How It Feels To Play Dream Phone As An Adult

Photographed by Shirley Yu.
In 1991, Milton Bradley released Dream Phone, a board game targeted at young girls. It was the sleepover activity for me and my friends in the ‘90s, since it combined two of our then-favorite things: boys and talking on the phone.

For those who need refreshing, here's how you play. There are 24 (fictional) boyfriend candidates, and one of them has a crush on you. Actually, he has a crush on everyone who's playing. You pull a card with a boy's face and phone number on it, call him on the big pink cordless phone, and he gives you a clue. All of these dreamboats have generic names like Bob, Mike, and Phil. Except the clues they give are in negatives. "I know where he hangs out. He's not at the movies." You look around the board to see which boys are hanging out at the movie theater, and then cross their names off your list of potential Secret Admirers. When you're ready to guess who your crush is, you find his face card and call him. If you're right, a resounding male voice will say from the phone, "You're right! I really like you."

Ah, youthful innocence.

Since 2016 marks 25 years since Dream Phone entered our lives, I decided it was the perfect time to revisit the game as a grown woman. I mean, it’s my duty to investigate nostalgia and provide thoughtful commentary on pop culture. Okay, fine. I really wanted to play it again and so did just about every one of my coworkers.

First, you should know that if you’re looking to track down Dream Phone — my biggest regret in this life is ditching my own edition of the Milton Bradley game when I became “too cool” to play it anymore — you’re going to have to pay a hefty price. It currently goes for about $115 on eBay and $250 on Amazon. Since I couldn’t exactly justify spending hundreds on story research, I tracked down a very nice woman from Hasbro (which acquired Milton Bradley) who said she would check the company’s archive. Sure enough, there was a lonely Dream Phone, languishing in a corner, just waiting for me to get weird with it. She agreed to loan me the game for the purpose of my story, and I spent a couple of weeks interacting with it, petrified I would accidentally spill something on it or somehow set it on fire, ruining the memories of millennial women everywhere.

Once Dream Phone arrived at the Refinery29 offices, I recruited beauty editor and zero-bullshit human Maria Del Russo to play a few rounds with me and keep me honest in my assessments.

I cannot find the words to express the thrill we felt — and the noises we made — when we opened the box, put batteries in that huge, pink phone, and heard the dial tone signaling our Secret Admirer adventure was ready to begin.

The first round was exhilarating. “It’s like a sleepover in a conference room!” we shouted. “I’m Snapping this,” Maria said, documenting our first game with her iPhone. But by the middle of the second game, I admit I felt over it. It made me feel warm and fuzzy for my childhood while simultaneously reminding me that I’m sadly no longer a kid.
Photographed by Shirley Yu.
Here are the key thoughts Maria and I had while playing Dream Phone as adults:

— Why do all players have the same Secret Admirer? Doesn’t that kind of pit women against each other for the affection of the same man? Meanwhile, this guy has girls chasing him down left and right.

— Newsflash: Some women date other women.

— These guys aren’t really hot — with the exception of Steve and Dan, who could honestly call me today if they wanted.

— What age are these guys, anyway? Carlos looks like he could be my dad, while Bruce looks like someone's smarmy 12-year-old little brother.

— It’s more fun if you help each other along the way. We were pretty much sharing secrets the entire time and correcting each other when we were wrong. “No, Phil explicitly said the Secret Admirer wasn’t wearing a hat!”

— We would 100% not date any of these guys today. Can you imagine dating a guy who only listed things he doesn’t like, or places he doesn’t hang out? It’s like that guy on Tinder who makes his entire profile about things he isn’t looking for. It’s so negative. Plus, this guy doesn’t eat pizza? That’s a dealbreaker. WE LIKE PIZZA.

As a kid, I never thought twice about the actual plot of Dream Phone or any subtext it may have been teaching me. My parents never expressed concern, either. But replaying the game as an adult, I can see that it’s not exactly perfect and probably wouldn’t fly with many of today’s parents. No wonder it's been discontinued! Reevaluating it didn't erase the amazing memories I have from the ‘90s, but it was kind of jarring. We were unable to separate the criticisms of our adult minds — “It’s so heteronormative! Why is almost everyone white?” — from the simpler pleasure we took from it when we were just tweenage girls having fun.

And that was the hardest part. Playing Dream Phone in a conference room of my office building confirmed my greatest fear: We think we want ‘90s items to come back, but they ultimately disappoint upon their return. Despite how much fun Maria and I had calling fictional boys, we weren’t 12-year-olds in our pajamas at a sleepover on a Friday night. We were grown-ups at a table wearing adult-sized clothing. It was 3 p.m. on a weekday. Nothing was the same.

Our Dream Phone wishes satisfied, we packed up the board, the notepad of clues, and its tiny face cards of teenage boys. And now I get why it lived in the archives, why we ought not to have disturbed its memory.

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