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Word Slamming My Way Through Origins 2017

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
My apologies for the quietness in this space since the end of the 2017 Origins Game Fair, which corresponded with the launching of the Gen Con 2017 Preview, but in the past three days I've eaten only a banana, a piece of toast, a handful of cereal, a can of soup (over two days), a handful of chips, and two bowls of blueberries — this after ending my Origins with the eating, followed by the rapid uneating, of a turkey BLT (botulism-laden-terrorwich).

I had hoped to jump immediately into Gen Con preview updates once Origins ended as I knew that my inbox would be flooded with messages from publishers who having now cleared the hurdles in Columbus could set their sights on the next obstacle ahead in Indianapolis, and lo, that flood did miraculously appear to test the gates of my Gmail dam, but I couldn't manage to do more than sit upright every so often and admire the light reflecting on the surface on my unusually untouched laptop. Now that I'm finally up again, I'll start draining the backlog, but let's start with something simpler: a recap of my Origins 2017 experience:

Board Game: Word Slam

There you go. Word Slam. Origins recapped!

BGG's Scott Alden and Lincoln Damerst had raved about Inka and Markus Brand's Word Slam after seeing it demonstrated on camera in the BGG booth at SPIEL 2016, and when Thames & Kosmos donated an English-language copy to the BGG library for BGG.CON 2017 Spring in late May, Scott started playing it obsessively — yet somehow I caught only his simultaneously active Kreus obsession during that show. (More on that game another day.)

At Origins 2017, Scott asked, "You haven't played Word Slam yet? Oh, man, you have to." So we played the game on air once we finished the scheduled game demonstrations on Wednesday. Then he brought it to the Nerd Nighters fundraising event on Thursday, and I joined in after it had already been on the table an hour to play for three more hours, with people coming and going constantly as they often do with Codenames and Concept. We played again on camera on Friday; we talked about the game on Lone Shark Live: Origins by Night, a three-night podcast from Origins hosted by Mike Selinker, Paul Peterson, and James Ernest; we played on dinky tables on Saturday night with people once again coming and going; and we played yet again on Sunday night, with me leaving the table only because my sandwich has different plans for its future than I had intended.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Erin Dontknowherlastname, Paul Grogan, Mike Selinker, Scott Alden, Josh Githens, Chad Krizan

For those who don't know the game, Word Slam is played in teams, with the members of each team trying to guess the same hidden noun phrase. One member on each team knows this noun phrase — which can be anything from butterfly to mountain to the Golden Gate Bridge to Forrest Gump — and to get their teammates to guess it, they can use only a set of one hundred words that is provided to each team. Words are color-coded as nouns, adjectives, verbs, and other, and you can place words on your rack, point at words on your rack, move words around on your rack, take words off the rack, and otherwise do some combination of "word" VERB "rack" as long as you don't animate the cards to give clues. Those guessing must yell out answers so that their guesses can be heard by the other team, which is a secondary form of clue and something that your cluegiver might be able to take advantage of.

I think the rules specify that you keep the words in piles, but we often played otherwise, spreading them out in order to view everything at once, with word combinations popping out at me like strands of the Matrix being read by Neo. (New players can find this approach overwhelming and should be presented with stacks of cards as recommended so that they're not hit in the eyes with one hundred words at once. Even experienced players might prefer this approach if they don't like scanning the way that most of us did.)

As with the previously mentioned Concept, the beauty of Word Slam is the (restricted) openness available to players when trying to convey some idea to others. You don't have the freedom to do anything, but you have the freedom to do hundreds of different things. You have tools spread out on the table, and you try to make them work as well as you can. Sometimes you find a magic tool that unlocks understanding in a second — as when someone put up the single word "run" and someone else answered "Forrest Gump" — sometimes you create a word poem that does the trick (with "big" "up" "place" being correctly interpreted as "mountain"), and sometimes you labor at something forever, the clarity of the concept in your mind somehow not transmitting itself across the aether into theirs. I tend to tell stories with my clues, and my concept for "lawyer" took a while, with me moving around cards constantly, but finally getting across the notion of an event happening, then someone speaking the opposite of what happened.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Yes, that's a stereotype, but Word Slam invites you to take advantage of those stereotypes while also frustrating you with them at the same time. The game doesn't include a card for "person", for example — only cards for "man", "woman", and "child" — so any time you use "man" or "woman" in a clue, you risk misleading the guessers who might think that gender plays a role in the answer when it doesn't.

The frustration comes in many flavors: Sometimes you remove words from the rack because it turns out they were misleading, but sometimes you want to remove words from the rack because you needed them only to get guessers thinking along a certain line. Scott, for example, struggled with a word for a while until he finally had us guess Italy by clueing "country" "red" "food", after which he removed those words to work on the actual answer, which was something that originated in Italy. Will guessers understand why you removed those words? Maybe! Play with someone for a few hours, though, and you get a real sense of their clue-giving style.

Cheating comes into play because it's hard to fight human nature. You're not supposed to point to guessers when they say something close or dismiss a guess by waving your hand, but sometimes you can't help yourself. I was clueing "Golden Gate Bridge" with something like "vehicle on long red object" and circling "long red object" with my fingers to indicate that was the vital part of the clue when someone on my team shouted out "San Francisco". I jerked in response because those two things are so closely associated (and I lived in SF years ago, so something triggered there, too, I think), and while that answer wasn't correct, my response indicated that the person was close and they got "Golden Gate Bridge" almost immediately. Whoops. Thankfully we were not in the world finals of the Word Slam competition and were content to just move on to the next game.

Board Game: Word Blur
An interlude: In many ways, Word Slam is identical to Geoff Girouard's self-published game Word Blur from 2007: Two people race to get their teammates to guess a hidden noun phrase using only combinations of single words. Where the games differ are relevant to how fun they are. In Word Slam, everything is on a card, and you move them around freely to express your ideas; Word Blur includes a modifier strip for each team that includes things like "er", "opposite/not", "ing", and "sounds like", but in practice using this strip prohibits you from arranging the words the way that you want while also stripping away some of the difficulty.

The bigger issue is that each team in Word Slam has the same one hundred words. That's it! If you know Mark Rosewater's credo — "restrictions breed creativity" — this game embodies that spirit. All the words are basic and require your input (and the input of your guessers) to make something of them. Word Blur presents you with nine hundred individual words on pieces of cardstock that resemble refrigerator magnets. To play, you dump everything in the middle of the table, then the cluegivers start sifting through the rubble to find things they can use. This is not fun. To quote from a 2008 review by Neil Edge that I had published on, "If a person isn't totally on board with the idea of this game, he can bring the game to a halt or slow it down to a snail's pace as he just slowly sifts and sifts and sifts and sifts through the tile pile, never finding words that make connections to the clue that he's trying to give, never looking for alternatives."

Board Game: Word Blur

I played Word Blur three times between 2007 and 2010, when the game went out of print, and our group referred to it as "The Game of Sifting" because that's all it felt like you were doing. Sifting through tons of useless options with an increasingly desperate feeling that surely you can find something that works. Word Slam has none of that boredom because you have few options and everything is at hand to both parties. Me finding "water" doesn't prevent you from playing "water" as well, and the game is all about speed and creativity instead of who found the perfect word. I can't just find the word "Spain" (as shown in the image above) to lead you to bullfighter, but rather I'd have to first figure out how to get your mind to Spain — or just do something else. Those multiple steps, as described above for Italy, contribute to the escalating tension in Word Slam, with you feeling a little victory when your teammates guess something like that and you can build on it to something else.

In short, Word Slam seems like what Word Blur could have been if it had gone through a strong development process to bring forward the best elements of the idea.
Where Word Slam differs from Concept, and what gives it a leg up on that design, is that you compete against another team, so instead of simply being a fun activity that continues for hours, you do have a sense of winning and losing — even if you don't keep score, which we never did. One team wins, yay!, then the cluegivers give up their spots to someone else (or they don't), and you go again. The game includes easy, medium, hard, and ridiculously hard noun phrases to guess, with six noun phrases on each card. Over time you will run into repeats; Scott had already cycled through the cards enough that he encountered repeats, and if he was guessing, he could sometimes jump to the answer because he had heard it before. If he was giving the clues, he might reject one noun phrase and suggest that the other cluegiver choose another number from 1 to 6 since he would have an advantage on how to clue it. (If you know the one hundred words well, you'll still have an advantage on newcomers, but no sense compounding those advantages!)

I played one or two other games during the 2017 Origins Game Fair, but given that I played Word Slam for 7-8 hours and would have played it even more if possible, it's easy to see what my game of the show is!

Oh, and I also saw this lady at Origins: Best costume ev-AR!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Beauty and the Beast
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