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Simple Hangman Tactics

created on by  in Printable word games

In case you didn’t know it, Hangman is a simple pen and paper game, where one person thinks of a word or phrase and another person tries to guess it by calling out any of the letters they think might be contained in such a word or phrase.

At the start of the game, the person who has chosen the word writes a number of lines on a piece of paper, each line representing a letter, so that the person who is guessing can see how many letters are in the word. Multiple words are separated by spaces or diagonal lines. As each letter is correctly guessed, the lines are filled in until it becomes possible to work out the whole word or phrase by working out what letters go into the remaining blank spaces. For every incorrect guess, however, a piece of scaffolding is drawn, with a stick man hanging from a noose. Should the whole drawing be completed before the word or phrase is correctly found, then the guesser is “hung” and loses the game.

Topics in Hangman

Words or phrases tend to be commonly chosen within an agreed topic or theme. In the first instance, this helps the chooser, as it provides some useful parameters for his or her choice of word or phrase. It also, however, gives a big piece of additional help to the guesser, particular after he or she has filled in some of the missing letters.

Here is a short list of some of the topics that might be chosen for a game of Hangman. Some of them are broader than others, which gives the players an element of flexibility in deciding whether they want the game to be relatively easy or more of a challenge. The list is by no means exhaustive:


Number of false guesses

Once a topic has been chosen, it becomes necessary to agree on the complexity of the drawing. A Hangman typically has eleven components and looks something like this:

Simple Hangman Scheme
Simple Hangman Scheme

Variations on this exist, of course, but it is important to keep the drawing relatively simple and with reasonably few component elements to it, in order to ensure that the original word or phrase is not too easy to discover. With the drawing made up of eleven parts, for example, the guesser can make up-to-and-including ten mistakes and still end up winning the game.

This is obviously a rather large margin for error and as such the advantage in a game of Hangman is always firmly in the hands of the guesser. And as the guesser can afford to make a large number of mistakes, it pays to “play the percentages”.

Hangman Tactics for the guesser

First: Guess Letters with a high frequency in words

This means that, to begin with, the guesser would be wise to go for letters that are high in frequency. The eleven highest frequency letters in the English language are E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D and L. It is unlikely that all eleven of these letters would be missing from any of the words or phrases that they are trying to guess, particularly as four of them are vowels.

Second: Adjust for frequent letter combinations

As a result, it is a sensible tactic for the guesser to begin with the vowels E, A, O and I, followed by some of the consonants from the high frequency list. Once some successfully chosen letters have been filled in, it becomes possible for the guesser to adjust his or her choice, depending on the previous outcomes and the possible combinations that now exist. (For example, if E, A, O and I are unsuccessfully called for, it is clear that U becomes a necessary next choice. Also, if H appears in the middle of a word, but S and T are not found in the word, C, P, G and W then become wise choices.)

Third: Keep the Topic in mind

And, of course, the advantage swings even more firmly in the direction of the guesser when the words are known to fit into a particular category. This provides yet another hint, when trying to guess the missing word or phrase.
With the game stacked firmly in the direction of the guesser, therefore, it should come as no surprise to discover that, in most games of Hangman, the solution is found before the guesser is “hung”. So what can the chooser do in order to redress the balance?

Hangman Tactics for the chooser

Well firstly it would help if a simplified drawing of the Hangman was agreed. After all, reducing the number of the drawing’s component parts also reduces the number of allowable errors in a game.

It also becomes important for the chooser to consider the length of the chosen word or phrase. Shorter words, or those with fewer different letters, are harder to guess, as the choice of “successful” letters is reduced.

Finally, the chooser should try to pay particular attention to the types of letter that appear in his or her choice of word. The least common letters in the English language are Z, Q, X, J, K and V. Therefore, a chooser should try to pick words that contain these letters. (Short words include for example JAZZ, JOKE, ONYX, BUZZ and LYNX although it is not always easy to fit such words into a particular topic or theme!)

At the End: It’s just a Game!

In conclusion, the task of choosing a sufficiently difficult word or phrase is a challenging one. The guesser usually has enough chances to guess incorrectly, without being beaten. So ultimately it is only by a cunningly considered choice of word, paying particular attention to the letters contained within, that the wily wordsmith will successfully outwit his or her opponent and “hang ‘em high”!

If you like to play now, but there’s no one around try our Online-Hangman.

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