Designer: Grégory Grard
Artist: Simon Douchy
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
There is a plethora of word games out there and many of the recent ones are pretty good family games. At present, our go to word game at home is Just One, a wonderful design that fits perfectly for family with kids of different ages as the difficulty scales well even with younger participants. The game scales well because you can adjust your word selection and clues to tailor your child’s vocabulary. To expand our collection of word games, I have been keeping my eye on three recent releases: So Clover, Letter Jam and Cross Clues. On paper, there are lots of similarities between these three word games and Just One. However, Cross Clues comes across as an easier version compared to the other two games and the publisher for Cross Clues – Blue Orange Games, is known for publishing games that cater for the younger audience.
Cross Clues comes in a small package consisting of a sand timer, a deck of cards and a few cardboard pieces. My first impression was one of alarm: the number of word cards that came with the game felt low in comparison to other word games. For word games in particular, variety matters and you really don’t want to have a repeat experience in the same session. Luckily, after a couple of plays, I can see that the unique combination of words presented for each session is what matters, and the selection of word cards that came with the box is more than adequate to provide many hours of play time.
First thing you do with Cross Clues is to set up a grid pattern with a series numbers and letters. If you want a bigger challenge, you set up a larger grid. A 3×3 grid is the smallest grid you can assemble while the largest grid is a 5×5. A single word is paired with each point on either axes of the grid such that the coordinate where the two points meet will form the basis for your clue that will link these two word together. All players are then given unique grid coordinates so they can provide a one-word clue for their friends to guess. For example, if you given the grid coordinate B3 and the clue on B is “fruit” and on 3 is “red”, then you may want to give clues like “apple” or “strawberry” for everyone else to guess. A correct answer by the collective means you get to place the coordinate token on the board, indicating that the word on location B3 is solved and no longer available for future guesses.
Now, as I mentioned, Cross Clues has a lot of similarities with Just One. For starters, this is a shared experience among all players and is essentially a co-operative game. All players basically try to improve their team scores between sessions. I suppose the ideal scenario is to correctly solve all the words and thus scoring the maximum points allowable depending on grid size. In practice though, most word games with the exception of Scrabble, feel more like an activity. This is also true for Cross Clues. Everyone tries hard to do well, but no one really cares about the final scores. However, there is a little twist for Cross Clues that makes it feel distinctly different from Just One: the game is timed which provides all the tension in the game which I think is a critical element of Cross Clues.
To be clear, I really do not like playing games with a timer. If I have a choice, I usually put the timer aside. However, there are some games – usually party games – that really requires a timed element to make the game fun. In Cross Clues, the sand timer is important not only to give a sense of urgency in clue-giving, but it also puts into context, the meaning of the scores between games. By that, I mean that clue giving is not a linear experience in the game because the way clues are given early and late in the round is different. Early in the game when the grid is empty, clues are much harder to give and each clue must be distinct to identify between the possibilities. Each word, depending on the grid size, will be paired 3-5 times with another word to form a unique combination. As the game progresses and correct guesses are given to eliminate choices on the board, the scope of each clue narrows as the clue-giver can give more “reckless” or lop-sided clues hoping that the players can take a leap of logic to make that connection. After all, when you are down to one coordinate left with the word pair of “orange” and “robot”, a single clue of “fruit” or “mechanical” might be enough to get the correct outcome. This means that without the timed element, the game can get rather boring because late in the game, things just become easier. So, having a time pressure to perform well makes the game that much better and certainly gives the group an incentive to perform better between sessions. Without it, Cross Clues really falls flat, unless that is, you are playing with kids (see below). In contrast to Cross Clues, Just One’s clue-giving experience is linear from beginning to the end of the game as each round operates in the same manner. There is no change in how clues are given and as such, the timing element can be safely discarded.
Even though Cross Clues and Just One has a “same feel”, the game is fundamentally different. Cross Clues is definitely more challenging as the burden on clue giving falls on individuals. Much like Codenames, the success of the group depends on how well the Clue Master is at giving clues. Same here with Cross Clues. If you have someone who is not good with word associations, then the game will be tougher. Just One doesn’t operate in the same way because there is just one guesser and every one pitches in to give clues. So, the burden is not so much on one person to give clues as it is a shared responsibility. In that sense, Just One is more family and casual gamer friendly. However, because it is more of a challenge to do well, some folks will probably find Cross Clues more engaging?
I like Cross Clues, but I think I still prefer Just One, especially if you have the right size crowd. With Cross Clues, you can play with a smaller group of even 2-3 players. You can’t do that very well with Just One (though we do try by giving 2 clues per person). So if you have a small family, Cross Clues might be a better fit. I have some more thoughts on Cross Clues with kids which is perhaps more relevant in the section below. Suffice to say, I will play Cross Clues more often with my family, but will likely opt for Just One more often if we hit the 5 player threshold.
Initial impressions: Average
7 years 5 months: OK, there are a few pros for Cross Clues. First the player count. With 3 players in our family, Cross Clues is the one to go for. We set it up over the weekend during breakfast and play it as family – fun times over oatmeal and pancakes. The game is small, portable and doesn’t require a lot of handling, so it is ideal for play even during meal times. She is at a stage now that her vocabulary is expanding faster than I can’t keep track of the words she knows. So, her word association skills are decent enough that Cross Clues is just the right game at this age. It is fun to see her making the harder associations and believe me, she can give excellent clues that I struggle to even make. I am not sure if the meta early-late clue giving aspect of the game is clicking with her at all, not that it bothers her that much. To make things easier, we started off the game by allowing proper nouns. That helps. You can always loosen the guidelines for clue giving. We also started off without the timer, which is ok if your child is struggling to give clues. The game is clear not as “fun” without a timer, but with family, it doesn’t matter as much. However, once we instituted the timer, Cross Clues definitely kicks it up a notch and I think we like it better. Plus, the timer prevents a drawn out experience that will make the game drag and feel stale toward the end. I still recommend the timer with your kid if they can handle it. Because the game can devolve into an alpha gamer issue, I tend to let my kid take a stab at guessing and providing the logic behind her answers, and then tweak my response accordingly to support or sway her argument. Sometimes, I just go with her answer because honestly, her logic can be more persuasive.
Cross Clues is coming along at the right time and is now one of her favorite word games. She still enjoys Just One but kids are just natural members for the Cult of the New. I am sure the game will remain in our rotation for a while seeing that it is much better than a 3 player Just One where each of us give two clues.