Words by David C. Obenour
Word games can often be divisive choices from the shelf as they often reward larger vocabularies with larger advantages. A game of Scrabble does rely on the luck of the tile draw and strategic placement, but it still can be rough if you aren’t familiar with all of the two-letter words with Q and Z. Which makes Letter Jam both interesting and refreshing for the genre!
A co-operative spelling game, players sit with their letter cards facing out and each turn the clue giver spells a word by placing numbered and brightly colored fruit section discs out in front of the letters to spell a word. From that knowledge players try to decipher their back-facing letter could be. “_, A, R, M, E, R… it has to be warmer! Oh wait… there’s farmer too… Hm…” Beyond just spelling and vocabulary, Letter Jam introduces elements of deduction for guessing which word the clue giver is trying to spell while the clue giver needs to consider his audience. There’s also a clue sheet to help with memory by recording previous words as the options dwindle.
Designed by Ondra Skoupý, a designer from Czech Games Edition’s digital branch, we had a chance to exchange emails and learn a little more about him and Letter Jam‘s creation.
Off Shelf: Did you grow up playing word games? Do you have any favorites and what about them resonated with you?
Ondra Skoupý: Yes, as a kid I always liked playing word games. Still, being raised in the Eastern Bloc, the word games we played were mostly the ones we made ourselves using just pencil and paper — things like word chains, hangman and word-guessing games. And of course crosswords in newspapers. Although Scrabble and similar word games became available when I was old enough to enjoy them, I didn’t get to play them much and I didn’t feel like getting one. So it happened that a copy of Letter Jam is the first spelling game I ever owned.
As for word games now, I don’t miss a chance to play one. They offer more room for creativity and use a wider scope of one’s skill and knowledge than purely strategic games. Truth be told, I usually feel better when playing word games than when playing purely strategic games. For me, word games usually mean relaxation and joy.
Still, I don’t think I did Letter Jam because I liked word games and wanted to make one of my own. I feel I was rather lucky to stumble upon this design. But it wasn’t just pure chance either — before working for CGE I translated books to Czech and and designed puzzlehunts. Both those things make you understand language a bit more and teach you to use limited communication for entertainment. I drew a lot from both experiences when designing Letter Jam.
OS: A cooperative word game does not seem overly common. What excites you about it?
Ondra: I believe cooperative games have a huge potential to create the positive cheerful air around the table. They often help create strong bonds or strengthen the existing ones. That is, if the designer manages to prevent some undesirable behavior, such as one player dictating what others should do. As a designer, you should try to make sure everyone can be involved and encourage people to appreciate even the slightest contribution by anyone. People, even native speakers, indeed do have different skills in using their language — so by making a word game cooperative, the players with lesser word-crafting skills might enjoy it more than if they were facing inevitable defeat in a competitive game. And what’s also important is that where there is a common goal, people are more likely to agree over an uncertainty.
OS: I’m always interested in the germination of a game. Was there an initial concept, idea or game mechanic that started your design of Letter Jam?
Ondra: The original idea came when I was working on a design for one of CGE board game apps. I realized we could make an app that could scan cards without players looking at them. This would lead to a situation where you would have a meaningful solution or a balanced setup that no one around the table knows in advance — so the app and the scanning mechanism came first.
Only by trying to materialize that idea in the simplest way possible did I realize it should be a word/spelling game, since language offers so many meaningful sequences of single elements, i.e. letters that can be arranged into words, that can work as solutions. Usually people know 20,000 or even more words, which is more than sufficient set of possible solutions.
The first concepts were competitive, with every player seeing just their own letter and trading cards to get a password. But this worked only as a short one-time puzzle, and it wasn’t all that interesting. So after several months of infrequent dabbling I tried to make it cooperative with letters facing outwards and players giving clues. That was the moment I saw this concept might really work as a full-fledged game.
OS: There’s no limitation in the words you use for Letter Jam; in fact they don’t even have to be words. Can you talk about what went into that decision?
Ondra: The rules say you need to believe the clue you are giving is an existing word, but the exact interpretation is really up to you. This is a cooperative game, so in practice it’s other players’ knowledge and understanding that set the real limits – stretch them too much and you will confuse other players rather than help them. Any further rules felt unnecessary here — harmful, even, because any discussion over the validity of possible clues would give information away and disturb the game flow.
OS: Was the game ending anagram always a part of Letter Jam? What do you think it adds to the game?
Ondra: As already hinted, the game ending anagram was basically the origin of the game. In fact originally, instead of each player having a word, there was just one anagram for the whole group — every player had to solve it by themselves and then do their part in spelling the secret word together as a team. Everyone got just one letter from the secret word and each player had to put it in the right place. This worked quite nicely and some people really liked this version as it felt quite original and unorthodox. The trouble was it required much more bookkeeping and brought in more unnecessary stress that didn’t really improve the experience in any way – you had to track all the cards that appeared in the game without missing a single letter. This really didn’t work for some people with shorter attention span. By giving each player their own set of cards to focus on, more people could enjoy the game and it became much smoother experience with a higher fun/work ratio.
It might feel curious that the clue giving part which is the core of the game was not the origin of the whole game. But even if it were, I would still look for something to wrap the game up. As much as people enjoy giving clues and guessing their letters, you still need to give them some reward for playing well or at least show them how they did. Yes, you could simplify the setup and then just count the letters guessed right… I have considered numerous other options. But everything I could think of still fell somewhat short of what the final reveal is now. Turning the cards over one by one to reveal the word is like a final magic trick, and sometimes it actually works like magic. It escalates the suspense, makes people cheer or laugh, makes them want to share their thoughts and feelings, and often it even makes them want to play again. There’s no better reward for a designer.
OS: The rules for Letter Jam are somewhat vague and generous in its win conditions, saying “all players share in the victory equally… if you get close, that’s close enough” — can you talk about this as it pertains to the spirit of the game you hope players experience?
Ondra: We decided letting all players share the victory equally is the only fair way, given the mechanics – if someone manages to get their word right while others don’t, it’s also because other players did well in giving clues.
As for the generosity: We understand the game can be really difficult, especially for players who are always struggling with letters and spelling. Making the conditions softer than “you win when everyone gets their word right” helps remove a bit of the pressure from them. This – along with some other rules – is how we encourage players to have a go, enjoy the game, and try to contribute to the common goal even if they know they are not the strongest link. Because the mechanics guarantee everyone’s contribution is both needed and welcome.
OS: It’s interesting to me how hard it can be to not accidentally instinctually look at your own letters. How do you think commonly understood game tropes and practices affect how we experience play? How do you think disrupting them can provide for a different experience?
OS: You’re right, we always need to emphasize that you play with your letters turned outwards. But players are usually quick to grasp it, even if it’s a bit counter-intuitive. Anyway, it’s true that common practices people are used to are something designers can rely on and use it to their advantage. It makes the gameplay smoother, it takes less explaining, and it allows designers to create more complex games because there are fewer new things to learn.
On the other hand, in today’s gaming world you have several thousand games published every year and it is becoming increasingly difficult to bring something new to the table. Sticking to the common practices and combining common mechanisms together doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. So what seems to work for me is trying to keep my eyes open for fresh ideas for mechanics or components and then seeing where the idea takes me. And while I know I can hold on to the common practices to make something nice-flowing and intuitive, I am also ready to break them if it makes for a better game. Even if it means telling people it’s really, really important not to look at their cards.
OS: From a production standpoint, it was interesting to see how Letter Jam uses pieces also used in Code Names and the tokens from Pulsar. Is that something that’s commonly considered by board game designers and publishing companies?
Ondra: Oh, yes. Production and pricing strategy are sometimes nearly as difficult to figure out as the game design itself. Since Letter Jam is a “small” game, and since it might appeal to a wider audience than just hardcore gamers, we focused on making it affordable and made some compromises on that account.
The biggest investment compared to the usual standard in this price range were the plastic numbered chips, as they are the main defining component and cardboard ones could wear off more easily. This really defined our limitations for the rest. So if we felt we could reuse something without compromising quality or looks, we went for it. It helped us keep the price down and use materials from local manufacturers whom we try to support. And it also allowed us to include some extras like pencils – so players can start playing right away and don’t have to buy them separately. So this is why CGE sometimes repurposes material from their older games. After all, we believe any potential success of the game won’t depend on the shape of stands or the tokens, but on the overall accessibility and on the care we put into making Letter Jam fun to play.