Words & Stuff

K: Gallivanting Around the World

(14 September 1997)

There's a word game in which players take turns saying the names of countries; each name must start with the final letter of the previous name. No repetitions of names are allowed. I'm sure this game has a name, but since I don't know it, I'll call it "Gallivanting."

The problem with Gallivanting under those rules is that it's much too easy to fall into certain areas of the alphabet that are very difficult to get out of. For instance, there are quite a few nations whose names end with A, including most of those whose names start with A; it's easy to get to A, but hard to get off it to another letter.

To alleviate this problem, you can take my favorite approach to fixing problems in games: loosen up the rules. In particular, rather than using only names of countries, you can use other place names. Allowing state names helps a little; allowing city names as well helps a lot. If you want to be really flexible, you can also allow names of (named) geographic features: Pike's Peak, Danube, Mount Kilimanjaro, Iberian Peninsula. (You can be flexible in exactly what a place's name is, as well, by making parts of names (like "the") optional in determining start and end letters.)

Even with relaxed rules, I find the game a little hard to play. It's relatively easy to get to E, for instance, but there are relatively few place names that begin with E. Or at least I have a hard time thinking of them. And it's very difficult to find place names that end with certain letters; even if you come up with a great place name that starts with V, you may never get a chance to use it if your opponents can't think of any names that end with V. For that reason, there are a couple of fairly well-known place names in North America that make great moves in the game: Halifax and Phoenix both go from relatively common letters to the nearly impossible X.

Similarly, K is hard to get to and not easy to get away from. If you find yourself presented with a K name, there are a couple of fairly well-known place names in North America that can keep you on K, thus forcing your opponent to come up with another K. One such name is Kodiak (perhaps best known for the bears of the same name); what's the other? (Hint: I suspect nearly all Americans are familiar with the answer, and probably much of the rest of the world as well.)

Of course, I'm speaking from an American perspective. I gather that we Americans are relatively poor at geography (I know I am, alas). There are, for instance, quite a lot of K names in my low-detail atlas, even in North America; but most of them are places I've never heard of. Anyone who's really good at geography may want to make the game harder by turning it into a route-planning game -- Gallivant from, say, San Francisco to New York, or even around the world, with each stop being within a certain radius of the last.

Gallivanting is the only wordgame I can think of for which the definitive reference work is an atlas. In the absence of an atlas, the CIA World Factbook (which isn't, of course, definitive, but is a good start) provides a handy list of the world's nations, in which I noted a couple of interesting points:

Of course, what letters start and end country names may depend on what language you're using and how you transliterate the names, not to mention the political questions of which regions you recognize as nations and under what name...


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>