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How to Win at SOS (Paper-and-Pencil Game): 15 Tips, Tricks & Strategies

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

SOS is a classic game of strategy played between two individuals with only a pencil and a piece of paper. A step up in difficulty from tic-tac-toe, SOS can be won by implementing clever game-play skills and following several strategies. 

Read on to learn some of the top tips, tricks, and strategies on this paper-and-pencil game. Before you know it, you’ll be the undefeated reigning champion of the SOS world! 

Here are 15 tips to help you win at SOS:

1. Determine the Game Board Size

The SOS game can be played in any size. There are advantages and disadvantages to every size, so choose wisely. Most commonly played in a perfect square, SOS game boards can range anywhere from 3×3 to 8×8 and beyond! 

While a smaller game board may seem like a quicker, simpler option, winning the game may prove even more complex with such a small board. Each and every move is that much more important when there are only a few moves to be made. 

On a small board, one mistake could lose you the game, while a board of a larger size may provide more opportunity for strategy adjustments and damage control. 

2. Never Leave an Opening for the Other Player

Because the game is won by racking up the most “SOS” completions, it is crucial never to leave an easy opening for your opponent. Placing the letters SO_, _OS, or S_S leaves an easy SOS completion for your opponent, adding to their tally. 

Even if leaving an opening for your opponent will allow you to complete another SOS, you must weigh your options. Will adding this SOS to my tally be worth it if my opponent adds to their own as well? Is this a game-winning move? What are the odds that I’ll get lucky and my opponent will not notice this opportunity I’ve left open for them? 

3. Maintain Your Poker Face

Strategy can often be revealed by one facial expression. Be sure to maintain your poker face throughout the game! If your face shows excitement, your opponent may look closer to discover your next move.

Aside from figuring out your plans, your facial cues may also alert your opponent to a move they could be making. For example, if you accidentally leave an easy SOS completion on the board, acting as though you do not see it may cause them to overlook the free points. 

Placing your palm to your head and saying, “Oh, no!” will undoubtedly cause your opponent to analyze the board for whatever mistake you may have made. 

4. Consider All Directions

Remember, SOS completions can be made vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. It’s easy to get in the habit of following only one or two directions. By keeping your options open and considering all possible directions, you may just score some extra points! 

5. Use the Same Letter Multiple Times

One letter can be used over and over again to complete an SOS. For example, you could use the same “S” to complete an SOS vertically, horizontally, and diagonally! Don’t overlook letters just because they have been used once already- more possibilities are still there.

6. Incorporate the Use of a Timer

There’s nothing like the pressure of time to catch your opponent off guard. Next time you play, implement a timer and limit each player’s turn. Choose the length of time for each turn at the beginning of the game. I suggest 15-20 seconds per turn. If the time runs out, the turn is over!

7. Play First

By calling yourself player one and going first, you set the game’s tone. You hold the power of the first turn and, therefore, can begin the game wherever you want, rather than having to follow another player’s first choice.

The first player gets to choose the first letter and the first space on the board that is occupied. Consider what might work best for you moving forward, and start the game off with an advantage.

8. Use Two Different Colored Pens

Using two obviously different colored pens is a great way to simplify scorekeeping and prevent any SOS completion mixups. 

By using a vibrant red for “Player A” and bright blue for “Player B”, you can see which letters were placed by which player, making it much easier to keep track of SOS completions and scoring. 

Use your own colored pen when crossing out your completed SOSs and tallying your scores. You can’t win the game without accurate scoring! 

9. Always Think One Move Ahead

In order to win SOS, it is essential to always be thinking one move ahead. Each turn, you should place your letters in a way that will benefit your next turn. What will you do on your next turn if you place an “S” here now? How will this move set up your next move?

Don’t get caught up in thinking only about your own moves- remember to consider how your actions will leave the board for your opponent’s next turn as well. 

10. Don’t Get Caught in a Trap!

While you’re spending all this time strategizing and considering your current and subsequent moves, be sure to keep an eye on your opponent! Remember that your game partner is strategizing, too, so be on the lookout for what they may be trying to set up and how their moves may “trap” you later on in the game. 

11. Practice on Your Own

Practice makes perfect, right? Before you challenge your best friend or sibling to a friendly game of SOS, spend some time practicing on your own! By playing both player A and player B, you can practice different strategies and responses until you know what works well for you. 

There are apps and online versions of this game that you can play with AI or in “solo” mode, as well, that are really fun and great exercise for the brain! 

12. Draw a Line Through Each SOS As It Is Made

Losing track of the score is a sure way to lose track of a win! As you go along, be diligent about crossing off each SOS as it is made so that there is no disputing to whom each completion belongs. Just be sure your marks don’t obscure places where a letter is still in play. 

13. Don’t Place Letters Randomly

Especially when playing SOS on a large board, it can be easy to start off the game by randomly placing letters and not engaging in any strategy until the board is partially filled. Do not make this mistake! 

Place each letter intentionally, attempting to complete SOSs from the start, and you will see far more success. By placing random letters, you may be setting up your opponent for a win in the future that you never intended to support! 

14. Force the Other Player’s Hand (OSO)

Whenever possible, place your letters in such a way that your opponent is forced to write OSO. Fulfilling this strategy will not always allow you to complete as many SOSs, but it can be worth playing a little defense and preventing the other player from scoring points. 

15. Avoid a Draw

Believe it or not, SOS can, and often does, end in a draw! There really is no winner in the event of a draw, and what fun is that? Keep a close eye on your opponent’s total number of completions and compare that number to your own as the game goes on.

If you are approaching the end of the game and your scores appear to be close, take special care to defend when necessary to prevent a tied score.

Key Takeaways

The timeless game of SOS is great fun for any age group in any setting! Whether you are keeping busy on a road trip, spending a rainy day inside, or passing the time in study hall, these 15 tips and tricks should have you winning every match!

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.