Full disclosure: A review copy of Letter Jam was provided by Czech Games Edition.
Back with some more mini reviews! This week we’re getting wordy with Letter Jam, from Czech Games Edition! Haven’t reviewed something from CGE in a while … the last one might actually have been Codenames? Oh, wow, it was. That was … almost 600 reviews ago. Well, rather than try to think about how my photography and reviewing have evolved since then let’s just … launch clean into Letter Jam. What’s the worst that could happen?
In Letter Jam, you play … pretty much lorelessly. There are a lot of games without lore! I don’t have much to say about them in this section, since it’s supposed to be my Judiciously Bad Interpretation Of The Game’s Lore. But, instead, you get a brief description of the game. It’s a cooperative word game with some deduction elements, as each player is given a scrambled word that they have to unscramble by the game’s end. The only hints they’re given are that they may have one card facing away from them, allowing them to see everyone else’s letters. This allows players to spell words using the various letters to try and hint to their co-players what letters they have. As you figure out your letters, you flip them face-down and flip up new ones. However, the game heavily implores every player to take at least one turn giving clues to everyone else, which is nice. Once the game approaches its end, everyone is given a chance to unscramble their word, and if everyone can spell a word successfully with the letters they’re given, they win! Are you up to the challenge of a cooperative letter deduction game? Or will you end up jammed?
Player Count Differences
I really like the way this game changes as the player count increases, strangely enough. That’s a bit off-brand for me, I suppose, but at lower player counts you get “nonplayer letters”, which are letters from a small deck that you can use to help provide clues each round. At higher player counts (six, in particular), you may just have all the letters in play belonging to other players, so there’s more interplay about which hints can be given and who needs help guessing their word. I personally find that super interesting! That said, I also really like this game at two, but it’s tough! Tough in a satisfying way, at least. Either way, what I respect is that the game still manages to promote player interaction regardless of player count, which is excellent, as well. Anyways, it boils down to the games are pretty different at higher and lower ends of the player count spectrum (there’s just a flurry of activity at higher player counts that needs to be managed, and at lower player counts you just have to give really good clues since you have limited attempts), but I like both quite a bit!
- Try to give other players simple-ish words. I think, if you’re trying to get people to guess a word, not giving them a complicated one is going to help them out a lot. I usually give a person SWORD (since it can also be WORDS), but most words work. I would recommend against things with cultural contexts or weird combinations of letters unless you think your co-player is more likely to get it because of that (SONIC might work well, lately).
- If you want to be even more creative, try to give players words whose letters can be arranged multiple ways. Like I said, SWORD and WORDS is good, SNAKE and SNEAK work pretty well. I’d just strongly recommend against giving any of your players PINES or SNIPE. I was told a story about that particular game going very poorly.
- Your clues should be precise, but remember that other players don’t have the information you have. At most player counts, you should try to give word clues such that the number of potential words that can be made is relatively low. Try to think about the potential words, as well, so that you’re aware of what information you’re providing to the players.
- Particularly, remember that giving a player their letter after a wildcard makes their letter particularly hard to guess. That means there are two unknown letters, which pretty much exponentially increases your options, depending on what’s available. If it’s BAST*?N, it’s likely BASTION, but if it’s P*?K? PINK? PUNK? PORK? PICK? It can get pretty confusing for players. Remember to try to think from their perspective before you give them a clue.
- At lower player counts, longer words can burn more letters, which may not be what you want. At higher player counts, longer words are pretty much always good. Longer words provide less ambiguity as to what they are, which is generally good for you. The problem is, at lower player counts they can really eat through your non-player letters, which can cause downstream problems for you later in the game when you have fewer letters to work with. They are useful, however, for giving your teammates additional clues once you exhaust the nonplayer clue stacks. Beyond that, though, they’re pretty much always a good option.
- Communicate actively about how many people your word can help. Don’t just lay down a clue without telling other players your plan; it’s a cooperative game. Cooperate!
- Sometimes you’re going to have to just make some assumptions and hope the word works out. I usually list out all the letters my letter could be and then see if I can make a valid word from the potential options that I have. Most of the time, I can’t, so if I find something that does work, I try to stick with it.
- If you’re really stuck, remember you can take the wildcard and replace one of your letters with it at the end of the game. Just remember that only one player can do that.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love a word game. It’s one of my favorite types of games, since I used to moonlight as a spelling nerd. Now, with a cooperative word game, I can trick my friends into playing it with me and we’ll actually have fun.
- Also, a word game driven mostly by deduction is pretty awesome. I appreciate not knowing what my letters are, and having to come up with really precise clues to try and help out my coplayers. It’s a good combination of mechanics, and I really like how it’s turned out.
- I really like the way this game scales at various player counts. It’s always different and interesting, to me.
- I also appreciate that you pick words for other players. This allows you to prevent weird things from happening (or cause them, if you’re That Kind of Guy). Just don’t pick words that are going to upset your coplayer.
- Honestly, more cooperative word games is always a good thing. They’re pretty tough, but this is very much cooperative letter Hanabi, but without all the other nightmare gameplay issues that Hanabi brings with it.
- I particularly appreciate that every player has to give at least one clue for maximum efficiency, but players who don’t want to provide more clues don’t have to. It makes sure that every player participates and nobody can shut anyone else out, which is nice. But if you don’t want to participate beyond the first letter, you can stop. So, you can play to your comfort, effectively. That’s a nice bit of design, I think.
- It’s genuinely funny to see players reveal their word and have it be some garbled mess. It’s one of those haha I guess we lose moments, but, with the right crowd it’s a good time.
- Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to review this game is that I’ve been convinced it’s going to be a pain to photograph. Black and white cards are really tough for me to capture well. Maybe I’ll try a new background! Only one way to find out, I suppose. Turns out, the cards are grayish, so, I managed to mostly make it work.
- Since I always have the cards facing away from me, the odds of my word being in the correct letter order when I unscramble it is basically 0. This is exacerbated somewhat by me being a Brain Genius who goes right-to-left, rather than from left to right. Nothing wrong with right-to-left, but, I’m not consistent, so I end up mixing up which letters I believe to be where. This is less of a Meh about the game and more a Meh about me.
- The scoring is … a little more complicated than it needs to be, for this game. I’ll be honest. I barely understand it, and the two people who distinctly taught me this game just told me to ignore the scoring. So I’ll tell you the same thing. Just make it that if all players spell a valid word, you win, and if not, you kind of win. It’s a cooperative game; no need to make it more
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, yeah, I’m a big fan of Letter Jam! I think it’s going to be a game that I keep coming back to with larger groups (and might even bring to the game night I’m going to tonight, as a starter). I think it has the same energy as those Hanabi-style hidden information games, but without all the other things about Hanabi that I hate (mostly the community, let’s be real). It adds some really cool word game mechanics to the mix that I think elevate it to something really special. But, to be fair, I love word games, so that’s pretty much my entire jam. We’ll see how it goes. I think, generally speaking, cooperative party games have mostly replaced competitive ones for me (except for maybe Medium / Anomia and a lot of the team-based ones, I suppose), because I like the idea that it’s possible for everyone to win, I guess? It does feel like a nicer overall experience, at least. And I think Letter Jam and Just One have a good sense of their audience. Letter Jam’s a bit more advanced play, I think, whereas Just One is a much more casual audience. I think you kind of need to be solid with anagrams to do well in Letter Jam, for instance, and that’s not everyone’s particular cup of tea. Plus, yeah, I don’t like Letter Jam’s scoring, at all. I barely play with it. Beyond that, though, if you’re looking for a solid cooperative word game, I think Czech Games Edition got a real winner with Letter Jam! Would definitely recommend.