When on road trips, my
friends, family, and I occasionally play a fun game we call Caboose. I'm not
sure where it comes from since a quick googling revealed
nothing, but it's enough of a kick to share with others. It combines spelling,
memory, strategy, and vocabulary, and for us at least often sparks other
conversations around the core game, which is part of the point.
The basic idea
Players create long "train
s" of word
s, trying to neither repeat words
nor end the train. Players create trains by speaking words in turn whose first
s are the same as the last letter of the prior word. For example:
" could be followed by "e
vince" or any
word beginning in "e." Since trains (archetypically) end with a
caboose, if a player speaks a word ending with the letter "c," e.g.
"archaic", the next player speaks the word "caboose," which
ends the current train. In this case, the player who ended a word with
"c" is punished, not the one who spoke "caboose."
To be extremely
explicit, a very short example of a train follows.
- estuary - yeoman - nether - row - wander - rich - helic
(oops) - caboose
Depending on the chosen
options for the game as well as the number and skill of players, games can last
between 15 minutes and 2 hours. The minimum number of players is two. The
maximum number of players is only limited by pragmatic concerns, such as
ability to hear one another.
What you'll need
The basic version of the game can be equipmentless. That said, certain
things are made easier with certain stuff. Arbitration
can be made easier with
. Markers (discussed below under Options
) can help keep score
these can be anything you have handy. Paper and pen/pencil are needed if you
have a documentarian
Beginning the game
establish an order
. We like to establish the person with the next
(a strategy happily borrowed from the board game Cranium
™) as the first
player and continue clockwise. The first player speaks the word
"engine" and the second player begins from there.
Winning the game
Each player begins the game with three
"lives." The last player with one or more lives remaining wins the
game. A player loses a life in one of three ways.
- A player repeats a word that has already been spoken in the
- A player speaks a word that doesn't chain correctly, e.g.
following "milo" with "wan."
- A player speaks a word that ends in the letter "c." Note
that this omits the 5.13% of English words ending in c
and the 8.62% of words that begin with c from being used.
These may look like a lot, but most of them are intuitive, and those that aren’t are edge case
s that help mitigate the many-to-many
relationships of the complex idea--word--sound combinations in human language
- Only single words are permitted. Contractions, word phrases, and acronyms are
- Proper nouns are not allowed. Players accidentally using proper
nouns are not penalized, but must select a new word.
- Non-English words (or whatever the chosen language) are not
allowed. Players accidentally using non-English words are not penalized, but
must select a new word. Since the "foreignness" of a word can be in
question, e.g. "biscotti", it is useful to have a dictionary on hand
that acts as the final arbiter. In the absence of a
dictionary, we rely on a few convincing arguments followed by a vote.
- Alternate spellings are permissible, such as "theatre"
and "theater" as long as they are still accepted English spellings.
Such spelling variances adhere to the rules of homophones, above.
- Simple homonyms such as "quail" the verb and "quail" the noun, and homographs are disallowed in the same train.
- Homographs such as "bow" the verb and "bow" the noun, are disallowed in the same train.
- Each meaning-spelling of a homophone may be used in the same
train. For example, if the word "right" was already used in the
current train, the word "write" is still permissable.
- If a word is repeated, the offending player loses a life, but the
word still counts. The next player must still chain to the repeated word.
- If a word is chained incorrectly, as in the "wan"
example above, the offending player loses a life, but again, the word still
counts. The next player must still chain to the spoken word.
- If a player speaks a word that ends in "c", that player loses a life. The next player says "caboose," ending the current train. If more than one player has a life reminaing, the next player speaks the word "engine" beginning a new train. All words which were spoken in the prior train are eligible for use again in the
- A player may ask for the prior word to be defined or used in a
sentence that clarifies its meaning. This is especially useful if the word is a
- A player using a homophone must intend a particular spelling. If the next player does not recognize the word as a homynm but still chains the word according to the spelling intended by the prior player, there is no penalty. We use the honor system for enforecement. Alternately, if a player recognizes a prior word as a homophone, that player may ask the prior player to whisper the intended meaning to another person. If
only two players are present, the homophone-speaking player may be asked to write the intended spelling on a piece of paper. Note that if your group uses
the honor system and you intended on betraying that trust with dishonorable play, be sure and balance the number of "correct" and "incorrect"
guesses, or your credibility may come into question.
- A player may not ask for the spelling of a prior word or the last letter of a word. Players must infer the spelling from the spoken word, its definition, or clarifying sentence. If the player does not know the spelling of the word, that player must guess.
- Players may not consult a dictionary or other printed material except to resolve a challenge. Environmental materials, e.g. road signs, may be consulted, but this is—as you can imagine—an unreliable strategy.
- Markers - Games played within large group with good vocabulary and
strong spelling skills can take hours, during which it can be troublesome to
remember who had how many points. The use of physical tokens representing the
number of lives remaining per player can alleviate the memory burden. In our
last game we used Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Goldfish™ as markers for
the remaining number of lives, with the added consolation that if you lost a
life, you still get a tasty treat.
- Documentation - Long games, multiple trains, and word
variations can tax players trying to remember if a word has already been used in
the current train. For this reason, appointing someone to document the trains
can come in quite handy. This person will have an unfair advantage in knowing
what words have been already spoken in the current train, so it's a good idea
to have this person not be a player in the current game. One idea is to appoint
the winner of the last game as the documentarian for
the current game, as this helps balance the odds for less skilled players
across multiple games. The documentarian will need to
be careful and not ask for clarifications of homophones or spelling variations,
as the homophone-speaking player may be relying on the ambiguity as part of
their strategy. The documentarian should wait until
the responding player has spoken their word before asking for clarifications.
- Word Forms - Spelling variances on the same meaning of a
word, such as plurals, gerunds, and adverbs are a matter of preference. If you
have no documentarian, you may wish to disallow
variations to ease the burden on memory.
- Optional caboosing - We play that
following a word ending in "c," the response "caboose" is
required. Making it a perogative of the responding
player inserts personal politics into the game. If you dig that, permit it.
"...My word is
'messianic.' (realizing the mistake:) Oh, crap! I only have one life left. (To the following player:) Don't caboose me, ok?"
"What's in it for
"Um...The rest of my Ho-hos?"
"Deal. (To the other players:) My word is
- Challenges - More competitive groups may wish to formalize
challenges. In this type of play, all words are accepted unless challenged by
another player. If the challenger is correct and the word is unacceptable, the
challenged player loses a life. If the challenger is incorrect and the word is
acceptable, the challenger loses a life. For example, if a player said "bob"
and was challenged because another player notes it is a proper noun, the first
player can remind the other that "bob" is also a verb, and the
challenger would lose a life. I like this type of play, but not everyone does.
- Definitions - To avoid fake words in the absence of a dictionary, players may challenge others to
define unusual or unfamiliar words. If the challenged player cannot define
their word to the satisfaction of the other players, they lose a life. Note
that this can result in bitterness on the part of the challenged if they have a
vast vocabulary but poor debate skills, or foolishness on the part of the
challenger if the player has a crappy vocabulary but excellent balderdash
- No Extra Engines - Players interested in a greater challenge can adhere more closely to the train metaphor and disallow words that end in the letter "e," since the following word could be "engine," which should only be at the beginning of a train. Since e is the most common word ending in English, this restriction is significant.
If you play the game
a while you'll notice some familiar strategies popping up. Some are offensive
forcing the player following you into a linguistic corner
. Some are defensive
which help you overcome the odd vocabulary freeze
that occurs about 30 minutes
into the game, where you know
that there must be thousands of words
beginning with your target letter, but you can only think of the ones that have
already been used.
- Homophones - This is the crappiest
strategy. It relies on either the ignorance or the distraction of the player
following you. And often, it only works once. If you overuse it, your mark will
ask for a definition or example sentence for every play. On the other hand, it
can be a personal challenge to realize a homophone for every letter passed your
way, in which case you may simply provide the definition after the word.
- Foreign-rooted words - This is the second crappiest strategy, as it also
relies on the ignorance of the player following you. On the other hand, it can
lead the game in interesting directions since foreign-rooted words can have
endings quite uncommon to English, such as "orzo."
- Scrabblese- The Scrabble™ dictionary is
famous for listing obscure words that obsessive players are prone to memorize,
e.g. "mezquit." The further players reach
into obscurity, however, the more of an imperfect-information game it becomes,
and the less fun for "normal" people. Nonetheless, if you know the
meaning of the words (the Scrabble dictionary does not provide definitions) or
have an unabridged dictionary on hand to confirm such words, this is
- Trains of thought - A defensive strategy that helps you break out of
vocabulary freeze is to try and find words that not only chain to the prior
word by letter, but share some association. For example, if the prior word is
"slick", you might try to find a word that not only begins with a
"k," but that is also slick, such as a "kayak" which can be
called "slick" when it is wet. Trains of thought may also arise
naturally during the course of a game often to the delight of its players.
- Letter hounding - This is the most common strategy, often evolving
naturally as the structure of English tends towards certain endings. In it,
players try to find words that end in a particular and particularly vexing
letter, such as k, y, and o. The letter "y" is a particularly easy target
if your game permits adverbs. Note that if everyone in a game with an even
number of players uses this strategy, the "bad" turns stay with the
same people every round. If a game has an odd number of players, the
"bad" turn alternates between players each round. This pattern of
play can be confounded by the use of letter-*-letter words that begin and end with the same
letter. This can turn the tide in a two player game, and so it is useful to
familiarize yourself with a few of these words in the difficult letter
Variation: Dialogue Caboose
I made up this variation quite recently while playing Caboose with my nephew,
and we both enjoyed the result. After inventing it, I discovered this is similar to an improvisation game called Last Letter, First Letter
. In Dialogue Caboose, you couch the word in a sentence in which no other words begin with the target letter. This helps clarify the meaning from the start, but requires a little more parsing
and thinking per turn. It follows that we had to include a new rule, that if you accidentally include another word with the target beginning letter, you lose a life. An example follows.
"Can you help me?
It seems my engine won't start."
"Sure. Have you ever started it before?"
"Really, what kind of question is that?"
"I'm just checking, you never know."
"That's an understatement..."
Note that the bold is only for this writeup. We don't actually
stress thre word since part of the fun is finding the
keyword. The rest of the fun is the crazy dialogue that results, and the fact
that you can carry it out in stores, on elevators, and people just think you're
Anyway, that's Caboose.
I hope it's a handy game for you and yours on your next long journey.
This has been placed at the end so that if you would like to print these rules
and take them with you, you can tear off these lists, which are kind of cheat
s (read: study aids).
Note that neither of these lists are exhaustive.
Specifically where one of the pair is common and the
other of the pair is obscure, the words have similar beginning letters,
different ending letters, and neither end nor begin with c.
Format: Common, Uncommon - (One) Definition of the uncomon word (Since you will be asked)
- away, aweigh - raised just
clear of the bottom -- used of an anchor.
- axle, axel - a jump in figure skating from the outer forward edge of one skate
with 1 1/2 turns taken in the air and a return to the outer backward edge of
the other skate.
- bait, bate - to reduce the force or intensity of,
similar to abate.
- bays, baize - a coarse woolen or cotton fabric napped
to imitate felt.
- bow, beau - boyfriend.
- bite (or byte), bight - a bend in a coast forming an
- bray, brae - a hillside especially along a river. (chiefly Scottish, Americans may have a hard time selling
- buyer, byre - a cow barn.
- flow, floe -
floating ice formed in a large sheet on the surface of a body of water.
- furs, furze - a spiny yellow-flowered European shrub
of the legume family.
- jewel, joule -
unit of work or energy equal to the work done by a force of onenewton acting through a distance of one meter.
- laid, lade - to put a load or burden on or in. (Think
- lamb, lam - to flee hastily.
- lee, lea - arable land used temporarily for hay or
grazing. (Often "ley", may be a tough
- loop, loupe - a small magnifier used especially by
jewelers, watchmakers, and printers.
- pie, pi - the symbol π denoting the ratio of the
circumference of a circle to its diameter.
- review, revue - a theatrical production consisting
typically of brief loosely connected often satirical skits, songs, and dances.
- row, roe - the adult female of various mammals (as a
deer, rabbit, or kangaroo) of which the male is called buck.
- rude, rood - a large crucifix on a beam or screen at
the entrance to the chancel of a church.
- tear, tare - a weed of grainfields.
These are useful for turning the tide on a Letter
Hounding strategy as mentioned above. According to the International House of
, the ten least common starting letters are, in order of infrequency,
y, x, q, j, z, u, k, w, n, v. The ten most common ending letters are, in order,
e, s, y, n, t, m, r, a, c, l. These overlap strongly with y and less strongly
with n, so I've included these. In my experience, G, K, and O have also been a
problem. And although I can't find any statistical reason why this is, I've
included some useful words for these letters as well.
problem when variants such as gerunds and infinitives are disallowed)
- (Once my friend C tried to foist "yesteryearly"
off on us, and argument raged for quite a while. She eventually lost for lack
of a sensible example, so I'd advise against it.)
Sources for the
International House of Logorrhea