Reviewed by Herb Levy
LETTER JAM (Czech Games Edition, 2 to 6 players, ages 10 and up, 45 minutes; $19.95)
In the world of word games, you have Scrabble, you have Boggle and then you have…. tons of other games trying to do something a bit different to claim a piece of that part of the world. In this latest game designed by Ondra Skoupý, stakes his claim as players, rather than being competitive, seek to be cooperative in order to make letters work for them in this new release: Letter Jam.
Letter Jam comes with a deck of letter cards, each showing one letter. (J, Q, V, X and Z are not found in the deck.) This deck is divided into roughly equal amounts of cards, distributed to every player. All players also get a clear, plastic stand and a guessing sheet. A bunch of pencils – and a pencil sharpener (!) is also provided. From their stack, each player devises a 5 letter word with excess cards combined to make a deck in the center of the table. (Have trouble making a 5 letter word? Then you can use the discarded center deck cards to help.) Now the cards that comprise that 5 letter word are shuffled and passed to the player on the right – who does NOT look at them! Instead, these 5 letter cards are laid out, face down, one by one, in front of the player. The leftmost card is then placed in that player’s stand so that he/she can NOT see the letter but everyone else can! One card that has a * symbol on it. This is a “wild card” and may be used as ANY letter. This card is placed in the center of the play area and is available to all.
Game play is simultaneous. Everyone looks at the exposed letters they can see. From what they can see (and the wild letter), all players try to figure out a word they can concoct to give information that will help every other player deduce what letter they have in front of them. When someone feels they have a “good” clue word (and the rest of the players agree), that word is “spelled” using numbered chips.
The active player places chips in front of the letters being used for the word. For example, if the clue word is “palace”, the clue giver would put a “1” in front of the player with the letter P exposed, a “2” in front of the player with “A”, a “3” to the player with the “L”, a 4 back in front of the player with the “A”, a “5” in front of the player with a “C” and, if no “E” is showing, a “6” on the wild card. (When playing with less than the full number of players, the game provides “dummy” players so you always have five exposed letters to work with.) On their guessing sheet, all then write down the letters they see, leaving a ? for the letter of theirs that they cannot see and a * to indicate the wild card has been used. Sometimes, you may need one of two clue words to figure out what your unseen letter is. But, if the clue word is specific enough, you may be able to deduce it at first try. In that case, that letter is taken off its stand (still unseen by that player), noted on their guessing sheet as to which letter it is, and the next letter takes its place on the stand. If a player has managed to deduce all five of his/her cards and the game is still going on, that player draws a card, sight unseen, from the card deck and places it in his/her stand. After a clue word is given, that player may guess what letter is being shown. If correct, that letter card joins the wild card in the center of the table where it may be used in spelling other words. If incorrect, that card is just discarded without penalty and another one drawn to replace it.
There is a “flower” card in the center of the table decorated with red and green tokens. The first time a player gives a clue, a red token is taken. A second token may NOT be taken by this player until EVERYONE has taken a red token. This is a simple yet effective means of preventing one player from dominating the game. With this rule, ALL players MUST participate. The game end is triggered when all tokens, red AND green, have been claimed. (The game can also end before that if everyone thinks they know their secret letters.) At that point, letters are revealed.
Starting with the player most confident of his letters, each player will reveal, one by one, the letters he/she has. These letters must be revealed in order to spell a word. (Since English can be a very flexible language, it does not matter if the word spelled is the word passed. ANY legitimate word spelled with those letters is acceptable. And, if it is your turn to reveal and you are still uncertain about a letter or two, letter cards found in the center of the board – wild cards and any others there – may be used instead by placing them on top of the still unrevealed letter in which you lack confidence. But once used, those center cards are no longer available to players who follow. If everyone manages to come up with a word, everyone wins! (If not, better luck next time.) For those who like to have a score, a scoring system is also provided.
The core of the game is clue-giving so you must be smart in deciding what makes for a good clue. Longer (but not necessarily very long) clue words are much better than the easier small words. Longer words can involve the letters of more players so more information can be deduced. (There are only 11 turns in the game. The more information you can gather each turn, the better your chance at victory.) Also, with longer words, it can be easier to figure out what letter that unknown letter HAS to be! (Give a clue like ?UDE and you can come up with Rude, Dude and Nude. Some help but not as much as you would like. Give a clue word like B?IEF and it’s easier to tell that the missing letter is R.) Of course, you are limited by what you can see. That’s the fun – and the challenge – of the game.
Letter Jam is sort of a mix between Hanabi and Mastermind. It also bears some resemblance to My Word (which was redone as What’s My Word? and featured in the Fall 2011 GA Report) with a bit of Anagrams thrown in. As in Hanabi, players are encouraged to do some “table talk” but are restricted as to what they can say. (You cannot be too specific regarding possible clues.) Unlike Hanabi, one player cannot dominate the play since everyone must give at least one clue word which makes “sitting on the sidelines” much more difficult. Degrees of difficulty can be adjusted by having players use smaller words (3 or 4 letters instead of 5) for an easier game; 6 or 7 letter words to ratchet up the difficulty. But this game is already demanding at 5.
It’s hard to come up with something new in word games. Sometimes, it seems that everything has been done before. But Letter Jam manages to mix some tried and true game mechanisms with some deduction to present something that not only grabs your attention but feels fresh. – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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Other Fall 2019 GA Report articles