Dale Yu: Review of Master Word

 Master Word

  • Designer: Gerald Cattiaux
  • Publisher: Scorpion Masque
  • Players: 3-6
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 15 mins
  • Times played: 5, with prototype copy provided by Scorpion Masque

Over the years, I have found that I am almost always interested by my first look at word games. The problem with word games is that they are often finicky – often needing the “right” set of players to make it shine.  One of my favorite all-time game experiences was playing Montage with three other gamers familiar with cryptic crosswords.  The amount of ingenuity, creativity and laughs has maybe never been surpassed.  But, I have found that it tends to flop when played with groups of imbalanced vocabulary or crossword experience.   But, that other group might do really well with Password or Electronic Catchphrase.  What’s My Word is another favorite, but it is limited to two players.  Decrypto is another great game that shines with the right group.  So, when I heard that the company behind Decrypto was producing another word game, I was instantly interested.  The big question for me was: where would Master Word fit in the pantheon of word games?


I had been pointed to a few videos (maybe from Gen Con?) that talked about the game and showed a sample round.  It looked fun, and based on that little snippet alone, my online game group actually tried to play the game – and though we didn’t know all the rules, nor did we really know what was on the word cards, we had a blast.  So, I decided to contact the publisher and they were gracious enough to send an advanced prototype copy to play for real.

In this game, the players work as a team to try to communicate with each other to discover the “Master Word” written on the card chosen for the round.  One player is the Guide, and he draws a card from the deck and looks at it.  The Master Word for the round is written on the bottom of the card, and only the Guide knows what it is.  He slips it back into the box – and only the top half is visible – and this half shows the category or hint of the Master Word.  As a made up example, the top half might say “Boardgame” while the Master Word on the Bottom half might be “Dominion”.  Or it might be “Country” and the Master Word is “Estonia”. There are 300 cards in the deck, and they are numbered because the difficulty of the word is supposed to increase as the numbers increase.

 Each game will be played over as many as 7 rounds.  In each round, the current Guide looks at the next card in the box to learn the Master Word, and then shows the category to the rest of the players, known as the Seekers. 

The Seekers each get 6 Clue cards.  Additionally, 3 answer cards are placed on the table (which any player can use).  In the first phase of each round, the Seekers have 90 seconds (roughly) to write down CLUES on their white Clue cards or ANSWERS on an Answer card.  The clues must communicate a single idea – though they are not limited to being a single word. 

 When the three clues/answers are written down, then the Guide now gets to evaluate the clues.  If needed, the guide can ask any qualifying questions.  For instance, if I had written down “heavy”, the Guide might try to get more clarity on the definition of “heavy’.  Or if I wrote “smaller than a dog”, the Guide might want to clarify which breed of dog I was thinking of.  I’d recommend making a notation of any clarifications on the clue card itself so that everyone can remember what the clue meant!  The Guide finally placed zero to three Tokens to the side of the row to show how many of the Clues are “on the right track”.   The Seekers then can debate amongst themselves as to which answers are correct once they know how MANY of the clues are correct.

Here is a short example of how a few rounds might go

If needed, the Guide can use their phone/computer to consult the Internet to validate some of the clues.  Trust me, if you’re playing with James Nathan or me, you might have some weird clues to look up such as “Callipygous” or “oviparous”.  Note that only the Guides can use the Interwebs.  The Seekers must only use what’s in their brain… Once per game, the Guide can elect to use their Joker.  After placing the Tokens next to the row of cards, they may pick up a single token and place it directly on a clue card signifying that this particular Clue is correct.  This is the singular opportunity for the Guide to do this for the entire game.

 At any point other than the first round, a Seeker can choose to write an answer down on a Solution card instead of writing a Clue.  If the Master Word is written on a Solution card, the whole table wins!  Note that you only get 3 Answer cards total, so you should use them wisely, and likely only when the entire group of Seekers feels that it’s a good guess.   One other rule is that if the Seekers ever write the Master Word down on a Clue card, the table automatically loses.

If there are still rounds to be played, the Seekers again make Clues/Guesses and place them in a row below the previous round’s cards.  The Guide again does his thing, and so on.  Keep going until the group wins by guessing the word or the group loses by using the Master Word as a clue or running out of rounds/guesses.

My thoughts on the game

 Overall, this is an interesting word/deduction game that adds a cooperative twist.   Normally I’m worried about quarterbacking, but in this case, that hasn’t been an issue.  Actually having multiple people from different backgrounds has helped to bring more knowledge to the group – and that is a good thing here.  Don’t get me wrong, the game is likely won more often when the group uses a concerted strategy – which may or may not involve quarterbacking – but the varied knowledge of the different group members will definitely come into play.

 The rules suggest funneling your clues to try to get better information.  Let’s say the clue is “Country”.  A nested set of clues might be:  “Northern Hemisphere”, “Europe”, “EU Member”.   Obviously, if you get zero hits, you know for sure it’s a country in the Southern Hemisphere.  If you only get 1, then you can likely rule out all European countries.  Another example in the rules are to use opposites as it is sometimes helpful to know that certain clues shouldn’t go together.  In any event, I think it is crucially important for the team to decide what the want to try to learn about the Master Word in each round because if the clues aren’t focused, it will be nearly impossible to figure out the word.

 You only get three changes to guess at the Master Word, but there are times when it might be useful to guess early on. Who knows, maybe you get lucky and write the word down.  But, the other advantage is that you only have 2 clues in that row, and that might help you glean more information out of the guide.

Thus far, I have only played this with 3 and 4 players. It has been a good time with that number.  The box says it goes all the way to 6 players, and I am honestly curious to see how the game works at that number.  At 4 players, you have a manageable number of clues (three) which lets you make some good deductions.  At 6 players, there would be 5 clues each round, and in my mind’s eye, that seems so much harder to come up with a coherent set of clues that you can make meaningful deductions from… because it’s going to be real hard sometimes to know what to do with three rows of clues, each of which has 2 out of 5 things correct.

 I have really liked my games so far, but I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of being the Guide.   As with most deduction games, the whole thing falls apart with faulty answers/information, and the Guide is generally the one who has to make sure that everything is right.  Though I feel like I know a lot of stuff and a good deal of trivia (though not as much as Mr Palagyi who is an aspiring Jeopardy contestant) – man, I end up looking stuff up on the Internet for almost every clue to make sure that I give a correct answer.   One mistake in the Tokens can ruin the team’s deduction for the whole game, and I’d much prefer to not have that pressure on me.  Thus far, we’ve been pretty good about rotating the Guide job around, usually playing a number of games so that each player gets to be the Guide once.  As each individual game lasts 10-15 minutes, this ends up being about a 60 minute session in total, which is just the right level for this game. 

 On the other hand, you don’t always have to be right as the Guide… The rules actually tell the Guide that their role is to make sure the Seekers get to the right answer – which means that the Guide can answer the questions in whatever way they feel will get their teammates to the right endpoint!  This is a little wishy-washy, and I’m trying to think of examples of where I would willingly answer a query incorrectly to steer people towards the correct answer.  I mean, facts are facts….

 Also, I have found that the game has a small but distinct possibility of being more frustrating than fun.  Some of the categories and answers are not great matches (at least IMHO), and if your group makes a bad assumption at the start of the game based on what they think the category is telling them…. Well, none of your questions make any sense, and they will almost all miss.   When this happens, the Guide can’t even use their Joker clues to help you zero in on the target because there is nothing to give a direct “Yes” answer to!  Luckily, this doesn’t happen often… but it’s something that I’ve seen more than once, so it deserves mention. 

 The components in my late prototype are really good, in fact they are so good that if I hadn’t been told that this was a prototype, I would have just assumed it was a retail version.  That being said, the components themselves are simple, functional and sturdy – no wobbly breakable legs like in Decrypto!  While I’d be happy to get a final version, the copy I have is good enough for me!

 Thus far, this game seems to be open to a wider group of gamers as actual word knowledge isn’t paramount.  The group can discuss amongst themselves to deduce the Master Word, and there will likely be different categories which will suit different people’s background better, so after a few games, it will likely even out.  For those gamers that can’t seem to find the right clues to give in Decrypto, this is a gentler game that evokes a lot of the same though processes.

 Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan: This is a tough one for me.  I want to like it, but the answers have been too difficult, at least for me. Maybe I need more strategy advice, like the nested clues or using opposites.  I may be playing at too basic of a level and I’m just shy of a breakthrough that will make successful rounds more consistent. I’d love to watch a high-level group play this to see how they think through the approach and structure their guesses!  It’s easy to walk through a mental door that you think includes all possible answers to the category, when in reality, you’ve slipped into a tiny crack that doesn’t scratch the surface.

 Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Brian Y, Luke H
  • Neutral  John P
  • Not for me… James Nathan


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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