A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ghost, Superghost, and Disorder: Word-dodging games

I recently played a game called Disorder, which is a neat little word-building (or more accurately, word-avoiding) game. To explain it, it's best to start with the simpler games that it is based on:

We begin with an old parlor game called Ghost. In Ghost, players take turns adding letters to a word they are building, trying to avoid being the one to actually finish a complete word. If a player adds a letter that makes it impossible to form a real word (e.g., T-R-I-C-J), another player can challenge him. If the first player cannot name a legitimate word that he's trying to make, he loses the game. But if the challenger is wrong, he loses instead.

Example gameplay:
Player 1: A
Player 2: M [A and AM are words, but words shorter than 4 letters are permitted.]
Player 1: B
[At this point in the game, there are lots of words that players may be thinking of like AMBITIOUS, AMBULANCE, AMBUSH, AMBIGUOUS, AMBLE. But with each new letter the options narrow.]
Player 2: E
[This is a brilliant play because the only common words that can be formed starting with AMBE all have the root AMBER which is a valid word. The options for Player 1 are to choose the R and lose or choose another letter and try to bluff. Bluffing adds an interesting gameplay dimension to Ghost and related games.]

A Ghost variant called Superghost allows players to add letters to both the beginning and the end of the proto-word, opening wide the strategic possibilities and making for a game that you really have to think about.

The writer James Thurber enjoyed playing Superghost with his friends and wrote a New Yorker essay about it back in 1951 (delightfully titled, 'Do You Want to Make Something Out of It? (Or, if you put an "o" on "understo," you'll ruin my "thunderstorm")'). The essay can be found on the New Yorker site (behind a paywall) or in a collection of Thurber's writings called Thurber Country).

[Disorder] Finally we come to Disorder, which is a board game that comes with 1) cards that players get dealt so that they have a hand of letters to choose from, 2) a long skinny board with slots for each card to go into as the word is being built, and 3) chips for keeping score. In addition to giving players a set of letters that they can use for word-extending, Disorder introduces a few more twists on Superghost. Mixed into the deck of letters are four types of power cards. The Exchange card lets you swap a card in your hand with a card on the board. The Switch card lets you take two cards on the board and switch their positions. The Squeeze card allows you to make a one-card gap anywhere in the word and insert a card from your hand. And the Pass card lets you skip a turn.

And finally, any card can be used as a wild card, simply by flipping it over (they all say "wild!" on the back) and laying it down as part of the word. Wild cards can be tricky to deal with since (unlike in Scrabble, where a player declares what the blank tile represents) in Disorder, the wild card can be any letter. This makes it easier to build toward a word without giving away to your opponents what you are planning, but it also makes it difficult to think of all the possible words that could be in play.

Scoring is simple. Each card has a point value on it, with harder letters like Q and Z having correspondingly larger point values (roughly like in Scrabble). At the end of the round, the point values of the cards that have been played on the board are summed, and the total is awarded to whoever lost the round. After how ever many rounds are played, the winner is the player who accumulates the least points. I enjoy playing Disorder so much that I am willing to play without keeping score (though that may just be the Bananagrammer in me).

Disorder is a great game. I have already bought someone a copy for Christmas.

I like having the cards and the board, but in a pinch, this could be played with Bananagrams tiles with a few modifications: Each player can take 7 Bananagrams tiles and, in the absence of racks, just stand the tiles up on their edges. Note that Disorder has a flat letter distribution (4 cards for each letter of the alphabet). While I haven't tried it, I think that using the standard Bananagrams distribution of letters will still be fine. The important adjustment I would recommend borrowing from Disorder is the notion that you can play a tile face-down and have it act as a wildcard. If you're playing for the first time, I suggest starting off with the regular Ghost version until you are ready to graduate to the Superghost variety.

Ghost lends itself to rule variation, spawning games with names like "Superduperghost" and "Spook". My ambition is to come up with a mutation that will best them all. I think I'll call it "Pac-Man".