Encyclopaedist (a review)

Designer: Sengoku Ichiro (千石 一郎)
Publisher: 数寄ゲームズ (Suki Games)
Players: 3
Playing Time: 20-30 minutes
Times Played: 3 on purchased physical copies; a few more times with a Google Sheets mock-up


I’m going to talk below about the many ways I love Encyclopaedist and its tragic flaws, of which there are many. Some of them are in the game’s conceit: it is three-player only; some of them are in the components: you’ll exhaust the provided post-it notes after only a few games; some of them are in the game’s potential as a commercial product: you can mock it up with three pieces of string and a pad of post-it notes; some of them are in the mechanics, ….well, we’ll get into those.

But I love the game.

In short, each player will have a category (such as “things that can be sharp” or “one syllable words”), and, variously, the players will attempt to guess words in the different intersectives of the venn diagram created by three brightly colored ropes.

But let’s step back a bit.

These are the components.

Each player gets a color, and the ropes are laid out in a three-set venn diagram.  Each player decides a category for words that fit in their set. (See, thematically, we are, like, graduate students in Encyclopedia studies and trying to pass one final exam, exhibiting our “high precision” word categorization skills.)

Anyway, go ahead and pick your category.  There aren’t a lot of rules for what this category is, and, well, the bulk of the critique we’ll get into below will discuss this further.  The rules do suggest picking an easy category, and one that isn’t subjective, while admitting some folks may have fun with such categories.

Each player also takes a set of post-it notes in their color.

Right, the post-its.  Sorry, I left those out of the photo above.  Let’s do the component shot again.

Nooooow, that’s the components. 

The colored bit on the end there will tell you if you earned any points.  All words that players will write down during the game will be placed….somewhere.  If you earn a point for it (and we’ll talk about that in a moment), you’ll leave the colored bit showing, and if you don’t, we’ll fold it under.

Ok, so we’ve picked categories.  Next up, each player will write a word or phrase that fits their category on their post-it, and, simultaneously, place it in their section.

(–now we get to be Encyclopaedists!)

Inevitably, your word may not _only_ fit in your section, so it will need moved to the right section. The players discuss if each of the starting words fit their category (Oh, did I mention don’t tell the other players your category?  It’s secret!), and then move it to the correct placement, categorically speaking.  Encyclopaedistically speaking.  

(Slight errata for the game’s rules as to the preceding paragraph.  The designer has clarified that players do earn a point for their first word, regardless of eventual placement.  That might make more sense after this next bit.)

So for a turn, the active player takes the wooden book token and places it in any of the “board’s” 7 areas where they have not previously earned a point. Each player then again will write a word or phrase on their colored post-its, but, trying to guess something that will fit the intersection that has been chosen.  Once each player has written down a word, the papers are revealed, discussed, and moved to the appropriate area. If a post-it did not move, that is, it correctly fit in the section where the wooden marker was, then it earns a point and keeps its colored stripe!  Otherwise, fold the colored stripe under.

The next player then takes the wooden marker, and the process repeats.

(Let me do a couple bookkeeping things here.  There is an 8th section that exists outside of all player’s sets.  You also can’t earn more than 3 points in a specific intersection.)

A player wins if they score in all 7 areas or earn 8 points.  In case of emergencies, the game also ends after three rounds in which no player scores a point.


So, like I’ve already given away, I love this game. 

But.  (I already gave that part away too.)

The categories are tough, and each in their own way.

  • “Words commonly used in recipes” – So many things were included, and it heavily overlapped with another player’s clue. It was difficult to get something that wasn’t in both. (Though in this game, our first three words were lemon, lime, and salad, and they all went into different sections!)
  • “Irregular plurals” – So, that was a fine clue.  But, uh, not for playing in person, say?  Async in our Google Sheets mock up worked rad. But geez, you can put a coffee on and start a good book while you wait on me to come up with an irregular plural that is also something sharp and not a common cookbook word. (We’ll come back to all this.)
  • “Words that start with the same letter that the last word placed in this category ended with” – Recursive categories was not a crowd pleaser.  It avoided some of the issues above, but wasn’t functionally deducible (We’ll come back to all this.)
  • “Things that don’t fit in a 25 ft box truck” – Come on, now this has to be simple right?  I attempted an easy category, “things that fit in a 25 ft. box truck”, and then I just reversed it for funsies.  The switcheroo shouldn’t affect its ability to function as a category I can place things clearly into or out of.  This is a tangible real world example – or was, until my opponents wrote down things like infestation; yellow; or library.  (I did not struggle to determine that Wembley Stadium would, in fact, not fit in a 25 ft box truck.)
  • “One syllable words” – That was a fine category.  The rules even have an example of doing a non-meaning based one, though I’ve always been tempted to do something with ascenders and descenders.  Just a thing to keep an eye out for.
  • “6 pt. Scrabble words” – That was….right, just going to move on.
  • “Words illuminated in this table” – Uh, yes. So we played a game on the table shown below, and one player set their category as the words shown on the table. 

Those examples give us a lot to talk about. I want to not overlook that in any discussions about coming up with your word/phrase for a turn, you’re still trying to deduce what categories your fellow players have chosen – sometimes you’ll think you have it squarely decided (but won’t), and others it’ll be laughingly (concedingly?) beyond your grasp. 

The pressure to keep the game moving is a factor, and part of what made our async games enjoyable: it makes categories that are hard to think of items for more bearable, as you can take your time.  Be creative. Ponder the possible categories while you go about your day and then return to the game later.

There’s also a matter of do you allow reference materials.  It’s an awkward moment at the table if players retreat to their phones to consult irregular plurals worth 6 points in scrabble (or whatever they think the categories are at the time.)  The folks I play with have generally settled on a rule that _you_ should not need reference materials to choose words for your category, but if you think it will aid you in your guesses (and in having fun), then please proceed.  

Sort of hand-in-hand with that is the Scrabble clue.  Does that require sufficient outside knowledge to find the ballpark of the clue, that…allowing reference materials is moot?

The box truck clue should’ve worked.  I thought. I started with “ennui”, that doesn’t fit right?  Abstract concepts?  What do you do when you get to homophones?  Or you aren’t quite sure of the meaning/context meant by the writer?  Rand wrote “keeper”, meaning soccer goalie, and while I ultimately decided that it _would_ fit in the truck, I wasn’t sure for a bit what meaning he meant, and it can be frustrating, as the nature of the game doesn’t easily allow for such consultations without giving away the punch line (in this case, Rand’s category was “things related to soccer”.)

Does a library fit?  Well, yes and no.  Does an infestation fit?  I think if your next rental box truck had bed bugs you would think so?  

But I get it.  I mean, we’re getting a _graduate_ degree in making these decisions.  That’s the game.  The post-game discussion is probably not so “post” game.

But it’s also worth pointing out the brilliance the game allows.  The time Jonathan had “things that can be sharp”, and after starting with a number of metal things that set us on the wrong path, zigged to things like “cheese” and “wit”.  The time Dale had the simple “place names”, but started the game with a few words/phrases that would’ve led all readers of this to guess “Names of Knizia games” (Babylonia, Blue Lagoon, etc.), only to later realize the ruse when he zagged to place names that have no relation to Knizia games!

It’s a game I want to spread the joy of, as I think the design is clever, and it gives you the chance to be smart and clever as well, and it’s a game that I’m glad to own and need to remember to find more colored post-it notes so that I can continue to enjoy.

best,
James Nathan

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y (at least 5 games): Oh man, I really want to like/love this.  It’s a word game, it allows for clever clues and wacky ideas – but man, it is really just too fragile for me.  Sure, I’ve gone out of my way to find rules that are borderline-acceptable; but there is such a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not.  The rules try to adjudicate this, but I guess our group’s ingenuity refuses to be bound by those rules.  The game we played in the final picture in this review was amazingly funny, but our rule was maybe a bit unfair.  For me, the joy is coming up with a clever unique rule, but more often than not, it’s too vague or too hard to get – and that makes the game not as much fun for everyone else.  I’d still be happy to play when the game is suggested (it doesn’t take too long to play), but it’s not one I’m going to request any more.

Rand L. (at least 5 games): That rule from the game in the final picture was so obvious and obfuscated at the same time. I loved it, even from the losing side! I find the greatest moments of the game to come from times when you think your rule is bombproof then gets discovered super early, or when you think you know the rule, play a word where it should definitely fit, then have it rejected by a peer. I think those latter moments also highlight the potential weakness in the game: subjectivity in the rules. There are instances where a word may not explicitly fit in or out of a rule, and it’s unfortunate that you can’t discuss as a group whether it fits…because that would reveal the rule. As it is, I still love Encyclopaedist as a simple, lighthearted word game with a ton of lateral thinking.

Jonathan (at least 5 games): I love the game’s core idea, that three people could independently come up with a rule and there is likely something that fits all three. The gamification of that is less important to me. There is also something subversive to the core idea, in that there is no rule you can come up with that will not deliver some surprising results. It hammers home the law of unintended consequences.

That said, I agree with James Nathan’s ultimate analysis, that converting it into a publishable game would either be a nightmare, or remove any creativity with rules such as ‘words that start with p’, which has no charm whatsoever. Another issue is the audience – you do need a somewhat homogenous set of players. The game would be a nightmare with three speakers of different languages or where some know cheese can be sharp and others do not. The problem is that the person answering the question cannot say “This word would be a Yes for Rand and a No for Dale.” Ultimately, these issues are why Eleusis and Zendo need highly constrained and artificial rule sets without the ambiguity of language to work. I love that the designer created this game and I will happily play it any time while acknowledging it is not for everyone and likely too audience-specific to work in most contexts.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! James Nathan, Rand L., Jonathan F
  • I like it.  
  • Neutral. Dale
  • Not for me…
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