Full disclosure: A review copy of Master Word was provided by Scorpion Masqué.
I’ve gotten a surprising number of party games played during the last year. Not nearly as many as I’d like or would normally be able to, but it’s not none, either, and that makes it surprising. I think a lot of it has been thanks to people who are testing out new setups and paradigms, like Ian Zang working on streaming more games. That’s actually how I got to play Master Word, online, with Bez, via one of those streams. Played it a few times and, here you go; it’s review time. Let’s dive in.
A new party game? In this climate? Yeah, it’s rough, but Master Word is pretty flexible. Even more so since it’s fully cooperative. One player will play the Guide, and try to clue other players towards the correct word or phrase. But be careful! The game can go by fast, faster than you’d even expect, and if you can’t guess the word in time, everyone loses! Do you have what it takes to figure out the Master Word?
First off, you’re going to pick one player to be the Guide (clue-giver). They’ll look at the Master Word on the Master Word cards, which aren’t shown here for spoilery reasons. Their general anatomy is clue on top in a fancy font, and word on the bottom with the red background. The game rules use “Animal: Tiger” as an example, for instance:
The Guide should read the hint to the Seekers and make sure the hint is facing them (and that the Master Word is hidden). Each Seeker gets 6 Clue Cards:
Yup. They’re little whiteboard cards. Not that exciting. There are also 3 Solution Cards. Fancier whiteboard cards. Set the Tokens nearby:
You should be basically ready to start!
Master Word is played over 7 rounds. If you can successfully guess the Master Word, everyone wins! But be careful, you really only get three shots!
To start a round, the Guide starts a 90-second timer and each Seeker may discuss what they’re planning to write on their Clue Cards. There aren’t really … limits, beyond conveying a single idea and not related to the spelling or pronunciation of words. “Commonly found inside a house” is fine, “rhymes with ‘tangaroo'” is … not. You are allowed to duplicate clues across players, if you want, but if you haven’t started writing by the time 90 seconds are up, you gotta place a blank card. Place the Clue Cards in a row. In a 3-player game, each of the 2 Seekers can use 2 Clue Cards.
Oh, one thing. If you’d like to guess the solution, write it on a Solution Card and submit that instead of your Clue Card. If you write the Master Word on a Clue Card, everyone loses. And that’s just rough.
Once the clues are submitted, it’s the Guide’s turn. They choose how many of the clues are correct and place that many tokens at the end of the row of clues. They may also, once per game, place a token on top of a card to indicate that this is specifically a good clue. They can even do this for cards from previous rounds!
Either way, if the Master Word was not written on a Clue Card or a Solution Card, play continues. If you manage to write the Master Word on a Solution Card before the end of the 7th Round, everyone wins!
Player Count Differences
I’ve really mostly stuck to the lower end of Master Word player counts, and while that’s fine, I do think this game will still be fun at higher player counts. Part of the fun there is that you have a lot more potential problems with 5 Clues than you do with 3. You might set them down and get … 3 tokens? That’s terrible. It might barely mean anything! You have to strategize better to make sure you get the right amounts of coverage, but, you have less time per person to make a strategy work, which makes it hilarious and frantic. At lower player counts, it’s still a very fun word deduction game, but the higher player counts have that simmering possibility of catastrophe that is always very tempting in my favorite party games. It’s sort of like how Just One is great if you all have different words at higher player counts, but the odds of that happening diminish aggressively as your player count increases. What is more likely, then, is that you and another player are going to perfectly dance on each others’ toes and cause a proper mess of overlap. This is also possible in Master Word, and I love it for that. My great sadness is that this doesn’t currently have a supported two-player mode, but I suppose Codenames Duet exists for that precise purpose. Either way, I have enjoyed all my plays of this and am looking forward to better circumstances where I can play Master Word with even larger groups.
- Zeroing in can be helpful. You’re going to need to try and zoom in quickly, too. You really only get 6 rounds. Just make sure you’ve gotten your bearings before you try to make specific guesses, otherwise you may err on the side of too specific and get nothing useful from your clues.
- Try thinking about creating sets of clues that are somewhat mutually exclusive, so if you get more than one “correct” from the clue-giver you can eliminate possible clue combinations. Sometimes we go with a “shrinking sets” method, where you give X clues where each clue is a subset of the previous clue. It would let you essentially drill down through characters quickly because you could do FICTION -> SCIENCE FICTION -> SPACE -> STAR WARS. If you get a 3 on that, you’re more likely to lean in the direction of Doctor Who or something, since it’s unlikely that something STAR WARS isn’t also space / sci-fi / fiction. That’s one method! There are plenty of others. What you want to avoid is, for instance, IN US / IN CANADA / IN MEXICO if you already have NORTH AMERICA from a previous round. You’ll likely get a 1 and that won’t tell you anything new or useful.
- You are allowed (and in some cases encouraged) to write the same thing on multiple cards. This can be a useful technique for zeroing in on certain things if you’re not sure from a previous round, or to effectively bifurcate your options in a given round. If you have three cards with X and two cards with Y and you get 2 / 3 / 5, you automatically know which clue was being indicated. That can be super useful!
- The player giving clues should take some liberties to try and guide players down the right path. To a previous example, not everything in Star Wars takes place in space, yes, I get it, please don’t come after me, but it may be worth ignoring that (pedantic) point since Star Wars is fairly-commonly associated with space. Similarly, you may not want to give them a token for the MUSIC clue just because there’s a cantina band. The Guide has absolute discretion, but they should make sure that the information they’re providing isn’t going to lead players astray, either.
- Don’t forget that the player giving clues is allowed to specifically reference one clue once per game. This specific note allows you to place a token directly on a card, which is great. If you see players getting off track, you can use this to bring them back quickly and effectively. Hopefully they only need the one, though; it’s not like you’re going to be able to do that again.
- Don’t use your solution cards too quickly. Players only get 3 collectively, so you should treat them as fairly precious. It can be useful to use one early to get something out of your brain, but you should really only use them if you’re pretty sure you’re right. Similarly, don’t ever write a potential answer onto a Clue Card. That’s how people lose.
- Also keep in mind that 7 rounds can go quicker than you’d expect. The 7th round is more of a Final Guess period, anyways, so you only really get
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I do love most word games and word game-adjacent games. It’s just fun to guess words and associate words! Sometimes it’s fun to spell words or work with categories, but the entire word / deduction space is a very fun space to play around in, and I’m almost always down for more games here.
- This plays quite well with a variety of player counts. I like that everyone can guess a word of their choosing, so you always have something to do. This is significantly better than the sort-of-groupthink required by a number of games in this genre space. I generally like it when these higher-player-count games allow for players to all have something to do when it’s their turn, rather than forcing them to play by committee.
- The words are pretty perfectly-chosen. They’re challenging and specific but not overly so in either case. I know they said they playtested Master Word a bunch (it’s part of their whole game story schtick, but it very much shows. The words aren’t the most common words, but they are also not impossible to guess because a fair number of them are common to life.
- The components are pretty nice, too. Again, unsurprising from Scorpion Masqué, but the little markerboards are good, and it even includes a way for you to store the cards so that players don’t accidentally get spoiled. The most you can see without taking the card out is the hint. That’s a good little bit of design, as well. Overall, the cards are nice, the box is nice, and the whole thing feels well-made, so I’m here for it.
- I like that they provide resources for you to keep the word cards unspoiled. Yeah, like I said, the word cards go in a little box so that you can only see the hints. It’s fine if players see the hint; you just only want one player to see the words. Overall, I think it works really well! There’s also a separator to keep the cards you’ve tried and the cards you haven’t tried separated, which is just an additional good piece of design.
- I think that Master Word exists in a space that’s sort of “Codenames Sequels”, and that’s a pretty rich space to be in, I think. It’s interesting, right? So when a particular game comes around that’s loosely genre-defining (Codenames is and remains pretty popular; no interest in disputing that), you do see a bunch of sequel games inevitably come around. And that’s good! The smart ones iterate and spin something around. Not saying that Master Word is intended as a Codenames knockoff, but rather, it’s sort of like the variants of deckbuilding that arose after Dominion. It’s a whole thing now! And I’m excited about these games as well; several are games I quite like, like Decrypto and Just One. I think Master Word is another great entry in this space, and I’m glad that more games are coming around in this zone.
- I don’t think I’ve ever used the scoring tiers and I doubt I ever will. This is kind of how things go with these kinds of games; I don’t really use the scoring tiers for Just One, either. I think, largely, I prefer the binary of win / lose over the “how did you do?” sort of scoring tiers. It’s a very low meh, but, that is generally the case for my energy around scoring tiers.
- This really would help me a lot if it had a two-player mode. I hear it’s a variant they’re working on, but boy howdy would I like a version of it sooner rather than later. I’ve been messing around with my own variants but they’re untested and largely garbage, so I won’t mention them here. That said, I’d also be down for Master Word Duet or whatever, should something like that exist.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Master Word is quite fun! Scorpion Masqué continues to deliver, for me, I guess, as this little game has done a lot of things I think are pretty clever. For one, it takes the Codenames-style word deduction and flips it a bit to make it challenging in a different way, and I think that lands pretty well. It also has its own very unique aesthetic. It seems like it’s a fugitive from a universe in which Mickey Mouse never existed, but we still got a cartoon animal of choice. That’s fun. Unique, too. I appreciate a game that goes for a bold aesthetic. It also helps that it’s fun to play, even if I can’t really get too many party games together during the pandemic. Most of my plays have been online, which, I suppose speaks to the quality of the game if it still translates to a fun experience online. I’m hoping it hits the sweet spot for a lot of folks post-pandemic, as it seems like Scorpion Masqué has gotten unlucky with their releases. Stay Cool was delightful and clever, but it does not work online. Master Word is a bit better at higher player counts, but I haven’t been able to play a game with more than two people in person in a long time. They’re both enjoyable games, just victims of circumstance. Either way, though, this kind of game is a nice iteration on Codenames and similar games, especially if your groups are looking for something new. The purely cooperative element helps lift it up, for me, at least. So if you’re looking for a new co-op party game to try or you’re just a big fan of deduction, like me, I’d recommend checking out Master Word! I’ve had a lot of fun with it.