|Interaction||Components & Design|
Letter Jam: A Recipe
Letter Jam is a word game, as you might have guessed from the name. Every player gets a word they have to guess, and if all players guess their word, they win. So to start the game every player takes a handful of letter cards and makes a word with them. On regular difficulty it should have five letters, but you can make shorter words for a simpler game, or longer words for a harder one. Then they shuffle up that word and pass the cards to their neighbor. This is now the word they have to guess.
When everyone has their letter cards you line them up in front of you, face down. Then put the first card into a holder, facing away from you. That’s right, we’re doing this Hanabi style. Everyone knows your letter but you. You are now ready to start.
Players now look around and try to make words with the letters they can see. Using the same letter twice is okay, and if you can’t find a word with only the letters on display you may use the asterisk card as any letter. When you have a word you may tell everyone else some metadata about it. How many letters does it have? How many player characters does it use? (You know… letters… characters…. I’ll show myself out) Does it use the wildcard? You may never say who’s letters you are using, though.
If you’re the only player with a word then you’re obviously the one doing the next step. If several players have an idea then the group decides, based on the metadata, who should give the next hint. That player puts numbered chips to spell out their word. The number one in front of the first letter, the number two in front of the second, and so on. If they use the asterisk they mark it with a number as well, but they don’t reveal which letter it stands for.
When they’re done everyone else sees a word, with gaps where their own letter would go – plus more gaps if the asterisk was used. They note it down and see if they can figure out what their own letter might be. If their letter wasn’t used in the word at all, they can grudgingly skip this step. A player who thinks they know their current letter flips that card back down and puts the next one up in the holder.
I skipped one thing. The player giving a clue takes a gumdrop. If this is their first clue they take a red gumdrop, otherwise a green one. This is to enforce that all players give clues. There is one red gumdrop per player, plus a few green ones. Since each player can only take one red gumdrop, the quieter players will have to act when the green drops run out. By the way, gumdrop is not the official name of those markers, but they are the reason we need “not for small children” warnings on game boxes. They look absolutely, dangerously edible.
When you play with fewer than six players there’s a fun addition here. You always play with all six card holders, the ones you don’t have players for become NPCs (Non-player card holders). NPCs have a small stack of letter cards, and you only have to use an NPC letter in a clue once to discard the current card and draw the next. When you go through their whole stack of cards you earn another green gumdrop.
The game ends either when you run out of gumdrops or when all players believe to know all their letters. They then assemble them into words, still only looking at the backs of the cards. All players reveal their cards at once, and if each player has a word in front of them – not necessarily the word they were given, just any word – everyone wins.
It’s jam, but is it yummy jam? Our Verdict
Letter Jam is pretty sweet. I’m a big fan of the Hanabi effect where you know everyone’s business but your own. I grew up in a small, German village. Knowing everyone’s business but your own is a way of life there. Anyway, the game mechanism works, and it works well in Letter Jam. Guessing your letter from its position in the clue words is simple but rather ingenious.
However, there are some tiny seeds in this jam. If you didn’t guess, I prefer mine smooth. The rules for what you do after you guessed all your letters aren’t exactly complicated, but they seem needlessly complicated nevertheless. At least we regularly gave to read up on what to do when you have all your letters after we didn’t play for a couple of weeks. Also, I miss a way to earn extra gumdrops when playing with six players. Not a big deal, but with fewer players it’s actually a fun decision if you try to get the extra gumdrops or not. Oh, and even though the box says you can play in two people, you really shouldn’t. You can only ever help one player with your clue, going through the NPCs just isn’t as much fun. Play at least in three, better in four or more. Like I said, tiny seeds, no big deal.
And here’s some neutral remarks. Neither good nor bad, but important to keep in mind. One, don’t play with a set that isn’t made for your language. How many copies of a letter there are and which letters are left out completely depends on your language. Try to play in German with an English set and you’ll say “Why? Why Y? Why o why another Y?” since we basically don’t use that thing. Two, Letter Jam can be hard on non-native speakers. Even if they play word games where you go by meaning with little trouble, the more crosswordy nature of Letter Jam is tough without some sort of Scrabble helper app.
Letter Jam is some good jam. It has few ingredients, but it has them in the right proportion and comes together tastily.