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.

  1. 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 frequently.
  2. Write the alphabet on your piece of paper.
  3. Divide the paper into two columns - one will be for your guesses, the other for your opponent's.
  4. Leave the bottom quarter or so open for notes.

The Play

  1. 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 different letters.

  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
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 2:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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.

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 as impossible!

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 on.

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:

  • 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 from DISKS.)
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.

(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.

Summing Up

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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