How do you play?
The rules are pretty simple. The basic premise of the game is this: you draw a card that has a word on it. You try to get your teammates to guess this word (I’ll call this your target word) word by giving them clues.
Now, if that were all there were to it, it would be too easy, so there are a few rules you have to follow. Specifically, rules about the types of clues you can give.
And that’s it. Once your teammates guess your target word, you move on to the next card until you hit your time limit.
While you’re coming up with your clues, someone from your opposing team is standing over your shoulder, looking at your card to make sure you don’t say anything you’re not supposed to. If you break any of these rules, they press the buzzer and you lose your chance at that card.
What makes it hard?
The fun of this game is that it’s harder than it sounds. It hits that right sweet spot of challenging enough to be engaging, but not so hard that you want to give up.
If you know why it’s challenging, you can actually make it easier (for you. To win).
The short version is that it’s challenging because you keep more things in mind at once that people are really meant to (the way I like to say this is that the number of tasks exceeds typical working memory capacity, but apparently this explanation is “boring”).
Ok, so what are all the things you have to do?
Association & spreading activation. Let’s start with the taboo words. Generally, your taboo words are semantic associates of the target word. Why is this important? Because they’re probably the first words that would come to mind when you see the target word.
To understand why your taboo words come to mind so readily, it can be useful to look to the spreading activation model (Collins & Loftus, 1975) as framework to imagine how you organize information in your memory. According to this model, information is connected to related information, and the distance between those connections represents how related those two concepts are. When a concept is activated in your mind (e.g., “yearbook”) that activation spreads to nearby concepts (e.g., "school”). The activation is stronger for concepts that are more closely related. You can take a look at Step one in the pictures to see an example of this concept.
Inhibition. Why is it so hard to not say these words? NOT saying these words requires inhibition, which is cognitively demanding (just avoiding saying those words also is a thing you have to do). Multiply that by the 5 words that you can’t say. Already that’s 5 things you’re trying to keep in mind.
Capacity. This is really the crux of what makes the game challenging. Just by not saying your taboo words, that’s 5 things you’re trying to do at once. Add to that your additional rules of 1) not saying “rhymes with”, 2) not saying “sounds like”, 3) not saying abbreviations, 4) not using parts of a word, and 5) not gesturing, now you’re trying to do 10 things at once. Not to mention, you’re also paying attention to what your teammates are saying to see if they’re correctly guessing your target word. That’s 11 things you’re trying to keep in mind at the same time. Considering most people can keep between 2-4 things in mind at once (Cowan, 2001), it’s no wonder this game is so hard.
So what? – get to the winning part.
How can we use this knowledge to get an edge? The first thing I do is reduce number of things I have to keep in mind by using a strategy called chunking. Chunking works by grouping information together so the information takes up less capacity: you take several pieces of information and chunk into one piece of information, For example, three random numbers -- 4-9-7 -- can be chunked into a single three-digit number -- 497. This is something you probably do all the time. Letters are chunked into words. Phone numbers can be chunked into strings of two or three digit numbers.
Here’s how I take that concept and apply it to Taboo. First, instead of inhibiting each taboo word individually, I group all taboo words into one rule: no semantic associates. Then I group all other rules into a “no sounds” rule. Now, instead of trying to do 11 things all at once, I’m only trying to do two things. With enough practice, they become pretty automatic, which means I don’t have to think about it too much and it’s easier to not do those things.
Now that you don’t have to keep as much stuff in mind, it’s easier to come up with a guessing strategy. How can you do that without using words that are related to your target word?
Here’s what I’ve noticed: when people on a team have a shared experience that they can relate the target word to, they can avoid the taboo words all together by telling a story about the taboo word. For example: “we burned all of ours in a bonfire once when we were 15.” That’s great if you have a long history with your teammates and have a memory that happens to involve the target word. But what if you don’t have a story that the other members of your team can easily guess?
This is the strategy that I’ve hit upon. It took me a couple tries to nail it, but once I did, it worked pretty well for me. I tell a generic story that target word just fits into nicely.
Basically, you create the yearbook context. You still have to avoid your taboo words, but it’s easier now, because the context you’re giving is more than one-word long.
The story you’re telling will be a little more complicated than what you would do if you were allowed to use your taboo words. For example, your first impulse might be to say: “it’s a book you get in at the end of the school year.” Or “It’s a book that has pictures in it and you try to get other kids to sign it.” – none of which you’re allowed to say.
By contrast, here’s the very first thing that came to my mind using my alternate strategy when I looked at the “yearbook” card to write this post.
“You get these every spring when you’re a kid and you run around trying to get as many other kids to write yours as you can. Most of the time they just write ‘have a great summer’ or ‘See you in the fall’ or ‘you’re a great person’. The more people who write in yours more popular you feel.” I suspect that someone on my team would guess “yearbook” before I even finished.
Here’s the downside of this strategy: it’s a more detailed description, so it takes me a few seconds longer to get each story started than the frantic “um...it’s a...no, wait, I can’t say that” that used to start my turns. BUT, my word gets guessed way earlier. After a couple of attempts at this strategy, I was doing better than anyone else in the game. Which, let’s be honest, is the real fun part.