Asa Darby: Creator of Cotton Word Games

During renovations of Cotton Software's headquarters (built circa 1821) two notebooks wrapped in light canvas in a tin box were found in a shed on the property. The name written on the inside front covers is "Asa Darby." The notebooks, written sometime after 1811, are not diaries or journals but miscellanies of ideas and observations, including plans for word games. Cotton Software's Word Games are based on these ideas. We know almost nothing about Asa; the little do we know follows.

Who Was Asa Darby?

Two loose documents were found in notebook #2 which provide the only personal information about Asa. (One notebook contains a reference to a modification of a game in the other; thus, we know which one preceded the other.)

For some reason, at the age of twenty-six Asa needed proof of the date or place of his birth or his parentage. The first document is a "birth certificate" which reads:

I do swear that I attended the birth of Muppim Asa Darby, a male child, born to Asnapper Darby and Joan Darby nee Darcke, near the village of Brooklyn in the county of Susquehanna in the state of Pennsylvania on April 1, 1811.

The document is signed by Muppim Asa Darby, John H. Watson, Physician and Henry Fielding, Magistrate and dated June 16, 1837 at Montrose Pennsylvania. The document is embossed with a Susquehanna County seal.

The second document is a pencil sketch of a man's profile with an undated letter written in ink on the back which reads:

Dear Asa

As promised I have found a use for the sketch I made of you in Philadelphia -- as Michael Angelo in The Virginians. I send you a copy with many thanks. The illustration will appear at the head of a chapter on love making titled "Mr. Harry's Nose Continues To Be Put Out Of Joint".

Some readers may think MA is M. Aurelius. Mr. Harry might benefit from reading the Emperor's Meditations. But his nose was broken only when knocked off a statue. Others will say "That fellow with the crooked nose is Michael Angelo" but non semper ea sunt quae videntur.1

O dear! I have been assuming you are reading the Virginians in Harper's. You may not know what I am talking about. The book relates the adventures of Henry Esmond's two Virginian grandsons. George is killed fighting the French and Indians. Harry goes to Europe, engages himself to an older woman and loses his inheritance at cards. George reappears not dead (after a harrowing escape, of course) &c &c But if you are reading the monthly numbers you know all this. Suffice to say that too much of it is tedious, but there are some clever things in it.

When I sate down to write this note I discovered that I dont have your current address. That is why I asked Reed to forward it. Let me know where you are staying and I will send a copy of the completed book. Maybe we could resume our discussion of proboscides?

With grateful regards

W. M. Thackeray

P.S. Did you find Martial amusing?
illustration of Asa Darby from The Virginians

Muppim Asa Darby

(Source: William Makepeace Thackeray
The Virginians, 1858, Chapter 57)

Thackeray met William B. Reed, who lived in Philadelphia, on his first lecture tour of America in 1853; they met again on Thackeray's second lecture tour and they corresponded for years after that. Reed says that Thackeray conceived of the idea for The Virginians during the second tour (Thackeray in America, private edition, May 1864, reprinted in Blackwoods June 1872).

We don't know exactly when the letter was sent to Reed to be forwarded to Asa, but The Virginians was issued in illustrated monthly numbers in England by Bradbury & Evans from Nov 1857 to Sep 1859. Chapter 57 which contains the Michaelangelo illustration appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in February 1859. Reed was appointed Ambassador to China and served from May 1858 to Nov 1858. He says that he returned to the United States in the Spring of 1859. It's not known whether the letter was received by Reed while in China or after his return. So the letter was probably sent sometime in the second half of 1858 or early in 1859.

How Reed came to know Asa is also unknown. He says that he attended a dinner that included his host, himself, Thackeray, a writer and a "back woodsman" -- "...a man of brilliant talent, of mature age, and high education, measured at least by our American standard...." Reed apparently kept track of this man because he notes that both he and Thackeray died several years later in 1863. But he also says that the backwoodsman bore a "remarkable physical resemblance to Thackeray" which Asa did not (based on the illustration).

It's possible Asa was a secretary or tutor in Reed's household, but unlikely because there is no mention of him in Reed's letters or reminiscences. And yet, Thackeray believed that Reed knew Asa's address; possibly his connections as Ambassador enabled him to locate Asa.

Where and when Thackeray and Asa had a "discussion of noses" is unknown. Thackeray was sensitive about his nose; it had been broken by his friend George Stovin Venables during their Charterhouse (school) days. Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a large nose. It's easy to understand why Thackeray chose to use his sketch of Asa, whose remarkable nose appears to have been broken more than once, for the illustration of Michaelangelo (whose nose was broken by the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano when they were students).

We aren't publishing Thackeray's letter or sketch because we haven't yet verified their authenticity. The handwriting certainly appears to be Thackeray's. There seems to be no reason why someone would fake such a document unless Asa did in order to impress someone. In any case the notebooks are real and contain an amazing collection of ideas -- for word games, machinery and other things.

So, we know next to nothing about Asa Darby. He could have been almost anything from a school teacher to a sailor, from a farm hand to a prize fighter. We don't know why he was in Philadelphia or for how long. We don't know how his notebooks came to be in a farm shed. He may have lived there or they may have been part of his personal effects sent to a relative or friend upon his death. We do know that he did not own the farm or any property in Susquehanna county. And we know when and where he was born but not when or where he died or where he is buried.

Asa's Notebooks

1. Overview

The entries are undated so we don't know how much time elapses from the first notebook entry to the last. They are large notebooks. Given the many entries we estimate three years. But they could be the result of a burst of creativity requiring only a few months or the product of many years of recreational activity.

Based on the vocabulary, the correctness of spelling, the complexity of sentences, and the allusions in Thackeray's letter, it's safe to say that Asa was better educated than the average farmhand or sailor -- whether formally educated or self-taught.

The notebooks do not contain any references to specific people, places or events. It's impossible to locate the entries in time or place, except that one follows another and so must have come at a later date. All entries are about concrete things not abstract concepts; we might say that he was an inventor not a philosopher. There are no drawings in the notebooks; all designs are done with words. This makes it difficult to follow some of his plans.

There are no indications that he ever tried to build anything or tried to involve anyone else. It's clear that he didn't "invent" so that he could become rich or for the betterment of humanity since his ideas never got beyond notebook entries. One might speculate that he was a taciturn, abstracted, distant man, always thinking, eager to record his latest idea for the sheer satisfaction of having had the idea. One might speculate that he tried to implement his ideas but was hampered by lack of money or because the ideas were too much ahead of the times. One might speculate anything, but the fact is that we simply don't know much (at this point) about him.

The entries in the notebooks can be organized into three categories. The first includes numerous entries for making and improving things: for example, a design for a better method of drawing water from a well and an enclosed walkway to a privy. The second is comprised of about half of the total entries; these are about word games. Finally there are the miscellaneous entries -- those that do not directly relate to inventions or word games.

Below we discuss some of the entries which will give you an idea of their diversity and Asa's inventiveness.

2. Miscellaneous

Only a relatively small number of entries are not about "inventions" and "diversions." In some he constructs anagrams. Several are simple observations: for example, he writes that his weatherglass doesn't accurately predict snow storms. A few are about word usage and definitions.

3. Inventions

These entries usually begin with a question (I wonder if...) or a problem (There must be a better way...). They are sometimes quite long as he comes up with an idea, develops it, rejects it, thinks of an alternative, and so on. They are sometimes hard to follow due to cross-outs and fragmentary sentences. Later entries refer back to earlier ideas. We can see his mind working faster than his hand can write. Some people develop ideas by talking to or "bouncing ideas off" other people. We might say that Asa talked to himself on paper. He didn't think though a subject and then record his conclusion, but recorded his thoughts as he worked on an idea.

Two of Asa's "inventions" will serve to demonstrate how varied his interests were. We have tried to summarize the entries while still showing the order and rapidity of his thinking.

Anagrams Calculator

In the first notebook an entry begins with some anagrams of his name: muppim asa = papa is mum, ma is a pump. He then wonders whether a device could be constructed that could calculate all anagrams given a set of letters; he calls it "ringing the changes." Observing that clocks and watches were able to calculate hours, minutes, seconds, days, months, and moon phases he concluded that it shouldn't be difficult to construct a device that could display all of the possible combinations of the letters of a word.

Six pieces of type containing the six letters of a word would be placed on each of six wheels. When set in motion, the last wheel would rotate six positions. Then the penultimate wheel would rotate one position and the last wheel would rotate six positions. Then the penultimate wheel would rotate once again and the last wheel would rotate six positions again. This would continue until with each wheel rotating one position after all the following wheels had rotated six positions. Eventually every combination of letters would be displayed. The device would be driven by weights or springs like a clock or by a hand crank. As described it would look and operate similarly to a modern tally counter or odometer. He speculated that it would be possible at each turn of a wheel to ink the letters and have them strike a paper so as to make a record of the combinations.

He noted two problems. The resulting combinations of letters would not necessarily be "dictionary words": one combination for "tables" would be "aetbts." However, some combinations could be dismissed immediately as not being valid words and if a person were doing anagrams by hand some words would have to be looked up anyway. More importantly, he realized that as designed the device would repeat every letter in every position. The list would be very long (6x6x6x6x6x6 words) and many combinations would be gibberish: "tablet" would eventually come up as "tttttt," "ttttte" "tttttb"and so on. At this point he seems to have given up on the idea of a mechanical anagrams calculator.

This is typical of many of the entries. We can almost sense his enthusiasm as he comes up with an idea and starts to work it out. And then we see his declining interest as details and difficulties multiply.

Projecting Porch

Asa anticipated Frank Lloyd Wright's cantilevered terrace ("Falling Water" house, Mill Run, PA, 1935) by 50 to 75 years.

He writes that it must be pleasant to sit on a balcony above the canals of Venice in the evening listening to the lapping water. He wonder whether a house could be built sufficiently far from a steam to avoid flooding problems with a porch extending from the building out over a stream.2 It would be convenient for drawing water, emptying chamber pots and fishing. If shaded by trees it would be cool in the summer. It would be a pleasant place to eat and read.

The stream end of the porch would have to be supported on the far or near bank of the steam. He rejects the far bank because someone else might own the land. He notes this would be "a bridge to nowhere." In either case the piers would have to be built of stone in order to withstand flooding and rotting. Thus, one could built a house some distance from a stream with a porch extending out to a solid stone pier and beyond it over the stream.

The horizontal projecting (cantilevered) beams under the porch would have to be large so as not to bend downward. He speculates that the beams might be angled upward over the stream so that their own weight would cause them to sag to level. He wonders if the porch would be "bouncey."

He rejects wood as the material for the projecting beams as insufficiently strong and subject to rotting. They would have to be make of "iron" -- something like thick railroad rails. Then he concludes that iron rusts just as wood rots and that only the wealthy could afford iron beams. It's interesting that Asa immediately recognized the corrosive effects of moisture unlike Frank Lloyd Wright whose house had to be extensively repaired.

4. Word Games

More than half of the notebook entries have to do with games in which words and letters are manipulated. Several are just rough outlines. Cotton Software has developed some of Asa's ideas into complete word games. In this section we discuss several of the entries which show the development and range of his ideas.3 In the early entries he seems to be designing an activity for one person -- like playing solitaire. Other entries clearly indicate that the game would be played by two people alternating turns as with checkers or chess.

Asa's Blocks

The first word-game entry in notebook #1 (and so the first game invented by Asa if notebook #1 is his first notebook) is the game we call Asa's Blocks for which he used alphabet blocks. He may have been a teacher and used them to teach young children the alphabet and simple words. Or he may have had children of his own and come up with the idea of playing a game with them. Or his use of letter blocks may have nothing to due with children.

There are many entries about this game. As he invented new games he would sometimes modify the rules of this one. It may have been originally intended as a children's game, but it's clear that he soon thought of it as a "diversion" for adults. (This is the only word game he describes as a "diversion"; he uses "game" for all others.)

The first version involved dumping the blocks (he doesn't say how many) from a box onto the floor and then forming words using the face-up letters. A player would get one point for each letter in a word, so longer words would earn more points. A word could not be used more than once.

He writes that the blocks needed to be smaller, about the size of dice, because no one would play a game on the floor except children. Whether he made his own blocks or purchased them we don't know but all later entries he refers to playing on a table.

He describes playing with five blocks -- the 26 letters of the alphabet and four extra vowels. He makes no mention about how the letters would be dispersed on the them. The blocks are put into a cup, shaken and rolled out onto a table.

Asa made this game truly interesting (and different from later word games) when he decided that the blocks had to be rolled not slid. A different letter comes to the top each time a block is rolled. Sliding (or picking up and moving) the blocks to form words was mildly interesting, but rolling them into position to form words required skill and the ability to remember which letters were on which face of which block. (Asa mentions tipping them to see the hidden faces but it's unclear if he meant once at the beginning of a game or at any time during the game.)

Now one point could be added to a player's score for each roll of a block and one point deducted for each letter of a word. However, he found that the blocks could spread out too much when thrown from the cup; it required many rolls just to get them closer together. He tried several things, including some sort of "cooking pan" and the lid from a tin box. Then he gave up attempting to restrain the dispersal of the blocks and decided that after being thrown they would be aligned in a row by sliding (not rolling) them together. After that rolling the blocks to form words, which could be three, four or five letters long, would begin. The player with the lowest score would be the winner. Interestingly, he never says what would bring a game to a halt; possible each player would have a fixed number of turns.

In a later entry he allowed for aligning the blocks either vertically or horizontally to form words. After he had developed his idea of the bone pile (letter pool) with Jonson's Chain (see below), he wrote that it (88 letters) should be divided up onto 15 blocks with a couple of blank faces. In the last entry about this game he allowed for cross-words (after he had developed the concept with Sesquipedal; see below).

The weaknesses and strengths of a game and, therefore, the need for modifications, can only become apparent through actual play. However, we don't know if Asa every played this game (or any of his games) with another person; the notebooks don't say.

We have made several modifications to Asa's game: we restrict the movement of the blocks by placing them on a 15 x 15 board; we allow sliding and rolling; we use the same 100-letter pool as is used in our other word games. But our version retains the basic idea.

Jonson's Chain

The second game Asa invented is the game we call Jonson's Chain. The basic idea is that a player places "counters" with letters on them on a table to form a horizontal chain of words linked at the front or end by having new words share letters with old words.

There are probably several sources of the idea for this game. Asa would surely have seen that when playing the block game a player did not have to form an entirely new word each turn. If one player formed a short word the other player could form a longer word (and earn more points) by manipulating only one block to make the opponent's word plural (noun) or to change its tense (verb). That is, adding a one- or two-letter prefix or suffix was often simpler than finding a new word. The idea for linking one word to another may also have derived from solitaire dominoes.

There is another reason for seeing dominos as a source. During the development of this game he changed from using letter blocks, to using checkers (draughts) pieces with letters pasted on them to dominos cut in half with letters pasted on them. The latter fit together more tightly and could be placed on their edges which allowed a player to hide the letters from an opponent.

In a pamphlet titled Doublets: A Word-Puzzle (London: Macmillan and Co, 1879) Lewis Carroll describes a game in which the player tries to change one word into another in the fewest number of steps. The two words constitute a doublet. One letter is changed in the first word to form a second word. Then one letter is changed in the second word to form a third word. And so on until the second word of the doublet is arrived at. For example, raven can be changed to miser in four moves: raven, riven, river, riser, miser. He calls the entire series a "chain" and the individual words "links." This game is now sometimes called Word Golf. Carroll created three other word games including Syzgies (1891), in which only the first two or last two letters of a word are used. If Asa lived until 1879 he would have been 68 years old (and 80 in 1891). It's very unlikely that either man was aware of the other's creations, although there some vague similarities and two terms -- chain and link -- are used by both.

Asa returned to this game again and again with new ideas about how to improve it. He decided that a player would receive additional points for temporarily bringing the two ends of the chain together by linking one or more letters from the end of the chain to one or more letters at the beginning (what we call a Clasp word). The Cotton Word Game version is played on a board for convenience. We have also added the ability to play semordnilaps and palindromes as well as regular words.

The most important ideas that resulted from the invention of Jonson's Chain were the concepts of a standard letter pool and exchanging.

The Letter Pool

His first description of Jonson's Chain had all 26 letters of the alphabet visible and available for play at all times. Later he required that they be placed face down with only five at a time face up. Then he increased the number of letters to 52 (2 alphabets). Finally, after several entries on other topics, he devoted several pages to the "bone pile." (In dominos this is the collection of not-yet-played pieces and what we call the "letter pool.")

He writes that the game wasn't very entertaining and it was difficult to make more than three or four moves. He increased the number of vowels from one each per alphabet to two. Later he increased the number to three. He also doubled and then tripled the number of some consonants. Nowhere does he discuss determining the number of each letter in the letter pool based on the actual distribution of letters in English words.

He suggests to himself that he could tally the letters of all of the words in a dictionary; this would give him a "ratio" (frequency distribution) that he could use to construct the letter pool. But he realized that some words -- the, we, but, save, that -- are used far more frequently than words having the same or nearly the same letters -- heath, ewe, tub, vase, thaw. The correct method is to amass a very large collection of documents and then count each letter. But even this method is problematical because, as with any sample, choices must be made that affect the outcome. Should the samples be chosen synchronically or diachronically? Should they reflect a range of usage (slang, colloquial, formal)? Should they reflect a range of audiences (personal letters to doctoral theses)? Should the samples be restricted to writing or include speech?

Asa didn't calculate an accurate frequency distribution of letters (at least not in the two notebooks at hand). His base letter pool was composed of 44 letters -- one each of 15 letters and three each of the vowels and D, H, L, R, S and T. Apparently, he found it good enough to render his games interesting and challenging. Usually he doubled it (88 letters) and sometimes tripled it (132). Eventually, he added a single "wild card letter" (a blank counter) resulting in a pool of 45, 90 and 135 counters. He may have gotten the idea from the joker in card games. This innovation he saw as a random bonus for one player who could hold on to it until needed in a difficult situation.

Asa always saw the letter pool to be like the bone pile in dominos. All letters would be placed face down and mixed up and then letters would be chosen randomly. He referred to these letters as "in hand" or "at hand" almost certainly thinking of them like a hand in cards. He never settled on a specific number of letters: in one game he says five letters are drawn from the bone pile; in another the number is seven; in others six letters are drawn. He never had the idea of putting the letters into something like a can and shaking them up and then picking from the can.

Cotton Software uses a letter pool that is similar to those used in other word games. Sometimes it includes two blank tiles. Although it does not exactly reflect English usage (written or spoken), it is close enough for interesting and challenging play. Players draw seven tiles from the letter pool at the start of most games.


Despite the invention of the letter pool, Asa found that too often the game came to a halt when he could not form a word using the letters in his hand. His first idea about what to do about this was to allow players to draw letters one at a time from the bone pile until they could form a word and then play it. But he realized that depending upon which letters the players drew, they could hold more and more problematical letters. And they might have to draw again from the bone pile on their next move. As the number of letters a player held increased the less interesting the game became. So he decided that the number of letters should remain constant. When unable to form words, players would put one counter back into the bone pile and draw another. They would continue to do so until they could form a word.

But he didn't like this either for two reasons. First, a player could "go fishing"; repeatedly exchange letters until he or she could not just form a word but a long high-scoring word. Second, there was no penalty for poor play; exchanging letters one at a time might actually reward poor play. Weak or inattentive players might actually have a good set of letters (some vowels and some consonants) but be unable to find a word. One-at-a-time exchanging might enable them to play higher-point words than they could and should have played. So he decided that exchanging a counter would constitute a player's turn; a player could not immediately form a word after exchanging. This would penalize "fishing" and poor play. It appears that in his early ideas about exchanging he was thinking of card games in which players draw a card and place a card from their hands onto a discard pile and make a play if they can. In his last entry about exchanging he refers to poker and the fact that players can exchange more than one card. He adopts this idea; players can exchange one or more letters (but not all) during their turn right up to the end of a game.

Myles' Race

A standard letter pool from which players would draw five letters became a feature that Asa used in almost all of his subsequent word-game creations. With the invention of the game we call Myles' Race Asa moved to a new level. It was his third word game but the first to require a board and include cross-words. The idea for it may have come from a combination of playing the chain game and backgammon -- that is, using words to get from a starting point to a finishing point.

At first he restricted word formation to extending of a word already on the board or using the last letter of a word as the first letter of a new word to change direction from vertical to horizontal (or vice versa). This proved too difficult because a word can't always be formed using the last letter, so he allowed for using any letter of a word on the board as the first letter of a new word. Finally, he allowed for any letter on the board to be used as any letter of a new word -- cross-words.

The idea of two words intersecting horizontally and vertically and, therefore, sharing a letter is simple and not new with Asa. In an acrostic poem the first letters of each line serve as the first letters of the first words of each line and, vertically, they form another word (or words). However, it should be noted that the first crossword puzzle wasn't published until about 50 years later (Arthur Wynne, 1913) and the creation of Criss-cross Words came even later (Alfred Butts, 1938). Cross-words opened up all sorts of possibilities for developing word games. In the case of Myles' Race it allowed for the paths of two players to cross with each sharing one or more of the opponent's letters.

four checker boards

Asa's original idea for the game describes using a chess or checkers board. This made aligning the letters much easier and established a starting and ending point. He soon saw that those boards were too small and put together two boards (forming a 16 by 8 grid) and then four boards (forming a 16 by 16 grid). He used this configuration for all his subsequent word games which need a board (not all do). Cotton Word Games use a 15 by 15 grid because it is the size used by other word games and, therefore, familiar to most players. Myles' Race can also be played on two larger boards -- 21 by 15 and 21 by 21.


After Jonson's Chain Asa focused almost entirely on games using cross-words. His first new game, which he called "the crossing game" and we call Sesquipedal, has three important features.

First, rather than isolated words (Asa's Blocks) or linear strings of words (Jonson's Chain), it uses cross-words as its fundamental feature. Starting from the initial word placed in the center of the board, new words are constructed vertically and horizontally by using one or more of the letters already on the board. Except when simply adding a prefix or suffix to a word on the board, this always results in a primary word (the new word) and one or more cross-words which may also be new. Experimentation showed that the game could be played for an extended period of time; being able to hook to any letter on the board meant that there were many opportunities for forming words. He saw that at times dense collections of letters would form with many words crossing each other and at other times the words would spread out across the board. He was delighted with the game.

The second feature is what we call letter-points -- assigning different point values to different letters. A player earns the sum of the letter points for each letter of every new word formed on the board. From his first game he had observed that some letters such as the vowels and S are easy to play and others such as Q, X and Z are difficult to play. Players could ignore the hard letters -- play as if they had drawn four letters from the bone pile instead of five. They could exchange the hard letters and, thus, give up a turn. Or they could spend a lot of time finding ways to use the hard letters. Since all letters had the same value (one point) it was easier to exchange the hard letters and continue playing until the bone pile contained only hard letters and the player (or both players) would have to pass.

Then he came up with the idea of assigning different point values to different letters. If a Z earned substantially more points than a D then it was worth the trouble to find a way to play it. His points system is not based on his or the actual frequency distribution of letters. Apparently he saw no connection between the count of each letter in the letter pool and its point value. Cotton Word Games uses letter-point values similar to those used in other word games. Asa's point system is idiosyncratic (G and Q have the same value) and probably reflected his own language skills.

1 point: A, B, C, D, E, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, T, U, Y

2 points: F, P, W

3 points: G, J, K, Q, V, X, Z

It's not until the middle of notebook #2 that Asa refers to putting the point values on the counters: each would have 1, 2 or 3 dimples like dominos. So, his final conception of them was: a wooden counter half-a-domino in size that could be placed on its edge; white with black letters on them; one or more black dimples to indicate points.

The third feature we call length points. Asa observed that he was "playing lazy"; too often he was playing short words and especially with the 3-point letters he was playing the same short words over and over (GO, XI, ZIP). So he added two points for each letter for each new word.

Then he devised a simple calculation for adding points for the length of a word: the first letter would get one point; the second letter would get two points; the third would get three; and so on. Thus, a five-letter word would earn five more points than a four-letter word. The length points would be added to the letter points. Adding a single-letter prefix or suffix could earn more points than forming a short word using the hard letters.


With the invention of Sesquipedal Asa had established the features that would enable him to go on to invent other word games. The standardized letter pool provided sufficient variety to allow play to continue beyond a few moves. The 16 x 16 board enabled easy alignment of letters and restricted play to a confined area. Cross-words increased interest, rewarded complex word formation and allowed play to expand in all directions on the board. Letter-points rewarded playing the more difficult letters. And length-points encouraged playing longer harder words instead of easy short words. He did not use every feature in every game; for example, Drudges Two does not use letter points and Dumpty Drop does not use blank counters.

Some of his later games are noteworthy. For example, with Hoodwink Asa combined the features of his word games with the strategy and capturing of games such as checkers and chess.

A couple games encourage positional play; that is, where a letter is played on the board determines its value. Edgewise gives bonus points for playing on the outside rows and columns of the board. The value of each board square in Zangwill's Zones depends upon which zone it lies in; more points can be earned playing in the center or the outside depending upon the game mode. And with Wynne's Box the more tightly the letters are packed on the board the higher the player's score.

Dumpty Drop and Kinsey's Slide both resulted from simply rearranging the bone pile. In the first version of Dumpty Drop all of the letters of the bone pile were turned face down, mixed up and then formed into columns. Then the bottom row was turned face up. As letters were used from the bottom row the columns above the empty squares were pushed down. Over several versions Asa experimented with different numbers of columns (especially after he had developed his standard 45/90 letter bone pile). In the final version he had all letters turned face up so that the game was more interesting; some strategy could be applied to which letters were used and when. Kinsey's Slide started with all letters of the bone pile turned face up and pushed together to form a rectangle. The letters would then be slid around to form words. He soon added varying numbers of blank counters and methods of dispersing the letters on the board so that the letters wouldn't all be touching each other.

Finally, there are two other topics not discussed yet: words lists and passing. Asa placed no limitations on the length of the words that could be played other than an inherent limitation posed by the form a the game. For example, in Dumpty Drop the letters are placed in columns and, therefore, no word longer than the number of columns can be played. There is only a single reference concerning which words would be acceptable: "in cases of dispute use a dictionary." Of course, there are different types of dictionaries, by different publishers and of different size. Cotton Word Games can be played with nine different word lists.

It's clear that while developing his word games Asa thought about how other games were played -- checkers, chess, various card games, backgammon, cribbage and so on -- and adapted features of this or that game. Almost from the beginning he allowed for passing: during their turns players could choose to not form a word and not exchange but to give up their turn and allow their opponents to play again.


We're sure there were more than two notebooks because an entry in notebook #1 refers to the modification of an earlier "diversion" involving playing cards. Since there are no pages missing from notebook #1, the reference must be to an earlier notebook. There may also have been later notebooks. We continue to search for them.

There are more ideas for word games in the notebooks which we haven't developed yet. We can't estimate the total number of games because some of the designs are sketchy and there are many references backward and forward so that it's difficult at times to determine which game he is alluding to.


1A commonplace quotation from Phaedrus, Fables: Things are not always what they seem.

2Asa uses the term porch throughout this entry. A porch has a roof; a deck doesn't. He makes no mention of a roof. The creeks nearest to Cotton Software's headquarters are 200 yards and 1/2 mile away so he wasn't thinking of adding a cantilevered porch to it. Possibly he originated the idea when he lived somewhere else or maybe it was simply a thought experiment.

3Asa did not give names to the games he invented. He referred to them only as, for example, the "blocks diversion" or "racing game."