20 Questions: A Strategy Guide

The internet is an abundant resource, but it has its shortcomings. After an exhaustive examination I can declare that, astonishingly, it has no adequate strategy guide for the retro lo-tech classic ’20 Questions’ (or “20Q” if you unfortunate enough to have allowed the intangible wonders of your childhood to have been bought and rebadged by Mattel).

This is a guide for The Questioners; a guide for The Answerer is a work in progress.  We’re going to learn together by running through a blow-by-blow account of one game. Please try to throw yourself into this pedagogical relationship by trying to become one of The Questioners.

1. Is it on the planet earth? [Yes]

What a disastrous start. Resist the urge to be the kind of person who always seeks approval and affirmation.

TIP: With each question try to cut the number of possibilities in half. Although ‘the earth’ does not account for half of the known universe, The Answerer is very biased towards choosing earth-based items.

META TIP: Try to play the game with people who know the least number of THINGS. I cannot stress this enough. The narrower any player’s vocabulary, experiences, or imagination, the narrower your possibility space and the easier your task.  This tip works on the premise that it is generally considered unacceptable to pick items which any player is unaware of.

2. Is it a man-made object? [Yes]

A cheeky question.  This smuggles two questions into one, since technically by this point it has not been established that the item is an ‘object’ instead of something like ‘a feeling ‘ (for example: ‘remorse).  We’ve also got more information than we may at first think, since now we know that the item is not a person. Yet beware: there will ALWAYS be a difficult character who insist that human beings are man-made.

Please note that occasionally I will write ‘!!’ and give supplementary notes on how the game ’20 Questions’ is meant to be played, i.e. I will try to write the unwritten (and thereby unacceptably vague) rules of the game.  Why on earth people play games with undetermined systems of rules, I confess I have no idea, but my sister seems to derive a particularly large amount of satisfaction from playing fast and loose. I don’t generally like to name and shame people but it’d be unfair on my other sister to taint her with suspicion; I am talking about Rosanna.

!! This is an example of where you have to check your moral compass. Is it ethically justifiable to ask a loaded question like this?  Only you can decide these serious matters.

3. Does anybody who lives in this house own one of these? [No]

This was the first good, and morally non-dubious question. It eliminates a great swathe of items and gets right to the point.

4. Could any family of a child at Hogwarts have one of these in their households? [No]

Although this looks like a shot in the dark, it was in fact an ingenious question. All of The Questioners could finally breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge: this is not going domestic.

TIP: Cut nature at the joints. Nobody is going to benefit from questions half-way along something, keep your knife well sharpened and make one clean cut.

5. Does it cost over £1000? [Yes]

A good question.

TIP: I am assuming you are playing with a team of multiple Questioners. It is crucial – for both your success and the spiritual wellbeing of the team – to raise and deliberate contender questions. This question was only asked after a string of unrepeatable questions that would have got the Quesioners no closer to their goal. Most of the poor questions here were asked by rogue Questioners going it alone.

6. Can you buy one on a typical British High Street? [No]

An average question.

!! You will have to decide amongst yourselves whether you allow words like ‘typical’, ‘ordinary’, ‘average’ and so on. One man’s ‘typical’ is certainly not another man’s ‘typical’, and we all know from school mathematics (hopefully) that there are at least three averages (by the way, ‘range’ is not an average).

7. Is it bigger than that Scattegories box [Yes] [It had to be verified that ‘bigger’ referred to comparative volume]

Right, now we’re flying high with clear, quantitative questions.

!! No game has required me to explain the difference between ‘mass’ and ‘volume’ quite as often as ’20 Questions’. Always disambiguate the questions so that you don’t get caught out later.

8. Do you have to be a professional to operate one of these? [Pass]

[reworded] Would it typically be a professional who uses one of these? [Yes]

A good, creative question.

!! A seasoned Answerer will always ‘Pass’ if given insufficient detail in the question.  Two things: firstly, a pass does not count as a question. Secondly, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: a clear reformulation of the question will pay dividends.

9. Is it from the scientific realm? [Yes]

I’m still recovering from hearing this question. This question screams: ‘I despise and am fearful of all things modern and scientific’.  It eliminates almost nothing. Yuck.

10. Is it made mostly of metal? [Yes]

An OK question, but are there that many things priced over £1000 that are not made of metal? Half of the possibilities?

These are the worries you need to concern yourselves with.

11. Is it The Underground? [No]

The person asking this question thought they were being a maverick, but they would better be described as a loose cannon.  It was embarrassing.

!! You have to establish early on whether or not it’s acceptable to blurt out questions. This was clearly an ‘item guesser’ or an ‘endpoint question’ rather than a ‘field narrower’. If you do have a serious ‘item guess’, get it verified.

I mean, come on, it would be amazing if the only thing on the planet earth, fashioned out of metal, operated by a professional, found possibly at the house of the family of a child attending Hogwarts, and costing over £1000, was The Underground.

12. Is it used for transportation? [No]

A much better field-narrower.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to throw in a disjunction, such as ‘Is it used for transportation OR healthcare’?  Remember the golden rule: try to halve the possibilities with every question.

13. Can it help save somebody’s life? [*Hesitation*, then No]

Probably ‘question of the match’. A turning point.

TIP: Put all your creative efforts into eliciting hesitation. Then submit to the power of inference.

!! Make it clear to the Answerer that: simulated hesitation is NOT allowed. I once played with someone who ‘won’ but later confessed that they had intentionally dropped some hesitation down to act as diversionary crumbs. They were not welcome guests for long. ’20 questions’ is a competitive game but with cooperative principles.

14. Is it medical equipment? [No]

15. Is it military? [Yes]

A double-whammy of straightforward field-narrowing.

TIP: Continually re-evaluate past discoveries. Poirot would have been in his element in ’20 questions’.

16. Could a standard military man pick it up alone? [No]

17. Is it a cannon? [No]

One wonderful question; one outrageous question.  The second question was a definite blurt which left the Questioners with only three final opportunities.  Things were getting sweaty.

TIP: If a fellow Questioner says things like ‘It has to be a cannon or a catapult’ then question them directly: does it? Does it?

18. Is it a weapon of mass destruction? [Yes]

A superb question.  This now left very few options which did fit with all the earlier responses.

19. Is it a catapult? [No]

Another ‘blurt’. And not a weapon of mass destruction by any definition.

20. Is it an atomic bomb? [YES. GAME WON.]

Congratulations to The Questioners. It should be obvious that this point could’ve been reached about 5 questions earlier with just a modicum of skill and forethought.  Hopefully now you will have this advantage when you play ’20 Questions’.

Have any tips of your own? Please add them to the ‘Comments’.

Next week: GAMEFAQ for ‘Eye Spy’…

12 thoughts on “20 Questions: A Strategy Guide”

  1. I enjoyed the article, but you should really do more research about the assumptions you make. Point 19 is flat-out wrong.

    A catapult actually *could* be considered a weapon of mass destruction if used to hurl dead things for the purposes of spreading disease. Google “Biological Warfare” sometime.

  2. Fair point! You’re right: always check your assumptions, so as not to lead either yourself of the Answerer down a wrong alley.

    Clearly this is a game that keeps on giving.

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