Botticelli (game)

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Botticelli is a guessing game which requires the players to have a good knowledge of biographical details of famous people. The game has several variants, but the common theme is that one person or team thinks of a famous person, reveals their initial letter, and then answers yes/no questions to allow other players to guess the identity.

The game takes its name from the famous person having to be at least as famous as Sandro Botticelli, who is also the answer to the archetypal question, "Did you paint a picture of Venus rising?", referring to his painting The Birth of Venus.

How to play[edit]

One player (the chooser) is selected to think of a famous person (the identity). This person should be someone the chooser is comfortable answering biographical questions about, and someone the chooser is very confident that the other players will all have heard of; obscure identities make for frustrating game play, especially with young players. The rule of thumb is that the person should be at least as famous or well known as Sandro Botticelli, hence the name of the game. Fictional characters are acceptable, but can present certain difficulties. In some contexts, a non-famous person with whom all the players are familiar may be acceptable.

The chooser then announces the initial letter of the name by which the person is usually known; for non-fictional characters, this is usually the last name. For example, if the chooser chose Sandro Botticelli, then the initial letter would be B. Names such as Michael Douglas might generate argument, as only the two names together identify the person. A first name such as Elvis (who might be Presley or Costello) can be chosen, where it is a well known identifier. For the purposes of phrasing questions and answers, the chooser adopts the chosen identity.

The game has two modes — direct mode and indirect mode — and starts in indirect mode.

Indirect mode[edit]

In indirect mode, the guessers take turns (either in sequence or informally) to think of someone with the designated initial letter. These guesser choices do not have to conform to any other information so far acquired about the chooser's identity (e.g. male, non-fiction, still alive).

Each guesser asks the chooser a yes/no question using some detail of the guesser's choice. For example, if the letter is B then the guesser might choose Yul Brynner and ask, "Are you bald?" At this point, the chooser has three possible responses:

  1. "No, I am not Frank Black." — The chooser has either guessed the guesser's chosen person, or has thought of another person who fits the same criteria. (Even if the guesser was thinking of the chooser's chosen person, a correct "No I am not" that names a different person is allowed, if it fits the questioned criteria.) The game remains in indirect mode, and moves to the next guesser.
  2. "Yes, I am Yul Brynner." — The chooser's identity meets the criterion of the guesser's question, and the chooser cannot think of anyone else who satisfies it. The guesser wins.
  3. "No, and I don't know who you're thinking of." — The chooser can't think of someone meeting the criteria. The guesser reveals their answer, and the game changes to direct mode.

Guessers can use indirect mode to guess the chooser's identity directly (e.g. "Are you Yul Brynner?")

The bar for guesser choices is lower than that for the chooser's identity; it is not essential for the chooser to have heard of the person, or to know the relevant biographical detail, but guessers should not deliberately exploit this provision. The ideal guesser question is one where the chooser says, "D'oh! I should have gotten that," when the answer is revealed.

Direct mode[edit]

In direct mode, the guesser whose choice enabled the mode switch gets to ask a series of yes/no questions about the chooser's identity, as in standard Twenty Questions. Direct mode continues until the chooser answers "no" to a question.

If the chooser does not know the answer to a direct mode question, or the question does not permit a clear-cut yes/no answer, then the chooser answers as accurately as possible, and the game remains in direct mode. There are some conventions for answering contextually inappropriate direct mode questions; for example, fictional characters are usually deemed to be dead if their death has been recorded.

Some variants allow only a single direct mode question before returning to indirect mode, regardless of the answer, as the reward for the guesser. Coupled with the confirmation requirement, this allows for long, intellectual games.


The game ends when a guesser successfully determines the chooser's identity. That guesser then becomes the chooser, a new identity and letter are chosen and the game starts again in indirect mode. If the successful guess was suggested by a non-designated guesser in direct mode, then it is normal courtesy for the designated guesser to defer to the other player.

If all guessers give up before winning, then the chooser reveals the identity. The guessers then determine (by majority) whether the choice was a good one (that is, they should all have known of the character and the chooser's answers in direct mode were reasonably accurate). The role of chooser then remains with the same player, or passes to another player (e.g. clockwise) as appropriate. It is considered bad form for one guesser to hold out after everyone else has given up.



This variant is particularly useful as a pastime for long trips, since a single round can sometimes last over an hour. As in the standard version, the chooser picks a famous person or character and provides an initial (for example, if the chooser picked Sandro Botticelli, he or she would provide the letter "B"). The guesser must then think of a trivia question which can be answered by a word beginning with that letter, so in our example the guesser might ask, "What is the most populous country in South America?", the answer being "Brazil." The answer to the question must be something the chooser could reasonably know, not something personal to the guesser (e.g. "What was the name of my invisible friend when I was five?") or anything otherwise impossible to guess. If the chooser answers correctly, the guesser must think of another question. If the chooser is stumped and cannot answer, the guesser may ask a single yes-or-no question (as in direct mode of the standard version) about the person or character. Once the chooser answers the question, the guesser must stump the chooser again before asking another direct question. Generally, guessing the identity of the person or character counts as a direct question and can only be done after the chooser is stumped; however, in the interest of shortening the game, players sometimes will guess the person without having first stumped the chooser.

Confirmation requirement[edit]

In one variation, the game only moves to direct mode if, after the chooser fails or gives up, another guesser can successfully identify the subject of the question. This provides a built-in standard for whether the question posed by the guesser was fair.

Additional letters[edit]

One variation rewards stumping the chooser (but not fellow guessers) with an additional letter in the chosen person's name. This can make for quicker gameplay.

Games similar to Botticelli[edit]

  • Vermicelli, in which the thing to be guessed is a food rather than a person.
  • Vespucci, in which the thing to be guessed is a place.
  • Webster, a challenging variant in which the thing to be guessed can be any word.
  • Contact, Webster with stumping and adding letters. If one of the players knows the answer to the question asked to stump the chooser, he makes "contact" with the asker of the question. The two players say "contact" and count to ten. If the chooser cannot guess the answer before then he must reveal the next letter. There is no direct mode.

Botticelli in popular culture[edit]

In John Updike's 1968 novel Couples, the protagonists play a version of Botticelli in which responses to guesses give broad hints to aspects of the Identity, but without giving the name away. The pattern of answers shows the reader facets of the individuals' characters and the relationships evolving between them.

The 1968 TV film Prescription: Murder, which introduced the character of Columbo, begins with the murderer (Gene Barry), an arrogant psychiatrist, stumping party guests in a game of Botticelli by choosing Josef Breuer, an obscure Nineteenth-Century neurophysiologist.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin while away waiting time by playing Botticelli in several novels by David McDaniel based on the 1960s television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E..

A 1971 short play by Terrence McNally called Botticelli features two American soldiers playing the game while fighting in the Vietnam War.

In an episode of the 1980s TV comedy The Young Ones, Rick attempts to teach the game to his housemates, unsuccessfully.

In An Acceptable Time, a 1989 young adult science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engle, the protagonist Poly plays the game with her family and family friends.

In episode 8 of season 19 (2007) of The Simpsons, Cecil (Sideshow Bob's brother) begins to tell Bart how he and Bob used to play the game and begins to discuss the play before concurring with Bart's earlier comment that it is boring.

In Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49, protagonist Oedipa Maas plays a game they call "Strip Botticelli" with lawyer Metzger in her motel room.

In an episode of the TV series Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm plays Botticelli with the family of a girl he is dating.

At the beginning of "The Vegas Renormalization", a 2009 episode of The Big Bang Theory, Howard, Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj play Botticelli.