CHENNAI : Three years ago, Codenames took the gaming world by storm. Winning the Spiel des Jahres and acknowledged as an almost universal hit, it was a real feather in Czech Games Edition’s cap. This year, they’re releasing another cooperative word-based clue-giving game — can lightning strike twice?
In Letter Jam, all players are working together to deduce the letters in front of themselves by giving each other clues. Each player will have a number of letters facedown in front of them (adjustable based on desired difficulty level), with the one they’re currently trying to guess in a stand but facing away so they can’t see it - just like Hanabi, for example.
What you’re trying to do is give a clue - a word — that uses as many of the letters in front of other players as possible, so as to help them guess what their letter must be. For example, if the letters I can see are R, C, P, T and E, I might use ‘PERFECT’ as the clue (with the help of the wildcard letter that’s always available).
Except that I don’t say ‘PERFECT’ — I have to use the numbered chips to clue the other players into the order I’m using their letters in. So each player will write that down based on what they can see — player #2 will write that down as PER*E?T (* being the wildcard, and ? being their own letter) whereas player #5 will mark theirs as P?R*?CT. Of course, you’re looking for clues that eliminate almost all of the possibilities for your teammates; while at the same time looking to help as many of them as possible. Whenever any player feels confident about their letter, they can place it facedown again and move on to the next.
Hopefully, that little overview makes it clear that there’s a lot going on under the surface of Letter Jam. It’s much more cerebral than Codenames, at the cost of some of the latter’s elegance, but it’s also much more satisfying when one of your gambles pays off. The clue-giving system is also excellent — although any player can give a clue at any time (including consecutively), you’re discouraged from having one person give all the clues because you actually get a bonus clue once everybody’s given at least one. Little touches like that really make the game sing.
Such as, for example, the fact that the letters you’re given at the beginning aren’t random — they actually make up a word chosen by the player to your right, after which they’re shuffled and dealt to you. This can actually help you deduce what certain letters must be. At the end of the game, you need to make a word with at least the same number of letters that you were initially given, but it needn’t be the same word! And, if you finish quickly enough that you get bonus letters, you can either include them for extra points or use them instead of any letters that you aren’t sure about.
So Letter Jam’s definitely more convoluted than Codenames, whose accessibility is one of its biggest strengths, but there’s enough here to justify the extra complexity.More than that — as much as I love Codenames, I think I would always prefer to play Letter Jam, albeit with a group that’s up for the extra thinkiness. Words I never thought I’d say, but Czech Games Edition’s got another winner on their hands here.