Playing Word Games

I’ve always been fascinated by word games. I love Scrabble and Boggle and Upwords and crossword puzzles and bowl-a-scores and TexTwist to death. But those aren’t the sort of word games I’ve been thinking about recently.

No, I’ve been thinking of word games of a different sort — the kind I grew up reading in the back of New York magazine. Anyone remember the old New York Magazine Competition, edited by Mary Ann Madden? My family used to gather around the dinner table and read it aloud each week, roaring with laughter at the witty responses of readers to Madden’s humorous problems. Some of these were hysterically funny.

In one Competition, readers were asked to submit brand names for products found in a drugstore. Responses included a bunch of fake birth control pills (Shed Roe, Off Spring, Junior Miss, Scionara, Kiddy Foil, Ova Kill, Bumbino, Heir Pollution, Teeny Bopper, No Kidding, Gene Fowler, Antiseedant, Womb Forwent, Absorbine Junior, Infant aside); deodorants (Pit Stop, Arrivederci Aroma); hair restorers (Hair Apparent, Balderdash); tranquilizers (Damitol); and a children’s antibiotic: (Mickeymycin).

In another, asking for names of prequels, some of the entries included: Kindergarten for Scandal;
Two Dalmations; Prince Kong; Malcolm IX; Little Richard III; We’re Running Low on Mohicans; Wee Willie Loman; Mrs. Warren’s Entry Level Position; The Personal Ads of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Baggage Check-In of the Bumble Bee; Cogito Ergo Subtotal; A Man Called Horsie.

That was pretty typical, though sometimes the Competitions got far more literary (and more challenging for 15-year-old me to suss out!). And if it whets your appetite for more, the bad news is the Competitions are nowhere to be found online (though this site at least cites some of them) and Mary Ann Madden’s three books of Competition complitions — Maybe He’s Dead, Thank You For the Giant Sea Tortoise and Son of Giant Sea Tortoise — are all out of print (how can this be?!). They’re available used if you dig a bit, but pretty pricey.

So, you’re kind of out of luck on the New York Competition front. And that’s why I’m so jazzed about my recent discovery that The Atlantic magazine runs a column by Barbara Wallraff (called, variously, Word Court, Word Fugitives and In a Word) that is clearly in the same vein as the old Competitions. And, like Mary Ann Madden back in the day, Wallraff and her readers routinely have me furrowing my brow, trying to keep up, and laughing out loud as I read.

There was one Word Fugitives recently that asked readers to submit words that described that peculiar phenomenon of things “that seem ubiquitous when you aren’t looking for them but that are nowhere to be found when you are.” Among the answers? Neverywhere… unbiquitous… ubiquitless… fewbiquitous… omniabsent… omnevanescent… ameniteases… elusiversal… You get the idea.

Another one I loved asked readers to submit words to describe the universal tendency to rearrange a dishwasher someone else has already loaded. The answers there included the thematically linked redishtribution, obsessive compulsive dishorder, dishorderly conduct, redishtricting, dishrespect and dish jockying plus the outlier (and my favorite) onecupsmanship.

If these pun-ishing pursuits didn’t make you laugh, there’s not much I can say to change your mind and you might want to stop reading right now. I live for this stuff. And reading Wallraff’s stuff got me thinking about some other word games I’ve been obsessed with and addicted to over the years:

  • The New Yorker’s last-page caption-writing contest. This fills me with admiration for the wit of the readers, mostly because I’m so god-awful bad at turning visuals into wordplay. Frustrates the heck out of me…
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), which I find so impossibly, wonderfully goofy I’ll have to join several of my friends who’ve tried it and give it a whirl someday. (That’ll happen after I retire or something, since I can’t imagine having even a month of free time to devote to writing a novel!)
  • The Six-Word Memoirs web page, where people sum up their lives in, yes, exactly six words. I first discovered this in The New Yorker, back in February. Read the article here and then come back. I’ll wait. Did you notice anything odd about the story? Like the fact that EVERY SENTENCE IN IT HAD EXACTLY SIX WORDS! I caught onto that about halfway through reading it and just about died. Talk about wit and obsession in equal doses. A simple idea, but genius. I mean, it’s one thing to write a really (REALLY) short autobiography. It’s another thing to try to craft an entire article that’s as readable as anything in The New Yorker, while working under the constraint of sentences exactly six words long. I was in awe…
  • The books written without a specific letter. (This is called a “lipogram” and the number of examples is, to my mind, pretty horrifying, if incredibly entertaining. The most remarkable of the lipogram texts are the ones that eschew the letter “e” (just try it…). Amazingly, there have been at least two, that I know of, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and the even more remarkable A Void by Georges Perec. (Perec’s work is the most amazing word-thing of all time, by virtue of the fact that it was originally written, e-less, in French as Las Disparitions  and then translated into English by Gilbert Adair who crafted a translation that ALSO includes no e’s whatsoever. That, my friends, is just crazy!
  • And if you’re still with me and at all into words, by all means check out the BBC radio program I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. By far the word-wittiest program in history and a laugh-out-loud hour you can count on.

Finally, in my catalog of word-game-wondrousness, is the “One-Pulse Word Game.” We used to play this at Steve Jackson Games all the time. I’m pretty sure Steve Jackson came up with it himself and I’ve often wondered why he’s never turned this sure-fire bit of gameplay goodness into a real game — surely, fame and fortune would quickly follow.

For those of you who’ve never experienced the…ahem… joys of the One-Pulse Word Game, here’s how it goes: Someone starts talking in words that have just one part — not two, nor three, but a lone part. Others join in the fun, in a mode of speech just as short. And they would do this, back and forth, as long as they could and as fast as they could — no pause to think, no stops or halts at all, when things went well (and if you could pull it off). It was tons of funs — it IS tons of fun. I play it now, in text, you see. Get good at it and wow your friends, or drive them off, as this can get old in no time.

I’ll stop now…

Twenty years after my departure from Steve Jackson Games, the One-Pulse Word Game remains one of the great joys in my life — not least because I’m pretty good at it — and that “it” is something most people aren’t good at. Call it a gift (as I do) or a curse (as the lovely wife, Caroline, does), it’s mine and I love it. Plus, there’s good, clean fun in doing something completely offbeat that most people don’t even notice you’re doing. And then there’s the annoyance factor once people do figure out that what they thought was a real conversation was just an excuse for you to have some private fun (something they usually realize only after you tell them you’re doing anything odd at all). But you have to get good at the one-pulse word game to reach the point that people don’t notice, so start practicing (not with ME of course!). Anyway, if you get good, you can rip — talking without pause for breath and offering up opportunities to annoy your friends no end. Life, as they say, is good!

And, as long as we’re on the topic of words, and one-syllable word stuff in particular, if you get into the One-Pulse Word Game be sure to check out the “books in words of one syllable” published toward the end of the 19th century by McLaughlin Bros. You can find some of these books in e-book form, but I strongly recommend seeking out the real thing — the books were quite beautiful, something e-books, even on my beloved Kindle, are not. You can find the actual books on antiquarian book sites or ebay once in a while and they’re utterly fascinating — an early attempt, as I understand it, to encourage immigrant literacy by offering classic, uplifting fiction and works of American history in simple language for folks learning English as adults. I have a bunch of these books now and treasure them — and I owe it all to Steve Jackson’s One-Pulse Word game.

Anyway, I wish this was all going somewhere, that I had a point to all this. Sadly, I don’t, really.  The closest I can come to a point is that the word games I love all involve work on the part of the “user” — if you don’t think about what you’re reading, or hearing or whatever, the “jokes” don’t mean a thing. Reading a Competition or a Word Justice, or listening to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue or playing the One-Pulse Word game requires thinking, interpretation, interaction. You’re not just regurgitating memorized data… you’re not just mashing buttons… you’re actually thinking, collaborating with the creator of the “gag.” And that typifies the games I most enjoy playing and, I hope, the games I make.

So, maybe there’s a point to all this, after all. But truth be told, I just spent a bunch of time reading a year’s worth of The Atlantic and laughing at the word games in the back, which got me thinking about the New York Competition back when I was a kid, which got me thinking about all those other word-oriented pastimes I’ve come to love over the years. And that led to this — yet another overly wordy blog post.

And on that note, I will end. In words of one syll… er… part.

35 Responses to “Playing Word Games”

  1. robotwisdom Says:

    Most issues of NYMag at GoogleBooks:

  2. wspector Says:

    Well, thank you Google Books! The fact that all of those old New York Magazines still exist online is awesome. Go check out the Competitions. Trust me. Belly laughs await…

    • headfake Says:

      Warren – Enjoyed your blog about playing word games…. Since you seem so approachable I have a question for you about the future of word games.

      I am the developer of KeyMABA – a game that breaks new ground in word games because it’s a puzzle, a quiz game, a clue game, a strategy game and a word game all wrapped in one! It is original, challenging, fun and simple to play!

      Fans of Jeopardy, Boggle, Scrabble, Cross Word Puzzles, Trivia Pursuit etc., will love KeyMABA

      The question for you: is the world of word sleuths ready, willing and able to tap their fingers for a game like this?

      I hope you will take a quick look at keyMABA at the links below. Your love of word games and the broad view of the gaming landscape from your perch make your opinion one that I would like to hear.

      KeyMABA is an original, smart game that uses simple everyday words but challenges you to make quick associations between words.

      View a short video of the game on our website:

      Use promo code E9TN9PFYLYRW for KeyMABA at:

      I would love to have you review/BLOG our game and help us break new ground in the word game, trivia, puzzle, strategy sectors….

      Kiki Aaron
      Head Fake Games, LLC

      • headfake Says:

        Warren -WordPress couldn’t help me and directed me back to you, via a comment…. Can you not post the above reply? I am trying to figure out the “you’ve got to let the world know about your game” side of game development with blogging and twitter, facebook etc but I obviously don’t have a handle on what, where and how info is published and what is not……

        Needless to say I really don’t want full name and number disclosed…… Hope you can help and keep my comment in perpetual moderation or just between us or anything but published to the world!

        I’ll figure this all out eventually but in the meantime your assistance would be greatly appreciated!

  3. wspector Says:

    One more thing — a correction, actually. After I posted the stuff about the one pulse word game, Allen Varney (, my friend and long-time collaborator (and near the top of my “unsung heroes” list, game division), sent me an email that read as follows:

    “Actually, I bear the blame for telling Steve about the “one-pulse” idea, having learned about it from an early 1980s Wall Street Journal article. The article isn’t online, but some bloggers remember it fondly even now, as for instance Poynter Online:”

    Well, Allen, I’d hardly say “blame” is the appropriate word to use — the one pulse word game has provided me with hours of friend-aggravating joy over the years. I’m just sorry I didn’t credit you appropriately.

  4. yojimbouk Says:

    What’s really crazy about Georges Perec is that after he wrote La Disparation, he wrote a text in which the only vowel is the letter ‘e’–Les Revenents. And it’s also been translated into English, also with only one vowel, as ‘The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex”.

    Coincidentally I gave a talk at Playful 08 that included both Georges Perec and you. It was called ‘A Thing of Beauty is a Stout Green Toy’ and you can read my slides here.

  5. vanexelfan Says:

    Hey Warren, Is there a way for fans to contact you directly via email?

    Oh, and Deus Ex is awesome!


  6. jhorneman Says:

    I am not a huge fan of the New Yorker caption contest. Often all of the suggestions are a bit weak and I can’t think of anything better myself.

    “We’re Running Low on Mohicans” had me and my girlfried in stitches for hours, and I like to bring it up again whenever we make a shopping list. “Do we need anything from the shops?” “Well, we’re running low on Mohicans”. I do not foresee this getting old.

    My own prequels: “The Empire Takes A Punch” and “Four Blind Dates and a Barfight”.

    (But what we really want to know is: Could you have helped Bear Stearns survive? )

  7. mtureck Says:

    The weekly contests tend to be a bit broader than then the NY Mag competitions, but you should check out the Washington Post’s Style Invitational.

  8. mrcyberpunk Says:

    Hello Warren, First time poster huge fan of yours. I finally got a career going in the video games industry, I’m now a QA Tester going on 1 year now full time and worked with some amazing companies like EA and THQ on some of their games.

    Before I ended up in the industry I was apart of a modding community for Deus Ex called Off Topic Productions I hope you’ve heard of them. The mod I worked on was one that aimed to re-work DeusEx’s graphics to bring them up to scratch.. funnily we’re still using the original Unreal engine that shipped with Deus Ex but uses a modded OpenGL driver.. very impressive stuff because we’ve increased the resolution of the games textures and the poly counts of its models to modern standards 😉

    I wanted to thank you for being an inspiration to hundreds of game developers and gamers alike.. and also for never letting us down (and that includes Invisible War- it wasn’t that bad.. it just didn’t live up to the franchise– sadly Eidos Montreal doesn’t understand that.)

    How’s maggie btw?

    I hope you had a great New Year.

  9. rafaeln Says:

    Hi Warren! Thank you for teaching me the word “lipogram”: I didn’t know there was a term for texts written without a particular letter.

    My favorite example is in Spanish: the book “Las Vocales Malditas” (“Damned Vowels”) by Oscar de la Borbolla. It’s a book with five short stories, where each one has words that contain exclusively a particular vowel. My favorite one is the “o” one, “Los locos somos otro cosmos” (“We madmen are another universe”), which you can find here if you’re curious.

    Thanks for the interesting post! I’m glad to see others share my interest in word games (and possibly to the same socially-eschewed degree!). 🙂 All the best!

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  11. destoo Says:

    Very happy to know the back story to Chuckle’s Game in Ultima.
    I guess it infected Origin studios at one point?

  12. tonyhuynhdesign Says:

    Hello Warren,
    You’re a personal hero of mine and have been a big inspiration to me as a game designer. I am writing here because I do not know how else to contact you. I recently read your article Fun is a Four-Letter Word and it inspired me to write a response to it on my blog. If you find the time please read my article and let me know what you think.
    Tony Huynh

  13. wspector Says:

    I completely forgot about Chuckles’ game in Ultima VII! Yeah, everything Steve Jackson infected Origin at one time or another, I think. There were so many of us who made the leap from SJG to OSI it was almost like SJG was a college education in game design and OSI was grad school. Thanks for the memory jogger!

  14. adamsacks Says:

    In the NYC subways, after repainting something they put up flimsy “Wet Paint” signs and I always try to figure out anagrams you can make with the sign. I took photos of the ones I’ve come up with so far.

  15. free online word games Says:

    free online word games…

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  16. kpallist Says:

    >prequel wordplay:

    The game developers challenge had some comparable things where code constructs were applied to worlds to come up with names of movie titles.


    Holy cow that’s awesome. Kind of a ‘metagame’ of sorts too.

    Is the act of stripping a text of a given letter a ‘liposection’? (groan)

    >word games

    My father does a lot of cryptic crosswords, and IIRC, clues often involve some word play. Not sure if there’s a variant that’s entirely wordplay-in-the-clue.

    Anyhow. Nice post!

  17. modstylez Says:


    I’d appreciate if you can give me some feedback on our iphone app iLightFarts

    I realize that you are iphone app guru 🙂 It’d be swell if you can place an honest review of our app.

    Thank you,

  18. tournamentgames Says:

    We used to have a Word game called ‘Word Search” that did really good for a while but fizzled shortly there after, in hindsight we found that our players would much rather play DirectX games rather than flash.

    I still use the Neverywhere to this day!

    Thanks for this post 🙂


  19. jenney123 Says:

    It teaches kids to spell. As you play, you can teach your child some basic spelling rules as he makes mistakes.

  20. Peter Pawan Says:

    There is like a ton of these games at this site.

    I already wasted an hour over there.

  21. Ryan Says:

    They are not exactly the same but you can find similar games here:

    They add a new game each week.

  22. Michael Plunkett Says:

    I am playing Zingo! on Facebook right now:

    It’s like Lingo on GSN.

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  29. Stephen Golphin Says:

    I tried a word game called UnWord I downloaded it from Apple itunes and it is the bomb, so much fun.

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  31. ilya Says:

    If you enjoy word games and interplay of language and culture than I think you will definitely enjoy Turn-O-Phrase – Word Puzzles for Culture Buffs (

    I would be curious to know what you think about it.

    In the interest of full disclosure: I am the author of the original game concept and its online implementation.

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  33. sirgalahads Says:

    Hi evLeave a Reply

    erybody! I am also a word game fan, from Hungary, my favourite was the Scrubble as – in my opinion- this is the best way to match two (or more) players skills and ability. Since 1938- when it was made up- several version and modifications turned up during the years, but all of them use the same methods. I really love these Scrubble- type games, however they are a bit schematic and give luck too big role. I wanted to eliminate these two factors, so I have evolved a brand new game, called Resulo- the LetterChess. With more than thousand of test games the rules are concluded and it became a brain-challanging, exciting game, which one provides exactly the same chances and conditions for the two players. It can be played on board, as well as on internet. I want to put it onto the net first, as this is the faster way to get to the people and the Resulo is playable on it even better than on traditional way. I have found a programmer, he had made the demo version, so it is already presentable, but unfortunatelly I have run out from my founds, so I am looking for sponsor, or bussiness partner. I would need arund 25000 $ to put the game into the net within two month and according to my calculations the costs will be cleared by one year, by advertisings on our page.
    I would be grateful for any help- not only money, but advice, tip, idea. Thank you for reading this text, please help me if you can, this game will be a massive success, if we materialize it!

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