Word games are always a tricky genre to carve out unique space in. The reasons for this vary, but they usually boil down to two main issues. The first one is that so many such games tend to rely on the same concept in a different package, which are generally some cleverly disguised derivative of Scrabble. This makes sense; it’s tough to unseat a game that has reached the level of cultural touchstone, so why not borrow from it instead?
The second reason is because many word games struggle to make them enjoyable to play. Games want players to have fun, but for many that can be difficult if their entire experience is ruined because their chances at winning rely on their relative skill at language. Much like a novice Chess player going against a Grand Master, the quickest way for someone to sour on a game is if they feel they’re not as smart as their opponent and therefore can’t compete. It’s a difficult prospect, and one that doesn’t often have easy answers.
That doesn’t mean people don’t – and shouldn’t – stop trying. That is the goal of experienced designer Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games, who seeks to avoid both such pitfalls with his new game Wordsy. Based in large part on his earlier game Prolix, Gil has streamlined this 1-6 player game to make it easier and more accessible to players regardless of their prose while ramping up the tension at the same time. It’s a lot to accomplish in a 20 minute playthrough, but this little game appears up to the task.
Wordsy takes place over the span of seven short rounds, though in an effort to balance out sporadic (or inevitable) occasions where you can’t come up with anything more than ‘cat’, at the end of the game only your five best rounds are scored. This alone is a small but welcomed rule, for it ensures that even if you stumble out of the gate it doesn’t doom your entire chances of winning.
Every round in Wordsy provides eight different cards from the deck, each with a single letter on it, which are laid out in two rows of four. This determines the relative point value you get when using that letter, with the two leftmost letters being worth 5 points each and the two rightmost worth a dismal 2. Some particularly challenging letters – looking at you Q – give additional point bonuses if you use them in your word as well.
The moment that the final card is flipped over, the round begins. At that point, your singular goal is to try and come up with the most valuable word you can based on the cards available.
This is where Wordy’s second component, that of speed, comes into play. The first player to announce a word they feel is going to give them a decent amount of points starts the 30 second timer, wherein everyone else must come up with a different word than any used previously before the timer runs out. The first person each round to start the countdown clock of doom gets a bonus point.
However, the game provides a little leeway to the remaining players as they do the Scrabble Scramble: if the word you come up at the end of the round is more valuable than your opponents’ words, you get two bonus points. This ensures that the fastest person in a given round doesn’t necessarily mean they are guaranteed to win, which in turn means that it doesn’t benefit you to simply announce the first word you come up with. Taking a few extra seconds can mean more than a few extra points, and this cleverly provides extra tension on when someone will pull the trigger first.
The major twist with Wordsy, however, is that unlike many other word-building games, the words you come up with are not limited to the letters in front of you. In fact, Wordsy goes so far as to channel its inner Phoenician alphabet by working as an abjad; there are no vowels in the game at all.
Hey, when you only have 30 seconds, who can be bothered with vowels anyhow?
This is the most ingenious part of the game, providing an incredible amount of flexibility both in the style and breadth of words to choose from. With this game, even common words can score big points with the right layouts. Indeed, what makes Wordsy particularly different than its competitors is that you can be as concise or verbose as you desire, but you only score points based on the letters on the board – and each card can only be used once. So feel free to use all trot out all the ‘assassin’ style responses you want, but if there’s only one ‘s’ on the board, only one gets you points.
After each round, the four least valuable letters are discarded and the rest are shifted down to make room for four new ones. Then the fight begins anew. After seven such lightning rounds, you see who had the best mix of linguistic reflex muscles.
Without getting too wordy about Wordsy, it’s fair to say the challenge in the game comes less from the rules than from your competition. Wordsy offers straightforward gameplay and a fairly short list of what is or isn’t acceptable that you can do with words…which mostly consists of not trying to change the tense on a word to call it something new. A rose by any other name and all that. Rather, both the excitement – and periodic frustration – of the game will stem from who you play with more than the game itself.
This is the one hurdle that Wordsy runs into. Being both a language-centric game and a speed game, your odds of winning are at least partially tied into how much more adept you are at recognizing and recalling words than other players. This approach works fine if everyone has roughly the same vernacular skillset, but if one player has a better knack for cobbling together words thanks to a larger vocabulary or quicker reaction time, that does provide an inescapable advantage. Yet this should not be seen as an issue with the game so much as the nature of word games themselves. While the game does a commendable job attempting to alleviate that via the bonuses for having the most valuable words, at its core Wordsy is still a game of linguistic sprinting. That is, although it offers a uniquely different approach than many similar games, if you don’t enjoy speed-based word games, Wordsy likely won’t alleviate that – though it certainly tries.
Indeed, with rapid-fire rounds and a cleverly simple twist on the standard bevy of word crafting games, Wordsy offers the best of both worlds. Thanks to incredibly simple rules and a scant few rounds for each playthrough, the only barrier to entry is your ability to jumble letters together on the fly to form the best words possible, easily putting it on par with traditional speed-based classics like Boggle or Bananagrams.
Unlike its competitors, however, Wordsy avoids its entire experience boiling down to a case of who can hit the proverbial buzzer the fastest. By providing incentives both for quick answers and besting the speediest player, this is one wordsmithing exercise that guarantees everyone is in the running until the very last pencil’s down moment. Wordsy ensures that victory isn’t solely for those who can flex their mental fortitude before everyone else while also keenly demonstrating that there’s a viable game behind its, shall we say, novel premise.
So here’s the final word: if you enjoy speedy games that tax your nerves as well as your creative thinking skills, Wordsy is certainly one game to check out. And you can do that currently over on its Kickstarter.
This project has earned the Seal of the Republic
Photo Credits: Wordsy cover and artwork by Formal Ferret Games.