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?

341 replies on “Ghost”

  1. Ok, very old, but just in case someone stills reads it:

    Here (Argentina), we call “fantasma” (ghost) a different game, that also fills the requirements, is also a word game, and is fun. It’s like this:
    Someone says a word to start a sentence. Eg. “I”.
    The next player repeats the sentence that far and adds a word. Eg. “I like”
    If you say a word that doesn’t seem to let the next player continue the sentence, you may get “challenged”, to show you can add some word (it’s really difficult to close a sentence for good, at least in spanish, but you can put them against a grammatic corner). The one being wrong looses.
    If you make a mistake repeating the sentence (or pause for too long, or miss your turn), you loose.
    If you are more than two players, you have extra rules (that actually name the game):
    The first time you loose, you become “dead”, but keep playing normally.
    The one to loose starts a new sentence.
    The second time you loose, you become a “ghost” (or maybe a “phantom”, translation gets confusing there 😛 ), and can’t play anymore. But you have a new mission:
    Ghosts try to distract players dead and alive by talking to them or making funny faces. Player can´t talk to or look at ghosts (they don’t exist, you know?), so if someone does he/she looses, and the ghost is real, so lives again.
    You can keep points by counting looses, or play until there’s only one left alive, or not care about winning and loosing at all.
    Hope you try and like…
    I’m posting another one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This I think fills the requirements, but demands some set up and organizing.
    Don’t remember the name.
    It’s something like a meta-rules game.

    You need a group of at least three people, but I’d strongly recommend at least five.
    One goes away for a while (can’t hear), while the others settle on a rule for answering questions (this will be clear, I promise). For example, they accord on the rule of answering always naming some food.
    The one asking questions comes back, and start asking whoever and whatever he/she wants to. He can ask how many questions as he wants (or maybe you should put a limit), and has three guesses to find the rule they are using.

    Continuing with the food example rule, he could ask “How old are you?” and get the answer “I’ve seen 31 corn seasons already”, or “I have as many years as the eggs in the fridge”, or just “Hamburger!”.
    There’s no obligation to give real answers to the questions, so there are many many possibilities.

    Some nice examples:
    Start with some letter (easy)
    End with some letter (little harder)
    Use the name of the one asking (easy)
    Answer the question before yours (hard). I like this one, so I’ll put an example:
    Q: How do you feel about this game?
    A: I don’t know… (made up answer, since there’s no preceding question).

    Q: Do you like cheese?
    A: I think I’m having fun. (answers the previous Q)

    Q: Is someone at the door?
    A: Very much indeed.
    … (and so on)

    It seems easy for all who know the rule, but it’s intriguing for the one asking.

    Oh, and I too play the car plates game (when someone humors me ^_^ ), it’s fun what you can come up with (since we have alphanumeric plates). But the first to say something wins (it has to be a proper sentence, no proper nouns, and, hopefully, funny).

    By the way, I LOVE XKCD!!!
    Keep it on!


  3. We used to play a game called “21” which came to my mind when looking up what Nim was. The object is to get the other person to say 21. The first play starts with 1. The players can say one or two numbers and they must be sequential. The first person can start by saying, “1” or “1,2”. If the first player says “1” the second player can say “2” or “2,3”.

    Me and my brothers solved the game when we were little. We still play it sometimes since we forget how to win, but after a few games we end up solving it again. I’ve also hear other variations were you are allowed to say up to three numbers and with ending numbers higher than 21.

    Here’s an example of how it goes:

    Me: 1
    You: 2,3
    Me: 4,5
    You: 6
    Me: 7,8
    You: 9,10
    Me: 11
    You: 12
    Me: 13,14
    You: 15,16
    Me: 17
    You: 18,19
    Me: 20
    You: 21 (lose)

    It looks like 17 is a winning number. We worked our way backwards after that to solve it


  4. Ok, so i just solved it by looking back at my example. Winning numbers are 20 (obviously) and every third number prior to that. 20, 17, 14, 11, 8, 5, and 2


  5. Hi;
    to rescue the game with your brother you could add a “house rule” clause. When one of you initiates a game, the other one has the right to add a rule, just for that game. It could be that words in a language other than English are allowed, or that words that could be pluralized with an extra letter don’t count as completed, or that compound words or scientific names don’t count as finished until the second word is completed, or that if someone is challenged, the challengee can win by making up an interesting definition within 30 seconds, or whatever. The extra rule, and the fact that it keeps changing, should make your solution no longer work.


  6. ummm. you guy’s are awesome. I just might be “stealing” all these ideas haha. THANKS !


  7. American comedian and writer James Thurber had an interesting variant called “Superghost” wherein players were allowed to add letters to either the beginning or end of the word. A deeper variant allowed players the use of the “space” character, creating multi-word strings.
    These variants would provide an interesting challenge to “solve.”


  8. I was going to say Super Ghost! Since Peter said it first, he loses. (That’s the rule of this thread, right? Your post has to allude to a Ghost alternative without actually defining it… come to think of it, something like that would be a very, very out-there variant; you have to describe some philosophical idea, or some movie plot, or something, and keep going until someone hits upon a “real one.”)

    Anyway, I got the game not from Thurber but from the excellent 1992 book New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger. It covers everything from Scrabble to chess to golf, plus tips in the back for making your own variations. I imagine there are online equivalents now, but reading through the book is still a useful tour through the basic basics of game design.

    With regard to Ghost, I wonder if you could do “Superduperghost”, whereby letters can even be inserted in the middle of the word? The extra fun of that one is that you could probably “bluff” that some word is still possible, but then if someone calls you on it and you can’t think of any, you lose the round (or whatever).


  9. Another fun game is called Contact. It’s possible to play with three people, but it’s much better with four or more.

    One person (call him Bob) thinks of a word (let’s use “calculator” as an example), and tells everyone else the letter it begins with. Everyone else tries to guess the word by thinking of a word that starts with “c” and asking a question that hints at that word.

    For example, someone could ask, “Is it an animal?” Bob would answer “No, it’s not crocodile” or “No, it’s not cat” or “No, it’s not cheetah.” It doesn’t matter if the guesser was thinking of any of these; if Bob can come up with a “c” word that fits the description, he is safe.

    Now, while Bob is trying to think of an animal that starts with “c,” so is everyone else. When someone else thinks of one, they say “Contact,” which means, “I have thought of an animal that starts with c.” If Bob can’t come up with a “c” animal, he gives up and says “One, Two, Three, Contact.” At this point, the original guesser plus anyone who has said “contact” says their animal out loud. If anyone matches (e.g., two people both say “cat”), Bob is required to give another letter. If no one matches (e.g., the guesser was thinking of “cat” but the other person said “cheetah”), Bob is still safe.

    Ok, so let’s say Bob gives another letter, “a.” Now everything repeats, but all the words have to start with “ca.” Etc etc until someone guesses the right word.

    The trick is to guess some word that another person in the game knows, but Bob doesn’t know. And it doesn’t have to be words. You could say, “Is it my best friend from childhood?” Bob may not know this, but your other friend may know that your best friend from childhood was Calvin. Tricky.


  10. I know two word games, both of which are called “I’m going on a picnic”.

    1) memory version. The first person says “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…..” And they name something. The next person has to say the first thing before adding their own, and the next person has to say the first two things before adding their own. For example:
    1: I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring a bear.
    2: I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring a bear and a painting.
    1:….a bear, a painting, and a drink
    2:…..a bear, a painting, a drink, and shoes
    And it continues. The person who first can’t remember the entire sequence looses. You can make the game easier by making people follow the alphabet. The first word starts with A the second with B and so on.

    The second memory game is “I’m going on a picnic” rule version. The first person starts the game with a word with a rule in mind, and the second person has to guess what the rule is. They do that by guessing other words, and the first person says “yes” or “no” if they for the rule or not. The rule can be about the thing itself, or about the letters. For example the word “bear”, I could have the rule “any mammal” or “any word that starts with B”. The rules can get more elaborate the better you get at guessing. Like “any mammal native to america” or “any word that contains EA”. An example game:
    1) I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring a tortise.
    2) a turtle?
    1) yes
    2) any word that starts with T?
    1) no
    2) hippo?
    1) yes
    2) any semi aquatic animal?
    1) yes.
    Game over. There aren’t any limits to questions of words or rules. But I guess if you wanted to make it ready hard you could.

    Anyway hope you like my games! Got me through many car drives 🙂 xoxo


  11. Quite a few of these solutions don’t look right. Aort_ has an obvious solution in aorti_, forcing aortic.


  12. I tried this and it worked pretty well. But don’t play with anyone with a medical degree, I tried to spell pnuemonia and I lost when the other person spelled pneumonitis.


  13. In traditional belief and fiction, a ghost (sometimes known as a spectre (British English) or specter (American English), phantom, apparition or spook) is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. Descriptions of the apparition of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, lifelike visions. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy, or in spiritism as a séance.
    The belief in manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices—funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic—are specifically designed to rest the spirits of the dead. Ghosts are generally described as solitary essences that haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life, though stories of phantom armies, ghost trains, phantom ships, and even ghost animals have also been recounted.


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