Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Games Without Pieces: Ghosts and Superghosts

Open any book of decorum or household advice from the Victorian period and you’re likely to find countless tips on how the Good Hostess can keep her Guests properly entertained in order to avoid Crushing Shame and the inevitable Whispered Comments. These parlor games, as they came to be known, range from silly little time wasters to fairly intense brain scramblers.

Ghosts (also called Ghost) was one of the more popular parlor games well into the 1950s, when James Thurber could still write about it as though it was a common pastime. The rules are very simple. A player thinks of a word, and says the first letter. The next player adds another letter, which continues that word without completing it. This continues, with each player trying to add a letter to the growing word without making a complete word. Proper nouns and abbreviations don’t count.

If a person adds a letter that forms a complete word, he loses the round and gets one point. The next player is allowed to challenge the previous player to reveal his word. If the challenged player can’t produce a complete, valid word, then he loses the round and gets one point. For instance, if player 3 adds a “Z” to create “TEZ,” player 4 can challenge him to produce his full word. Since player 3 was bluffing and has no word beginning with the letter “TEZ,” he loses the challenge. The loser of a round gets 1 point, and players are eliminated when they reach 3 points. Last player standing is the winner.

For instance, I think of the word FIRING, and say the letter “F.” The next person, building on the F, thinks of the word FERAL and says “E.” (“FE” is not a valid word under Scrabble rules, which is what people should use for this game.) The third person can’t think of a letter that doesn’t make a complete word, so he blurts out “B” and hopes his bluff will work. The fourth player challenges player three to produce his word. Unable to think of the word “FEBRILE,” player 3 fails the challenge and loses the round, earning 1 point. If he earns 2 more, he’s out of the game.

Although Ghosts is a pleasant game suitable for all ages and mixed company, Superghosts is an absolute brain sprainer. It preoccupied the mind of James Thurber so much that often he couldn’t fall asleep until he’d figured out all the words that could be made from certain letter groupings.

Superghosts is simply Ghosts in both directions. People don’t have to start spelling a word at the beginning, but can (and usually do) start spelling it at the absolute hardest possible place. I’ll let Thurber describe how this game haunted his mind:
I spent two hours hunting for another word besides “PHLOX” that has “HLO” in it. I finally found seven: MATCHLOCK, DECATHLON, PENTATHLON, HYDROCHLORIC, CHLORINE, CHLOROFORM, and MONTHLONG. There are more than a dozen others, beginning with “PHLO,” but I had to look them up in a dictionary, and that doesn’t count…
Starting words in the middle and spelling them in both directions lifts the pallid pastime of Ghosts out of the realm of children’s parties and ladies’ sewing circles and makes it a game to test the mettle of the mature adult mind. The Superghost aficionado is a moody fellow, given to spelling to himself at table, not listening to his wife, and starting dully at his frightened children, wondering why he didn’t detect, in yesterday’s game, that “CKLU” is the gusts of “LACKLUSTER,” and priding himself on having stumped everybody with “NEHE,” the middle of “SWINEHERD.”

The Oxford Guide to Word Games includes a few letter clusters as examples of just how maddening this game can get. Can you make words that include the letter groupings HQ, PK, XW, ADQ, EKD, GNP, PEV, SPB, and THM?


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