How Dingbats Works

Can you solve these Dingbats-style puzzles? (The answers are in the third paragraph on this page.)
Can you solve these Dingbats-style puzzles? (The answers are in the third paragraph on this page.)

Because of my passion for journalism, I absorbed everything I could about the printing process while I was working my first job in the field. For fun, I learned how to operate an antique letterpress that was owned by a fellow word nerd. We passed many a pleasant hour partying like journalists and manually arranging individual letter blocks to spell out words. After one unfortunate lapse that sent all my carefully placed tiles sailing out of the composing stick and onto the floor, I also remembered to use spacers to keep the blocks in place. Some of the spacers I used were blank blocks designed to separate words and sentences; shorter than letter blocks, these spacers didn't leave a mark on the paper. Other spacers, known as dingbats, imprinted a symbol.

Although the letterpress is no longer used in commercial printing, dingbats still are. They're used to mark the end of an article or a book chapter, and have become ornamental devices used in print advertising and design [source: Wise Geek].

Understanding the Dingbats brainteaser game, however, requires more than knowing the term's practical history. You'll need to know how to solve rebus puzzles. These puzzles use pictures and words as clues to their answers, which are idioms or other common phrases. Sometimes attention is drawn to a specific word or letter in the puzzle, which offers a clue to the answer. For example, "aid aid aid" with an arrow pointing to the first word in the series means "first aid." Or, the clue could phonological cues. For example, a picture of a cat next to a log means "catalog."

In the Dingbats family of games, there are puzzle cards in three categories that become progressively more difficult to solve, but that reward correct answers with an increasing number of points:

  • Thingbats: A combination of pictures and words or letters (5 points)
  • Dingbats: A combination of letters or words (10 points)
  • Kingbats: Can be either a Thingbat or a Dingbat, but are the most complex puzzles to solve (15 points)

Dingbats, From Newspapers to iPhones

This Victorian-era trading card advertisement from the Durham Tobacco company used rebus puzzles, which were in fashion at the time.
This Victorian-era trading card advertisement from the Durham Tobacco company used rebus puzzles, which were in fashion at the time.
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Paul Sellers, a Kent, England-based cartoonist, created newspaper cartoon strips such as the 1960s-era series "Lancelittle" and "Eb & Flo," which were published in Great Britain, the United States and other countries. In 1980, Whatzit?, a word-and-picture puzzler, began appearing in local newspapers, then became internationally syndicated and inspired a board game of the same name. Sellers' career took off with it [source: Holtz].

Within a few years, a Whatzit board game was sold in the United States and Canada; it was called Katch-Its in Australia and Dingbats in every other nation. By the turn of the century, the game had metamorphosed into puzzle books and a number of board game variations (all of which are now out of print), including [source: Board Game Geek]:

  • 1988: Junior Dingbats, licensed to United Kingdom-based Waddington's
  • 1990: Totally Dingbats, which introduced solo play against a timer, also licensed to Waddington's
  • 1999: Dingbats Electronic Edition, licensed to United Kingdom-based Goliath
  • 2003: Dingbats, licensed to United States-based Ravensburger

Today the Whatzit? syndicate is still published on Web sites, publications and mobile platforms, but the game itself is only referred to as Dingbats [source: Universal Uclick].

In 2010, in honor of the game's 30th anniversary, a digital edition of Dingbats was released for iPhone and iPod Touch (there's no word on whether an Android version will launch). It was the first app produced by London-based Starberry, a company named after the Navaho word for blueberry. For the Sellers' family, the app marked more than a milestone in the game's history. It signaled the start of a collaboration that included the entire family.

Seller's sons, Rus and Ben, led the app's production; his daughter, Rachel, did the voiceovers. The game's graphics and sound effects were authored by Seller's grandsons, and his grandchildren tested the game -- along with his wife, Marj, and his daughter-in-law. The game itself was designed by family friends, Tom Gidden and Vince Sneed.

How to Play Dingbats

Curious about games? Check out these videos to learn more about how they're created and played everywhere from living rooms to classrooms to doctors' offices.
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Even though the board game versions of Dingbats are all currently out of print, there are plenty of copies to be found in gaming cabinets and for sale online. To begin playing the Dingbats board game, four of each of the three types of cards are placed face down on the game board, then each player rolls the dice (or, depending on the version of the game, you may spin the revolving playing board with an arrow in one corner; where the arrow points when the board stops will indicate who goes first).

If you have the highest roll (or if you are on the winning end of the game board's arrow), you'll be the first to flip one of the puzzle cards, starting at one of the board's corners. As your turn as Solver begins, an opponent will set a 30-second timer. When you think you've figured out the answer, say it aloud and then flip over the card to read the solution.

If you've solved the puzzle on the card, keep the card and keep going: The idea is to correctly solve as many cards as you can before time runs out and play passes to the left.

How will you know which card to go for next? Under each card is an arrow printed on the board; usually more than one arrow is present, which means you will have options when it comes to choosing the next adjacent card. Rarely, there will not be a card in the space indicated by the arrow; in that case, you can choose any card on the board at random.

If you didn't solve the puzzle, replace the card and place a new one from a different-colored deck on top of it. The person who solves the puzzle on the top card will get to keep both cards. Sometimes this jackpot will include multiple cards; each card in the jackpot is factored into the solver's score.

The game continues until the cards are gone from all 12 spaces. These solved puzzle cards will either end up in your pile or an opponent's, and you'll need to tally the points of each card in your respective haul.

If you have the high score, feel free to scream, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner" or any other victorious refrain that comes to mind. You could also up the ante by adding the game's 12 optional wild cards to your next round; these cards can give a player extra time to solve a puzzle, cause a player to miss a turn or reward a player with double points [source: Ravensburger].

How to Play Digital Dingbats

Not every digital version of a treasured board game is worth the purchase, but "Dingbats" for iPhone and iPod Touch retains the flavor of the original game and adds several attractive improvements, including solo play. (Plus it retails for about $2 as of early 2012, and the iPhone version can be played on an iPad as well.)

Players touch the screen to flip over one virtual card at a time -- the cards are shown in sets of 12 -- that have phrase-and-word puzzles just like the original game. As soon as a card flips over, a 90-second timer activates on the screen. If you know the answer (or want to make a guess), use the keyboard to type it in.

If your answer is correct, the card will disappear from the screen and the remaining cards in the set will be shown. If your answer is incorrect, you'll hear a ding and the puzzle card you're trying to solve will remain on the screen.

The faster you solve the puzzle, the more points you'll receive. Unlike the original game, you can ask for a clue after the timer runs out. You also can ask for in-game hints or come back to the card later, after having solved (or having attempted to solve) other cards in the set. If still stumped, you can pass (caution: you only get one pass per 1,000 points earned) or request an answer to the puzzle by email. After the game is over, you can review the cards you've solved in the app's card gallery. You also can connect the game to your Twitter account and tweet your scores.

Players can connect on the Dingbats Facebook page, where a free app offers a new puzzle each day. Web-based games from other companies, like those at Fun With Words, also offer rebus puzzles, although they do not follow the Dingbat game's timed format. (In addition, there's another app called "Dingbats" for iPad from developer Blockdots. Although fun, this is not the same game as Seller's "Dingbats." In this game, players select consonants to pair with hidden vowels to solve word puzzles. It's sort of like "Wheel of Fortune" for the iPad.)

Dingbats Tips and Strategies

Can you solve these Dingbats-style puzzles? (The answers are in the bulleted list on this page.)
Can you solve these Dingbats-style puzzles? (The answers are in the bulleted list on this page.)

Playing brain games, such as Dingbats, helps keep the mind nimble -- no matter what your age. Logic puzzles encourage the brain to fire up its neurons and increase the number of connections (synapses) between them. In essence, your brain continues to grow and change as it practices problem solving and commits this information to short- and long-term memory [source: Hoiland].

But when you're looking to win (or beat your personal best) in addition to improving your thinking skills, it pays to have a plan of action. Sometimes the answer to the puzzle will quickly come to mind, but if it doesn't, try these strategies [source: Your Amazing Brain]:

  • Look for a preposition: Does the puzzle include a visual representation of a preposition, like under, over, around or above? For example, the word "eggs" positioned above the word "easy" is "eggs over easy." The positioning of the words won't always indicate a preposition, though....
  • Think literally: Sometimes, the words' positions will visually represent a verb or noun instead. For example, the word "sun" shown progressively higher on a card is "sun rise." Consider about what the words are literally doing. This strategy also works for combinations of pictures and words. For example, if the word "camp" is shown going up in flames, the answer is "campfire."
  • Consider the font: Are the letters on the puzzle card puffy, upside-down or wavy? For example, the word "brain" written in a wavy font is "brainwave," and the letters c-h-a-n-c-e shown in a bold font is "fat chance."
  • Deconstruction: Does your card have a single word that seems to be nonsensical? Then pull it apart; it probably contains a word inside a word. Separating the letters will reveal your answer. For example, "jobINjob" is "in between jobs."

If you really become stuck and just can't seem to come up with a correct answer, try reading the card aloud. Case in point: Although I breezed through several rounds of Dingbats, I just couldn't figure out the solution to one particular card. It included a picture of a playing card -- the King of Hearts -- followed by the word "bored."

"Royally bored" was my first guess, followed by "royal bore." I'd become fixated on the "royal" portion of the puzzle and eventually had to pass. It wasn't until later, when I tried to solve the card aloud that it hit me. Card. Bored. "Cardboard." Sometimes hearing yourself say the words can trigger a new connection.

Author's Note

I downloaded "Dingbats" for iPhone and began playing. It seemed, however, quite like a simplified version of "Wheel of Fortune" (fill in the blank and guess the phrase). As I dug into the assignment, I realized I'd been playing the wrong game. The Dingbats game I was assigned to research had a rights-reserved symbol after its name -- and was an entirely different game. Suddenly it all began to more sense, and I felt a bit like a dingbat myself.

One thing I like about Seller's Dingbats game is that it's easy to jump in and start playing. I opted for the iPhone version (which I realized I could also play on my iPad) and in just a couple of minutes was flipping virtual cards and typing answers. Although I tried not to use the help of the in-app hint 'bot -- Ding King -- sometimes I simply couldn't come up with an answer. No wonder the game's tagline is "the wordplay game that will drive you crazy."

Related Articles


  • Board Game Geek. "Dingbats: 2003" (March 5, 2012)
  • Board Game Geek. "Whatzit: 1980" (March 5, 2012)
  • Dingbats. "The Wall of Dingbats." (March 5, 2012)
  • Fun with Words. "Guide to Rebus Puzzles." (March 5, 2012)
  • Hoiland, Erin. "Brain Plasticity: What is It?" (March 5, 2012)
  • Holtz, Alan. "Obscurity of the Day: Lancelittle." March 18, 2007. (March 5, 2012)
  • Ravensburger. "Dingbats Instructions." (March 5, 2012)
  • Touch Arcade. "Dingbats Word Game." Dec. 4, 2009. (March 5, 2012)
  • Universal Uclick. "New Whatzit? Brainteasers App Celebrates 30 Years of Mind-bending Fun." March 16, 2010. (March 5, 2012)
  • Universal Uclick. "Whatzit?" (March 5, 2012)
  • Wise Geek. "What are Dingbats?" (March 5, 2012)