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The License Plate Game


Recently, my grown son and I have developed and tweaked the rules to a simple word game involving making words out of the letters on license plates as we drive around doing whatever errands we're on (usually grocery shopping or picking up fast food). The rules we've come up with are as follows:

1. The only license plate legally "in play" is the one on the vehicle directly in front of you. It remains "in play" only for as long as the vehicle remains in front of you; if it makes a turn or one of you changes lanes that license plate can no longer be used. (This is partly so the driver can keep his eye on the road and not be rubbernecking around looking for potential license plates from which to gain points. It also makes it easier for the other player(s) to validate the letters on the plate "in play.")
2. Only the letters in the license plate are used - ignore any numbers.
3. There must be a minimum of three letters on a license plate for the plate to be valid, as one or two letters tend not to pose much of a challenge.
4. Vanity plates cannot be used, only random letter/number plates.
5. The object is to make as short a word as possible using all of the letters, in order (but not necessarily adjacent to each other - you can insert letters before, after, and in between any of the given letters), that appear on the license plate. You can decide among yourselves whether proper nouns are allowed; we've chosen to only allow common nouns. (That mirrors the Scrabble rules.) So no capitalized words or names.
6. You cannot use a word already formed by the license plate "in play." (Thus, the license plate "WAY 788" could be used to generate the words "ways" or "wavy" or "sway" or "away," but not "way" - you don't get points for simply reading what's already there.)
7. A person gains one point for making a valid word using the letters on the license plate "in play." The other player(s) must then try to "beat" that word, by coming up with an equally valid word containing a smaller number of overall letters or creating a word coming alphabetically before the previous word. The second word thus formed is worth 2 points; a third word is worth 3 points; a fourth word is worth 4 points; and so on.
8. Once a person makes a valid word, he cannot "beat" that word until another player has already "beaten" that word. In other words, you can't gain points for different words from a given licence plate until someone else has already beaten the current word in play.
9. Given the respective viewpoints, this game works best when the players are in the front of the vehicle - they get a better view of the license plates that way. We've generally only played with myself driving and my son in the passenger seat, although sometimes my nephew pops up with a word from the back seat of our van.

So, to give an example that happened just this afternoon, we saw this license plate ahead of us:

VRT 162​

I earned an initial point by calling out "virtue." (I almost went with "virtual" but then realized I could shave off a letter and make it a harder initial word to beat.) I then immediately saw an even better word but hoped my son didn't see it. No such luck - he then called out, "covert," earning himself two points to my initial one by playing a six-letter word alphabetically earlier than my own six-letter word. However, that wasn't the word I had thought of after blurting out my initial answer, and I had a five-letter word that would beat his six-letter word. Calling out "overt" gained me an additional three points, making our score now four to two in my favor.

And then my son crushed my dreams and called out "avert," topping my "overt" by dint of alphabetical order, making the final score my four to his six. The car ahead of us then switched lanes, not that I think it would have mattered - I didn't have anything to top "avert."

As we generally only play this game while driving around town on errands, we keep the score tallies going until we shut off our car, so we'll have one "session" on the way to the grocery store and another on the way back, for example. I, in theory, could have gained more points after that car had made a turn and we had a new license plate "in play," but things turned out against me as there either weren't enough letters on the plates directly ahead or the letter combinations weren't conducive to making words in the first place. (There's not much you can do with "VHX 178.") So I was forced to admit crippling defeat in that particular round of the License Plate Game.

Some things worth pointing out:

1. If your state, like mine, has license plates in the "LLL ###" format (where L = letter and # = number), you'll tend to see an awful lot of license plates starting with the same letter - right now, the local license plates being issued around here seem to all start with "V." That gets kind of repetitious, but fortunately we live near a military base so we see cars from all kinds of different states, which helps shake things up a bit.

2. It can sometimes be worth "holding off" on a better word and blurting out an initial contender if you don't think your opponent will guess your follow up word (or beat it with his own word). In the "VRT" example above, I hadn't thought of "overt" until after I had already called out "virtue," but had I thought of them both at once it might have been a decent strategy to hold "overt" in play for later, hoping my son didn't either steal it away from me (by coming up with "overt" on his own or beating it altogether by calling out "avert" immediately after my "virtue"). You probably need to weigh that strategy against the abilities of your opponents - I've found it's better to blurt out whatever points I can get because my son will seldom top me in a way that can still be topped. Also, you never know when the car ahead of you will turn off or switch lanes and the license plate will no longer be "in play."

3. It's tempting to immediately try to form a word that starts with the first letter on the license plate "in play" (I think that's just how our brains are wired) but don't forget to try adding letters before those on the plate.

4. The "alphabetical" rule on scoring is just there to allow the game to go on longer with the same license plate "in play" (allowing multiple words of the same length to be played against each other). If you wanted to, you could always rule that you gain points for words of the same length that start alphabetically AFTER the word currently in play. Just make sure everyone playing is aware of the scoring system in use before play starts.

5. Don't be afraid to use long words, especially when the letter combinations on the plate currently "in play" are odd. I got a point from a "WMK 914" license plate in line ahead of me at a McDonald's by coming up with "womankind." Sure, it was a nine-letter word, but I didn't think my son was going to be able to beat it. (And he wasn't.)

Anyway, this has been an amusing diversion for us so I thought I'd give it a mention here. Try it for yourselves, if you're of a mind. Just make sure the driver's main attention remains on the road, where it belongs!

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Staff member
Just for clarity...isn’t this basically the game the kids were playing on their road trip in Jeepers Creepers?


My father plays cribbage with license plates. Not exactly sure, but he says some letters can be used like X for 10 and V or L for 5.


Victoria Rules
First place I saw this game: it was written up in the "travelling with children" section of the 1970 AA Road Atlas of Britain. It ain't new. :)

Didn't have your scoring system, though.


Had an interesting license plate game encounter the other day. We were in line at a drive-thru fast food restaurant, and the car ahead of us had the plate, "YVP 204." I snapped my fingers to get my son's attention, pointed to the license plate, and said "Privy."

He immediately frowned, because by the rules of the game that wasn't a valid word - the letters in the word you make have to be used in the order in which they appear on the license plate. He started to protest, but I cut him off with, "It's backed up."

Hey, I was amused. (Which, as I often tell my kids, is really the most important thing, when you come down to it.)



I'm almost always alone in my car. The closest I get to playing a game in the car is trying to figure out the prime factorization of the numeric part of the license plate in front of me.

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