The visit to New Mexico is going well; I'll try to post the details later. I'm currently in Las Cruces, visiting with various friends. A lot of time these evenings has been hanging out, playing games, and (in my case) drinking my way through the night.
One game in particular has been extra fun, and I thought that the pile of my friends who are into gaming (nolly, jinglechelle, shinankoku, samuraimeg, ohdhalia, probably more) might be interested in it. I'll definitely try to run a few rounds of it during my next gaming day (which will hopefully be in late January.)
It's fairly quick, good for 3-6 people (2 works, but is frantic; 7+ gets too slow), requires just pen and paper per person, and allows for an interesting spectrum of strategies ("broad" or "deep"; alternately, "methodical" or "guts"). On the down side: you have to be able to count, and you have to be able to spell (4- and 5-letter words), and you have to have a pretty good vocabulary (again, of 4-5 letter words).
It's essentially a spelling version of Mastermind: person A comes up with a secret word, person B tries to guess the secret word in as few rounds as possible, by getting selective feedback on how close a given guess is.
If there are more than two people, then each player tries to solve the secret word of the player on their left. (Or right, so long as everyone is going in the same direction.)
The variants we've played so far are mostly 4-letter games, and one 5-letter -- the latter are reputed to take much longer, but ours lasted just about as long as the 4-letter game, so I'm not sure that's the case.
There are some restrictions on the secret words: they cannot have any repeated letters, and they must be relatively common (in particular, you need to have a reasonable belief that everyone at the table knows the word you're using.) Finally, rules similar to those in Boggle and Scrabble apply -- no proper names, abbreviations, contractions, acronyms, etc. Examples:
WYRM - not allowed (archaic)
ONYX - allowed
QATS - not allowed (obscure)
The only feedback you get is the number of letters in your guess that are anywhere in the secret word. (This differs from Mastermind, which gives you two levels of feedback: how many "letters" are in the secret "word" at all, and whether they are in the correct position as well.)
An example of play, with player A having the secret word ARCS, and player B trying to guess it:
B: BEAD A: 1
B: FLOG A: 0
B: RICH A: 2
B: LUST A: 1
B: DAMN A: 1
B: CROP A: 2
B: LUCK A: 1
B: CART A: 3
B: CARS A: 4
B: SCAR A: 4
B: ARCS A: you got it!
People do make mistakes while counting: usually these are not found until a paradox is reached. At any time, any player has the right to request a review of all the answers to date.
That's it! Once people know what is going on, it only takes about 5 minutes per player most of the time.
My strategy tips for defending (coming up with a good word):
1. Choose a word that has many anagrams. This makes people work harder once they've gotten 4 matches. Examples: STOP POTS SPOT POST TOPS OPTS; ARCS SCAR CARS; EVIL LIVE VEIL; PATS TAPS SPAT; ARTS TARS RATS STAR.
2. Choose words with letters towards the end of the alphabet; I have a tendency to guess in roughly alphabetic order, so that can put off my discovery for a few rounds. (Can also lead to early zeros, though.)
3. Choose words whose letters are lower in frequency than most. You don't want to do this all the time (because others will start to notice, and begin guessing rarer letters first), but every now and again, it's very effective to choose words like: MINX; MYTH; ZERO; QUIP.
As an attacker (trying to guess words)
1. Get good coverage. Select words that don't overlap, so you can exclude or include as many letters as possible. Notice that there is no overlap in the first three guesses in the sample round above (BEAD, FLOG, RICH); and the next one (LUST) used one "known zero" to test three more letters.
2. Count used letters. After LUST, we know that all four letters are accounted for (with no overlap, we had 1+2+1=4 letters). So the rest of the alphabet is unused.
3. Binary search your ranges. BEAD gave us four possible values for one letter; using DAMN tells whether that one letter is either D/A or B/E. We do it again with CROP (choosing a guess that has two letters out of RICH and two "known dead" letters, O and P). We got lucky; since we knew that we needed two used letters out of RICH, we can see from CROP that C and R must be in the answer.
4. Update your knowledge. Since we know that exactly two letters in RICH are used, and we know they're C and R, I and H must not be used. We can scratch them off our list. Likewise, since one of A or D is in the word, we know that E and B are not used.
5. Isolate vowels. Most words have only one vowel; once you've knocked out 2-3 of them, guess words that allow you to eliminate possible vowels. In this case, we know that O is unused (since FLOG had zero hits); I is not in the secret word (due to elimination in step 4); exactly one of A or E is used (since BEAD gave us 1 hit). So we use one live letter and two known-dead letters to isolate U, with LUCK. Since the answer was 1, and we know that C is used, U must not be in the secret. Scratch it off the list. At this point, we see that the only live vowel is A (and maybe Y).
6. Track possibilities for endgame. Eventually, we get to the point where we have a fairly limited set of letters to work with. At this point, we can start guessing actual words. Take knowledge of your opponent into account; consider bluffs; and try to continue increasing knowledge while still making guesses you think might be the real answer.
After we've guessed LUCK, we know that we have R, C, and likely A; the last letter is either S or T. So we try CART; when that doesn't give us a full match, we try CARS. From there, it's just a matter of trying anagrams until we hit the jackpot.
There is a helpful tableau for keeping track of your guesses so far: the letters down the left side of the paper, and the guesses in the upper right. Your secret word can be written on the back of the sheet, on the bottom -- so you can peek at it to give accurate answers to your interrogator. A blank sheet looks something like this:
A ____ _
B ____ _
C ____ _
D ____ _
E ____ _
F ____ _
G ____ _
H ____ _
I ____ _
J ____ _
K ____ _
L ____ _
M ____ _
N ____ _
O ____ _
And here's what my sheet looked like after solving for ARCS:
B F R L D C L C C
E L I U A R U A A
A O C S M O C R R
D G H T N P K T S
A 1 1 o BEAD 1
B 1 x FLOG 0
C 2 o RICH 2
D 1 1 LUST 1
E 1 x DAMN 1
F x CROP 2
G x LUCK 1
H 2 x CART 3
I 2 x CARS 4
J x SCAR 4
K x ARCS
R 2 o
S 1 o
T 1 x
U 1 x
(Where 'x' means that I know that letter can't match; 'o' means I know the letter is in the secret; and numbers generally the given answers -- but notice that we can deduce lots of other numbers from those answers...)
Anyway. I hope some of you give it a shot; let me know if the above explanation is inadequate. Also, I hope that some of you can join me at one of my gaming afternoons to have a few rounds of it. :)