How to play Jotto

Learn how to play the best travel game ever invented.

One of the best parts of traveling is playing travel games. I’m not talking about Travel Scrabble or Travel Backgammon or even the ever-popular Travel Twister (Airplane Edition); in the spirit of Without Baggage, I prefer to define travel games as games requiring no equipment — not even pencils or paper — that can be played at any time, especially during periods of boredom such as during airplane flights, road trips, long hikes, or while paddling on the ocean surface for a half-hour with a scuba tank after a shore dive.

How to Play Jotto My favorite travel game, hands-down, is Jotto. You can play it for hours, it almost never gets boring, and there’s an abundance of variants. Like Mastermind, the object of the game is to figure out your opponent’s secret — in the case of Jotto, it’s a secret word. Basic Jotto works like this:

  1. Each of two players selects a secret 4-letter word. The secret word cannot have any pairs of double letters.
  2. Each player takes turns guessing the other player’s secret word, using “test words.” When a player guesses his opponent’s word using a test word, the opponent tells the player exactly how many letters in the test word are the same as a letter in his secret word. If a letter in the secret word matches two letters in the test word (test words may have double letters), it counts as 2 letters.
  3. This continues until one player discovers the other’s secret word.
You can play this basic Jotto all the time and never get bored, but I also play other variants that spice things up if you’re ready to try something new:


Five-Letter and Count Rugen Jotto Five- or six-letter word Jotto (the latter also known as Count Rugen, named after the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride) is also fun but can be much more difficult without using pencil and paper. Most people who play with more than four-letter words tend to keep track with a Jotto scoring sheet, like this one.

X-Jotto In this variant, the secret word is of an unknown length, from three to eight letters. I’ve never played this, because it seems exceptionally painful to me.

Jotto-Zendo As you might guess, Jotto-Zendo is a combination of basic Jotto and another game called Zendo, a game in which a person invents a secret “rule” and his opponents try to determine its specifics. Thus, in Jotto-Zendo, you pick both a secret word and a secret rule. The guidelines for allowed rules should be agreed upon by the players, but a simple Jotto-Zendo rule guideline you can try is to require rules of the form: “Score x (some letter in the secret word) only if y (any letter, not necessarily one in the secret word) is also in the word.”

Excelsior Jotto Titled after the name of the mountain we were hiking when my brother and I invented this version of Jotto, Excelsior Jotto is a type of Jotto-Zendo.

After picking your secret word, you also pick a “distraction letter,” a letter which is not in your word. You only score the “distraction letter” when your opponent asks a word that contains both the “distraction letter” and and a letter from the secret word.

For example, suppose your secret word is “STOP” and your “distraction letter” is A. Thus, guesses would be scored as follows:

  • SINK = 1 (only S matches)
  • RANK = 0 (we don’t count A, because there’s no other letters in the word from the secret word)
  • SANK = 2 (S matches, and since S is from the secret word, we also count the A)
  • PATS = 4 (3 in the secret word, plus 1 for the “distraction letter”; but the person guessing has discovered only 3 real letters)
What’s great about this Jotto variant is that there is a clear incentive to discover your opponent’s “distraction letter,” because it can save you a lot of pain and suffering.

Have fun! Let me know about your favorite travel games and Jotto variants!

3 thoughts on “How to play Jotto”

  1. I've played Jotto for over 50 years, and I still love the game. The original game has the rule that if you guess a letter that appears twice in the word, and you guessed a word with only one of the double letters,you only receive one jot. Only when you used a word with the doubled letters, would you receive 2 jots. This makes the game a bit more challenging. I'm now playing
    WITS on my Iphone where the phone is my opponent, and I don't have a secret word. I'm still enjoying the game, and I hope you'll enjoy it for as long as I have. Have Fun1

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