Luke Noonan

Synonym/Homonym Game

For a long time I have had a particular curiosity with games that are played entirely by talking. There are lots of games that involve language, or text, or even talking+other stuff, but I am referring to games that are made up almost entirely of wordplay. Games that don’t need Scrabble tiles or a condemned stick figure drawn on a chalkboard. These are games which are in some fundamental way about language, specifically the spoken language.

They come in a variety of different flavors.

I plan on doing a series of posts that highlight the “talking games” that I have come across. I don’t know exactly how many I will do or how in depth I will get with them, but I am excited to see what sorts of conversations they may start. One of the first games I ever helped to design (that was ever played by anyone not in the room with me ;) ) was a word game that I would place in the “Lexical Gymnastics” category.



How to play:

Play starts mid conversation when one player speaks a word or phrase.

“… just like the balloons in Mario Kart”

the second player repeats the phrase and makes a suggested change typically by changing it to something that has a similar meaning  (synonym) or something that sounds similar (homonym):

“Mario Kart OR Mario Andretti Racing Experience?”

The first player takes the suggestion and makes a further suggestion:

“Mario Andretti Racing Experience OR The Jimi Hendrix Experience?”

The second player then responds:

“The Jimi Hendrix Experience OR Deep Purple?”

This back and forth can go on for quite a while. Different groups have different endings. In the original games we always ended with a shot at George Bush. (“Teaching monkeys to talk OR the State of the Union Address”)


This game started in a high school history class with a good friend of mine. Originally we started riffing off something that was said in class but before long the game would spontaneously break out in random conversations. A few months later, we happened to play a round in front of my dad, who is a lover of wordplay. Once we explained the previously unspoken rules, he joined right in. Rounds of this game almost always started spontaneously and would often suck in everyone in the room. I have found that playing with 3-4 people was actually a bit easier. You could wait to jump in with a response when you had a particularly good play.

Over time the game spread through parts of my friends and family. More than a few games broke out at the dinner table. As I played with various people over the years it became fascinating to see the differences in how it was played. In many groups the obligatory George Bush joke was dropped. Given the varied literacies of players, the density and flavor of cultural references was always different between groups. Even the tone shifted. In some groups the game had a competitive vibe of one-upmanship and in other groups the game has a much more collaborative feel. Games involving my little sister usually took a psychedelic turn as she would famously make strange poetic associations while the rest of us were busy making political jokes.