Dale Yu: Review of Subtext


  • Designer: Wolfgang Warsch
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 4-8
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 20 minutes per game
  • Times played: 4, with review copy provided by Stronghold

Subtext is the newest design from the inventive mind of Wolfgang Warsch.  In the past two years, he has burst upon the gaming scene with game after game; each one seemingly in a different genre.  Though I know that this isn’t his only party game (I have playtested one other which should arrive this fall) – Subtext is a game where certain players have to try to communicate using only their (in my case – very rudimentary) drawing skills.  If there is one theme thus far that I’ve found with WW – it’s that he loves to limit the ways in which people can communicate with each other. Sometimes it’s interesting (here), and other times it’s not (The Mind).

The concept here is simple – players try to draw pictures to convey the meaning of a word they get on a card.  However, you don’t want to be too obvious about your picture because if you score points, you’ll be rewarded for having fewer other players recognize what you were trying to draw… Make sense?  Yeah, let me explain more…

In each round, one player is the Dealer.  This player takes the top card off the deck and looks at the card and memorizes his designated word.  At the start of the game, one of the 5 number cards was chosen, and this number will be used for the entire game.  So, if you drew the “II” card, you’ll always look at the words listed under “II” on the cards you draw.

Once the word is memorized, the Dealer then draws (N-2) more cards from the deck and then shuffles them along with the card he drew to start the round.  All non-Dealer players are then given a random card (the Dealer will not get a card), and all players look at their cards to see what their word is for this round.  The Dealer just has to remember his word! Now, all players draw a picture (in secret) that is a hint to their word. You are not allowed to use numbers or letters, but other than that – there aren’t really any other restrictions.  The Dealer places their picture next to the single slot on the left side of the board while all the other players place their pictures on the slots on the right side of the board.

But how does the game work?  Well, one player will get the same card that the Dealer saw, and those two players form a team of sorts – though the Dealer doesn’t know who it is.   The Dealer needs to be able to guess who his partner is, as the Dealer and his partner will only score points if the Dealer can correctly identify his partner.

Once all the pictures are drawn and placed next to the board, all players use their guessing tokens (labeled A thru G) to try to guess which picture on the right matches up the Dealer’s picture on the left.  Once all players have placed their tokens facedown, then the Dealer states his word out loud and the Partner points at his drawing, and all the tokens are flipped up. All incorrect guessing tokens are now flipped back over to the broken pencil side.

Again, the Dealer and Partner will score points if the Dealer is able to correctly identify his partner.  If this happens, they will score 1 point for each incorrect guess. If the team was not able to identify themselves, then all the other players will score points, and they will score 1 point plus 1 point per wrong guess.

The game continues through the predetermined number of rounds (enough so that all players have had an equal number of turns to be the Dealer), and then the player with the most points wins.  There is no tiebreaker. The scoreboard only goes up to 12, so if you score more, you’ll have to use a +12/+24 marker.

My thoughts on the game

Subtext has a definite Warsch feel to it – take a simple idea, limit how the players can communicate with each other, and then make a game of it!  This is the sort of party game that is fun to play, generating lots of laughs and engendering the telling of lots of inside jokes/stories as the pictures come out.  It’s also not the sort of game that I play to see who wins or loses – but rather, this is one I play for the experience of spending time with friends and laughing over the results (same as Dixit, Apples to Apples, etc).

The idea is really simple, and has been done in varying forms over the years.  I have always found these sorts of games to be excellent openers/closers as they are easy to grasp, and frankly, if you don’t really mind the whole winning/losing bit, they are great games that can accommodate a changing number of players.  If someone shows up halfway through, they can still participate and enjoy the rounds they are present to play.

There is a certain art to figuring out how to draw a hint which conveys enough of the meaning of your hidden word, but not enough that it becomes easy to determine what your word is.  Ideally, you’d like to draw something that is so obscure that only the Partner can see what your angle is. However, make your hint too hard (or say if your drawing skills are TOO bad), you risk scoring no points at all.  When you aren’t the dealer, I think that you maybe want to be a little more direct in your art because you’ll score nothing unless the Dealer can figure out who you are.

A few quibbles – I would have liked the colored player guessing tokens to have a unique symbol on the back – you know, maybe the line drawing animal on their standee… From a distance, blue, lavender, purple and robin’s egg (and sometimes forest green) can really all look a bit alike…  Not that it really matters, but it would prevent any confusion to make the owner of each chit slightly easier to figure out.

Second, the choice of initializing some of the names is a bit weird.  Sure, I’m guessing that most of the decisions to shorten first names were due to physical limitations on the card – but man, it does make it somewhat harder (especially for younger players) to figure out who is being named on the card… and, in this game, you really can’t ask questions about what is on your card – so there are some times that a name really screws up the dynamics of the round when one player literally doesn’t know what he/she is drawing.   You might know who M Monroe, A Christie, S King and F Mercury are; but my fourteen year old had issues with them. Interestingly, not all of the people are abbreviated, I have found James Bond on a card which is admittedly much easier than J Bond. I anxiously await further games to see if J Peterman can be found as well.

Note that the pad of paper included in the game is pretty sparse.  If you have as much fun with the game as we have, you’ll find that 4 or 5 games may exhaust nearly the entire pad!  Sure, it’s easy enough to cut up some bond paper to make your own refills, but this is a circumstance that could come up pretty quickly!

Finally, the rules warn you to play with the “V” words only when you’re super familiar with the game – but after a few test rounds, I’m not sure that my group will ever be ready for these more abstract concepts.  But, hey, I guess since everyone will be able to see that it’s a “V” word, everyone should be preloaded with the information that it’s gonna be a tough word.

On the whole, Subtext is a very enjoyable group activity, probably best with the max number of players. I have found that the game is more interesting/intriguing when the Dealer has a full set of pictures to choose from.  Again, not the sort of game that I really care who wins or loses, because I’m along for the ride and the laughs. As this one also plays up to 8, it is a really nice choice for larger groups and for 2-table game nights as it provides an option where everyone can play.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (1 play): First, I’d note that someone who has played it with both the maximum number of players (the game I was in) _and_ with a smaller crowd actually enjoyed it more with fewer players.  I have no drawing skills, while everyone else at the table was at least competent, and a number were artistically gifted. And – it didn’t matter, in game terms; my simple, ambiguous drawings were sufficient to find a match the one and only time I had the match – but enough like one or two of the other items to be guessed incorrectly.  Which was – fine; it felt like there wasn’t a lot of room for being clever, as compared to the luck of the other words that came up in the round. Still, a pleasant game which I would play if asked – but for me, not a game with a huge pull to play it more.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. Joe H.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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