Photos of people playing stairball

I was just updating this poor neglected blog to the latest version of WordPress when I noticed that it doesn’t have any pictures of people playing stairball on it! Last week I played stairball (for the first time in a year or two) with my partner Maggie, on the steps behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A person with a maniacal grin is preparing to toss a racquetball down the stairs behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It looks cold and wintry, with leaves on the ground. She is wearing a jacket and leggings.
Maggie about to throw the ball down the stairs.
Maggie stands with hands on her hips, waiting for the next round of stairball. Behind her a lawn stretches towards a traffic circle and trees in the distance.
Maggie waits patiently for me to throw the stairball down to her.

Maggie did quite well for her very first time playing stairball, outscoring me consistently in almost every inning and defeating me 27-24. As you can see in the pictures, we only played from the first landing to the bottom of the stairwell (12 steps total), rather than attempting to use the entire monumental stairway. (The official stairball rules recommend playing on no more than 15 stairs, although both players can agree to use a larger staircase.) The large amount of fallen leaves covering the steps interfered unpredictably with bounces, leading me to wonder if it was worth cleaning off the part of the stairway we were playing on. I decided to leave the leaves alone, considering this obstacle to be part of the stairball court, like a hazard in golf. When we were done playing our hands were freezing, as neither of us wanted to risk gloves interfering with our control of the ball.

One thing I like about stairball is how it provides an incentive to travel to interesting places and spend significant amounts of time contemplating the view from the top of a stairway. (The view of the art museum from the bottom wasn’t bad either!) Too often we travel through places en route to some important destination and fail to take time to appreciate a location in its totality.

It’s unfortunate that you can’t get a good sense of what gameplay is actually like from these point-of-view pictures. For slightly more illustrative pictures, here are some photos from a game between Kamraan and Karen back in 2009:


Karen thoughtfully drops the stairball

Here Karen appears to be on her second throw of the inning, intending to bounce the ball off of exactly one step. (The first throw should hit zero steps, i.e. she would have thrown it directly to Kamraan.) Kamraan dutifully catches the ball, helping her count the number of the steps she hits for scoring purposes, and returns the ball to her to try again. (Unless she hit the incorrect number of stairs three times, resulting in three strikes and Kamraan climbing the stairs to take his turn throwing the ball down the stairs.)

If you aren’t already familiar with the rules, please refer to the official stairball rules for more details.

Scrabble and other games have overvalued points

Check out this article from the Wall Street Journal: Price Drop: Stocks, Homes, Now Triple-Word Scores. The subtitle “Scrabble and Other Games — on Boards, Fields, Courts and Ice — Have Overvalued Points; Vermont Avenue Is a Steal” sums it up pretty well. This article illustrates the difficulty of designing a game that is fair, challenging and interesting to players of all levels, and maintaining those qualities as time marches on and the world and the players change around you. If your game becomes genuinely popular and “professional players” appear, they will begin to exploit any flaws in your rules, and then you must either change the rules or accept these exploits as part of the game.

Abstract Scrabble and threeandthrees

A couple weeks ago ALASSCA had a meeting! By “meeting” I mean Adam and I hung out at his house and played some games, but we had fun and I would like to share some of that fun with you.

Abstract Scrabble

Adam invented this game which is kind of like Scrabble except different. You can play it by yourself, and it does not require a Scrabble board.

You begin with all of the Scrabble tiles face down on the table, and you start a timer running. You then pull out a number of tiles (maybe 10?) and try to arrange them into a Scrabble formation, i.e. making as many words as possible by overlapping tiles when necessary. As you use up tiles, you pull more tiles from the pile. Keep doing this until time runs out, say after 5 minutes.

Abstract Scrabble, first half

Then in the second half of the game, you try to rearrange all of the tiles that you have successfully used in words to make the longest words you possibly can. The scoring function for an abstract scrabble game is the number of tiles minus thrice the number of words. You want to make words that are at least 4 letters long otherwise they are not helping your score. It’s OK if you can’t reuse all of the letters from the first half of the game, it’s better to leave them unused than to make short words. You count up the score once the timer runs out again, say after another 5 minutes.

Abstract Scrabble, second half

My score in this photo is 29-(3*6)=11. (I think? Is that right, Adam? I’m not counting the tiles I didn’t use in the second half, b/c if you did then you could maximize your score by not making any words at all.)


Adam generates threeandthrees by taking a list of nine letter words, randomly selecting twenty, and then returning their guts (the three letters in the middle). The goal is then to think of a word that fills in the gaps, i.e. a 9-letter word with those 3 letters in the middle. Some of these have only one solution, some of them have many solutions. Can you fill in all of these words?





When you’ve filled out as many as you can, see our answers in this Flickr photo.

Shut the box analysis

One of my Livejournal friends cananian has a very interesting series of posts about a dice game called Shut the Box. Even though I am not a math major, unlike Adam, I find mathematical analysis of games and strategies for playing games to be very interesting, especially when the results are counter-intuitive:

In previous entries I’ve been discussing the mathematics of the game “Shut the Box”. I first asked about good strategies which were simple enough for a human to use.

One obvious intuitive strategy is to chose tiles to flip down such that your score is as low as possible after each turn. I turns out this is an extraordinarily bad choice: against an optimal 2nd player, the 1st player can expect to lose xy% 75.3% of their stake in each game, and against an optimal 1st player, a second player following this strategy will lose 70.8% of their stake (first player shuts the box 9.5% of the time and wins 71.5% of the rest of the games).

A better strategy is the opposite: flip tiles so that your score is as high as possible after each turn!

C. Scott Ananian’s continuing analysis of this game that I had never heard of before makes me want to play it! Now I just need to find my dice.

In a related question, should this blog cover gambling games / games of chance? I know Adam was interested in poker in the past and I’ve become interested in it recently myself, but ALASSCA hasn’t covered games of chance much in the past, preferring games that are further towards the “pure skill” end of the spectrum. My personal feeling is that any games we create ourselves or unusual/unpopular games that we discover should be within ALASSCA’s purview, regardless of the degree of chance involved in the game. What say you, Adam and any other readers we might have?

UPDATE: Another interesting question is, why have I never heard of this game? Apparently it was popularized by a TV show that last aired when I was 4 years old, High Rollers, so I would never have seen it. Perhaps the game is better known among older people, but it may still be worth reviving old games for our generation who may otherwise be ignorant of them.

Back after a very long hiatus

As you may have noticed, this site was down for a little more than a year. We lost control of the domain name to a cybersquatter because I forgot to renew the registration. However, we procrastinated for so long in choosing a new domain name that the cybersquatter’s registration expired, and we were able to register again. Procrastination is not always a bad thing, I guess!

I don’t know how regularly we’ll be posting here in the future, but rest assured we still play weird and wonderful games whenever we get the chance, and I hope that you do too.


Hey folks, welcome to the first post live from our new location at! Today I’d like to present a game that Swarthmore alumnus Lawrence D.P. Miller sent in a while back when he heard about our project: Rafterball! I’ll let Lawrence speak for himself:

For ALASSCA, I give you the sleep-away camp game of my youth: Rafterball (adapted by me for play by people who are not 4 ft tall, and with tree branches in addition to rafters as possible fields of play)

Rafterball is a two-person game involving bouncing a ball from one side of a rafter to the other. Each player will stand on one side or the other of the rafter beam (or tree branch), and will play from that side throughout the match. The goal is to toss the ball from one side of the rafter so that it bounces on top of the rafter and goes over the rafter and falls on the other side. One point is awarded for each bounce, and a “roll” is worth 5 points. Games are typically played to 11, 15, or 21.

Players may stand as near or as far away from the rafter as they wish, up to directly underneath it. Players standing two or more feet from the rafter may toss overhand if they wish; players standing closer to the beam or directly beneath it must toss underhand. “Slam dunks” are not allowed; if the branch or rafter is within reach of the players, they are allowed to toss from approximately shoulder height or lower (unless standing 2 or more feet away). When standing beneath the rafter, the player must still toss from one side to the other; any shot that either fails to clear the rafter, or clears in the wrong direction, is considered a miss.

One player is designated the starting player; he or she gets first toss. Play continues in a “make it take it” fashion; upon scoring one or more points on a toss, that player keeps the ball and tosses again, continuing until he or she misses, and then play switches to the other player. When one player reaches the requisite number of points, the other player is granted “last licks”, and is given a single opportunity to keep playing until he or she misses. If the other player does surpass the score of the player who originally reached the winning score, that original player is then also granted last licks, and so on until there is one clear winner.

Typically, tennis balls are used, but any ball that can easily bounce on the rafter in question can be used.

Outdoor education increases creativity

If an article from The Copenhagen Post is to be believed (Nature makes children creative), teaching kindergarteners outside makes them more likely to invent new games!

According to the study children in nature kindergartens are better at coming up with ideas for games, they are more alert, and better at using their bodies.

‘Children in nature kindergartens are better at everything we measured in our study,’ said Bent VigsΓΈ, the head of the Collage of Social Education in Esbjerg. He carried out the study in co-operation with Vita Nielsen from the Collage of Social Education in Ribe.

The study showed that 58 percent of children brought up in close touch with nature often invented new games. Only 16 percent of indoor kindergarten children did so.

Therefore, if we want more recruits to our cause who can help us research and develop new games, clearly we must campaign for more outdoor education πŸ˜€ Besides, who wouldn’t want to be “better at everything”?

“Cornhole” enthusiasts covered on BoingBoing

While I don’t have time to blog all the cool things that we’ve been up to recently, I simply must mention this excellent BoingBoing article, Hey boys and girls, let’s play “cornhole”!. It seems to focus largely on the silly name, but there is obvious interest in sports/games besides basketball/football etc… Perhaps someday we can get BoingBoing’d for stairball ^_^

Thanks to the cornhole Wikipedia article, and Michael Rivera for sharing this photo.

UPDATE: According to this 2019 article, cornhole is still alive and kicking, and “going pro”.

Word substitutions

I don’t know if this really qualifies as a game, but it certainly sounds like fun…. if you’re slightly tipsy or sleep-deprived and have a bunch of textbooks lying around πŸ™‚

So, the game is: When reading a certain sort of social criticism, it will be vastly improved with the following word substitutions:

gay –> ninja
lesbian –> pirate
bisexual –> monkey
transgendered –>robot
sexuality –>mojo
Stonewall –> the Meiji revolution
Freud’s work –> the battle of Seki Gahara

Such that you get things like:

“Anita Bryant’s anti-ninja “Save the Children” campaign is making a comeback.”

“In the 70’s, ninjas and pirates were completely demonized.”

“In fact, Bush went out of his way during the campaign not to offend the ninjas.”

“Thus we can see the sum total of the ninja agenda involves foisting more government on society and more intervention in free enterprise ”

“Ninja acts are sins, not crimes like murder and theft, and should be neither punished nor subsidized by the law.”

Or as comma suggests, “Kinsey’s work suggested that most people are at least somewhat monkeys.”

Surely you could come up with your own interesting word substitutions in other fields, such as plasma physics or evolutionary biology. This game will probably appeal most to geeks and college students who wish to see their studies in a new light… however, it may prove dangerous since whenever somebody makes a perfectly normal statement in class, you might remember the word substitutions and bust out in uncontrollable laughter. Trust me, that sort of thing happened to me all the time in high school.

Other games called "stairball"

Although our version of Stairball is probably the most interesting game ever to go by that name, it is not the first. Adam drafted the first set of rules in 2002, with the first IM mentioning the rules dated December 4th, 2002, but there were undoubtedly others aspiring to create a game named “stairball” before then. So long as humans had stairs and balls, it was inevitable that some people would put the two together. Surprisingly, I wasn’t able to find many of the instances of “stairball” that I found when I first did a Google search, because our version of stairball seems to have taken over many of the top hits, due to this blog and the NY Times mention. I had to search for stairball on Clusty, a search engine that groups results into categories. That turned up several results:

  • – In an outdated list of informal sports, I found a broken link to, a site dedicated to “the most exciting game in your house!” The one line description tells us that “Stairball is similar to playing soccer, but in the staircase of your home.” When I looked up an archived copy of the website on the Internet Archive, the website itself said:

    The general idea: The Stair player stands at the top of the stairs and throws the ball at the stairs and towards the floor player. The floor player attempts to prevent the ball from reaching the floor (or wall behind him) by using the same parts of his/her body used in soccer (i.e. everything but arms).

    The site seems to have first appeared around December 2000, and died sometime in 2003, no doubt in the wake of the Dot-com bubble. At any rate, maybe this means we can steal the domain name ^_^

  • Bored kids create their own entertainment – In an example that brings joy to my heart, two boys aged 11 and 14 were allowed to skip summer camp in 2005 and “just hang out”, creating their own golf course and inventing a game named “stairball”! Unfortunately, the description of stairball is tantalizingly terse:

    Hanging out for Sawyer, though, is not just sitting around. Sawyer and Cody play pool basketball, golf on the course they created and make up games in the house like “Stairball,” where they bounce balls off steps.”We set up targets on the wall and whoever gets to 1,000 first wins,” he said.

    Argh! That doesn’t tell us enough for us to reconstruct the game. What wall did they set up the targets on? How are points scored? What sort of targets? What sort of ball? Were they bouncing the balls up the stairs, down the stairs, or backwards off of the stairs? I suppose we’ll never know.

  • Handball variant – I don’t know what the context of this is, but in an article entitled A “Z Games” Sampler from 1999, the Christian Science Monitor suggested this conception of stairball:

    Stairball – A game similar to one-wall handball. Two players take turns hitting a ball up a staircase. Points are awarded when a player’s opponent fails to return the ball as it bounces down the stairs.

    This sounds boringly unoriginal. I do wonder what “Z Games” are, though… very mysterious.

  • Cats and dogs chase balls down stairs – This is a mindless variant of “go fetch”, but apparently it is endlessly entertaining to animals:

    Casper (the friendly ghost cat) was adopted from a local shelter for which I now do volunteer work. He talks all the time in a soft purr/meow voice and loves to play. His favorite game is “Stairball,” which involves me throwing a paper ball down the basement stairs which he will usually retrieve.

    small children toss a ball down the stairsIn a similar vein, apparently small children like playing “catch” with one party at the top of the stairs and the other at the bottom (A good game of stairball with Sissy and Mommy). This is actually the first step towards playing real stairball! These children are getting good practice throwing and catching for our tournaments πŸ™‚

  • ABC football – This is not actually a game called stairball, but it is an unusual invented game which features the term “stairball” in its description, so I thought it deserved a mention πŸ™‚

    Pitch: Either ends of the A Block first floor corridor are designated as goals. Use the short sides without doors – using the long sides would defeat the object of the game as far as their is one, and will also piss people off more than a normal game does as their door is then part of the goal. The stairs to the ground floor are off the pitch – if the ball goes down there, the player who last touched it has to fetch it, and the player who didn’t gets a free kick from the top of the stairs. The kitchen, toilet, stairs to the upper floors and anyones’ room with an open door are fair game, as long as the entrance of the ball into that area is announced in a deep, slow, and stupid voice (eg “kitchenball!”, “stairball!“, or “Martynball!”).

Just because we invented an awesome game called stairball (the awesomest ever), that doesn’t mean you can’t invent one too! Make your own games, they’re too important to let other people make them for you πŸ˜‰

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