Letter Jam (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designers: Ondra Skoupý
  • Artist: N/A
  • Publisher: Czech Games Edition
  • Players: 2-6 players
  • Time: 30-60 Minutes
  • Times Played: 5

“Be careful with your clues, we might just end up with a Better Ham”

Word games hit a really odd spot in my gaming habits. I absolutely love playing them, but as anyone who has ever played them with me will tell you, I am absolute rubbish at them. I really enjoy them though. Now mind you, I don’t really enjoy straight word games, I don’t particularly enjoy Scrabble and other interesting twists like Paperback have left me feeling a bit cold. I love the team, almost party style word games like Codenames quite a lot though. I enjoy working through puzzles while not feeling like I am on my own to do things. Letter Jam, from the same publisher — Czech Games Edition — that brought us Codenames, walks that fine line between individual puzzle, and a cooperative team effort. 

Letter Jam consists of a deck of cards that all contain a letter on them, well in truth, sixty-four of them do, and one is a wild card, some setup cards, numbered tokens (they go from one to eight, unless you get the nine token promo), some pencils, card stands and some tokens. Along with all of  that you have the most important piece, the pad of guessing sheets. Setup is kind of different depending on the number of players, but the start of setup consists of dealing out the letter cards, minus the wild card, to all of the players. Players will then look through all of those letter cards and try to make a word. The rule book suggests a five letter word, but in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter, but five seems to be the preferred number of letters in your word. The book suggests once you have mastered the game to increase that number, I don’t think that everyone should. This is one of those odd games where your best clue giver may not want a word that long, but we’ll get to that a bit later. 

Once players have a word made, they discard all of the unused cards to a pile. They take the cards that make up their word and shuffle them and then pass that word to the player to the right. That player may not look at those cards, they place them face down in front of them in a row. Take one of the card stands at this point and then place the leftmost card in that card stand so that it faces your opponents, you never see your own cards. Yes, the comparisons to Hanabi at this point will be unavoidable. Shuffle the deck of discards into a pile and then divy out any non-player cards into stands. In Letter Jam there will always be six cards in stands, whether you have two players or six. 

So the crux of Letter Jam is that through giving a number of clues, which is dependent on the player count, you are going to help your fellow players in identifying their letter cards so that they can be able to figure out what word they have been given. Remember, every player can see five different letters being displayed, plus the one wild card. What you will do at this point is discuss amongst yourselves about the clues you can give to your fellow players. To give the clues you will be making words using the displayed letters. So you can tell your fellow players, that you have a six letter word that uses three player cards, a couple non player cards and the wild card. This discussion is supposed to be fairly vague, no telling who it will help or what kind of word you will be making, nothing like that. When everyone agrees who will give the clue, that person will take one of the clue tokens — players will take red clue tokens before they can take the green tokens. After taking a clue token, they will spell the word, using the numbered tokens. Placing the one token on the first letter, the two on the second letter and so on until they have spelled the word. 

Players will then write down on their guessing sheets the letters of the word that they know and will then try to parse out the other letters. This is the tricky part of Letter Jam. Some clues will be a lot better than others, and through playing you will start to learn what not to do in your clue giving. In our short time with the game, there are some clue giving conventions already showing through.

Once everyone has examined the clue, they can decide whether or not the clue has told them what their letter is. If they think they know, they can take the card from the stand and place it face down on the table in the row, and then pick up the next card in order and put it in the stand, facing away from them. Once again, never look at your cards!

The game continues this way until one of two things happens. If you end a round and there are no clue tokens left, the game is over, or if everyone decides they do not need any more clues. At this point, you should know, or at least have an educated guess about each letter that is in your row. Those letters will be mixed up both on the table and on your guess sheet. With all the cards still face down on the table, re-arrange the letters on your guess sheet to make a word. If for some reason you cannot come up with a word based on your discovered letters, you can use any earned bonus cards and the wild card to help. Bonus cards are earned by figuring out extra letters. After someone has found all of their letters, they will draw a card from the deck and place it in their card holder in front of them. Should they guess that letter, that card goes to the middle of the table, face up, to be used along with all of the other letters. 

After figuring out the word on your sheet, rearrange your letters on the table in front of you and everyone reveals to see if you were successful. Now, to be successful according to the rules, you don’t have to get the exact word that was passed to you, if you can make another word with the letters given to you, that counts as well. If more or less everyone has spelled a word, you all have more or less won the game, rejoice and share in your victory. 

So, in play, I don’t think there is a word game out there that I enjoy more. It works wonderfully, given that everyone follows the rules and understands how important their clues are. The thing that irritates me though, is the ending as written in the rulebook. As a variant to the “more or less a victory” notion, the publisher has given us a way to score our successes and I far prefer to do that. But I am also a subscriber to the “all or nothing” win conditions of most cooperative games. 

That ending is really a small, nitpicky thing to dislike as everything leading up to that ending is a wonderful, cooperative experience. Letter Jam is tough, and at times it can be a slower paced game than a lot of games like this. You do need to carefully think about your clue options as you want to give the best clue possible so others can learn their letters and then give you the clues. You see, some of those green clue tokens are surrounded by red tokens on the clue card, so in order to get to those green ones, everyone has to give a set number of clues. Everyone has to participate, there is no sitting back and soaking up clues here and that can be tough for some players. 

As I said earlier, much like Hanabi, we’ve seen some clue giving conventions pop up already in play. There are certain clues that will help your fellow competitors more than other clues. Learning what those are is part of the joy of Letter Jam. Now, things change all the time in the game, there are new letters out there for you to make words out of, and some combinations can just be downright brutal, six consonants and only the wild to use as a vowel makes it difficult to give a word, BUT, that may actually work out great as the players will still know most of the letters. Letter Jam isn’t necessarily about finding the longest word, it’s more about using the letters at your disposal in the best way possible. 

I don’t know what else to say other than this. I adore Letter Jam, but I have a feeling that it will become almost like Just One for us, a game that we love playing, but rarely play by the ending rules anymore, we play it for fun and just stop playing when we want to stop playing, the score or the ending isn’t the important part, the actual play is the most important part. The way it gets your brain thinking and trying to cipher how you are going to best help your teammates. Letter Jam can be that kind of game, and it’s addictive to boot, or at least it is for those of us who love to try to solve a puzzle that’s sitting right in front of us, even if we mess up three quarters of the time. 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: OK, I’ll admit, when I read the rulebook, I thought that this game was gonna be a disaster.  It just doesn’t sound fun from the rules. But, in reality, the game is really quite enjoyable, and it will likely end up amongst my favorite word games.  Like Montage and Password, the fun (for me) is coming up with good clues here – clues which hopefully can get multiple players onto their next letter. Here, you don’t need to know definitions, you just have to be able to spell though!  Like Brandon, the thing which rankles me a bit are the endgame rules. I am not a huge fan of the non-specific “win” conditions; they more or less piss me off. I also understand the need to allow players to stumble into a valid word at the end of the game, but that also feels like a cop out for a word game.  (But, of course, you have to have this rule, especially with the real possibility of multiple valid anagrams from a single set of five letters). But, during the actual play of the game, whether I’m coming up with clues or trying to decipher those of my opponents, Letter Jam is a joy to play.

Erik Arneson: Like Dale, I thought Letter Jam had little potential when it was first described to me. But it shines when actually played. If you’re a fan of word games (I am), this one deserves a spot on your pile of games to be played.

John P:  I agree with the above but with the caveat that like most word games it relies somewhat on all players of equal ability.

Joe Huber (2 plays): As someone who’s not a particular fan of word games, I found Letter Jam – nicely done, but not compelling for me.  It’s a game I enjoy well enough when playing it, but won’t suggest.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it. Brandon Kempf, Erik Arneson

I like it. Dale Y, John P

Neutral. Joe H.

Not for me… 

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2 Responses to Letter Jam (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. Pingback: Letter Jam (Game Review by Brandon Kempf) – Herman Watts

  2. Marc Gilutin says:

    After hearing about this, I asked a friend at GenCon to pick up a preorder for me. My first blind buy in quite awhile. My mule delivers it tomorrow. Can’t wait!

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