20 Questions, at least

Twenty Questions is an old, and extremely popular word game. The Wikipedia article on the game is replete with historical insights and fascinating variations. Speaking of which, here are four more:

Negative 20 Questions

Philip Graham writes about a game of “Negative Twenty Questions” that was invented by quantum physicist John Wheeler. Apparently, the game goes something like this: First, someone is selected to be the guesser. Then everyone else, without consulting each other, picks their own object to be guessed. Fred, for example, might have picked George’s hat, whilst Tina, for another example, might have picked Sam’s nose. When the guesser decides to start guessing, she may, by chance, ask Tina “is it an article of clothing”? Tina, of course, who was thinking of Sam’s nose, says “no.” The guesser now turns to Fred, who had been busily thinking of George’s hat, and who is now just as busily thinking about things that are not articles of clothing. So now the Guesser, and everyone else, is looking around the room for things that are not articles of clothing. The Guesser turns to George and asks: “Is it edible?” George, who had been thinking of his chair, answers, truthfully, in the negative. Now, everyone has to start thinking about something that is neither an article of clothing nor edible. And so on and so on, until, oddly enough, everyone is thinking of the same thing. I don’t think Wheeler actually intended this to be a particular fun game. He was thinking about quantum theory and related esoterics. For film editor Walter Murch, the game is a paradigm for the process of, you guessed it, editing film. For author Philip Graham, the game is about writing a book. And for me, your local Funsmith, it’s about what it’s like trying to play Twenty Questions with my grandkids.

Filipino Genius

from Ari Bancale

Here in the Philippines, we have a crazy version of 20 Questions that has been popularized by a noontime show. We call it “Filipino Genius” (Pinoy Henyo), Instead of just yes or no, we also added “somewhat” to warn the guesser that they are somewhat on the right track and explore that train of thought.

The fun is in the ambiguity of the 3rd response, “Somewhat” or loosely, “Maybe”

My favorite word to be guessed is “hole”

“Is it part of the body?”


“Can you touch it?”

“Not necessarily”

“Is it a place?”


It’s fun to play in a drinking party where everyone is apt to ask, “Does it have to do anything with SEX? “Yes!” and everyone gets excited laughing and guessing.

Of course, if you really want the word to be guessed, you’ll lead the guesser on just one interpretation of the word.

It’s also fun when more than one person is answering yes, no or maybe and they argue which answer is best.

WORD: Worm

“Is it an animal?”


“Is it an insect?”

“Maybe, I’m not sure.”

“Can you eat this?”

“In certain cultures, yes.”

Numerical 20 Questions

Then there’s the variation where all questions have to be answerable with numbers, e.g.:

  • If I dropped it from the Emipre State Building, how deep a hole would it make in the sidewalk?
  • How much does it weigh?
  • How many legs does it have?
  • How long would it take it to eat?
  • How much fuel would it consume in an hour?
  • How many elephants could stand on it before it broke?
  • On a scale from 1-10, how cute is it?
  • What’s its temperature?
  • If I dropped it on your toe, how loudly (in decibels) would you scream?

Plenty Questions

From: Jed Hartman

Subject: Plenty Questions


I decided to peek at your Web site before getting down to Serious Work. Seeing your column on Twenty Questions reminds me of a game that my friends Ranjit and Dominus invented, called Plenty Questions. As originally presented, it’s as rigid a game (in some ways) as Twenty Questions, but expansions and variations present themselves pretty clearly.

The original game goes like this: one person thinks of something. (It usually works best if it’s a relatively concrete thing, but in the first game Arthur and I played he started by thinking of Patripassionism, apparently an obscure Christian heresy — an item I would never have guessed, but it does show that abstract things can be thought of as targets.) The other people (works *far* better with multiple guessers than with only one) guess what the thing might be. The person with the answer says only whether the guess is “hotter” or “colder” (or “warmer” or “cooler” if you prefer) than the previous best guess. Of course “Hot” and “Cold” are entirely subjective measures, but people can usually guess the answer the answerer had in mind, or at least get remarkably close. (If you get *too* close, it may be hard to find something warmer than your best guess so far — in which case you can start over from scratch and try to guess the same answer from a different direction.)

As I said, there are lots of interesting variations, most of which I’ve never actually played. But the original game can be pretty darn fun all by itself; give it a try, and fun variations will no doubt present themselves during play.


updated 8/19/2011

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