Many of you are facing company holiday parties this time of year.  I’m staring down the barrel of one tonight.  Some of these parties include some sort of gift exchange, perhaps a Yankee swap.  Clearly running a little low on material, I’ve been wondering what strategies for playing this game would be optimal.

For those blissfully unfamiliar, a Yankee swap is a gift exchange game.  You can bone up on the rules over at wikipedia.

I figure there are actually two games at work here.  First, selecting your gift, and second, the actual playing of the swap game.  There’s plenty of game theory literature on the second part, so I’ll just mull some strategies for gift selection:

Buy something you – and only you – would want. If nobody else would want it, it’ll probably end up in your hands at the end.  This can be a good strategy if your co-workers have tastes very different from yours, but if they realize what you’ve done, somebody might claim “your” gift just to annoy you, especially if somebody else has played one of the next two strategies…

Buy something cheap. Other things being equal, you have a good chance of not ending up with your own crappy gift, and odds are slim that a majority of your co-workers will do the same.  You’re likely to walk away with a more valuable gift than you contributed.

Buy something really awful, worthless, offensive, etc. This is similar to the above in that you are playing the odds that you won’t get it yourself, but it has the added comedy value of watching people try and get rid if it. (Some of my former co-workers might remember the amorous monkey gift…)

Buy something silly. The light-hearted version of the above.  It doesn’t matter that much if you get it or not, but if it makes the event more entertaining, everybody wins.

Buy cash equivalents. This is a bit of a cop-out in some people’s view, but it can also be seen as efficient.  By putting a gift card at a general purpose store, or even cash into the mix, you’re contributing a gift that has a clear value.  It’s also a good way to signal that you’ve bought a gift at the maximum value allowed.

Buy something that might actually be desired. Something that people want or at least something that you wouldn’t be ashamed to take home generally keeps the spirit of the game going.  If everybody plays this game, things will go well.  But of course it makes defection to one of the foregoing strategies all the more tempting.

If you take the position that the game is to be “won” then you might strategically take one of the first three approaches, which I think of as the “bad faith” strategies.  If you take a more well-rounded approach to group fun, you go with the latter three.  Naturally, if you plan to be at next year’s party, you might be more careful about choosing a selfish strategy.

Well, the results are in, and we had a grand time.  My contribution, a section of 2×4 with $19 attached, ended up fittingly in the hands of our finance manager.  I suppose it was a hybrid strategy of cash equivalent and useless, with some extra misdirection thrown in with the size and shape of the plank.  And after some heavy swapping, I perhaps fittingly ended up with the Bitch Kit.