Wonderword Review

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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(Photos from vendor site, linked below)

Wonderword is a really nicely designed game. I was wondering just the other day why more games aren’t gorgeous. After all, you’ve got to make something out of durable cardboard and some wood, and unfortunately great artists come cheap, by ‘midsize company’ standards. (Dixit isn’t good enough for me on this front, sorry. It’s fine? But I’m looking for something that rolls harder, art-wise.) Just look at Tumblr artists’ commission rates. While Wonderword isn’t the lush art object I’d personally have wanted to bring into the world, it’s conceptual, slick and hipster. The design doesn’t really have much to do with the game, but eh. It looks like the sort of thing one yuppie couple could give another as a dinner party host gift.

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In fact this is what happened to us, the other couple apparently being under the impression that we were fellow Cool Millennials rather than just garden nerds. As a game, for people who like good games and play them regularly, Wonderword absolutely sucks. It sucks as a two-player game. It sucks as a larger multi-player game. In playing Wonderword, you quickly come to understand that not only could no circumstance make Wonderword fun, it’s also actively tedious and irritating.

When I was younger and didn’t really play games, I would have picked up something like Wonderword because I’m bookish, wordy, blah blah. HOWEVER: that liking does not necessarily translate into my enjoying games with word-based mechanics. While there are probably word-games I’d really like, I’ve yet to find one. What I, in my admittedly limited knowledge of this subfield, think of as the big players therein are largely not Euro games, but stocking stuffers with sloppy/basic mechanics like this one’s or tried and trad snoozers like Scrabble. I also don’t really like the story-telling games I’ve run into. They often seem like training-wheels D&D with a framework I’m insufficiently inspired by, or like awkward prompts to nervously tell each other half-formed stories. I’m a writer, though? When I want to tell a story I’ll just–go do that. If I want the excitement of a friend’s reactions I’ll tell them what I’m going to do or give them what I’ve done. I’m not trying to be like, mean here, I just don’t know quite what niche the things I’ve seen them play on Wil Wheaton’s Table Top when my partner’s watched it (bargain Lovecraft, Edward Gorey the game, badly-plotted movie) are supposed to fill? THEORETICALLY I should love storytelling games and word games, and I am willing to fall in love! But as of yet, I’ve discovered few suitable outlets for my affections.

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I find it fairly easy (with some interference from the ‘luck of the draw’ factor, admittedly) to coax decently plump words out of my random starting hand of eight letters. My partner, who is a fabulous writer and who used to work in publishing, does not. She believes Wonderword requires of her a very different type of thinking than most of our other games. I don’t feel this myself, but it says something when two equally wordy people are this divided as to their skill/comfort level playing this game. I also couldn’t have predicted she’d have that reaction, so it’s possible that neither can you re: your own playing group. It’s also worth pointing out that my sister and one of my bffs, who’re both verbally adroit but dyslexic, want nothing to do with Wonderword. The audience for a spelling-based game is circumscribed in ways that can affect its utility in your social circle.

So there you are, flipping cards over one at a time so the other person can try and guess your word. But even if you know your partner’s idiolect well, if they have a decent vocabulary you’re paralyzed by indecision for a dumb amount of time, because there are tons and tons of five letter words that end in ‘es’. Look at this shit. Say only half that’s probable: you the guesser still aren’t getting more than 1, 2 points (i.e. letters left over when you guess correctly) out of this exchange. There’s an element of psychology if you happen to have a hand you can get three words out of and you’re trying to figure out which your partner would guess last, but it’s a “Psychology Today” level thereof, not a “Civilization and its Discontents” level.

So here you are, boringly guessing words, almost always giving a hefty chunk of points to the word-layer for what, the four, five rounds it takes this thing to finish? and for you to get to the requisite 24 points. My partner and I thought, as we grimly completed a two-person game out of a sense of obligation, that it might be better as a party sort of game. Finding my sister unwilling, we looked outside our household and drew in someone without spelling-related trauma. However as it turned out, this just meant sitting through another word, another tedious iteration of ‘is it bones?’ ‘no.’ ‘cones?’ ‘no, it was hones.’ ‘oh.’ ‘yeah.’ Feel the *energy* in that room.

You have to guard your more easily diminished guesses a bit more strategically with multiple players, but no tiny degree of added frisson there is gonna fix the fact that this game, though comprehensible in a moment, just isn’t offering you much more than a game of I Spy. It’s reliant on the mechanical exercise of a couple of skills you either have or you don’t, plus some luck. Might was well play pick-up sticks.

Why were they this lazy? They paid the artist I expect, and for materials, but when it came to the concept, bupkis. Maybe this would sell more widely than a more complicated game, or maybe they didn’t have good enough designers? It sure doesn’t have nerd-word-of-mouth spreading power, or ‘buy it for your friends/replay/get a new edition or expansion’ appeal. I don’t know how to design and market a game, but I can’t imagine there’s ultimately much point to its being this bad.

Verdict: Selling on, to some other poor schmuck/someone who can love it.

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