Ubongo Box

Review: Word Slam

Length 15-45 minutes

Release Date Summer 2017
Designers: Inka and Markus Brand
Publisher: KOSMOS
Category: Party Game, Word Game
Player Count: 4+ (4-8 ideal)
Price: $29.95
Codenames, a huge award-winner in 2015—and honestly one of the best board games I’ve ever played—showed us that the word-based party game genre still has a lot of life left in it. Word Slam is very much in the same genre, although it might bear a closer resemblance in style to 2014’s Concept. Designers Markus and Inka Brand have shown they have a variety of game design skills, having won awards for both children’s games, advanced strategy games, and even destructible escape-rooms-in-boxes. Are word games also in their repertoire? Let’s find out!

 

Content Guide

There’s no art in the game—just a bunch of very basic words used to convey other words. There are no dirty or inappropriate words used. It’s an excellent game for teaching communication and language, but beyond that, there’s nothing to praise or complain about either way.

Review

Word Slam is simple enough that I can quickly explain it, and so I shall. Two teams are trying to guess the same secret word. The two team captains (who know the secret word) simultaneously grab cards with basic words and put them on their respective card racks, trying to describe the word to their teammates. While each team can only see their cards, they can hear the other team’s guesses and play off of those. Whoever guesses the word gets a point, and you play until X amount of points have been awarded, X amount of cards have been drawn, or until you get bored, rotating through team captains for each card. 
Although the success of Codenames means other word games draw immediate comparison, Word Slam plays very differently. Every player is involved the entire time, and it’s a real-time race full of frantic guessing and card-moving. It also leads to considerably more laughter due to the constraints on the team captains, forcing them to use simple phrases like “WHITE WATER FOR CHILD” (milk) or “METAL BUILDING NAME” (Eiffel Tower). It’s actually a closer cousin to Concept, which had a huge mat of symbols that a player would place cubes on to convey a word. However, the symbols were too abstract and players usually translated them to a word using the provided key anyway, so Word Slam removes that pointless step and creates a more excitingly competitive game.    
I have to say that I’m surprised at how well the competitive aspect of Word Slam works. It sounds like you’re just playing simultaneously and ignoring the other team, which at least means you’re playing faster than watching each other take turns like in Taboo or, well, Codenames. However, the simple fact that you can listen to the other team is huge. We had many rounds where a card was “stolen” because the other team’s guesses gave important clues. For example, “EAT WHITE SMALL” was enough to get “rice” because the other time shouted “Japan”. So it leads to an interesting metagame. Do you guess everything that comes to mind? Or do you stay quiet until you feel confident, so you don’t give clues away to the other team? Likewise, as the team captain, do you pay attention to what the other team is saying, and then give clues complementary to what they’re saying, instead of identical? 
There is definitely some skill to Word Slam, and I can further attest to that by the fact that our team was absolutely crushed in our first two back-to-back games. However, the game is so funny that we weren’t too put out by our ridiculous losses. One aspect of the skill is physically being able to maneuver the cards, which is really annoying. The team captain can only communicate by putting the cards on the rack, although he can take them off, rearrange them, and so on. But there are over 100 cards for each captain, in four stacks. Fumbling through the stacks is very difficult. We eventually took to just spreading all the cards out so they could be all seen at a glance, but this is somewhat information overload, and our table wasn’t really large enough. In a hurry, it turns into a huge messy pile, which probably would have been the inevitable result if we had stuck with stacks, too. I wish there was a better system for sorting and placing the cards, although it’s still far better than the cubes-on-hieroglyphics in Concept. While discussing components, I should also mention that the box is way too big, and portability is always a huge boon for party games. I don’t find it particularly overpriced ($29.95 MSRP), however.
Despite the physical clumsiness of Word Slam, the game is immensely fun. One player likened it to the book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by XKCD’s Randall Munroe, in which he tries to explain advanced concepts using only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. It’s an extremely satisfying challenge when you pull it off, and somehow, we always did. The rules include a timer that players can agree to start when they’ve decided neither team will get it, and every time we set it going, someone dug deep and figured it out! It’s a real testament to a party game when it can generate grit, laughs, and language skills! This is an excellent party game, and it even managed to convert a few “hardcore” gamers who are generally not party game people.
 
Thank you to Thames and Kosmos for providing a review copy of Word Slam.

The Bottom Line

Word Slam is a great take on the more social "guess the word" games out there, and it's honestly the game Concept should have been. It could be less physically clunky, but it's still a really fun time.

 

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