Full disclosure: A review copy of Cross Clues was provided by Blue Orange Games.
Alright, I finally got to that pile of Blue Orange games they sent me a while back. Man, it’s hard to play games right now. I get through maybe 3 games a week? Maybe six, if I’m truly lucky. To say nothing of photography, honestly. I’ve also been really, really tired lately, so I’ve been struggling to get as much done. Them’s the breaks with quarantine, I suppose. Either way, I had a board game night with my housemates a while back and we managed to play a bunch of Cross Clues. So what do I think? Well, let’s get into the review and find out.
In Cross Clues, your goal is to work together. You’ve got this grid of words, see, and you need to guess each square in the grid by coming up with one word that best represents both the square’s row and column words. Got ORANGE and JOY? Why not, “dreamsicle”? (I mean, I think they’re delicious.) HOT and MOUNTAIN? Try “Krakatoa” (or, I guess, volcano). Can your partners guess what spot on the grid you mean based on the clue you give? Only one way to find out!
Game’s not too hard to set up. First, you’re going to choose your grid size:
- Express: 3 x 3
- Classic: 4 x 4
- Expert: 5 x 5
Use the Axis tiles to set up your grid:
Put the letters in a row and the numbers in a column, or vice versa, as long as you’re consistent.
Shuffle the Code Words, and then place one under each letter and number:
Shuffle the Clue Cards that correspond to the Axis tiles you used (so in an Express game, you won’t use anything past C or past 3):
Deal each player 1. If you’d like, you may use the timer, but for an Expert game, you’ll be able to flip it again once it runs out:
Either way, once you’re ready, you can start!
This one’s pretty quick, too. I’ve been reviewing a lot of games with a smaller footprint to try and save a bit of my time / energy. It’s kinda working. Either way, your goal is to try and fill the grid with the cards in your hand. But how?
There aren’t turns, so, everyone should draw a card when the game starts. If you’re ever without a card in hand, draw one. Your goal is to get other players to guess your Clue Card. You can do that by giving a single word as a clue that combines both of the Code Words (so if you have Fire and Queen, you might give the clue “Azula” to try and grab one of your TLA fan friends). There are, as you might guess, a few rules for clues:
- One word.
- The word must relate to both code words.
- Clues may not share a root with either code word.
- Clues may not be reused.
The other players may discuss what they think, but they then guess as a group:
- If they’re right, place the card in the play area.
- If they’re wrong, remove the card from play and show it to noone.
Either way, draw a new card.
The game continues until the grid is filled, all players are out of cards, or the timer runs out. The more cards in the grid, the better you did!
Lower Player Counts
At 2 – 3 players, you can still play; each player just has two Clue Cards in their hand at all times.
Player Count Differences
The major thing to watch out for is you get to play less as the player count increases, since each player will likely have at least one card over the course of the game. Fewer cards in your hand means fewer iterations to come up with a clue. That said, if you’re not big on giving clues (and prefer guessing), this may be perfect for you. Nobody can force you to play your card, so you can hold on to it for as long as you want, ultimately giving one Very Good Clue to get it out of your hand and then spend the rest of the game trying to guess rather than give clues. That’s not my particular favorite part of these kinds of games, but there’s definitely an audience there for the Codenames players that never want to be the Spymaster. I hadn’t actually thought much about that before writing this review, being real. Similarly, the players that love giving clues will like this game at lower player counts since, by courtesy, they need to give more clues. At higher player counts, they can also wait for players to determine if they want to give or guess more, and then function as more of a giver than a guesser. To that end, I suppose higher player counts are a bit more flexible in that regard, but if you want to guess and give rather than guess xor give, you should probably stick to the lower end of the player count spectrum.
- It may be best to wait with your card until more cards are played. I think that there are a few times you want certain words as clues but you worry that they point to a different intersection (instead of the intersection you want your teammates to guess). If that’s happening for you, consider holding on to the card and not saying anything while you either come up with a new clue or your teammates use their clues and get new cards. It’s also a great way to get out of having to give too many clues, if that’s not the part of the game you enjoy. Ultimately, you have to give at least one, but you can definitely wait until it’s the right clue and give it on your terms.
- Keep an eye out for challenging intersections; those may be good guesses if your opponents seem stuck. There are going to be a few times where nobody can come up with a clue. Come up with potentials for various intersections and see if there are spots that seem like they would be difficult to clue for. Your teammates may have those cards! Don’t overindex on it, though; your teammates may just not have come up with the word they want, yet.
- If you’re playing with the timer, you may not have too much free time to plan the perfect word. With the timer, it’s a whole new game; not only do you have to come up with the right word, but you have to do so quickly. This makes a lot of deliberation actively counterproductive. Which, to be fair, this is kind of par for the course with a speed game. The difficulty now is finding a “good enough” word quickly and then getting everyone to act on it. You’ll make some mistakes, but eventually improve.
- I usually recommend eliminating all the words that don’t make sense and then trying to decide between the only intersection points you have left. That’s how we’ve been doing it. A clue should let you eliminate entire rows and columns, and if you can do that you can narrow in on a few options. If you’re lucky, you can narrow it down such that there’s only one spot where the clue could work, and, well, there you go.
- Don’t forget which cards you’ve removed from the game, if you have to do so. If you’ve gotten rid of a card, you know it can’t appear again, so you shouldn’t guess that intersection later on. Can you communicate this to your teammates? It seems against the spirit of the game (since you can’t tell them which card got removed), but it is likely that they’ll infer it from your resistance to guessing that spot.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The concept is really fun! I say it elsewhere in this but it’s very much a reverse cooperative Medium, and I think Medium is a blast. This offers a bit of versatility since you’re not as reliant on another player getting your exact word, though I’ll freely admit the swings-and-misses of Medium are a big component of its fun. I like the grid-based nature of this one, since it allows you to wind up for ideas in the hopes that you’ll get that card.
- I like the particular choice of graphic design, even if I’m not really sure how it matches up with the gameplay. It’s very retro! I like it a lot! It reminds me of an old diner! How does that make any difference to the gameplay? It doesn’t! But it’s still nice.
- Plays very quickly. Even moreso if you use the timer. It’s mostly clue, response, clue, response — you can power through a full game in probably 15 minutes. Though again, if you use the timer, you can power through in 5 – 10, which is even faster.
- It’s a nice generative puzzle for a word game. I always like games where you can try and come up with clues and hints and try to get other people to guess what you’re thinking. It’s … challenging, but in a satisfying way.
- We could all use more cooperative word games in our lives. I’m just a big fan of the genre. Letter Jam, Just One, the whole thing is right up my alley.
- Could probably play it remotely, if you had a good view on the grid. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to. I think it might work, but there won’t be a way for multiple players to have cards, so it might be more Codenames-y.
- I appreciate the variable number of difficulty levels. Always like that in cooperative games. It helps newer players ramp up and gives experienced players something to do!
- It’s nice that every player has to participate at least once. I suppose this one depends a bit more on who you ask, but I like that nobody can get shut out. If someone wants to sit out, then they may have a bit of a bad time, but, then, why are they playing?
- It has a pretty good “meme creation” energy. We had QUEEN for a while one game, and CHEESE QUEEN is a very challenging overlap to clue for, much to everyone’s delight. There are a lot of fun things you’ll come up with as overlaps just to try and win the game, and hopefully they stick with you after the game ends. You can usually make some funny stuff.
- I’m always a bit bummed when the final outcome of a game is comparing your score against a table to see how well you did. This is more of a personal complaint, even though a lot of games do do this. I’d just like a success / failure condition.
- The game ends a bit weakly. This might be my biggest complaint, honestly. The game does fine narrowing the scope as you fill in more and more of the grid; I honestly think it’s hardest when you’re just getting started and you don’t want to provide clues that might overlap with more than one space. As you add more, certain spots free up. Towards the end of the game, though, it becomes pretty easy to figure out what goes where, even moreso when it’s down to the last few players who all have one card. They know what their card is, so they’ve got a pretty good idea of what your card is. It feels … weird? I’d almost recommend adding another row and column and then just dropping a certain number of cards, randomly, from the game? That way you never know what you’re missing. This also comes into play when a player has been forced to remove a card from play; they know what the card is, but they can’t tell anyone. What if players want to guess that space and the player knows that it’s invalid? They’re obliged to tell them, but how do they know? It leads to some metagaming that, for an otherwise quick, casual, and fun little game, feels weird.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Cross Clues is fun! I think it succeeds quite well at coming up with a game that plays well with the “come up with a clue for a concept” concept. It plays a bit like a reverse, cooperative Medium, which is interesting. Instead of trying to guess the same overlap for two concepts, you’re challenging multiple people to figure out which two words are being suggested by your overlap. And that’s fine! Just One has a similar relationship with Codenames, in my opinion. They appeal to different crowds. That said, there is one particular thing I don’t like about Cross Clues, and that’s the ending. I feel like when you get down to a few cards, it’s hard to avoid telling other players what card you removed from the game, for instance. It’s relevant! If everyone is convinced the clue is for B3 and I know B3 was removed, I have to just say “I don’t think it’s B3”. If I’m obstinate enough, players will just assume that that’s the card I removed, and that kinda sucks. It makes the game’s ending just kind of … strange. Even if you play perfectly, it means that the last card is also not terribly exciting. It might be more interesting to play with a 6×6 grid with, say, 5 cards removed, so that way you’re never sure what intersections you’re not playing with. I do want to try that and see how it plays. I’m a sucker for a word game, though, so I’ll probably come back to this one from time to time. I even like the kinda-retro aesthetic! If you’re into word games and cooperative clue-giving games, yeah, I think Cross Clues is fun!