Results tagged “variants”

Try the two-rows Ascension variant

The next time you play a non-digital edition of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (or any of its followup titles), give this simple variant a whirl. My local Ascension-fan friends taught me the game this way, in fact; I tend to agree that it makes the game more interesting, without wandering far from the core ruleset.

Weekend links: two on chess

Lewischess2-popup.jpgVia the New York Times’ “Gambit” chess blog, we learn of a new controversy surrounding… well, not so much a very old game as a set of very old game pieces, with new evidence causing some to question the national origin of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen.

But really, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention these extraordinary game pieces on this blog. Even though they’ve been known to the modern world since the 19th century, I first learned about them only some months ago while kicking around Wikipedia. While they like look like the whimsical work of a modern sculptor — at least to my unschooled eye — they were actually carved some 800 years ago.

I showed pictures of these little guys to a friend this morning, one who actually does know something about art history. She tried to add a little perspective to my astonishment, noting how a lot of medieval artwork looks comically cartoony by modern standards. But while she spoke, all I could think was: boy, I’d love to just reach over and pick one of these pieces up. I recognize intention in their squat, chunky shapes: they were made to thunk down on the board, decisively. I bet they make a really satisfying sound when that happens.

Heading away from the past and into an uncertain future, we discover quantum chess, a computer game by Queen’s University student Alice Wismath, based on a concept by Selim Akl, a computer science proessor at Queen’s. It appears to be an academic work in progress, though one fun enough to have gained a bit of media traction. Certainly, it’s an intriguing idea, using the notion of quantum superposition to add a (perhaps rather thick) layer of tactical surprise to an otherwise pure strategy game:

A piece that should be a knight could simultaneously also be a queen, a pawn or something else. The player doesn’t know what the second state might be or which of the two states the piece will choose when it is moved.

“It was very weird,” said Ernesto Posse, a Queen’s postdoctoral researcher who took part in a recent “quantum chess” tournament at the university in Kingston, Ont. “You only know what a piece really is once you touch the piece. Basically, planning ahead is impossible.”

Like a lot of geeks, I’m enamored with the twisty little passages that represent quantum physics (or at least the closest representation a layman like me can grasp). But even moreso, any science that can plug itself into a cultural foundation of gaming to produce wacky chess variants is my kind of science.


I talked about Jotto and one of its variants last month. JottoZendo is another Jotto variant that I came up with. The idea for it came to me in a dream (there was a time when I was doing a lot of Jotto programming and playing), but I don't remember anything about the dream.

Zendo is an Icehouse game invented by Kory Heath. As Kory says:
Zendo is a game of inductive logic in which the Master creates a rule and the Students attempt to discover it by building and studying arrangements of plastic pyramid-shaped pieces (known as "Icehouse pieces"). The first student to state the rule correctly wins.
There are many ways that Jotto and Zendo could be combined, but I picked a pretty simple one, one that gives just a flavor of Zendo rather trying to implement Zendo with five-letter words. JottoZendo is played just like regular Jotto, except that along with picking a secret five-letter word, the scorer (I guess I'll use the words "scorer" and "guesser" for the two roles in a Jotto game) also picks one of the letters in that secret word. For the duration of the game, this letter is only scored if another letter (let's call it the "key", which I guess makes the letter in the secret word the "lock") is also present in the word. The key may or may not be a letter in the secret word. The game is won when the secret word is guessed. (I suppose for a little extra challenge you could also require that the rule be guessed, but this doesn't seem like it would add much.)

For my computer implementation, the computer randomly picks a lock and randomly picks a key from one of the 13 most common letters (etaonisrhdlcm), which I thought would help make the game not too difficult. Keeping the difficulty level down is also the reason I restricted the rule to be of the form "only score $lock if $key is present", rather than allowing for many different kinds of rules (e.g., "only score $lock if it is in its correct position", "only score $lock if it is in position X", "only score $lock if it comes before $key", "only score $lock if $key starts the guess", or even crazier ones like "only score $lock1 if $key1 is present; only score $lock2 if $key2 is present; if $lock1 and $lock2 are both present, score 3" or "$lock1, $lock2, and $lock3 score 1, and $lock4 and $lock5 score 2").

So, here is a sample game:

guess  score
-----  -----
overt    1
lazes    2
cable    3
flame    2
caked    4
dance    4
cadet    4
cared    4
decal    4
raced    4
cadre    4
cedar    4
paced    4
caped    4
decay    4
arced    4
cades    4
faced    4
maced    4
decaf    4
caved    X
Man, that game sucked. The rule was "score e if a is present". Notice how I pretty quickly got to a score of 4. At that point, however, I didn't have any way of knowing if the fifth letter might be the lock, in which case the missing letter might be one I had already guessed and dismissed, possibly even in a word that scored a 4 (note that any anagram of the secret word is going to score 4, unless the key is also in the secret word (which happened to be the case here)). I'm a bit worried that this type of situation might happen regularly in JottoZendo games, which could lead to some rather long games. I don't know if it helped or hurt that the key was also in the secret word.

Here's a game where I decided to go back to my old way of playing Jotto, where I just changed one letter at a time (in the beginning of the game, anyway):

guess  score
-----  -----
sport    1
spore    1
pours    1
store    1
parts    2
pants    3
banks    3
clans    3
hangs    3
damns    3
swans    4
sands    4
spans    X
The rule was "score p if d is present". It turned out I had the p from the beginning but didn't know it, since p never showed up with a d. I'm not sure if I just got lucky with this one or if changing one letter at a time in the beginning helped me narrow in on things faster.

Here are two more sample games. In both of these, the lock was present early on, but the key never showed up with the lock. Also notice that I started off following Twisted Jotto rules (which is, if you recall, simply the way I play normally now) and then abandoned them when I was having problems coming up with words to guess that fit the Twisted Jotto rules. The rule in the first game was "score d if m", and the rule in the second game was "score a if o".

guess  score
-----  -----
place    0
ovoid    2
broom    2
shoot    3
nooks    3
goofs    3
swoon    4
woofs    4
woosh    4
wools    4
swoop    4
woods    X

guess  score
-----  -----
laugh    1
level    0
fruit    2
fatty    0
round    2
rumps    3
rumor    2
rusks    3
gurus    3
surer    3
auras    X
I've only ever played JottoZendo against the computer, and to my knowledge, no one else has ever played it (there probably don't exist too many games that only one person has played). If I get motivated (and encouraged), I may end up making these games available. There are already plenty of implementations of regular Jotto around online, but I think X-Jotto and JottoZendo might be fun to make available. And of course, anyone reading this is free to implement them or to simply play them with friends on paper. If you do, I would be happy to hear about it.

Jotto and Some Variants

I became obsessed with Jotto when I learned it from some friends in high school (the friends had learned it, for some reason, in Latin class). Jotto is a word game where two players try to guess each other's secret five-letter word. Each guess must be a valid five-letter word, and a guess is scored by reporting the number of letters in common with the secret word. Unlike Mastermind, order is not important (I plan to address secret words with anagrams in a later post). Here is a sample (naive) game, from the perspective of one player:

guess  score
-----  -----
sport    2
spore    3
spare    2
pared    2
scare    2
scape    1
joker    3
loner    3
grove    4
gorge    3
hover    4
mover    X

That's how I played the game for quite a while. At some point, in an effort to make the game more of a challenge, I came up with a variant that I call Twisted Jotto. In Twisted Jotto, each guess you make must be a possible secret word based on the information from the previous guesses. So in the above game, "spore" would not have been a legal guess in Twisted Jotto, since its score against "sport" is 4, not 2. Here is a sample Twisted Jotto game (borrowed from my article in The Perl Review):

guess  score
-----  -----
trios    1
false    3
slang    2
swell    2
passe    3
abase    2
pleat    4
paler    5
pearl    X

It didn't take me long to realize that Twisted Jotto enabled me to make fewer guesses to find the secret word (even if it took more time to come up with a guess). Twisted Jotto then became just the smart way to play Jotto (although the smart player will abandon it in certain situations, for example, when you know four letters and there are a number of possibilities for the fifth).

Another variant of Jotto is to play with different word lengths. I first did this with six-letter words, and my friend Matt named this Count Rugen (the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride). Using six-letter words is certainly more challenging than using five-letter words. Here's a sample game (using Twisted Jotto rules, of course):

guess   score
-----   -----
clamps    1
boughs    1
trines    3
sevens    3
defies    3
bindle    4
belier    2
ceding    5
inched    X

And of course one could keep increasing the number of letters, making the guesses harder and harder to find. That is maybe more challenging but is starting to seem more like work than fun. Enter another variant. My friend Debby came up with this one, called X-Jotto. In X-Jotto, the number of letters in the secret word is unknown. I decided that the word length could be from three to eight letters. So, even if the word has eight letters, you can test letters by guessing a three-letter word. Here are some sample X-Jotto games (for sanity's sake, I didn't use the Twisted Jotto rules):

guess    score
-----    -----
flack      1
trudges    3
hominy     0
wares      3
pared      2
frees      2
berserk    4
levers     6
revels     X

guess    score
-----    -----
flank      0
trudges    4
chimp      1
boxy       1
crusty     2
brides     4
showered   6
reshod     6
horsed     X

guess    score
-----    -----
flank      0
trudges    1
chimp      1
boxy       0
pew        X

Now, if you study the above games closely, you will see that I started out the same way in all three games, guessing three or four words that have no letters in common (flack, trudges, and hominy for the first game and flank, trudges, chimp, and boxy for the other games). This gives a minimum number of letters that the secret word must have, which makes it a bit easier to think about (and led me to a five-guess win in the third game).

Now, while this might make it easier to think about, is it a good strategy for minimizing the number of guesses? To find out, I had my Jotto program play itself at X-Jotto 100 times with two different guessing strategies. The first strategy is simply Twisted Jotto rules: it eliminates any words that don't score correctly, and then it randomly picks one of the remaining words. The second strategy is the same except that the first four guesses are always the set of four words from the second and third games above.

The first strategy found the word in an average of 9.15 guesses (standard deviation = 1.97), and the second strategy found the word in an average of 9.76 guesses (standard deviation = 1.95). Now, I don't know much about statistics, and it is a small sample size, but my gut tells me that the purely random method is going to be better overall. However, that less-than-one-guess difference might make it worthwhile to use a starting set of words, so that you can more easily get your brain around the search space. More tests are in order (the first one being trying the three-word start from the first game above).

I know this blog isn't really about word games, but I thought I'd put this up and see if anyone else has the kind of interest in word games that I do. Unless I get smacked down for posting about this, I'll do a few more Jotto-related posts, and possibly some related to other word games. If nothing else, it's made me pick up my Perl Jotto programs again, which has been a lot of fun.


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