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May 11, 2010

Frigate bird

A couple of weeks ago, Dan Dennett (yes, that one) [1] and I were chatting about cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, and the questions of what the world might look like in 10, 20 or 30 years if countries push forward with developing methods for attacking each other and defending themselves via the Internet. A stimulating discussion, for sure, but not what this blog post is about.

After the conversation, Dan introduced me to a great game he called Frigate Bird, which is played with Scrabble tiles. The game takes it's name from the species of bird, after their habit of stealing food from other birds, because players can (and almost must) "steal" words from each other as part of the game [2]. In fact, it would be very impressive for someone to win without ever stealing a single word! The game is easy to learn, but hard to master. The key skill is being fast with anagrams as that's the way you steal a word from another player. (You can also "steal" from yourself, as a protective measure.) Below are the rules, written down by Dan himself. (And apparently written down for the first time ever, since the birth of the game several years ago.) If you try the game and like it, I'm sure Dan would like to know!

Frigate Bird

The Official Rules (written down for the first time, May 11, 2010)

The game is played with the tiles of a Scrabble board, but without the board itself. This makes it more portable than regular Scrabble—just bring the bag of tiles with you. You start by turning all the tiles face down (if you see the two blanks remove them now, or set them aside when they show up in the first game, since they are not part of the game). Any number can play. One player is designated as the "dealer." The dealer turns the tiles over, one at a time, making sure that all players get to see the new tile at the same time (speed is of the essence in this game). The new tile is immediately part of the pool of face-up tiles to which everyone has access at all times. The goal of the game is to make words from this pool as soon as you see them.


1. The usual Scrabble rules apply: no proper nouns, hyphenated words, contractions, .... (Having a dictionary handy to settle disputes is a good idea.)

2. Every word must be at least 4 letters (or 5 letters) long. (We have recently been playing the 5-letter minimum game, and it seems to be more interesting, since second-rate 4-letter words don’t get pulled out of the pool prematurely, diminishing the usable variety. You might want to warm up by playing the 4-letter version and then switch to the 5-letter version once players are familiar with the possibilities.)

3. To claim a word you must CALL IT OUT. (If you start reaching for the letters without saying anything and somebody else calls out the word, or a different word, they get the word.)

4. After a word is called out (and there is no challenge), the calling player assembles the word (facing the other players, upside-down for the player) in his area. This word belongs TEMPORARILY to the player who called it, but it (and every other word already assembled on the table) is ALWAYS vulnerable to theft by another player (or pre-emptive self-theft by the same player). A word may be thus stolen—or protected from being stolen—by calling out a new word that uses ALL the letters in the stolen word plus one or more letters from the pool. This is the eponymous "frigate bird" move. *[*The game was originally just called "lightning anagrams" but on a trip through the Galapagos with us, the science journalist Sherrie Lyons exclaimed "You . . . . FRIGATE BIRD!" when I stole one of her words. Frigate birds, which were wheeling overhead throughout our trip, typically wait for another bird to catch a fish and then dive-bomb it, stealing the fish from the original catcher. The epithet "FRIGate bird" trips so satisfyingly off the tongue at these moments of f-f-f-f-f-frustration and f-f-f-f-fury that we rebaptized the game on the spot.]

5. There are constraints on frigate-bird captures. You may not just add a prefix or suffix or plural to a word; the ‘stem’ of the word must be changed. Thus "march" may not go to "marched" but can go to "charmed". There are borderline cases that may be decided to suit the players. Definitely "chief" can go to "kerchief" and "pealing" to "appealing" since the meanings are so disparate; we have recently approved "afoot" to "barefoot" but others might be more purist. Alternations are OK. Thus "equip" can go to "piquet" which can THEN go (back) to "equipment."

6. Frigate-bird steals may be done at any time. The game ends when nobody can find any moves to make with the remaining tiles in the pool.

7. Scoring: in the 4-letter version, 4-letter words count 4, no matter what letters they use. All longer words count the Scrabble value of their tiles. Thus turning your own 4-point word ‘quip" to "equip," or "pique," adds 12 points to your score!) If somebody then steals pique" by going to "equipped" (legal, since not going from "equip") you lose your 16 point word and they get a 21-point word. A large lead can evaporate with a few end-game coups like this. In a recent game the back and forth sequence "grind," "grinned," "enduring," "laundering," "underlaying" was played.

8. The pace of "dealing" may be highly variable, with long pauses while everybody tries to find a use for a particularly juicy addition to the pool, but fairly rapid turnovers when the pool is particularly barren (e.g, when a third "u" arrives in the pool it is close to a certainty that no new combinations are possible, so turning over another letter speeds up the game). In general, if the dealer let’s his own survey of the prospects guide the speed, slowing down whenever a wealth of opportunities seem to be available, the other players will typically appreciate the extra time as much as the dealer does. Players may ask the dealer to slow down or speed up, and their requests should be honored.

9. We have officially granted that a legal frigate-bird might be accomplished by combining all the letters of TWO words on the table (using no additional letters from the pool) that this has yet to happen in our experience. An example would be if player A has "slots" and player B has "utopian," any player might call out "postulations" and win a place in Frigate Bird history. A player might put together two of his own words, for no additional score, but to keep some other player from doing this and taking the result.

10. Penalties: We have never felt the need to penalize people for calling out impermissible words, aside from disallowing the word and returning the tiles to their pre-call positions. Nor have we felt the need to punish challenges that were not upheld by a dictionary. Others might wish to experiment with more retributive policies, of course, which could introduce an element of strategic bluffing, but the game has enough rough-and-tumble action as it is, in our opinion.

11. A word on the phylogeny of the game: We, Dan and Susan Dennett, were introduced to the game in 2001, at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, by the composer Nicholas Brooke and the English Professor Julie Barmazel. The game got its present name, as noted above, in 2005, at the World Summit of Evolution, in the Galapagos Islands.

Dan Dennett


[1] Dan Dennett is just finishing up a semester-long visit at SFI as the inaugural Miller Scholar. He's been a wonderfully active community member while he's been here, giving a public lecture on the origin of religion, inviting a speaker (his collaborator Matt Hurley) to discuss theories of humor, along with the usual fun and impromptu discussions over lunch and tea.

[2] Frigate birds are sometimes called "kleptoparasites" since they routinely steal food from other birds. In the spirit of this post, "kleptoparasite" would be a great frigate bird play perhaps by building onto "aspirate" (an anagram of parasite) or by combining "parakeet" and "pistol".

posted May 11, 2010 10:02 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink


Sounds cool. Maybe I'll try it at my next games night.

Posted by: Mason Porter at May 12, 2010 03:55 AM

Very interesting twist, have to print it out and try it next game night.

Posted by: Allan at May 13, 2010 06:21 AM