this thing's incredible

This Bob Ross Bingo Game Is My Family’s Social-Distancing Hack

Photo: Liza Corsillo

I come from a game-loving family. One of my strongest childhood memories is watching my maternal grandmother deftly shuffle cards as she taught us to play hearts and I Doubt It, her G-rated name for the card game also known as Bullshit. For his part, my dad would tell us frequent stories of raucous poker games where the grand prize — a decades-old tin foil ball — was ceremoniously passed down from winner to winner. Now that I’m an adult, games like Yahtzee, Rummy Tile, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride are a feature of every holiday gathering, which often lasts late into the night. But as it has with most other people and most other things, social distancing has forced us to rethink our tradition.

My cousin Christina came up with the plan (which I consider a stroke of genius): She mailed each household a Bob Ross Bingo card taken from the set she was given as a birthday gift (my cousin is a big fan of Bob Ross) and started a new group text. The only thing she told us was that she was sending parts of a game. The instructions, she said, would come later. Once the envelopes arrived in the mail and we had waited a few days just to be safe, we opened them together and a new family tradition was born.

Bob Ross Bingo is like regular Bingo, only instead of numbers, the cards are filled with the artist’s signature painting vernacular. Each square says something like “happy little trees,” “big ol’ brush,” or “find freedom on this canvas” — things Bob himself said multiple times per episode on his show Bob Ross: The Joy of Painting, which ran from 1983 to 1994. (If you’re not a Bob Ross fan, the same company makes Golden Girls Bingo, as well.) The game comes with 16 bingo cards, a deck of image cards that match the vignettes on the bingo cards, and a bunch of little cardboard discs used to mark images as they are called.

Rather than send out the discs, my cousin asked us to use stuff we have at home: dried beans, loose change, or little pieces of masking tape that are easy to remove. Once we were all set up to play, she started texting the group chat a photo of an image card once a day. In between game updates, the group chat is filled with messages from my aunts, cousins, parents, and me — checking in on each other, making sure everyone has enough toilet paper, and generally joking around and shit-talking just like we would be doing in person. Unlike games played over Zoom, with all of these people we never have to worry about everyone talking over each other. Plus, the group text draws the game out over a period of days or weeks. And that’s a great thing. It offers small chunks of daily family interaction at a time when being far from your loved ones feels scary.

After five weeks of quarantine, we are now on the third game, with each winner agreeing to contribute the next game’s prize. There are many things I miss about getting together with the fam — like copious amounts of pasta and my Aunt Mayrita’s delicious cheesecake — but this is plenty to get me through until we can do that again.

Bob Ross Bingo is lots of fun, but if you’re looking for something soothing to zone out to while in quarantine The Joy of Painting is an excellent choice.