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Matthew Baldwin
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Before I joined the internet gaming community -- before there was an Internet gaming community, really -- I got most of my game recommendation from GAMES Magazine. Every year I would buy the GAMES 100 issue and, without fail, purchase the Game of the Year. So when I went into the Peace Corps for two years I asked my mother if she wouldn't mind sending me a copy of the Game of the Year winners while I was away. This is how, sitting in a adobe house in the outback of Bolivia, I happened to open an airmailed parcel and find myself in possession of "25 Words or Less".

This game immediately became a hit with Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country, and I was asked to bring it to every social occasion. The rules were simple enough for anyone to pick up easily (and continue to play even after a couple of belts of Bolivian wine), but the game required a little more thinking that such party games as "Taboo" or "Pictionary".

Played in teams, the game comes with three main components: a board, a sand timer, and a deck of cards. The cards each show five unrelated words, such as "Book ~ The Beatles ~ Nocturnal ~ Tea ~ Mount St. Helens" or "Fast ~ Postcard ~ Grasshopper ~ Anger ~ Perry Mason". One person from each team looks at the card, and they decide, between the two of them, who will be attempting to win the round. To win you must get the other members of your team to say the five words on the card. The trick to the game is that you can only say a certain number of words to your teammates to elicit their responses. How many words? Well, 25 words -- to start. But the two people examining the card bid for the right to take the turn by stating how few words they think they will need. One player might say "25 words", and the other might counter with "21 words", and the first could come back with "17 words", and so on until someone says "Name That Tune." (Players don't actually need to say "Name That Tune", although we often do.) The person who made the lowest bid now has x number of words to win the card. Oh, and a time limit. I didn't mention the time limit? Yes, not only do you only get to use x number of words (something in the 10-16 range is common), but you have to do the whole thing in one minute.

The word limit is daunting, but a clever person can get the bid quite low and still win. Take my first example, above: "Book ~ The Beatles ~ Nocturnal ~ Tea ~ Mount St. Helens" By using the words: "tome", "Ringo", "bat", "chamomile" and "Volcano", you could get your team to win the card with only five words. Maybe. But what if they think "bat" refers to a baseball bat? You really only get the number of words you bid, so you won't be able to say, when you realize your teammates have been mislead, "bat as in, you know, the rodent". If they misunderstand you, you can only clarify by using one of your precious remaining words (something that wouldn't even be an option if you bid only five). And what if your teammates waste time naming every volcano in existence, running out of time before they reach St. Helens? You might want to bid a little higher to give yourself a cushion, and maybe "Washington Volcano" would be better -- but if you want to try and win the card you'll have to go lower that your opponent. Decisions, decisions ...

Of course there's another way to win the card: let your opponent fail. If you think he has bid too low, let him take a crack at it; if he blows it your team gets the card instead. And here's where a smallish bluffing element comes in. Why would you bid "14" for a card you don't think you could win even given "18" words? Well, maybe your opponent will bid "13", and then you can cheerfully let him take it. Bluffing in 25 Words or Less is risky, but if you think you're going to lose anyhow you may as well take a shot.

The first team to accumulate 10 cards wins the game, which usually takes about 40 minutes. Even though there's nothing in the mechanics that encourages close games, winning still generally comes down to a card or two for some reason or another. Perhaps losing teams are more willing to take risks (and winning teams less so) which often results in exciting comebacks and neck-and-neck endings. At any rate, this small element of psychology adds a lot to the game, putting it a notch or two above most in the party game category (a genre I don't usually care for).

25 Words or Less is not my favorite game, but I liked it so much I even brought in back from Bolivia, and that same worn copy still gets played regularly in my game group. I'll give it five stars because of its terrific replay value, its appeal to gamers of all kinds, and because it is one of the few party games that I truly enjoy playing. All in all a highly recommended purchase .
 
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