Letter Jam

Designer: Ondra Skoupy

Artist: Dávid Jablonovský, František Sedláček, Lukáš Vodička, Michaela Zaoralová

Publisher: Czech Games Edition

A strawberry? (Photo credits: Jana Zemankova@BGG)

Oooh boy, Letter Jam sure is a different beast from all the previous word games we have played. While I initially thought the game would be too challenging for my 7 year old, I was glad to be proven wrong. You can refer to the Kids Corner section below for more info on my thoughts about gaming with my child.

Yes yes, Letter Jam is indeed a different word game from Cross Clues, So Clover! Just One and Codenames. The first play we did with 4 adults went over… just fine. I mean there weren’t any hooting or hollering. Quite the contrary, the game turned out to be quite cerebral, involved and too quiet for my taste. The game is more thinky save for Scrabble. Otherwise, all the other word games I own play very differently from Letter Jam.

Letter Jam plays a little bit more like Hanabi. I have to think it was slightly inspired by Hanabi. Letter Jam though, like the other word games, is a co-op through and through. You play to win points, but we never do. Just take it as an activity. However, Letter Jam is significantly more challenging to finish in the sense that winning is not always guaranteed. That means that if you want a perfect score where everyone wins, you don’t really need to keep score, which you can. I think for us, playing as a family, the inclusion of my 7 year old in a 3 player setup makes it slightly more challenging than under normal circumstances.

Back to the game. Each player assembles a 5 letter word – though it could be more if you want a challenging game – shuffles the letters and pass it to the neighboring player who then lays out the cards from left to right, face down. During the game, the player attempts to guess the word by revealing and guessing one alphabet at a time. The face down card is revealed to everyone else, but the guesser. So, all players know what that letter is and tries to give clues to the guesser. Once the guesser is sufficiently certain what that letter is, they can put the card back face down and reveal the next alphabet. This is done until all five cards are revealed…. hopefully, before all the clue tokens runs out. At the end of the game, the guesser should ideally have 5 letters jotted down, albeit scrambled. Their job is to then unscrambled the letters to form the word and show the entire table. Players do score partial points for getting some, but not all the letters accurately.

The kicker in Letter Jam, is that ALL players are simultaneously doing this. Each player has their own word to unscrambled and everyone is both a guesser and can act as a clue giver. This works because like Hanabi, all players have partial information – they know the letter cards for other player, except their own. To give clues for other players, one has to look at all the letters in play and try to form a word. By assigning numbered tokens to the cards in play to spell out the word, players can write down each alphabet in the word except their own. They must then fill in the blanks, based on the word, what their own missing letter is. Obviously, words that are longer that involve multiple players will be better. A simple word such as “C?T” is not nearly as helpful because the ? can be an “A”, “U” or “O”. Now players can still benefit from such as clue because they can eliminate choices. If a player is still unsure of what that letter is, they can continue to stay on that card for the following clue to further narrow down the possibilities. Players don’t have to go to the next clue card until they are ready to move on.

However, the game does come with a timer ala Hanabi. Players are only given a handful of clue tokens. Run out of these tokens and the game ends. To avoid an alpha player, such as the case where a Scrabble champion might be the only clue giver, some clue tokens are locked until every player attempts to give at least a clue. I think it’s great that the rules try to promote involving everyone.

The key to Letter Jam is to come up with a strong clue that involves all players so that everyone, except the clue giver, gets a hint of their own card. Sometimes, that is really challenging especially if no vowels (or too many) are in play. In which case, an “asterisks” wild card is also in play to help. The clue giver can add a wild card into the mix if necessary to make up the word, but be forewarned, the asterisks makes the word even harder to solve because each player will now have two unknowns. Take for example: ” * I S S I S S I ? ? I” where the asterisk is “M” and ? is “P”. That’s a pretty straightforward answer because the word is long. If you have a 4 letter word with the asterisks, the clue can be borderline useless. Such as the case of ” * A S ? ”

Letter Jam surprisingly works for us even at the 2 player level. That’s because the game uses neutral cards as substitute for other players. It’s pretty simple. You get extra letters in play (3 for a 2 player game), and for each letter you use in your word, a new one replaces the dummy cards. If you use enough of the dummy cards, you can earn bonus clue tokens. So, as a quiet evening activity, Letter Jam actually works decent. We again don’t keep track of the scores and just play to win…… or lose. It doesn’t really matter. The 2 player game is relatively easy for us after a few attempts, but the difficulty can easily be ramped up: just make a 6 or 7-letter word.

One of the most subtle, but perhaps underrated aspect of Letter Jam, is that you are allowed to use any word. Proper nouns, silly nonsensical words, swear words, words that only your partner knows, etc. That has really helped us in our clue giving at times. Believe me, it makes a difference. Words that were used in recent conversation perhaps or, words from a cartoon that my kid knows about. There have been a handful of times where we had to use words that are very “local” and situational. They all contribute toward making the game feel unique. Not all word games allow you this degree of flexibility. It feels good to run wild with word choices.

So how does Letter Jam stack up against the rest of the word games? It doesn’t because you can’t really compare apples with oranges. In this case, Letter Jam stands out because it is not a word association game unlike Codenames, Cross Clues, Just One or So Clover! It is a really clever design that borrows elements from Hanabi and adapts it for the alphabet. We certainly find it a fun and enjoyable activity. The downside is, Letter Jam is a much more serious game, requiring more attention and also takes longer, even with 2 players. So, it’s not a game you can pull out any time. You kinda need to be in the mood for it. The setting is more quiet with very little discussion. Most of the time is spent trying to formulate a good clue. With more players, the discussion is mainly who can give a better clue. So, I would argue that the game has much less in common with all the other word association games we have in our collection.

I was skeptical about Letter Jam when it first came out, and it took me a while to warm up to it. Now that we can include our 7 year old in a 3 player game, it is a fun alternative to all our word association games. I definitely give this one a thumbs up and deserves to be in your collection, especially if you are word monger.

Initial impression: Great!

Kids Corner

7 years 7 months: This one didn’t fly very well the first time around because we played with 5. The game dragged and as a learning game, it didn’t click with her. It is also a lot more somber, and less interactive than the other word association games. So, we let this one slide 6 months ago and just played it with adults. More recently, we decided to give it another shot, this time with just only 3 and it worked much better. The game is still long, perhaps much longer than I like, but she is engaged throughout. The first time she offered up a 7 letter clue, we were skeptical, but surprised and thrilled. It worked really well since it was the name of a place we have recently talked about. We haven’t revisited the game since because of time constraints. As I said, this just cannot be played during school days in the evening as the game is far too involved and takes too much time, but we are eager to revisit it during the weekends. It is not clear to me how enamored she is with the game since it feels “dry” and the action is not as fast paced like Just One. So, we shall see if this has legs. Still, the game is different enough that I want to keep it in my collection.

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