On-Words Game

On-Words Game

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This game was developed by Layman E. Allen, Frederick L. Goodman, Doris Humphrey, and Joan Ross, all of the University of Michigan. As explained in the preface to the instruction book, ON WORDS: The Game of Word Structures (Autotelic Instructional Materials Publishers, 1971), it was originally to be a numerical problem solving game about spelling and was meant as an introduction for elementary school teachers to games developed earlier by Allen: WFF ‘N PROOF (335302, 317891.33), EQUATIONS (335304, 317891.35), and ON-SETS (335306, 317891.37). The game as published includes variations that also touch on aspects of word structure such as prefixes and suffixes.
In addition to the instruction manual, the blue plastic game box includes a playing mat, a (broken) timer, a sponge container, and twenty-four wooden cubes. Three of these cubes are white and their six faces are marked with blue numbers 1 through 6. The remaining twenty-one cubes are marked with letters, a different letter on each face of the cube. There are six black cubes with gold I, E, O, N, R, and T; four red cubes with gold A, F, H, M, P, and U; four blue cubes with gold A, C, D, E, L, and S; three green cubes with gold B, E, G, T, V, and W; two yellow cubes with blue J, K, Q, X, Y, and Z; and two pink cubes with blue I, N, O, R, S, and Y.
As in other word games, the idea of the On-Words games is to form words from a set of letters. At the basic level a solution consists of only a single word. In other On-Words games a solution consists of a network of multiple words that intersect, as in Scrabble. The value of a word is just the number of letters in the word and the value of a network of words is the sum of the values of the individual words, appearing in the network,
In some of the On-Words games a player sets a goal for the value of a solution. The goal is not stated as a number but is determined by an arrangement of number cubes chosen by the player. The individual numbers are added when the cubes are arranged horizontally and multiplied when arranged vertically. A negative number, and therefore subtraction, is denoted by placing a cube upside down. These rules allow the placement of numbers to substitute for parentheses. Thus if three cubes are chosen, one marked 5 and two marked 6, goals of (6 5)*6=1*6=6 and (6*5)-6=24 can be produced. The goal of 6 can be displayed by starting with a 6 cube, putting an upside-down 5 cube next to it, and the other 6 cube below the upside-down 5 cube; the goal of 24 can be displayed placing the 5 cube below one of the 6 cubes and placing the other 6 cube upside down next to the 5 cube on the bottom.
On-Words games all involve forming words from the letter cubes after they have been divided into three groups; those that cannot be used, those that must be used, and those that may be used. In some games a player sets a goal and other players find a word or a network of words that have the value of the goal. There are many possible variations of the game, the most complex of which call for the addition of rules governing word structure. Numerical complexity comes into play as the player who sets the goal can “flub” if a goal is set that cannot be met by any combination of the required and permitted letter cubes.
Over the years the name and location of the distributor of On-Words changed, although the phrase “Games For Thinkers” has been associated with it from the start. In 1971 On-Words was available from WFF ‘N PROOF in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, at a cost of $5.50. A firm called Learning Game Associates of Ann Arbor later took over distribution of the game and donated this example to the Smithsonian in 1975. The Accelerated Learning Foundation of Fairfield, Iowa, then became the distributor.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1971
Allen, Layman E.
Goodman, Frederick L.
Humphrey, Doris
Ross, Joan
Learning Games Associates
place made
United States: Michigan, Ann Arbor
Physical Description
plastic (overall material)
paper (overall material)
wood (overall material)
overall: 2.5 cm x 15.25 cm x 12.5 cm; 31/32 in x 6 in x 4 29/32 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Learning Games Associates
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Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Science & Mathematics
Mathematical Recreations
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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