Mention word games to anyone and they instantly think of Scrabble. Scrabble has a firm fan base and popular recognition second only to Monopoly. Break out a copy of Wordsy and you’ll instantly be asked “Is it like Scrabble?” Bear with me and I’ll answer that question for you…
Do you have to learn all those silly two-letter not-real words to play? Happily not!
I’ve played Scrabble for years, both socially and competitively. I like the game but I don’t deny it has its flaws. It trades on a veneer of erudition that scarcely stands up to scrutiny. Of course it helps to have a broad and varied vocabulary but it helps you very much more to have at your fingertips the list of two-letter combinations accepted as words in the Scrabble dictionary. You don’t need to know that “aa” is a rough piece of volcanic rock any more than you need to know that “ai” is a three-toed sloth uniquely native to Brazil. You just need to know that these words are in the Scrabble dictionary. The two-letter words matter because it is knowing these that allows you to find the places on the board where you can lay out other words.
And it’s worse than just having to commit to memory a few obscure never otherwise used letter combos, it’s also important to learn the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of Scrabble dictionary treatment of apparent abbreviations. “Co” is in pretty widespread everyday use but it isn’t in the Scrabble dictionary because it’s an abbreviation for “company”. Fair enough. Except that the Scrabble dictionary apparently allows “ag”: defined as a short form of the word “agriculture”! I once played in a Scrabble tournament and chanced my arm with a two-letter combination that I knew wasn’t in the dictionary but which I thought sounded plausible. I got away with it. A couple of turns later, my opponent used the same combination to lay a word. I won’t describe his response when I (successfully) challenged the word. J
Wordsy dispenses with a board so makes no demand for convenient combinations to allow words to be positioned.
Don’t word games just come down to the luck of the letters drawn? Not Wordsy!
In Wordsy, point value cards are placed out in a row and two randomly drawn letter cards are put out in columns above each of the scores. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you may indeed have seen it before. Wordsy is a reworking of the game Prolix, published by Z-Man and created by the same designer. That game used round letter tiles rather than cards and turns were sequential rather than simultaneous, although players could interrupt each other’s turns. The newer incarnation is a definite improvement on the earlier game, though the publishers have replaced a game title that players thought sounded like a mispositioned internal organ with one that is numbingly prosaic.
In Wordsy, players can come up with any word they like, using any letters they like, but they score the value of the column for each letter they use in a word. In the example below, this means that the word “lamplighter” would score 27. Note that in Wordsy you can use letters that aren’t in the grid (they just don’t earn any points) and you don’t get extra points for multiple use of the same letter (my L only scored once).
Crucially, players in Wordsy are all on an equal footing. I can’t blame my poor score on the dismal selection of letters on the table: all players are using the very same letters to make their words, and they can all range beyond those letters as much as they like. An extra point is given for making use of a lower frequency letter appearing in the grid like V or H, and there are two extra points for using a Q or X when they are on the grid.
Won’t Wordsy drag out as players wrack their brains for a word with the maximum possible score? They’ve thought of that.
Because each letter scores just once, when the cards are laid out you can see what the maximum possible score will be. It will always be 28 plus the value added by any lower-frequency letters that turn up on the grid. Given this information, many of the people I play with would be reluctant to write down any word that didn’t hit or come very close to the maximum. Left to their own devices, they would agonise for ages before committing to a word. I know this because that’s exactly what happens in Scrabble. It is in my view axiomatic (17 points in the grid below) that pretty much any game can be improved with the introduction of a chess clock. And many’s the time I’ve had to threaten my wife with a chess clock as the long minutes stretch out while I wait for her to take her turn.
Wordsy comes up with a simple but effective mechanic to minimise analysis paralysis. It incentivises being the first player to write down a word by giving them a bonus point. The fastest player then flips a 30-second sand timer and the other players have only that 30 seconds to come up with their words. There’s a bonus available for beating the score of the fastest player’s word. I’ve found in play that that serves as an adequate mechanism for curbing capricious speed.
To ensure players are on a more even footing and not always railroaded by a single Speedy Gonzales, a rule prevents a player from taking the fastest player bonus two turns in a row.
How many does Wordsy play? As many as you like!
Many word games are strongly geared to a set number of players. Again, Scrabble is perhaps the worst example of this. The box proclaims it plays up to four, and it comes with four letter racks, but Scrabble is especially unsatisfactory when played with more than two. This is because a player whose turn follows a weak player who opens up the board will have a massive advantage over players whose turns are preceded by less ‘generous’ opponents. In practice, this means that in a game between a very good player, a moderately good player and a weak player, the moderately good player whose turn follows the weak one will almost always beat his stronger opponent.
Again, this is where Wordsy scores. In Wordsy, there is no board to open up or close down and turns are simultaneous. The rules describe Wordsy as a game for up to six players but it is actually very playable with pretty much any number. Because all the players are trying to make words at the same time, playing with eight or ten doesn’t introduce any downtime. It’s just a pity that the letter cards aren’t larger. It is their size and therefore their visibility across a large table that most limits playing with larger numbers.
At the other end of the scale, the rules offer options for a solo game with bonus points for beating the sand timer. The Wordsy rules also suggest some possible game variants, including a handicapping system for matching experienced players against younger players or those new to the game.
Wordsy plays through seven rounds, with players accumulating all bonuses and their five best scores. This is a clever device. In play, it meant that a player who suffered a round with a poor score could feel they still had a stake in completing the game. That’s not just good for morale – it greatly increases playability and makes the game a more enjoyable experience for all players.
I’ve played games of Scrabble which have gone on so long that I’ve lost the will to live let alone continue playing. That’s not an issue you’ll find with this game. Played with almost any number (including more than the number signalled on the box), Wordsy always played briskly, with most players asking for a return match. This is not one of those games you’re going to find overstaying its welcome.
So does Wordsy solve all our word game problems? Well, not quite…
In my household, all word games end up as a game of Squabble. Sadly, Wordsy is no exception. The rules set out the usual restrictions on the types of words that can be played but that won’t save you completely from arguments about whether or not particular prefixes are permissible. They will be fewer than with other games, however, because there is such an open and free choice of words. I don’t need to persuade my wife that because you can televise a programme twice, “retelevise” must surely be a word because, in Wordsy, I can score just as well with “revitalise”.
It’s good that the game comes with a score pad, though you could probably manage adequately with a blank sheet of paper. Is it really necessary though to provide pencils for writing down your words and scoring? I suppose it helps to ensure that the game is playable straight out of the box but I suspect that anyone who could be persuaded to buy a word game could probably be expected to have a pen or a pencil reasonably close at hand. I would rather the cost of supplying six pencils had instead been diverted to printing larger cards.
Because Wordsy is quick to learn and play, and can be played quickly and with almost any number, I’d rate it a very strong 8 out of 10. If you are a word game enthusiast, you’ll definitely want it, but even if you are lukewarm about word games, this is one to have to hand as something to offer relatives or friends who might otherwise demand a longer more draining game.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.