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Tombstones - a Word Game

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Tombstones is a tactical, two-player word game traditionally played with pencil and paper. It helps to have a good grasp of spelling and a knowledge of obscure words, but the ability to bluff is just as important. It's an excellent game to keep children occupied on car journeys.

Its origins are not clear, but it has also been recorded under the names 'Pig' and 'Superghosts'. Lewis Carroll once devised a similar game which he named 'Mischmasch'.


Players take it in turns to start. The first player writes down a letter of the alphabet in the centre of the paper. Players then alternate adding a letter either at the beginning or the end to build a longer word. The trick is that a player must never complete a word, but the player must always have a longer word in mind that can be completed using those letters.

One player may challenge the other if:

  1. The player believes the other player has completed a word
  2. The player believes the other player cannot make a longer word ie, is bluffing.


If challenged for completing a word, the players will have to accede1 that a word has been completed, using a dictionary if necessary. Typically, words must be English (or the agreed language), without hyphens, apostrophes, etc, and no proper names are permitted. If playing the game seriously, players should agree on a suitable reference up front eg, Chambers or Webster's or the Oxford English dictionary, Official Scrabble Words, or even an online reference like

As it is easy to inadvertently complete a one-letter or two-letter word, players could agree that the completed words rule only applies to words of three letters or more.

If challenged for bluffing, the challenged player must immediately state and spell the word he or she has in mind, and the players will then agree whether or not this is a valid word, again using a dictionary if necessary.

A challenge immediately ends the round, with the players agreeing on the result. A match will typically involve a number of rounds - best of five, best of nine, etc.

It's easier to illustrate this with a couple of examples:

Example Game 1

  • Anne: Writes down the letter U.
  • Bob: Adds a T at the beginning - TU (perhaps thinking of the word 'TUG').
  • Anne: Adds an N at the end - TUN (perhaps thinking of the word 'TUNA').
  • Bob: challenges, since TUN is a word (it's a brewing vessel).
  • The challenge is correct, and Bob wins.

Example Game 2

  • Anne: Writes down the letter G.
  • Bob: Adds an O at the beginning - OG (thinking of any of a number of words, such as 'DOG').
  • Anne: Adds an L at the end - OGL (thinks 'OGLE').
  • Bob: Adds an R at the beginning - ROGL (thinks 'FROGLET').
  • Anne: Adds a Y at the end - ROGLY.
  • Bob can't think of anything, and challenges Anne to name a longer word.
  • Anne says 'HIEROGLYPH', and wins the game for an incorrect challenge from Bob.


Keep your options open - it's better to have a number of words in mind, as you are then more likely to cope with what your opponent plays.

Look for chances to force your opponent, for example, if the situation is ETRO, play E for EETRO. You should be able to force your opponent to finish the word BEETROOT (there are other, more obscure words, which fit here2, but your opponent may not know them).

Use compound words to confuse your opponent. Adding P before DES for example, allows you to make HELPDESK, but your opponent may not spot it.

Beware of word endings. Your opponent can turn the game on its head if he or she manages to pluralise a word by appending an S, or by appending an I, intending ING. Remember that if you play the opening letter, you should be thinking of words with an even number of letters, so that your opponent will have to play the final letter. Similarly, if you play second, then you should be thinking of words with an odd number of letters.

Don't underestimate the value of bluffing. If you can't think of anything to play, but you think your opponent knows a word, then there's no point in challenging. Play along with a letter that looks right, but play it swiftly. You could also post an unusual letter, trying to fool your opponent into thinking that you know a difficult compound word. Make your opponent guess - and he or she may make a mistake.

And finally, if you are challenged for bluffing, and you are bluffing, then you might as well have a go and guess a word. You never know, it may turn out to be in the dictionary.


  • Two heads are better than one, so why not play in teams?

  • Learning a foreign language? Try playing Tombstones in Swahili to improve your vocabulary.

  • Do you have a penfriend or email buddy? Why not keep a running Tombstones game going at the foot of each message?

  • If you want some unpredictable results, then try playing with three or more players. For extremely unpredictable results, play it on a public messageboard.

1Approve.2Sweetroot, for example.

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