A word/logic game for two players - I don't know who invented it
This version copyright 1997, 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated February 20, 2002
I learned Jotto from a friend in the 1960s, not even aware the game had
ever been published. I've never seen the published version, but this
is the game as I learned it.
For two players; each needs a piece of paper (or you can print out
my Adobe Acrobat Jotto record and
worksheet) and pencil or pen.
- Fold the bottom inch of the paper over towards yourself, so it
stands up, hiding a bit of your paper - you'll write your secret
word there. Or just write it on the back and expect to look at it
- Write the alphabet on your piece of paper.
- Divide the paper into two columns - one will be for your guesses,
the other for your opponent's.
- Leave the bottom quarter or so open for notes.
Anagrams: I know of three ways to deal with anagrams in the
game. (An anagram is an alternate word using the same letters,
such as OCEAN and CANOE.) I personally feel that excessive anagrams
can ruin the game, but don't mind a couple, so tend to use option
- Each player chooses a secret word, and writes it on their
paper so their opponent can't see it. The secret word should be
five letters long. It may contain the same letter used more than
once, such as spell or onion. The word should be
legal by Scrabble standards: no proper nouns, no
hyphens, no apostrophes, no foreign words, etc.
- Variant for easier or shorter game: use shorter words for
children or short games;
- Variant for harder game: use longer words. Agree on
word length before beginning.
- Variant for easier game: The secret word must contain five
- The first player (flip a coin) guesses a five letter word,
spelling it for his opponent. This must be a legitimate word,
using the same rules as above. Note that if using the "five
different letters for the secret word" variant, the guess word
may have duplicate letters. Both players write it down to
avoid discrepancies later.
- The second player checks the guessed word with his secret word,
and announces how many letters in the guessed word appear in the
secret word. Unlike Mastermind, the "place" in the
word of the guessed letters has no relevance. If a guessed word
has duplicate letters of one appearing in the secret word, you only
count one. Examples:
Guess Secret Word Correct Answer
HORSE SILLS 1
SILLS HORSE 1
SASSY HORSE 1
SASSY SILLS 2
SILLS SASSY 2
SILLY SASSY 2
- Then the second player guesses a word, and the first player
checks to see how many letters occur in his secret word, and he
gives just the number.
- Continue until one player is able to guess the secret word of
the other. (You'll first have to get all five letters, then
unscramble the word. There may be anagrams - see below.) If the
first player guesses the second player's word, the second player
has one last guess to tie the game.
- Should it be discovered that someone gave the wrong answer (ONE
when they should have said TWO, for example), then they forfeit
the game. This is why both players write down each guess, so check
carefully before answering!
That's basically the game. To help you figure out the possibilities
of your opponent's word, put a light check by letters you have used,
cross out letters you can rule out, and circle letters you know are in
the word. Use the workspace for notes like "IE=1", meaning you know
it's one of those two letters.
- If you get all five letters, you win (or at least tie) the game,
even if you didn't guess the exact word - if you said THESE, for example,
when my word was SHEET.
- If you get all five letters, but not the exact word, you will
win (or at least tie) on your next guess that uses those letters, even
if you still don't have the exact word. E.g., if you say HATES on your
first guess and HEATS on your second, even if my word is HASTE.
- You must get the exact word, regardless of how many anagrams
there are. Note that this can be extreme and change the strategy of
the game: you are more inclined to go with a secret word like PARSE, for
example, because your opponent may not get it right away, seeing instead
such words as PEARS, PARES, REAPS, RAPES, SPARE, SPEAR, APERS
(imitators), PRESA (a musical term), PRASE (a type of mineral), ASPER
(either a coin or a diacritical mark in Greek), and possibly APRES if
your partner will allow that the French word has been used so frequently
in English that it's now English ... Note that even without the
obscure and possibly illegal words, there are still at least seven
common anagrams for these letters.
Strategies for a Secret Word
It depends on how you handle anagrams. If you must guess the exact word,
I'm tempted to use a word with at least four anagrams. You may get
it on the first try, but it might take you a while and give me some
breathing room. This is why I don't play with anagram option three -
it changes the game.
But assuming you use a more rational approach to the game, there are
still various strategies.
You can go for common letters on the basis that while it's easy
for your opponent to get a "1" or "2" result on a guess, it's harder
to pin down exactly which common letter it is. E, T, A, O, I, N,
S, H, R, L, D - are all good choices for this strategy - pick at
least two of those letters and you can have the others be tougher.
Even when your opponent finally gets LATD, it may take him a while
to find that final letter - a "U" in the word I'm thinking of ...
Repetitions of a common letter are also good: EERIE, TENET and
LULLS are tough Jotto words, though probably less so
if your opponent is reading this article ...
Or you can go for really ugly words that your opponent knows but
rarely thinks of: MYRRH, PROXY, ODIUM, MAXIM, LYRIC, USURY, ENSUE,
KIWIS, etc. Some of these are tough to find even when your opponent
has guessed four of your letters and ruled out another 20 letters
Obscure words: even though I've listed some obscure words
above, I actually rarely - if ever - use them in Jotto.
Even barring the anagram problem, for example, I would never
use PRESA or PRASE. I probably wouldn't even use MYRRH unless I
knew my opponent was very erudite. (Just because someone may have
heard the expression, "gold, and frankincense, and myrrh" all their
life doesn't mean they know how to spell it - nor even what it is.)
At any rate, it's much more fun to win with a commonly known word
than to have someone get all five letters and not be able to put
them together because my word choice was too obscure, such as TORII
or RIANT. (Hey, I play a lot of Scrabble with an
expert - I have to know these words!)
Whatever you do, if you play the same opponent all
the time, it's good to vary the types of words you choose!
Strategies for Guessing a Secret Word
There are various strategies you can use - the slow method is to
do things like SILLS: [opponent answers "1"], then on your next
turn guess SELLS. If the answer is "0", then you know "I" is one
of his letters, and "S,E,L" are not. If the answer is "2", then
you know "E" is one of his letters, and "I" is not, and it's one
and only one of "S,L". If the answer is still "1", then either
it's both "I" and "E" or it's neither and one of "S, L". And so
A more cerebral approach is to choose words which have semi-repititions,
figuring out the odds of those repetitions after a bit. For example,
you might do something like:
At this point you know it's not "S,H,E,N" and you can strongly
suspect "I" and begin testing for it, and if it is "I", then it's
not "G,T", which means you strongly suspect "D", since it's found
in both DISKS and FUDGE, which means it's probably "D,I" and one
of "U,F". And so on.
- FUDGE: 2
- EIGHT: 1 (Contains the GE from FUDGE)
- DISKS: 2 (Contains the D from FUDGE and I from EIGHT)
- SHEEN: 0 (Contains the E from FUDGE and EIGHT, the H from EIGHT, and S
(In this particular case, my secret word was FIORD.)
Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?
It's a word game that requires a decent vocabulary and the ability to
spell correctly - some folk hate those.
It's a logic game - some folk hate those.
This was one of the few games my ex-wife enjoyed playing, so we'd
play a lot. Almost every time we ate in a restaurant, for example,
we'd play Jotto while waiting for our order. It's
easy to carry a couple of pencils and pieces of paper wherever you
go - and that's all you need.
So it's a perfect game while waiting for something - you don't need
a box or cards or pieces that can get lost. Or it's a nice game
to play on a quiet evening when pulling out Scrabble
feels a little daunting. Give it a try - you may like it as much
as I do.
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