Letter Jam Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 45 Minutes
I saw noted designer Eric Lang mention that he’s instructed designers that “clever, I guess” is a critique from reviewers. I think it’s more the “I guess” than “clever” that gives it away, but I did chuckle a little bit. I’m unafraid to critique a game, so I don’t try to hide it behind half-compliments. But I’ve indeed used “clever” to describe games. Sometimes it’s a genuine compliment. Other times, it’s not.
Hanabi is a clever game. I mean that genuinely. The innovation of looking at everyone else’s cards but your own, and having to give clues to decipher them, is undeniably different than the norm. Hanabi may not have invented that mechanic, but it definitely popularized it.
I don’t particularly like Hanabi, though. Its single, undeniably clever mechanic is still too limited for me to truly enjoy what it has to offer.
However, no good idea goes unpunished in board gaming, and so we get a bunch of iterations on mechanics once they’re introduced to the market. This is a good thing. And as it happens, I’ve enjoyed many of the Hanabi descendants that I’ve come across.
Letter Jam is one such descendent. In it, you’re building words.
On a turn-to-turn level, you’re trying to figure out in sequence the letters in front of you (the number of letters you’ll have to deduce varies depending on difficulty). On a long-term level, you’re trying to rebuild a word that was given to you at the start of the game, which is made up of your hidden letters.
So one player will spell out a word, indicating which slot each letter falls into. Perhaps your letter is the third letter in the sequence. Then, through process of elimination, you try to figure out what that letter is. And so on.
There’s a problem a lot of word games face. The same, basic words will be spelled out over and over again to get easy points. Some don’t incentivize lexical innovation, so “B-A-L-L” is as beneficial as “U-L-N-A” (had to look it up; it’s a bone in the human body).
This leads to boring words and repetition. Not a recipe for sustained fun.
Letter Jam at least partially circumvents this due to the fact that unique, strange words are often easier to deduce than mundane ones, since there are less possibilities. If yours is the first letter in “?-A-T-S” your letter could be B, C, E, F, H, M, P, R, or V, and I may be leaving one or two out.
Meanwhile, if you’re staring at “G-L-I-?-?-E-R-S” the answer is almost certainly “T”
So is this problem totally solved in Letter Jam? Sort of. Depending on the letters drawn at any particular moment, you might be hemmed into some boring, unhelpful options. But the game is always pushing you to come up with something out of the ordinary. So that constant incentive makes the game exciting.
Avoiding the Alpha Gamer
Cooperative games also have the spectre of the “alpha gamer” looming over them; that unfortunate obsessive who starts to play for other players, or nearly so, and drains the fun in the process. This isn’t just a hypothetical bogeyman. I’ve experienced this and, once or twice, caught myself accidentally slipping into the role with newer players.
Some people are going to be better at forming words than others in Letter Jam. But in a hidden information game where every player needs to be receiving more clues than they give, it’s nigh-impossible for anyone to dominate the proceedings. This is a good thing, and avoids the sour taste that alpha gaming usually engenders.
Limits and Expectations
After the above, it should come as no surprise that I really enjoy Letter Jam. The innovative hidden information mechanic still feels fresh, I like deducing and wordsmithing, and there’s never any blame to go around when you have a sub-par outcome.
To offer my only real critique, I’ll have to compare it to my favorite game in this mold: Beyond Baker Street (BBS).
BBS is again a Hanabi iteration, this time with more problems to solve than in Hanabi’s puzzle and a mystery theme that sees you in a race against Sherlock Holmes to solve a case.
The narrative theme works surprisingly well for a game that could be entirely abstract. It really feels like you’re solving the case. And the countdown as Holmes nears the solution makes the game feel like a harrowing race.
Letter Jam has a countdown as well, but here you’re merely plucking candy-like pieces off of a flower that represent its stem and petals. At least I think that’s what they stand for.
And that’s kind of the point. I like the gameplay, but there’s no larger hook, there’s no sense of impending doom to get my heart racing. BBS goes one step further than Letter Jam to drive home the experience in a way that will be consistently memorable.
There’s room enough for both in the hobby, and I also enjoy them for slightly different reasons. But Beyond Baker Street is the one that’s in my collection. Letter Jam is really good, but it’s one that I’m happy to merely stumble across in the wild instead of owning it personally.
Who Won’t Like This
I’ve seen some frustration crop up as people struggle to come up with viable words. Everyone has to give at least one clue in the game, and usually should be giving more. This can bring some stress for those who lock up when asked to come up with a unique word with specific letters.
If theme and story grab you, there’s also none of that here. There’s plenty of opportunity for table talk, and a sense of sharing the outcome for good or ill, but I struggle to define a story that the game tells; the point is the round-to-round intrigue.
The Right Type of Brain Burn
My favorite games are those with tons of interaction. But the exceptions usually have something in common: they induce a specific type of “brain burn” that I enjoy; one that’s challenging but doable, and ultimately rewarding because of both of those.
Paperback, another word game I enjoy, induces a similar brain burn in me. It’s the rare game where I’m content to retreat into myself and only reemerge when I have an absolutely dynamite word. So maybe word games are my kryptonite that allows me to tolerate some solitaire-style gameplay. And maybe they’re yours too.
Letter Jam isn’t quite so insular. You’ll have to coordinate clues and figure out who has the best clue for the current situation, but without breaking any of the rules surrounding table talk. But there’s still a lot of that brain crunch as you try to save the game with the perfect word, and feel glorious when you manage to do so (and then, often, amused when you realize after the game that things didn’t go as smoothly as you’d imagined).
I might tire of it if I played enough. But that hasn’t happened yet. And until it does, I’ll keep on jamming.