A defense of Hangman.

A Hangman drawing on a napkin being defended by a knight.
Photo illustration by Slate

Read Slate’s complete list of the 40 Best Family Games.

Do I need to explain the rules of Hangman, declared one of the 10 worst games by Slate?

It’s a (usually) two-person game. One person thinks of a secret word or phrase, then draws a blank line for each letter in the chosen word or phrase. They also draw a gallows. The other person takes turns guessing letters of the alphabet, filling in the blanks as they guess letters correctly. Whenever they guess a letter that doesn’t appear in the secret word or phrase, the first player draws a body part on the gallows. If they manage to finish drawing a person, the hangman wins. If the word or phrase is correctly guessed, the guesser wins.

Thank you for continuing to read this after I explained the universally known rules of Hangman to you. The first thing to address in my defense of Hangman is probably that this game requires kids to draw gallows and then encourages them to carry out extrajudicial executions. As far as I can tell, it’s the only children’s game in which the object for one player is to slowly, publicly kill someone. But think of it another way: It’s the only children’s game in which one player gets to stop an execution! You are welcome to invent a new version of Hangman in which the object is to draw someone volunteering at an animal shelter or disassembling a gallows. You could also teach your kids about taking down systems from the inside by playing subversive phrases like TH_ D_ATH P_NALTY _S UNC_NST_TUT__NAL.

The way I see it, Hangman has all three pillars of a superior childhood gaming experience:

1. You just need a pen and paper/napkin/paper tablecloth.

Free games are accessible to everyone and don’t require any special equipment or maintenance (like making sure you have six dice in the box, a working spinner, etc.). Games that can be played at restaurants and on classroom chalkboards are the best time-wasters.

2. It accommodates inside jokes and words that are universally hilarious to children, like POOP.

Self-explanatory. And POOP is honestly not a bad word for Hangman, since people are more likely to guess A’s and E’s first.

3. You can change the rules in the middle of the game by adding more body parts to the hanged man.

The typical Hangman game ends after six wrong guesses (enough to manifest a head, two arms, a torso, and two legs). As the oldest of three sisters, one of my priorities has always been to turn game nights into teachable moments about the fact that life isn’t fair. If I want to demand that a convicted criminal have a hair bow, pants, and a necktie before being hanged—or say that the game is over after one wrong guess—that is my prerogative.

Despite the life-or-death stakes, I would describe Hangman as only slightly intense. Since it’s a word guessing game, Hangman feels more skill-based and substantial than other low-effort kids’ games like I Spy or War. But it’s also extremely easy to learn and play, so it doesn’t make people feel dumb (or risk overinflating egos) like, say, Scrabble. And at the risk of overselling its educational value, Hangman does make you think about spelling and encourages you to see patterns in the ways words and phrases are constructed. My most succinct defense of Hangman is that it’s a decent game that’s entertaining for at least a few minutes. Sometimes you just need a medium-fun game that can be played at a moment’s notice, something everyone knows how to play that can easily be adjusted to many skill levels. Entertaining yourself during short waits is an important part of childhood (and adulthood).

So the next time you have a few minutes, a pen, and a napkin, consider playing this great, decently good game. For better results, spend a few minutes brainstorming words with minimal vowels (CRYPTS is a good one). You can even celebrate your love of the game by playing the secret phrase HANGMAN IS THE GREATEST. It probably wouldn’t be a very fun round, though. That’s a lot of A’s and E’s.

A Hangman drawing with dice showing 9 as the optimal age for the game.


Types: Word, Free
Players: 2
Time: 5 min.
Variations? N
Expansions? N
Fun without kids? Y