Dale Yu: Review of Hooky


  • Designer: James Miller, Friends of Aseema
  • Publisher: Rio Grande Games
  • Players: 3-5
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 30-60 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Friends of Aseema

Welcome to the wonderful world of Hooky. Of the 26 children in classes today, 3 are off playing hooky. It is morning before school starts, and in the chaos, your job as a homeroom teacher is to figure out which 3 are missing. There are some children off in the Playground who are late getting to their homerooms, and you will learn their identities as they straggle in.

The 3 missing students are represented by 3 Hooky cards. You earn points by correctly deducing the identity of the 3 Hooky cards and thereby finding the 3 missing students. You can also earn points by learning which students are in the other players’ classrooms (hands of cards). The player with the highest score at the end wins the game.

Let the search begin!

Here is a picture from wayback of James and I at a Con (Probably an Origins?)

So… This is a hard review for me to write… not because of the game, but because of the great memories I have of the designer, James Miller.  As you might know, James was one of the original members of the Opinionated Gamers, and he sadly passed away a few years ago.  I remember playing this design as a prototype many years ago (I think it was called Knot 5 back then), and honestly I had no idea that it was being published until a recent press release.  I have so many fond memories of James, and seeing him live on through this new game brings a (happy) tear to my eye.

Friends of Aseema is listed as a co-designer, and they are “a U.S. nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping the Aseema Charitable Trust in India. Aseema means “limitless” in Sanskrit. What does the word “limitless” mean to you? Hope? Possibility? For children living in crushing poverty in Mumbai’s streets and slums, hope and possibility seem out of reach. This is where the Aseema Charitable Trust steps in.

At Aseema, “limitless” is more than just a word. It is a way of thinking. The Aseema Charitable Trust is devoted to giving the best education possible to the most marginalized and underprivileged children it can reach. Directly educating 2,700 children per year, Aseema functions on a lean annual budget for what it must accomplish, with 10% spent on common facilities and only 7% on administration expenses. With supplemental support from Friends of Aseema, Aseema can take its mission to serve these children even further.

Twenty years since its founding, Aseema has grown from a borrowed classroom for a handful of slum and street children to fully managing three public schools in Mumbai serving only poverty-stricken children. In addition, Aseema built and operates a school in a tribal region northeast of the city. Although Aseema’s students live in extreme poverty, they now outpace their counterparts in the region’s private and other public schools.”

You can learn more at: https://friendsofaseema.org/

Given the mission of Friends of Aseema, the school theme seems quite fitting…

In this deduction game, your goal is to determine which 3 of the 26 letter cards are playing hooky.  Three cards are put in a Hooky pile on the table – these are the unknown cards which need to be identified.  Three other cards are laid out in the “playground” – they will be revealed over the course of the game.  

You start out the game with a few cards in your hand (number changes based on the player count), and a deduction sheet.  There is an area for each opponent on the right of the sheet where you can record information.  On the left is a place to keep track of the letters as well as space to record your guesses over the course of the game. There is a shield that players can use to hide their deduction sheet – and the inside of this has a nice player reference on it.

The setup round has some special rules, as each player states a five letter word and then announces how many times one of their cards appears in the stated word.  For example, say I hold “A” “B” “C” and “D” in my hand.  If I say ALLAY, I would report the number “2” as my answer.  If I said DADDY, I would say 4.  Each player states their word and number for the first round.  You must say a word that you have at least one matching letter card.

The rules for word formation are pretty loose; and really, as long as the group agrees that something is a word, it’s OK to use here.  Proper nouns, slang, whatever….

The rest of the game is played over 6 rounds.  On a turn, the active player chooses any opponent and gives them a 5-letter word.  That chosen opponent must then answer how many matches they have on their cards in that word.  It is definitely helpful to spell out the word to make sure that there is no confusion.  All players should write down the information on their sheet and then make any deductions that they can.  Each player gets one chance to query an opponent each round.

In every round after the first, there is an optional action that can also be taken by the active player.  Either before or after the question; the active player can reveal one of their hidden cards – placing it in front of their screen – and then choose any opponent’s hand to randomly see one of those cards.  The opponent does not get to know which card is seen.

At the end of rounds 1, 2 and 3, one of the Playground cards is revealed and all players can cross this off their deduction sheets.  Generally there is a break of a few minutes with each of these revelations, as it takes some time to then figure out what you know (and don’t know).

At the end of rounds 4, 5 and 6 – each player makes a guess about which cards they think are in the Hooky pile.  Simply write three letters down on your deduction sheet on the appropriate line.  Generally there is also a break of a few minutes for players to do their deduction work and to formulate their guesses.  There is no harm in guessing, and you will score points for each correct guess you have.

After the Hooky guesses in round 6, the game is over. Players should now finalize their guesses/deductions about what letters they think each opponent has in their hands.  Ideally, you should have been able to make some deductions through the course of the game- but now at the end, you should make sure to make guesses for all players.

Players score points in 4 ways: 

  • For each Hooky card that a player correctly guessed at the end of rounds 4 and 5, the player earns 5 points. 
  • For each Hooky card that a player correctly guessed after the final round, the player scores 10 points. 
  • Players then score 1 point for each letter card that they correctly guessed in the other players’ hands. 
  • Players score 1 bonus point for each other player whose full hand of cards they were able to guess correctly. 

The player with the highest score wins!  Ties broken in favor of the player who was able to guess a Hooky card earliest (based on the three guesses at the end of Rounds 4, 5, 6). 

My thoughts on the game:

Well, as I mentioned at the top, I have a strong emotional connection to the game, so you’ll have to take that into account when reading my comments.  But, even without that – this is a superb thinky game.  The rules are quite simple; all of my games have included a teach of no longer than 3 or 4 minutes, and the deduction sheet helps a great deal.  The artwork is fantastic, and apparently the children depicted in the game are actual students from the schools that Friends of Aseema sponsor.

Hooky is definitely a quiet game as much of the time is spent in examining the marks on your deduction sheet.  I find that I am concentrating for most of the game, and there is very little of the usual chatter that accompanies most of my games.  Everyone tends to be deep in thought, poking their heads up when a question is asked; and then back to the sheet to try to figure out where all the letter cards are…  I think it would definitely be fair to prepare potential players for a 45-60 minute game of quiet thinking and not a lot of kibitzing. 

There is a bit of an art in figuring out which word to use for your initial clue as well as what to ask your opponents.  I have yet to figure out whether it is better to reveal only the minimum single letter or if it might be better to reveal a larger number.  Interestingly, I have seen a strategy where players revealed a high number in the first clue, and as a result, that player did not have as many questions asked of him during the game, meaning that they were able to learn more information each turn.  When you are asked a question, you might be able to infer a little bit about what the asking player might hold in their hand, but otherwise, you’re only giving information to your opponents.  However, if you are not involved in the question, you are likely to learn more – so it might be worthwhile to give up a few points to the opponents (by allowing them to know your letters early on without much work) in return for more opportunity to gain information.

When you are determining your questions, you should also be careful to pick a word that helps you out without giving too much else away to the other players.  It’ll also probably take a few games to develop a stable of words with Q, X and Z in them that you can use at the appropriate times!  I try to give a word which has at least one letter in it – because if the answer comes back at zero, everyone learns that all 5 letters are not included in that player’s hand.  Many times i’ll also include at least one of my own letters so that I have fewer letters to deal with when trying to deduce; but each time I do this, the other players might be able to figure out what I’m holding in my own hand as a result, so I don’t do it every time.

The art by Tessa Samuelson is fantastic.  The player shield is large, but necessarily so given the size of the deduction sheet.  I do wish that there was an area on the sheet where you could track the words that you were asked to reveal – but there is enough empty space in the bottom left to do this on your own… Otherwise, the deduction sheet gives you all the spaces you need to do what you need to do.  

While figuring out the Hooky cards seems to be the main focus of the game, due to the scoring structure, it is possible to win without getting all three Hooky cards correct at the end of the game.  If you deduce a Hooky card by the end of the fourth round, you’ll end up scoring 20 points for it (assuming you write it down all three times) – and this is double what another player would earn for the letter if they only got it at the very end.

Hooky is a delightfully hard puzzle game.  I have played it three times this week so far (having plenty of interested gamers while at the Gathering of Friends), and it has been a hit at each table it has been on.  Highly recommended.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Chris Wray: This is one of the all-time great deduction games, and one of my new favorite games. Dale’s review is spot on: the theme, the art, and the mechanics all combine to form a delightful puzzle. But the deduction aspect here is unparalleled: there’s a reason, even when this was a prototype, that deduction fans were home brewing copies and spreading the legend of Knot 5. Welcome to the wonderful world of Hooky!

Joe Huber (2 plays): I’m not a big fan of deduction games or of word games, which doesn’t make me the ideal audience for Hooky.  But I am a big fan of James – he lived a short distance from where my parents live, so I would frequently get to see him when visiting them – and even ignoring that, the game he has designed is a very good one.  I believe it was clearly the single most played game at the Gathering of Friends, played continuously throughout the event – and that doesn’t happen unless people are really enjoying the game.  I may have bought the game as a result of my memories of James, but there’s a real chance it sticks in my collection in spite of my feelings on the genre, just based upon the strength of the game.

Dan B. (2 plays): This is a good deduction game which, while not wildly original, feels different from most others. (It feels a bit like Black Vienna, but having players come up with their own questions and the way the questions are answered are both significant differences from that game.) The only thing preventing me from rating it “I love it” is that I’m not sure yet how much I like it at higher player counts; in my five-player game it was hard to nail down anything, but I don’t know if we just played poorly or if that’s just how the game works with five.

Erik Arneson (at least 12 plays): Hooky is my absolute favorite deduction game – and if the idea of a word deduction game interests you, you’ll almost certainly love it. James Miller’s fantastic game design has been bolstered by excellent development work, a new theme (and name), and Tessa Samuelson’s outstanding, adorable art. I very happily playtested Hooky many times while it was being developed – and even more happily have taught the game to many players since. In my experience, it plays well with 3, 4 or 5, although scores do tend to be higher with fewer players. The rules are clear, the player screens include excellent summaries, and the scoresheet is fabulous. James was a wonderful friend and I miss him dearly, but I will always smile and have good memories when I play Hooky.

Tery N (2 plays): I was predisposed to like this game based on two things. One, James Miller was an amazing human being and friend and two, I love word games.  This one does not disappoint, and I would be happy to play this any time, even if it wasn’t designed by James. It’s quick and easy to explain, and I suspect that it will be possible to lure non-gamers who like things like Wordle into trying it.  The deduction aspect is a delightful puzzle that I have not yet mastered, but am enjoying trying. 

Ben B (2 plays): I am terrible at it but its simplicity makes it a fast teach and puzzly game even for people who are good at deduction games. I would say it was the hit of the Gathering 2023.

Larry (2 plays):  I remember playing Knot 5 when James debuted it at the Gathering all those years ago and I was one of many people who mentioned to him that it was good enough to try to get it published.  It’s bittersweet, but still wonderful, that it’s now available to the world in such a terrific version.  The deduction is first class, the need to use actual words when making queries tests your vocabulary, and the new rule about the option to reveal one of your presumably known cards to gain more information (which must have been added during development, possibly with James’ input) is something I’ve never seen in a deduction game.  It’s a great addition, not least because it’s now worthwhile to track what the other players know about your own letters.  The timing of this release couldn’t be better, given the massive popularity of Wordle, which also features guesses of 5 letter words; I’m sure that connection will result in many prospective buyers checking this out.  Not only was James a dear friend, but I’ve known the artist, Tessa Samuelson, since she was a kid and it’s great to see how good a job she did with the components.  Given all those personal connections, it may be a little hard to be objective, but after seeing the game’s reception at the Gathering, I’m pretty confident that my very positive feelings about Hooky are accurate.  It is indeed a wonderful world and Hooky is a wonderful game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Chris Wray, John P, Erik Arneson, Tery N., Larry
  • I like it. Joe H., Dan B., Ben B.
  • Neutral.
  • 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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4 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Hooky

  1. Ken Hill says:

    Love the old photo…they are playing an early version of Tammany Hall…

  2. chrisbiancheria says:

    Thank you all for playing and for this review. James was a pal, and it was emotional for me, too. I and other officers and supporters of Friends of Aseema finished the development. My last set of emails with James was a discussion about the aspects that remained to be developed. James designed the great core of this game, so we just needed to polish off those loose ends. We scrapped the idea of player colors and cards that limited to whom you could address a question, overhauled the scoring system and added the reveal rule and a no-passing rule as well. I wish so much I could show the final production to James! But as I said, the game is what it is because of James combining the deduction with the word game. My plays tend to be quiet, too, up until the end when people get involved in a big discussion of how they worked out information or how they thought they did but then got a big surprise!

  3. farmerlenny says:

    I played for the first time this weekend, and I loved it. I keep thinking about it and can’t wait to play it again.

  4. Tessa Samuelson says:

    Thank you for the review, Dale, and others thoughts as well. Seeing everyone here definitely brings a happy tear to my own eye.

    It was a pleasure to be part of this project. A lot of the kudos going to Chris Biancheria for doing what she does and making it happen.

    James was a really kind person. He always welcomed playing games with my siblings and I which I now know isn’t a given (not everyone wants to play games with a bunch of kids). James and I shared a birthday of September 27th, which he always remembered, and as a kid that meant a lot.

    For my family this game has been really nice to see as it’s been a full-circle moment of our journey being part of the board game community and a sendoff for James.

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