Updated: Jun 14, 2021
The Game Night boys are back… sure, we’re still stuck in the digital limbo of tabletop simulator but at least we’re taking names and playing games. This week we’ve been putting our vocabulary to the test in Ondra Skoupý’s Letter Jam.
Letter Jam is basically multiplayer mastermind with words rather than colours. All the players are working together to give clues to help everyone at the table solve a five letter word. Let’s take a quick look at how it plays.
A Quick Overview
You begin a game of Letter Jam by dividing up the deck of letter cards roughly evenly amongst the players. Each player uses the cards they’ve been given to make a 5 letter word for the player on their right. The rest of the letters are shuffled back together to form a deck. The asterisk card is placed in the centre of the table along with the numbered chips.
Each player shuffles the word they have been given and places the cards face down in front of themselves, adding the leftmost card to a holder, allowing all the players at the table to see it but themselves.
The game begins and any player at the table can now give a clue using only the letters they can see and the asterisk. The asterisk can be any letter in the alphabet but if you use it multiple times it must be as the same letter each time. The player spells out their word by placing chips one at a time in front of the other players. In this way the players know what letters appear in the word except their own and in what positions.
After receiving a clue a player can choose to move on, or stick with the same letter and await more clues. Play continues in this way until players run out of clue tokens or they are all ready to confirm they know what their word is.
In Letter Jam, regardless of player count, you always use all six stands with letters in them. In games with fewer than six players you deal a deck of cards to several dummy players. When a player uses a letter from a dummy player, the card is replaced for the next clue. Running out the dummy player decks grants the players additional clue tokens.
At the end of the game each player can take one guess at what they thought their word was before revealing it. Points are assigned in a more confusing than strictly necessary fashion. Although to clarify the rules state that you broadly win if all players broadly got their word right.
Why Pick It?
The Game Night crew are all fairly cerebral and highly educated and Letter Jam is a game that rewards clever and creative thinking, along with deductive logic and reasoning. While the presentation of the game screams Party Game, the box itself, like CGE’s other thinky party game, Codenames, belies the brain burning puzzle contained within.
What Did They Think?
Dave - "I like the structure of the game. It can be frustrating when through blind luck you end up with the same letter in front of multiple players however."
Bob - "I was a bit unsure about it to be honest. After we played I said to Mrs Bob it's probably been my least favourite game for a while. I'm not sure there's huge replay value once you work out certain techniques, and I found it a bit confusing the first time and then a bit easy the second time. I did like the aspect of getting your head around having to work out what other people are seeing rather than just what you're seeing."
Phillip - "I'm on the opposite side, I like it! I'm not the best at re-arranging disparate letters into words, so that would offer a challenge to me in any context. The only part of the game that jars is that you don't have to get the actual word your were given at the start - just a word with the same letters will do. And then the bonus letters mean you might throw the original word out completely, rendering it sort of pointless."
Letter Jam has a simple premise that gets a little knotty when you bring in the rulebook. Players give clues to help discover hidden letters is what it boils down to but the rules add a few unnecessary complications. First you have the clue tokens. They come in two colours, red and green and everyone must take a red token to unlock more green tokens but that works differently in a 2 or 3 player game. It’s all very odd and seems to be there only to ensure that every player gives at least 1 clue (or 2 clues in lower player count games).
Then you have bonus letters. When you finish your word you can go for bonus letters. If another player uses your bonus letter you can take a guess at what it was. If you are right it becomes a new letter that can be used by any player once for a future clue. It’s a useful feature that keeps all players involved in the game but it’s also a little confusing to explain, especially when you add scoring into the mix.
The basic game has a wishy-washy win condition, and I’m quoting, “If more or less everyone has spelled a word, then you have all more or less won.” What’s that? That’s not a win condition, that’s a participation trophy! Even more bizarrely you don’t even need to spell the word you were given, you just need to spell a word and can use the Asterisk or bonus letters to replace the ones you don’t know.
But once you add in the scoring, oh man, it’s all manner of weird. Your word scores 3 times its original length, plus 1 for every letter beyond that because you can use the bonus letters and/or the asterisk from the middle. If you think of Letter Jam as purely a game of codebreaking this sort of makes sense, you aren’t trying to puzzle out the original word but the individual letters and these can be rearranged as you please. But if you think of it as a word game, you are trying to figure out what the heck your friend was thinking when he gave you the word “Penis”.
Despite the weirdness of the scoring system, the vagueness of the win condition and the overwrought nature of the rulebook, I really like Letter Jam. It’s such a rewarding puzzle as you sit staring at your friends, looking at a D, P, W, T & E and realising you can spell out the word Pewtered which will definitely get Bob to guess his E and move on while Phillip should be able to figure out he’s got a P.
And the game is about much more than clever word play. For example, using someone's letter multiple times can be more valuable than a long word which only uses it once. The asterisk card can help in a pinch but means players can see less of the word overall. And short words can be worse than no clue at times, especially if you use the asterisk card. While utilising the non-player stands in lower player count games can unlock those vital final clues.
Letter Jam is not a game for everyone and while it falls into the Party Game category, you’re going to need the right party. The game is simple to play but trickier to play well, the rules and scoring may appear a little wonky at first but the engine works just fine. Letter Jam rewards players that like puzzles, deduction and non-verbal communication and for those that really want a challenge the game can scale up in difficulty simply by adding more letters to your starting word.