Guess Who Reloaded for the Rainbow Jam 2016

I recently enrolled to take part in the Rainbow Jam but, with somewhat of a lack of foresight, failed to realise I was going to be on holiday in France for most of the jam period, without either a computer or internet access. Determined not to be put off, I decided to try spending some of my time spent sipping vino in a deckchair in the Loire valley designing a paper and pen-based game instead.

A common game design exercise is to consider an existing game that is “broken” in some way, and propose some changes to the game mechanics that address those issues. The jam theme of “identity” made me immediately think of the children’s game Guess Who?, and it was this that gave me the inspiration for the jam.


I’m sure you’re familiar with the game: two players each have a card depicting a character chosen from an identical grid of characters. They take it in turns to ask each other questions to determine the identity of the other person’s card.

Why Is Guess Who broken?

Although I do recall fond memories of playing Guess Who? as a child, looking back at it now, the game is obviously broken in a number of different ways:

  • The dominant winning strategy is always the same – if on every turn you ask a question that distinguishes half of the remaining characters, you create a binary search which you are guaranteed to win in 5 questions (=Log₂ 24)
  • Because you’re trying to guess from a set of fictional characters, based only on a name and caricature of their face, the questions themselves are naturally limited to a crude (and often unkind) judgement of people’s appearance – “Do they have a big nose?”, “Are they old?”, “Are they ugly?”…
  • The creators have made a set of cards in which each obvious physical characteristic appears with a 5:19 ratio.In the set of 24 characters, there are 5 with hats, 5 with glasses, 5 with blue eyes, 5 with a bald head, for example. This is clever in that it makes it harder to formulate a question to produce the binary search strategy explained above. However, it does mean that there are only 5 women characters depicted compared to 19 men. (At least, we are led to assume such gender roles based on name and stereotypical presentation, yet Claire can be a man’s name, while Sam, Alex and Joe are commonly-used names by both men and women….). And, to avoid ambiguity, each characteristic must be apparent and polarised.
  • Although there have been various reprinted versions with updated art, to my knowledge, the characters above are the same used in every version of Guess Who?. Yet, looking at it, you’d think I’d used an image of the “White Supremacy” edition – there’s not any ethnic diversity whatsoever….

Fixing the Problem(s)

So I tried experimenting with a number of things to make the game better:

  • Coming up with a completely new set of characters, with a broader range of diversifying features: characters with a disability, different ethnicities and skin colours, and less binary divide between male/female genders, for example. This added more interest to the characters, but otherwise had little mechanic effect on the game – players’ questions could still only be based on purely physical appearance of the characters.
  • Adding short bios or descriptive facts to the cards enabled questions to be significantly more varied about the character’s personality, lifestyle, and identity (remember that’s the jam theme 🙂 than just their appearance alone. I started off with “age” and “profession” but then tried to be a little more adventurous. With some more time, I could probably have come up with a set of facts that fitted the 5:19 rule with regards to questions such as “Is this person trustworthy?”, “Does this person feel valued in their job?”. However, there would still be a fixed optimum strategy to eliminate the characters by asking appropriate questions to create the binary search each playthrough:


Then it struck me that the key problems with Guess Who? are all attributed to one fact – that it is played with a fixed set of fictional characters.

  • For the game to work, there must be unambiguous agreement between the players as to the answer to any question, yet that means there is no room for “shades of grey” – a character must either be a woman or a man, old or young, friendly or grumpy – and with only limited information able to be presented on the card, that necessarily means that the fictional characters must meet the stereotypes that I’ve been criticising.
  • The fact that it’s the same set of cards on every playthrough means that an optimum strategy can easily be developed (and remembered by a good player), reducing the skill and interest of repeat play.guesswho3


The solution : Guess Who Reloaded

Given the problem identified above, the solution then becomes remarkably easy – use a variation of the game in which there is a different set of real-life characters for each playthrough. And, with that, I present my game jam submission:

Players: 2

Equipment Required: Paper, pens

Set-up: Both players should agree on a list of 24 people with which they are all familiar – they could be mutual friends, family members, or celebrities, for example. To make the game more interesting, try to select a broad variety of people. Each player should write these names down on scraps of paper laid out, face up, in a grid in front of them. They then choose *one* of these people and write their name down on an additional scrap of paper, laid face down.This is the identity which the other player will try to guess.

Objective: The object of the game is to successfully guess the identity of the other player’s chosen person before they discover yours.

Gameplay: Players take it in turns to ask any question about the other player’s chosen person. Questions can only be answered with a single “Yes”/”No” response. Questions can take any form, from asking about the person’s physical appearance, to their history, personality, or any shared experience that they might have had with the player. Some examples might include:

  • “Does this person dye their hair?”
  • “Would you trust this person with your life?”
  • “Have you ever had a dream about this person?”
  • “Does this person have a tattoo?”
  • “Is this person embarrassing when drunk?”

After each response, the asking player should “eliminate” the candidates in front of them who do not match the response given by turning them face down. The winner is the first player to determine the identity of the other player’s chosen person.

The game is different on each playthrough, both due to the different selection of people and the players’ different personal experience and opinion of those people. If an optimal strategy exists, it is much harder to determine and execute due to the more subjective nature of characteristics present. And the game is made potentially more interesting and fun by drawing on shared, possibly asymmetric experiences of the players (“I didn’t know Rachel had a tattoo?!!!” etc.).


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