Word Slam is not, as it may sound, the result of lobbing a dictionary at someone, nor is it a particularly impressive scoring moment on the National Word Association pro-tour, where debates are dribbled and points are passed across the court of discussion. Although perhaps it should be… No, Word Slam is a game unto itself and involves tragically little slamming and frustratingly, infuriatingly, amazingly, few words.
Let’s play Word Slam!
That’s your first clue. It’s probably not much to work with so here’s a couple more.
By now, maybe you’ve got it. Or maybe you haven’t and you’re staring at this screen like the person writing it is crazy and you know what, you’re both right. And you’ve both experienced an integral part of what it is to Word Slam. This is a challenging game. You will spend a lot of time staring in strained bemusement at a rack of words that will be gestured at enthusiastically by your silent team leader. Silent except for the occasional groan of frustration as they too push their imagination to the absolute limit!
The source of this challenge is the restricted number of word cards with which the leader has to communicate some other word or phrase, trying to get their team to guess it in the shortest possible time. But there are only 100 word cards they get to use, split between nouns, adjectives, verbs and those other words like “on” or “not” or “East”. While the easiest targets like “breakfast” can be guessed from only a couple of clues, that’s not true of most. The “standard” difficulty cards can present a challenge requiring imaginative use of cards to point to sub concepts, changing your approach depending on your team’s responses, and there are two harder difficulty levels waiting for you to explore!
You may well be wondering how the hell you can ever communicate “Alexander Hamilton” with words like “Man” and “Hot”, and I have no idea either! The standard cards are still providing plenty of challenge for me. But I have seen myself improve. Over the course of a few games I’ve learnt that the tools available are far, far more than just 100 words.
At the least you are looking at combinations and that gives you a huge space of options to play with. But there’s no restriction on how you interact with the cards, how you arrange them on the plastic plinths, how you move them about. I’ve used one rack of clues as the main concept, with the second placed a bit further back to indicate a sub-concept. Cards have been moved to pair with different partners as your team mates make guesses, or ripped from the rack in exasperation when they guess in completely the wrong direction. When things don’t work, you are forced to adapt and find new ways of approaching the solution. A tough round of Word Slam can be a whirling dance through words and motion and meaning.
But that is Word Slam at its best. At its worst, it can be a frustrating grind with no real end in sight, depending on the doggedness and imagination of your team leader. Word Slam doesn’t really have any good way of dealing with a phrase neither team can get to, except flipping an egg timer and accepting defeat. Which isn’t much fun for anyone. But I think with practice this outcome becomes less likely. Things are also helped by having more than one guesser on a team, since it’s so easy to get locked into a certain way of thinking when you have no idea what you are looking for. The extra perspective helps.
If you are going to enjoy Word Slam, I think the most important thing is to go in with the right expectations. This isn’t Codenames. It has the look of a party game but it’s not what I would call funny. In fact it has all the humour you would expect from a game made by Germans! The problem is that while Codenames also has restricted communication, the game is funny because you get immediate feedback on your misunderstandings or surprise brilliance. In Word Slam you only get release when someone reaches the right answer, and that falls more into the category of the glow from a job well done.
Word Slam is not a game to kick back to and have a laugh with. It is a challenge to be thought through and overcome. That is by no means a criticism but you have to want that challenge. And when you are fully engaged in a puzzle like that? Then the triumph of beating the opposing team to a particularly tough word is a tremendous reward by itself.
Word Slam is a game played in teams, two leaders racing to get their gang of guessers to say the same target word. Team play is what sets Word Slam apart from its closest rival, Concept, and it’s one of Word Slam’s best elements. Because both teams are racing to the same word, and you can hear what the other team guesses, you can use those clues, as both a guesser and a clue giver. The race element really adds to the tension too, turning the initial search for cards into a near dexterity game as you try and rush through the decks as quickly as possible to find the right words. And the final treat is discussing which words each side used to get to the answer!
Those moments spent appreciating the other side’s wit really sums up what Word Slam is all about. Both in tone and in the emphasis on the role of clue giver, rather than clue guesser. The team leader is the woman/man of the hour, the guessers play second fiddle, an audience who are trying to appreciate your genius. I feel in some ways like part of a crowd of Victorian gentlemen, gently clapping and “bravo-ing” a particularly good play.
If the kind of challenging puzzle I’ve described here engages you, then this is an excellent game. It makes for a perfect game to play where you want people to be able to drop in and out thanks to the relative speed of rounds and how the captaincy rotates through the team. But if you’re looking for something light and breezy to laugh at with your friends, this simply is not it. And for that reason it has fallen completely flat with some groups, and done exceedingly well with others. Know yourself and your friends/family before you decide to pick this up.
The solution to our little clue at the start was, of course, “game”.
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