Friday, May 12, 2006


Kat had an interesting little exercise on her blog the other day, and it involved the bright glowing sign in front of Big Red Hen, a food concessionaire in one of the local malls. It's a backlighted sign, you see, and it resembles a three-by-three square of nine different colors, each square holding a single letter. Taken all at once, it easily reads:

b i g
r e d
h e n

If you still can't quite imagine what it looks like, follow the link above and have a look at Kat's photograph. It's a nice sign.

The challenge here is simple: Make as many words as possible using only the letters in "big red hen". The letters don't have to be adjacent to each other, but you're looking to get as many words as you can.

It kind of reminds you of Boggle, doesn't it? You know, that weird game that requires you to search for words in a random four-by-four grid of letters? I remember actually saving up to buy a copy of the game more than ten years ago...

One of my observations about the random word grid, if I recall correctly, was a strange little formula that worked an uncanny number of times: If you can find multiple words of (n) letters in the grid, then the chances are good that there's at least one word of (n+1) letters in there.

Let's take a sample grid, for the sake of argument: (Generated via Braggle)


Now, you know that you don't have a good grid when over half the letters are vowels. In fact, there's even a whole column of them running down the left side of the square.

Careful examination, however, shows that we can find a number of five-letter words regardless: geese, pages, gates, pat├ęs. The formula implies that there's at least one six-letter word in there, however, and I can see agates.

Maybe I can make my point a little clearer with a second example:


This one looks odd... there's an entire row of consonants in the middle of the grid.

With that said, I can spot races, bring, brain, parch, perch, crate, birch, aches, pairs, parks, tapes and tears. Those imply the presence of some six-letter words: pacing, scrape, arches, arcing, riches, rating, paring.

That's still a lot of six-letter words, so some seven-letter words are bound to be in there. While parches and birches might be contested as words, I'm sure potential opponents will accept teaches, tearing, bracing, and scaring.

Then the formula comes in, and tells us that there must be an eight-letter word in there: teachers. (I could make an argument for teachering as well, but that's usually when the potential opponents would probably start beating me up.)

Contrary to popular opinion, an expansive vocabulary doesn't help you all that much with most word games, especially when other players are involved. In fact, an expansive vocabulary will usually get you more arguments as opposed to scoring you more points. I couldn't even begin to describe my experiences with words like rove, sot and fez, for example.

What does work, however, is an approach that emphasizes prefixes and suffixes. Everybody probably knows, for instance, that having an "S" in the letter grid will virtually double the number of available words as you invest in plurals. Similarly, it's easy to hinge on endings like "ing", "ate" and "er".

Verbiage aside, however, one of the stranger things I've found about Boggle is that writing speed might just be a factor. The person who can scribble their words on paper at a faster rate usually ends up covering a few more words than the other players, which invariably translates into more points. I've actually known a couple of people who write their Boggle responses in script, due to this minor observation. :)

Ironically, I'm not actually playing Boggle at the moment. It's been about ten years since my last game, I think, and it'll probably take me a few days to look for it in my landfill of a room. And even if I do find it, I suppose, it'll be hard to shake off the stigma of being "that writer guy who plays a lot of games". I lose a lot of potential opponents that way.

But then, that's why I write stuff like this. I get to see my notes down on paper, you get to see what you can try to do during a game, and maybe someday we can get together and have at it.

And for that matter, the longest word you can probably make out of the letters in "Big Red Hen" is the eight-letter breeding.

There's no sense being boggled about that, I suppose.



postigo luna said...

hey. i'm not sure how relevant this is to you, but i just posted the names of the cities and municipalities where voter's IDs have been dispatched to by the COMELEC. Thought you might be interested.

btw, that was a nice dissertation on boggle. when i get the chance, i'll share my discussion on tic-tac-toe wit'ya. :)

kat said...

Hee. Went back and tried to seach for more words. What I could find I checked on Merriam Webster. So far, I haven't found any valid words. I didn't find er, breeding either. :)

Sean said...

Postigo Luna: It's relevant, all right. My sister's due to pick up her ID this year. Thanks. :)

Kat: I know that there's a web site somewhere that can take a random bunch of letters and output all possible words that can be made from them, only I don't know where it is. (Honest.)