Ghost

Hello, all. The comic was posted a bit late last night. The comics are normally posted by the server automatically at midnight. However, I apparently typo’d when I last edited the queue, and I’m on vacation away from the net so davean had to fix it manually. My bad.

Moving on:

I’ve solved Ghost. I’m not the first person to do this, according to Wikipedia, but I think I’m the first to solve it on an airplane. The result: using the wordlist that ships with Ubuntu, it’s a win for the first player, but only if he plays H, J, M, or Z. The other letters are all wins for the second player (I hear if you use the Scrabble wordlist, it’s always a win for the second player).

Ghost is a word game that my brother and I learned as kids from the show Ghostwriter. It’s unusual in that it’s the only nontrivial, non-physical game I know how to play without any game pieces, paper, or anything else — all you need is communication (I never got the hang of blindfold chess — somehow the board always ends up with the wrong number of squares and I find mysef with three bishops). We’d play Ghost, whispering letters back and forth, when we had to sit quietly at formal events.

To play Ghost, you alternate saying letters. The first person to either (a) spell a word, or (b) create a string that cannot be the start of a word, loses. So you alternate building a word, and you have to always be working toward a word, but you can’t be the one to end it. Sample games, with players one and two alternating letters:

G-A-M-E — Player 1 loses by spelling “Game”

A-B-S-O-R-B — Player 2 loses by spelling “ABSORB”

B-Z-”Challenge” — Player 1, seeing “Z”, says “Challenge.” meaning “I think you’re not building toward a word. Name a word that starts with ‘BZ’ and prove you’re not just making stuff up.” Player 2 can’t, and loses. If he could, he’d win.

Note: We don’t count proper nouns or words under three letters.

I’ve often thought about how easy it would be to solve Ghost. We already knew a few simple winning plays — if the first player plays L, you can reply with another L, forcing them to spell “LLAMA”. On a plane trip with my family this week I decided to work out the full solution. I only had an hour or two of battery life left, and I’m still new to Python, so it was a race against the clock. It’s not too bad a problem in itself, but I wanted an optimal solution with only a few things to memorize, which meant pruning the tree carefully. My battery meter read “0% charge” as I scribbled the winning wordlist onto a sheet of paper.

Here are the words you can spell towards to force a win:

First player:

[hazard, haze, hazily, hazy, heterosexual, hiatus, hock, huckster, hybrid]
[jazz, jest, jilt, jowl, just]
[maverick, meow, mizzen, mnemonic, mozzarella, muzzle, muzzling, myth]
[zaniness, zany, zenith, zigzag, zombie, zucchini, zwieback, zygote]

Second player responses:

a :: [aorta]
b :: [black, blemish, blimp, bloat, blubber]
c :: [craft, crepe, crept, crick, crozier, crucial, cry]
d :: [dwarf, dwarves, dweeb, dwindle, dwindling]
e :: [ewe]
f :: [fjord]
g :: [ghastliness, ghastly, gherkin, ghost]
h :: There are no winning responses.
i :: [ilk, ill]
j :: There are no winning responses.
k :: [khaki]
l :: [llama]
m :: There are no winning responses.
n :: [nylon, nymph]
o :: [ozone]
p :: [pneumonia]
q :: [quaff, quest, quibble, quibbling, quondam]
r :: [rye]
s :: [squeamish, squeeze, squeezing, squelch]
t :: [twang, tweak, twice, two]
u :: [uvula]
v :: [vulva]
w :: [whack, where, whiff, who, why]
x :: [xylem]
y :: [yield, yip]
z :: There are no winning responses.

It’s satisfying to have the tree, but my brother is sad because I ruined our game. Wikipedia suggests a few variants on Ghost. Can anyone suggest any other replacement games playable by voice and memory only?

329 thoughts on “Ghost

  1. Oh, but years ago, I discovered how to counter a Z.

    The word is: zloty. If they challenge, hilarity ensues, because zloty is not in fact a proper noun.

    Also, the way I always learned to play ghost is that any given word can only be used once per game.

  2. It seems there are only about 7 games to play and no one likes reading.

    GAME FOR CAR RIDES:
    Each player tries to find words on signs in alphabetically order. No repeats.

    “Rest Area” has A. “No Engine Breaking” has B. “Carl’s Firework Clusterfuck Bonanza!” has C. But one player can take “Carl’s” and the other can take “Clusterfuck.”

    No matter how far behind someone is, they’ll probably catch up when the other players hit Q. X is a problem so things like XL, Highway X, and 94 X Rocks! should be included.

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  4. I know no one is looking at this anymore but our band had always played umbrella on bus trips. It starts with someone saying “ummmm-brella”. and the next person saying a word but they have to pretend to think by saying “ummm” before the word. The fun comes in others not knowing how to play and failing to when their turn comes up. The game gets boring after everyone learns how to play.

    We would also play “What’s this one?” its similar esoteric type game. you would start by pointing to your thumb through your pinky announcing their numbers one through five respectively. you then point at another finger saying “What’s this one?” and its always five to start out, because thats the last number you pointed at. That pattern of saying the last number you pointed at to be the one your currently touching (the assigned number doesn’t ever change just the place you are pointing) continues till the guesser or pointer gives up.

  5. Connecting actors:
    One player says two actors, e.g. “Claudia Cardinale” and “Lee van Cleef”.

    The other one must find a series of films which connects them. Shortest or strangest series is best:

    Claudia Cardinale was in “Fitzcarraldo” with Peter Berling.
    Peter Berling was in “Texas – Doc Snyder hält die Welt in Atem” with Werner Abrolat (Abrolat shot Berling)
    Werner Abrolat was in “For a Few Dollars More” with Lee van Cleef. (van Cleef stabbed Abrolat)

  6. Here are a couple suggestions for “games playable by voice and memory only”. Interestingly enough, two of the three I could recall are also word games!

    Five by five (similar to mastermind):
    One player thinks up a secret five letter word. Other players than try to deduce the word by offering guesses. The person with the secret word then tells them if they got the word correct, and if their guess was incorrect, the person with the secret word tells them how many letters the secret word and the word they guessed share in common. For example, if the secret word is “words” a guess of “cooks” gets an answer of “two letters correct” since “words” and “cooks” only share o, s. Note: “sword” would get “five letters correct” but it still is not the a valid solution. This is the big difference between Mastermind and Five by Five. Play continues until one of the players correctly guesses the secret word. This game doesn’t work very well with two people because of the asymmetrical roles of the person with the word and the person guessing it. Playing two games simultaneously in both directions is a nice mental work out though.

    Word Zendo:
    A generalization of Zendo* using words. Again one player, “the Master”, chooses a secret. In Word Zendo the secret takes the form of a well defined class of words e.g. Words which are names of animals. Palindromes. Words that consist only of ‘a’s. Sequences of digits which appear in pi. This rules is then “the Buddha nature of a koan”. The person with secret then offers an example of a word with the Buddha nature, and one without. In the first example, the game may begin with “‘Dog’ has the Buddha nature, but ‘my fridge’ does not.” Players then take turn offering guesses of words that have the Buddha nature (or don’t) and the Master tells them if the offering does or does not. The winner is the first person to state the Master’s secret rule. e.g. Play may go “Does ‘your car’ have the Buddha nature?”, “No. ‘My car’ does not have the Buddha nature.”, “Does ‘a heron’ have the Buddha nature?” “Yes, a heron has the Buddha nature.” etc.

    Fifteen / Shut the box:
    Two players take turns saying integers from 1 to 9. If a number has been said then it can’t be said again by either players. The first person to achieve of sum of fifteen is the winner. What game is this game isomorphic too?

    *: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zendo_(game)

  7. yeah sure. This one’s called fore-and-aft, I’m not sure if someone has already mentioned this. I blatantly stole it form a book of games. you can add a letter after OR before the mass of letters currently in play. In order to win a challenge you must only provide a word of which the letters currently in play are a substring. Fore-and-aft will only forestall the inevitable and put off solving the game for a little while, but hey, no one has solved it yet.

    This next game I can actually claim credit for. It’s called competitive hangman. Both players have a word. When you guess a letter you must reveal it in your word if applicable. This means there is an artificially imposed maximum of 26 turns before the game automatically ends. naturally, you can use a turn to guess the other guy’s word.

    there are variations on this concept such as having only the first covered instance of the letter be uncovered when called so that if my word is “eerie” both players would have to say “e’ three times instead of just one.

    It’s worth a shot. currently working on it with my friend…

  8. I just tried using this list in a match against my brother!

    …He came with “heterosymbiosis”. Update?

  9. I know this is a necrobump, but wouldn’t the word ‘zenith’ lead to ‘zen’ before (which is not under three letter long and an existing word), making you lose?

  10. An ancient topic, but still:
    Animal Mineral Vegetable (also played as 20 questions)
    A favourite of my grandfather’s, it’s a simple guessing game. One player, the questionee, thinks of an item that falls into one of the above 3 categories. So, for example, animal could be a frog, mineral might be salt, vegetable might be a rhubarb. The other players, the questioners, start by asking “is it an animal, mineral or vegetable” and after they’ve determined that, they can only ask questions with yes or no answers. So, for example, “Is the item edible?” works, whereas “What colour is the item?” doesn’t. In some versions of the game, all players have unlimited questions (this tends to be more fun, as odd lines of questioning can be fully explored) and in others, each player has only 20 questions and 3 guesses, so the game is best played by a group of more than 2.
    For advanced players, you can alter the rules for possible items: the item can be nonexistent, literary or overspecific (a minotaur; the walrus from Alice In Wonderland; the mast on Captain Cook’s ship The Endeavour), or can be particular humans in the case of animal categories (Steve Jobs, Queen Elizabeth II, your mum). Veteran players will know that certain questions speed up the game considerably. “Does it have X number of legs?” and “Is it domesticated?” are favourites for animals, whilst “Is it a metal?” and “Is it solid?” are indispensable for mineral.

  11. Regarding “zen”:
    It turns out that the names of religions are proper nouns. So “Zen” is not a losing position to be in when playing Ghost.

  12. Just to necro-bump one last time…

    Methinks “Huck” is a word and therefore rules out “H” as a winning strategy for player 1.

  13. @TJS
    Somehow read past the proper noun invalidity in the main post.

    Proper noun has always been a bit of an confusing term to me, as if all other nouns are not “proper” i.e. decent. Wish they would have coined “property” or some other more suitable prefix term instead.

  14. It starts with someone saying “ummmm-brella”. and the next person saying a word but they have to pretend to think by saying “ummm” before the word. The fun comes in others not knowing how to play and failing to when their turn comes up.

  15. My family usually plays one of 3 games on long car journeys, etc.

    The Animal Game is like twenty questions but has an unlimited number of questions and involves only animals. A good knowledge of zoology is essential. Once we played a single round for fifteen minutes, gave up and spent a further fifteen minutes explaining to my little brother that rhinos don’t lay eggs.

    The Animal Game With The Alphabet usually involves two players who take it in turn to think of an animal name beginning with a specific letter of the alphabet. Theoretically, player 1 gets a point if player 2 can’t think of another animal. In practice it usually descends into a fight over whether arctic seals count.

    The Minister’s Cat is similar to The Animal Game With the Alphabet but uses adjectives instead of words. After a while it becomes a game of bluff, when one tries to make up adjective without the other player noticing. You play by saying, “The Minister’s Cat was a … cat”. P is a fun letter.

  16. Another game to play on car trips, long or short, is the licence plate game.
    As you drive past different cars you read the three letters on their plate out loud. Each player tries to create a word by adding letters before, in between and after the three letters while keeping them in order.

    The longer the word, the more points. Spacing the letters out and adding to the front gives extra points.

    ex. if the letters on the plate are ‘DAT’ one player might say ‘date’ then another player would top ‘date’ with ‘debate’, then ‘educate’. Adding ‘tion’ to make ‘education’ would not give any extra points because the word has already been used in a different form.

    I’ve never actually played with set points and a specific winner, but i’m sure you could.

  17. Re: license plate games: Where we live the most common license plate configuration is 3 alpha + 3 numeric. We play a non-competitive game wherein we make up phrases beginning with the letters, and disregard the numbers. EX:This morning we passed a car with “FPA” which led to things like “fight polluted alligators,” “foreign plagiarists attack,” “fat prestigious arsonists,” and “fuzzy purple aardvarks.” The turns end loosely, when someone starts on a new set of letters or everyone dissolves into giggles.

  18. Here’s one game I was taught a couple years ago. I was never told the name so we just call it the “build a word game”. It can be played with as many players as you want, but two is generally optimal and will be used in the explanation.

    Player 1 thinks of a word (DOLPHIN) and gives the first letter of the word the Player 2.
    Player 2 then thinks of a word starting with D (Dead) and gives a hint to his/her word (Not Alive)
    Player 1 tries to guess Player 2′s word.
    If Player 1 is successful, then he/she waits for Player 2 to give a hint to a different word starting with D.
    If Player 1 is unsuccessful, then he/she gives Player 2 the next letter in the word (O).
    Player 2 continues in the same fashion except choosing a word starting with the letters DO.

    Player 1 wins if Player 2 cannot come up with any guess words and/or cannot guess the winning word.

    Player 2 wins if Player 1 reveals the entire word through failing to guess Player 2′s words and/or Player 2 guesses the winning word.

    Enjoy!

  19. winning response for H:

    R.

    then spell HRYVNIA.

    winning response for J:

    N.

    then spell JNANA.

    winning response for M:

    P.

    then spell MPRET.

    for Z:

    L.

    then spell ZLOTE, ZLOTIES, or ZLOTY.

  20. At the risk of sounding too commercial… My company just released a version of ghost for the Apple iPad & iPhone called “Professor Wordington’s Spellatorium.” The core mechanic is Ghost, but we added story/adventure elements to attract a larger audience (hopefully).

    You can play against multiple computer “personas” with varying degrees of skill or against another human opponent.

    Spellatorium uses a subset of the WordNet 3.0 dictionary, allows letter pre-pends and swaps, and adds word length to the scoring scheme. This makes it advantageous to sometimes “pass” rather than challenge when a shorter word is spelled in favor of forcing a longer word. We found this and other refinements add challenge and variety to the game.

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  35. Re: license plate game “where we live 3? 3 alpha numeric license plate is the most common configuration. We are a competitive sport that is where we start with the letter, and numbers do not respect the game. Ago: This morning we car and “FPA” that “unfair battle alligators,” “foreign plagiarists attack,” “fat prestigious ensandyèr,” things like lead and finally, someone began to turn freely pass “wave purple aardvarks . “A new series of letters or dissolve all giggles.
    haemophilus influenzae |
    ketones |

  36. you mentioned rather disposably the variants on ghost, but in case you haven’t tried them – i highly recommend thurber’s superghosts variation, i discovered it in the oxford book of word games many years ago (which also has quite a number of other games you might enjoy), and used to play it on car trips with an exgirlfriend a few times a week .. it can really get quite intense, trying to trap people. much more fun than ghosts. :)

  37. very surprised this game is not listed. we used to play it during boring field work while our hands were busy. player 1 names a movie. next player names a movie that starts with the first letter of the last word of that movie. if somebody names a movie with more than one word, whose first and last words start with the same letter, the direction of play reverses. for example:
    player 1: the last airbender
    player 2: alice in wonderland
    player 3: wild wild west
    player 2: wild things
    player 1: the thing
    player 2: top gun
    etc
    In one game no movies can be repeated. Last man standing wins.

  38. We play a game with two rules:

    1. compose a grammatically correct sentence.
    2. The next to last word must be “but.”

    When you say the sentence aloud, place heavy emphasis on the word “but.”

    examples:

    I can’t bake any type of pastry BUT muffin.
    I’ll take everything on my hotdog BUT mustard.

    not appropriate for children, really, but lots of fun and hard once you dispel of the obvious ones.

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