced Leadership Retreat, it was actually mentioned in the official agenda from our Home Office.


  • A group of 4+ people, split into two teams. Ideally, you’ll have 8-30.
  • Slips of paper
  • Pens
  • A timer or second hand on a watch
  • A large enough container to hold the slips of paper folded in half (hat, fishbowl, salad bowl, etc.)


  • Hand out the same number of slips of paper to each person with a pen
  • Ask them to write down names of fictional characters or real people – alive or dead that most of the people in the room should know. The key word there is “should” because while most of the people in any given room in the U.S.A. should know the names of all our former Presidents, they may not…but they should. Make sure you clarify this rule with everyone prior to playing, so there are no hard feelings. Also, please determine in your group what “most” will mean. Is that a simple majority, or do you think it needs to be 75% of the room?
    At my Advanced Leadership Retreat for Usborne Books & More, we always eliminate Peter Usborne.

    A final word on names – you may want to set your own particular parameters. While playing with business colleagues, for instance, you might want to eliminate certain people from being included so you don’t get their name written down ten times.

  • Fold each slip of paper in half and place it in the container


  • The Name Game is played in three rounds. Each round is played with the same names on slips of paper, so don’t destroy them and pay attention even if your team isn’t taking its turn.
  • First round: Traditional “old style” Name Game – verbal charades – pick up a slip of paper, open it, read the name to yourself, and begin giving verbal clues as to who the person/character is/was. For example: Theodore Roosevelt – clues: “One of our Presidents in the early 1900s…they named a toy bear after him….a golfer….the rough riders….set aside a ton of land as national parks….he’s the one with glasses at Mount Rushmore!” You may NOT say, “T.R.” or “They named the Teddy bear after him” or “FDR was related to him” or “his last name starts with Rose” – nothing that points out his initials or name or variations of his name are disallowed. Titles are okay, usually, except in situations where the character’s name includes the title and it’s a key component like “Doctor Doolittle” or “Colonel Sanders”. You also must get your team to guess exactly what is written on the slip. So, if someone has written down, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” you may not take “Mozart” as a correct answer and go on to the next name. Another tip – when you get really stuck or when you don’t know the name, try at least saying whether it’s a man, a woman, how many names, that the first name starts with a letter near the end of the alphabet, etc. You never know who put those names in the bowl and they may be on your team!
  • Second Round: Same as the first, but this time the clues are limited to one word only. Yes – one word. See how important it is to pay attention to the first round? You can repeat the word over and over, you can say it to a rhythm, you can even sing it, but you cannot say another word or use any gestures at all. Not even eye movements that are meant as clues can be used. So, following the first example, to get your team to say Theodore Roosevelt, the clue might be, “President” or “bear” or “Rushmore”.
  • Third Round: Traditional Charades – no words at all! This time, in order to get them to guess Theodore Roosevelt, you might motion to your face to indicate you are wearing glasses, you might make movements to indicate you are riding a horse or playing golf or you may just salute. When all else fails, try the traditional “sounds like” or go to syllables. First word…third syllable….door. Get it?
  • So, on each turn, one person from one team gets up, takes the bowl, and gets 30 seconds to try to get their team to guess as many names as possible. The opposing team times them.
  • When time is up, play stops and the other team takes their turn.
  • If you’re in the middle of giving clues for a name and your team doesn’t get the answer, it gets put back in the bowl.
  • Every member of each team should play at trying to get people to guess. Sometimes you get folks who just won’t want to do that, but they’ll want to guess. That’s fine, but don’t let it be that the best clue givers are getting up each time.
  • It’s easiest to keep a pile of your slips for each round, count them up, and put them back in at the end of rounds one and two, and then tally your score somewhere.
  • The winner is the team with the highest score at the end of three rounds, but everyone is a winner because you’ll all have fun, laugh and maybe learn a little something!

Let me know if you have questions! And post about where and when you’ve played and let us know about it!

19 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa A says:

    Thanks for the idea. It would be great to see a video clip of a group playing. How long does an average game typically last?

  2. usbornebeth says:

    Hi, Lisa,
    I like your idea for a video clip and will make every effort to get some video clips when I’m at Beach Training in September!
    As far as how long a game lasts – that is dependent upon the number of players and the number of names you each put in the bowl. I’d say the average person gets somewhere between one and six answers in their 30 seconds and then there is the celebration and prepping for the next player. It’s always better to have to play a second game rather than have it go on too long, I think!

  3. Brandon. says:

    Hi Beth! Quick question.
    Does the round end when there are no more slips of paper in the bowl? In other words, do you rotate 30-second rounds until all of the papers are gone, then you put them all back and begin round 2?

    1. usbornebeth says:

      The round ends when there are no more slips of paper in the bowl. Any remaining time gets used up as the same person starts the new round. Great question! Thanks!

  4. Pamela says:

    Hi – great game! One confusion I hope you can help with. Does every person on the team have a go, so you potentially go through the list – or part of it – as many times as there are people in the game?

    1. usbornebeth says:

      Yes. Everyone takes a turn. 30 seconds for each turn. Then someone from the other team goes and so on. We sometimes have shy people in the crowd. We let them guess for both teams. šŸ™‚

      1. Pamela says:

        Thanks. We’ll be playing on NYE šŸ™‚

  5. Lars Hoel says:

    I played a completely different game by the same name. You write down the alphabet from A to Z, then match each letter with the letter of a randomly generated phrase. The goal is to come up with a name for person whose initials match the two initials from the alphabet and the random phrase. The person with the most names wins.

    1. UsborneBeth says:

      It is a superb game that you can even manage to play via Zoom!

    1. UsborneBeth says:

      I’m glad you love it as much as we do. SO many great memories playing the Name Game over the years!

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